Friday, June 25, 2010

Édouard Goerg’s vision of suffering

I’ve mentioned the etcher, lithographer and painter Édouard Joseph Goerg in several previous posts, but never really focussed on his work. Born in Sydney, Australia in 1893, to French parents (his father was a champagne merchant, with whose bourgeois ethos Édouard remained deeply at odds), Goerg was a very powerful artist, whose distorted figures and phantasmagorical compositions express a deep-seated sense of dread and apprehension. Goerg’s anguished soul is reflected in the texts he chose to illustrate, which include Dante’s L’Enfer (1950, etchings), Villiers de l’Isle Adam’s Nouveau contes cruels (1946, colour lithographs), and the Apocalypse (1945, black and white lithographs).

Édouard Goerg, lithograph for Baudelaire, 1947-52

Goerg’s majestic two-volume edition of Baudelaire’s poems, Les Fleurs du Mal (1948) and Tableaux Parisiens (1952) is often cited as his major work. It’s certainly a monumental achievement, containing 269 monochrome lithographs, all designed to surround and interact with the text. I have just one of the Baudelaire lithos, from one of the 30 suites in black of the lithographs without the text (there were also 10 suites in sanguine and 10 suites in black of the first state of the lithos). It’s one of the 33 double-page images, but without consulting the book I can’t say for sure which poem it relates to.

Édouard Goerg, etching for Le Livre de Job, 1946

As a piece of bookmaking, the Baudelaire may well be Goerg’s masterpiece, but in terms of printmaking, the images don’t really work on their own without the text. My own favourite series of Édouard Goerg prints is the set of etchings he made in 1946 for Le Livre de Job. There are 24 large etchings, printed hors-texte, and a further 7 small etchings integrated with the text. The Book of Job with its poetic vision of suffering was the perfect inspiration for Goerg, and he rises to its challenges with what for me is his best work. The etchings for Job inevitably invite comparison with Marc Chagall’s etchings and lithographs for the Bible. But whereas Chagall’s essential nature is sunny and outgoing, Goerg’s is dark, brooding, and introspective.

Édouard Goerg, etching for Le Livre de Job, 1946

Édouard Goerg, etching for Le Livre de Job, 1946

Édouard Goerg, etching for Le Livre de Job, 1946

Pierre Mornand and J.-R. Thomé write of Édouard Goerg in Vingt Artistes du Livre (1955) that “le tragique hante l’âme d’Édouard Goerg”—tragedy haunts his soul. Goerg was indelibly marked by the horrors of the First World War, in which he was mobilized and saw active service in Greece, Turkey, and Serbia. Later he witnessed the terrible rise of fascism in Europe. After the fall of France, Goerg’s first wife, who was Jewish, went into hiding, and died because she could not get access to medical care. Édouard Goerg fell into a deep depression, for which he was treated with electroconvulsive therapy. It was out of this darkness that his haunting etchings for the Book of Job (and his equally intense and disturbing etchings for Dante’s Inferno) arose.

Édouard Goerg, etching for Le Livre de Job, 1946

Édouard Goerg, etching for Le Livre de Job, 1946

Édouard Goerg, etching for Le Livre de Job, 1946

Mornand and Thomé write of etchings for Job, “Goerg uses all the alchemy of etching to evoke the profound meaning of the enigmatic Book of Job, whose obscure and troubling lamentations are a prophecy of future calamities.” They compare his mastery of light and shade in these etchings to both Méryon and Rembrandt.

Édouard Goerg, etching for Le Livre de Job, 1946

Édouard Goerg, etching for Le Livre de Job, 1946

Édouard Goerg, etching for Le Livre de Job, 1946

Comparisons of Goerg to others are never easy, just as it is hard to identify him with any particular school. He is most often classed as an Expressionist, but in French terms that is really just a term for the artists who don’t seem to fit anywhere else, such as Goerg or Henry de Waroquier. There is some influence from James Ensor, some from Odilon Redon, some from George Grosz. I think one can also see that Goerg looked closely at the work of both Chagall and Modigliani. There’s also a deep-rooted debt to Flemish masters such as Bosch and Breughel.

Édouard Goerg, etching for Le Livre de Job, 1946

Goerg’s teachers at the Académie Ranson from 1913-1914 were Paul Sérusier and Maurice Denis, and there is certainly a direct influence from Denis in his work; later Goerg was to be involved with Denis’s Atelier de l’Art Sacré.
Édouard Goerg, etching for Le Livre de Job, 1946

Goerg was also, of course, influenced by his direct contemporaries and friends, most notably Marcel Gromaire, Gus Bofa, the “Prince of Montmartre” Jules Pascin, and Pascin’s close friend Per Krohg.
It was Jean-Émile Laboureur who introduced Édouard Goerg to etching in early 1920s. I have two important series of Goerg’s etchings from this period—a rare suite of his etchings for Knock ou le Triomphe de la Médicine by Jules Romains (1926), and his 14 etchings for Frédéric Boutet’s Tableau de l’Au-Delà (1927). Both exhibit a lively strain of black humour.

Édouard Goerg, etching for Knock, 1926

Édouard Goerg, etching for Knock, 1926

I only have the suite of 12 etchings for Knock, not the book. There were 39 suites of the etchings in their final state.

Édouard Goerg, etching for Knock, 1926

Édouard Goerg, etching for Knock, 1926

Tableau de l’Au-Delà (Portrait of the Beyond), with its witty depictions of various seekers after the supernatural, shows the early Goerg at his satirical best. It was published in an edition of 347 copies.

Édouard Goerg, etching for Tableau de l'Au-Delà, 1927

Édouard Goerg, etching for Tableau de l'Au-Delà, 1927

In the 1920s, Édouard Goerg was a member of Jean Cocteau’s circle, and had well-documented problems with opium; I am indebted to a reader of this blog, Benoît, for the information that Goerg kept his supply of opium stashed in his paintbox. Opium dreams may account for the hallucinatory quality of his work.

Édouard Goerg, etching for Tableau de l'Au-Delà, 1927

Édouard Goerg, etching for Tableau de l'Au-Delà, 1927

I also have a very rare suite of 28 etchings with remarques, printed in sanguine, of Édouard Goerg’s 1947 edition of Edgar Allan Poe’s L’Ange du Bizarre (in Baudelaire’s translation, of course). There were 275 copies of the book, and 25 suites. According to Luc Monod, these suites were printed in black, so either he is mistaken, or there was also an even smaller number printed in sanguine.

Édouard Goerg, etching with drypoint remarque for L'Ange du bizarre, 1947

Édouard Goerg, etching with drypoint remarque for L'Ange du bizarre, 1947

Édouard Goerg, etching with drypoint remarque for L'Ange du bizarre, 1947

The Poe etchings are very striking (Mornand and Thomé speak of their “extraordinary power”). Dreamlike and mysterious, they seem to hover at the very edge of intelligibility. The remarques, added to the plate with a drypoint needle, essentially provide 28 further images, sometimes closely related to the original image, sometimes seemingly disconnected from it.

Édouard Goerg, etching with drypoint remarque for L'Ange du bizarre, 1947

Édouard Goerg, etching with drypoint remarque for L'Ange du bizarre, 1947

Édouard Goerg, etching with drypoint remarque for L'Ange du bizarre, 1947

In 1949, Goerg won the important Prix Hallmark for a painting of the Nativity. In the same year he was appointed professor of printmaking at the École des Beaux-Arts, Paris. In 1950 he won the Prix de Gravure de Lugano, but in fact his career as a printmaker was virtually at its end. He re-married, and his second wife encouraged him to return with renewed vigour to painting. His colourful paintings of sensual and decadent “filles-fleurs” from this period earned him renewed popularity. He became the president of the Société des Peintres-Graveurs Français, and in 1965 was elected to the Académie des Beaux-Arts.

Édouard Goerg, etching with drypoint remarque for L'Ange du bizarre, 1947

Édouard Goerg, etching with drypoint remarque for L'Ange du bizarre, 1947

Édouard Goerg, etching with drypoint remarque for L'Ange du bizarre, 1947

Édouard Goerg died at Callian in the Var in 1969, at the age of 76. According to his Wikipedia entry, Goerg was planning to leave his wife, and his death was “mysterious”. This seems appropriate for an artist whose work is always suffused with a sense of mystery. He was truly, as Mornand and Thomé say, a “poète fantastique et magicien de l’irréel—poet of the fantastic and magician of the unreal.”

7 comments:

Jane Librizzi said...

I would not have noticed the traces of Maurice Denis without your guidance, but I did think of Redon. I particularly like the humorous images from 'Knock'. The proper gentleman with the glasses is a fully-imagined character to me. As an armchair analyst, I wonder if Australia was a distant, protected place for Goerg, when you remember what was going on in Europe by the time he got there, it must have been a scalding experience. Whatever his differences with his father, he should have stuck with the champagne.

Neil said...

The Goergs moved to Paris in 1900 when Édouard was 9, and I believe they had lived for several years in England before that, so he may have had little memory of Australia. I don't think he had any political argument with champagne itself...

C.J.Duffy said...

Some beautiful art from an artist I had never heard of. Very interesting as is your site. When I saw the title of your blog I instantly thought of my days at News International but I think, and with with good results, I misunderstood.

CJ

Neil said...

Some beautiful art from an artist I had never heard of. Very interesting as is your site. When I saw the title of your blog I instantly thought of my days at News International but I think, and with with good results, I misunderstood.

CJ

Neil said...

Thanks, CJ - Sorry your comment looks as if it was left by me, I couldn't publish it for some obscure reason, so had to cut and paste. The title of my blog refers to a raffish - and not especially good - prose work by Dylan Thomas, Adventures in the Skin Trade. But I remember the old Times building in Gray's Inn Road when the printing presses were still thundering below, and I was just starting out as a writer.

Roxana said...

yes, Redon, and as i adore him, it is not surprising that i am fascinated with Goerg's works - ever since i first saw them here, i keep coming back... it's really overwhelming.

oh, and thank you for unravelling the mystery of your blog title :-)

(i've been rather quiet but i am travelling, as a matter of fact i have just come back from the Leopold Museum in Vienna, where, among Schiele and Klimt, i could see Kokoschka's lithographies, The Chinese Wall, and thought of you)

Neil said...

Roxana - I see a connection between you and Goerg - a kind of subterranean way of expressing emotion without defining it.