Sunday, January 10, 2010

Light and shadow

The post-Impressionist Benjamin Jean Pierre Henri Rivière (1864-1951) is the French artist who above all others absorbed the aesthetics of Japanese art into his own. He is known especially for his woodcuts and lithographs of scenes in Brittany and Paris. Rivière first visited Brittany in 1884, and returned each summer until 1916. It was at this point that Rivière ceased exhibiting or publishing his work (his last print was published in 1917). My sole lithograph by Henri Rivière shows a scene in Perros-Guirec on the rose granite coast of Brittany. On the beach are massive boulders sculpted into extraordinary shapes by the tides, but Rivière ignores the monumental and the picturesque for the tranquillity of daily life. Rivière began as an etcher, moved on to woodcuts in the Japanese style (which he printed himself), and then turned to colour lithographs (which he entrusted to the master printer Eugène Verneau). This image is unusual in that he created it first as a woodcut, in 1891 as part of his unfinished series Les paysages Bretons, and then as a 9-colour lithograph, printed by Verneau for the art revue The Studio in 1896.

Henri Rivière, Le bourg de Perros-Guirec
Lithograph after a woodcut, 1896

Henri Rivière was born in Montmartre, and is in many ways the quintessential Parisian artist. Besides his graphic work, he also invented a form of shadow play, ombres chinoises, which was a speciality of the Chat Noir nightclub, and of which Henri Rivière and Caran d'Ache (Russian-born satirist Emmanuel Poiré, 1858-1909) were the chief exponents. I don’t have any example of Rivière’s silhouette images to show, but I do have two (also from The Studio) from Caran d’Ache’s celebrated shadow play on the Napoleonic Wars, L’Épopée (The Epic). These were printed on celluloid which has yellowed over time, but they still give an idea of the technique. For the actual play, the silhouettes were cut out of zinc and then projected onto a backlit screen—as much an early form of cinema as a kind of theatre. There’s apparently an excellent book on these plays, The Spirit of Montmartre: Cabarets, Humor and the Avant-Garde, 1875-1905 by Phillip Dennis Cate and Mary Shaw, but I haven’t yet seen it. The Musée d’Orsay has some 40 of the original zinc cut-outs.

Caran d'Ache, Two transparencies for L'Épopée
from The Studio, 1898


Jane said...

From the avant-garde milieu of Le Chat Noir to the hardscrabble life of rural Brittany is a long way, imaginatively speaking. Riviere's Breton landscapes are impressive but I admire the way he depicts Bretons going about their daily rounds. They are never merely static 'composiional' elements.

Neil said...

Two worlds indeed - though I think modern Parisians still have this duality between town and country. Jane, you know much more about Rivière than I do - do you understand what made him stop exhibiting and publishing? Was it something to do with the war? Well, I suppose it must have been one way or another.

Jane said...

You flatter me. What I know about Riviere's later years is just a few facts. In 1912, Riviere's brother Jules committed suicide and the artist adopted his son. The family made at least two trips to Italy during WWI. In the 1920s Riviere worked in Paris for an editor named Demotte and the family began to winter in Provence, which was where they waited out WWII and where Riviere's wife died 1943. In 1945, he moved back to Paris and dictated his memoirs (I would love to read them). Why he turned from lithography to watercolor, I don't know. Perhaps it was just an easier medium for a man with unlooked-for responsibilities.

François said...

Bonjour - Henri Rivière's memoirs "Les détours du chemin. Souvenirs, notes et croquis 1864-1951" have been published by Editions Equinoxe in Provence. Jane you may also find the book on, en français of course.

Neil - Merci beaucoup - Thank You so much for your very interesting blog, something I wanted to say since your last february post about L'Estampe Moderne

Neil said...

The memoirs sound fascinating - thanks, François. And thank you, Jane, for your insight into the forces that stalled Riviere's public career.

Museo del PRECINEMA said...

The Museo del PRECINEMA of Padova in Italy has a new collection of 70 zinc shadows. The shadows are similar to those shown in the cabarets of Montmartre and they concern the well known tales: La Marche à l’Etoile, L’Esprit de Venise, Le Sphinx, L’Age d’Or and others not yet identified. There will be an exhibition.

Neil said...

Thanks, Laura. That's very interesting.