Monday, January 5, 2009

Give peace a chance

Sixty years ago, in the spring of 1948, the artist Madeleine Melsonn took a trip to the Holy Land. The drawings she made of the landscape of the Bible and the daily life and environment of Palestinians and Jews became a portfolio of drypoints, Images de Palestine, published in September of the same year. This was a crucial year for the region, for it saw the foundation of the state of Israel on the 14th of May. At this worrying moment, when conflict has once again erupted between the Israelis and the Palestinians, I thought it might be worth taking a look at Madeleine Melsonn’s delicate drypoints, with their beautiful sense of calm, peace, and balance.

Madeleine Melsonn, Jérusalem
Original drypoint, 1948

Madeleine Melsonn was born in 1901 (some sources say 1905), and had a long career as an printmaker, with work in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France dating from 1940 into the 1980s, including a group of 29 prints by Melsonn accessioned by the BN in 1985. She died in 2000. Apparently her real name was Madeleine Suzanne Miellet; some sources refer to her as Miellet-Melsonn.

Madeleine Melsonn, Vieux quartier juif de Jérusalem
Orginal drypoint, 1948

As with so many female artists, Madeleine Melsonn remains a maddeningly obscure figure. From the 35 listings in the BN catalogue one can get a sense of the range of her work, which included an interesting-sounding Suite grecque published in 1954-55, consisting of scenes from Greek mythology; illustrations to the book of Genesis; and a series of prints of insects. In the 1940s and 50s she also illustrated a handful of limited edition books with either copper engravings (Montherlant’s Le plaisir et la peur in 1952) or wood engravings (Alain-Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes in 1946, Giraudoux’s Electre in 1950).

Madeleine Melsonn, Bassins de Salomon
Original drypoint, 1948

Images de Palestine was published by the artist herself, in an edition of 150 copies. 100 numbered copies were for sale (mine is no. 3), and 50 copies marked H.C. (hors-commerce) were reserved for the artist. It consists of 20 loose drypoints, with a page of introduction by the artist and a 4-page extract from Chateaubriand’s Voyage à Jérusalem. As is usual with such publications, the loose leaves of text and the prints are protected by a stiff case (“chemise”) and a slipcase (“etui”). The drypoints were printed by the master printer P. Thirot on B.F.K. Rives wove paper. Although a collection of prints with 4 pages of separately printed unrelated text scarcely qualifies as a book, this work is listed in Luc Monod’s great reference work, Manuel de l’amateur de livres illustrés modernes (Monod 2682). Unfortunately the details he gives are completely erroneous, and must relate to some other work entirely.

Madeleine Melsonn, Les Bergers de Bethléem
Original drypoint, 1948

So in the absence of much information about Madeleine Melsonn in reference books or on the internet, one is left face-to-face with the work itself, to stand or fall on its own merits.

Madeleine Melsonn, Béthanie
Original drypoint, 1948

The first thing that strikes me about these Images de Palestine is their sparseness. It’s not just that the landscapes and townscapes seem depopulated, but also that the artist has pared down the details of each scene to the absolute essentials. Take for instance Tombes juives à Siloé (Jewish tombs at Siloe), which is one of my favourites. Each line counts, bringing little details alive – an olive tree here, a tombstone there – but never allowing the detail to override the rhythm and balance of the image as a whole. The large areas of blank space are as important to the composition as any marks made by the drypoint needle.

Madeleine Melsonn, Tombes juives à Siloé
Original drypoint, 1948

There are a few scenes with more bustle and life to them, and of these my favourite is Les Béthlemites, a tenderly-observed view of a group of Arab women preparing food on what appears to be a roof terrace in Bethlehem. I particularly love the washing on the line in the background, with the pair of pantaloons billowing in the wind.

Madeleine Melsonn, Les Béthlemites
Original drypoint, 1948


Anonymous said...

These drawings look as though the artist knew exactly how to achieve the effects she wanted, which is more work than a finished image ever shows. There is nothing tentative about her drawing - maybe that's why it looks rich. Another woman rescued from obscurity! Thank you.

Neil said...

I realise my text was slightly ambiguous. These are drypoints made after drawings - but of course making a drypoint is just like drawing, it simply means you can make a limited number of copies of your drawing. At some point I'm going to do a series of posts about the different methods of printmaking, because people talk about prints as if they are all the same, whereas in reality each technique is quite different. Engraving on copper, for instance, is incredibly physical- more like stone-cutting than drawing.
I'm so pleased you like the work - there are all these unappreciated artists out there, so many of them women. Not knowing anything more about Madeleine Melsonn, I do suspect that she came from a well-off background, and didn't need to actually make a living from her art. And though this may sound like the perfect life, actually if you don't need to succeed, often you don't.

Roxana said...

I especially like the fluidity of the lines, it conjures such a dreamlike atmosphere of gentleness and harmony. If one thinks of the devastation images we have now from there, it becomes unbearable.

Roxana said...

neil, hi. I hope things are fine with you. we miss you here, you know :-)

Neil said...

Sorry to leave such a long gap between posts. I've been busy, but I do have some new posts on the way.

Neil said...

Thanks to Conor for drawing my attention to a bit more information on Madeleine Melsonn. Her real name was Madeleine Suzanne Miellet. She was born in 1901 (not 1905 as my original erroneous information claimed) and died in 2000 (some day I'm going to have write a blog entry on the incredible longevity of printmakers). It seems to be becoming the form to refer to her as Miellet-Melsonn. I've amended my original entry to avoid having errors cluttering up the web.