Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The man who forgot to die

Frans de Geetere, La Toilette

I seem to be specialising at the moment in failing to get to exhibitions I really wanted to see. One of these was a very rare chance this year to see a range of work by the Belgian artist Frans de Geetere (1895-1968) at the Centraal Museum, Utrecht. I failed to make it to that, but I have managed to locate a copy of the accompanying book, Frans de Geetere: Een opvallende passant in de Utrechste kunstwereld, by Jan Juffermans.

Even though it’s in a language I don’t understand, I’m enjoying possessing this. It locates Frans de Geetere very clearly in the tradition of Symbolists such as Fernand Khnopff and Odilon Redon. The book is very evidently a labour of love, and the author has gathered a great deal of information and many images that would be impossible to find anywhere else.

Even though I have 40 etchings by de Geetere, I didn’t until now know his full name, François Joseph Jean de Geetere. He was born in Oudergem, a suburb of Brussels. Frans de Geetere studied at the Beaux-Arts in Brussels, but rebelled against the academic teaching there.

Frans de Geetere, Mes Communions II

With his partner, the painter May den Engelsen, Frans de Geetere sailed a barge from Brussels to Paris, where they moored at the Quai de Conti by the Pont Neuf and lived a Bohemian lifestyle. De Geetere and den Engelsen were intimate with Harry and Caresse Crosby in the late 1920s; Harry wrote to his mother, "If it is possible for two people to be in love with two people then we are in love with them."

Harry Crosby shot himself after the Wall Street Crash in 1929. Frans de Geetere had an exhibition the following year at the Galerie de la Plume d'Or, introduced by the art critic André Warnod. But that was essentially the end of his career.

The etchings of Frans de Geetere are sombre and disquieting, infused with a miasma of conflicted sexuality and existential dread. His art now feels very modern, resonating, for instance, with both that of Paula Rego and that of Jake and Dinos Chapman.

Frans de Geetere, Soir

In his own lifetime Frans de Geetere fell so far out of favour that he titled a volume of lightly-fictionalised memoirs, self-published from his barge the Marie-Jeanne in 1962, L'homme qui oublia de mourir - The man who forgot to die.

Monday, October 22, 2007

A lifelong grudge

Georges van Houten, Moulin Rouge

The name Georges van Houten crops up in the Bidding Prayer of Oxford University, as one of the University’s benefactors. I don’t expect many people pause to wonder who he was.

Georges van Houten was born in 1888, in Antwerp, to Dutch parents. After studying under the Belgian post-Impressionist Jacob Smith, who mediated the influence of Vincent van Gogh and J.-F. Millet in van Houten’s work, in 1905 van Houten went to Paris to study art. By 1910 Georges van Houten was a member of the Société des Artistes Indépendants, and exhibited five paintings in their Salon. Georges van Houten had his first solo exhibition at the Galerie Eugène Blot in Paris in 1913, and a second at the same venue the following year. At this exhibition his work caught the eye of the critic and connoisseur Théodore Duret, the great expert on the Impressionists, and he was commissioned to paint Duret’s portrait. This portrait was completed the following year, but as van Houten spent the war years in the Belgian army, it was not exhibited until after the war, in the 1919 Salon d’Automne, where it was warmly received. That same year, Georges van Houten had an exhibition at the Galerie Sauvage.

Georges van Houten, Quadrilleuses

It seemed as if van Houten was set fair to become one of the great names of twentieth century art. But a seemingly trivial setback soured his attitude to the art world. In 1920, Georges van Houten was rejected in his application for membership of the Société du Salon d’Automne. Although all the foreign applicants were rejected that year, presumably as a result of reactionary post-war pressures, van Houten took it as a personal slight, attributing it to the malign influence of his contemporary rivals, particularly Matisse and Braque. He harboured a grudge about this incident to the end of his life. Georges van Houten did in fact exhibit a canvas, “Boulevard” at that year’s Salon d’Automne, but subsequently he retreated to the Salon des Indépendants, where he exhibited regularly until 1932.

The following year van Houten inherited a fortune, and although he continued to paint, stopped exhibiting or selling his work. What Georges van Houten prized above everything in art was fluidity of line, writing, “I would like one day to execute my line with a single stroke, as easily as I move my arm, to draw with no more effort than I write a letter.”

My suite of lithographs by Georges van Houten depicting performers and customers in the louche atmosphere of the Moulin Rouge in the Roaring Twenties show how nearly he attained that dream. He described them to a friend as “illustrations de notre pauvre humanité d’après guerre”, illustrations of our poor post-war humanity.

Georges van Houten, La tentation du poète

After van Houten’s death in 1964, the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford held a retrospective exhibition, Georges van Houten 1888-1964, with a catalogue by Andrew Wilton (Ashmolean Museum, 1965). Georges van Houten left his art collection and some 300 of his own paintings to the Ashmolean; hence his unlikely appearance in the Bidding Prayer. Their collection includes at least two paintings closely related to the Moulin Rouge lithographs, “Moulin Rouge” (1922) and “Bar at the Moulin Rouge” (1924). The Moulin Rouge lithographs were published in 1925; an earlier portfolio, Arlequinades (1919) tackled another favourite Montmartre motif, the circus. In both, the influence of Toulouse-Lautrec overrides that of van Gogh, whose influence is more pronounced in van Houten’s oil paintings.

The back of an artist

Norbert Goeneutte, Le dos d’un artiste

This wonderfully fresh etching is by the unpronounceable Impressionist, Norbert Goeneutte. Well, I suppose his name can be pronounced, I just hope nobody ever asks me to do it. Published in 1876 by Paris à l’eau-forte, it is titled simply, The Back of an Artist. But which artist?

The answer is almost certainly Goeneutte’s friend and fellow-Impressionist Henri Guérard (sometimes called Henry, Henri-Charles, or Charles-Henri Guérard). Goeneutte often seems to have worked in Guérard’s studio at 4, rue Frochot, which is just off the Place Pigalle and overlooks the Boulevard de Clichy – another etching of Goeneutte’s from the same year shows the view from Guérard’s studio window.

Norbert Goeneutte, Le boulevard de Clichy

Both men were friends of Édouard Manet; Guérard was married to Manet’s pupil Eva Gonzales and, after her death, to her sister Jeanne. Guérard, one of the finest etchers of the day, also etched plates after Manet’s paintings, and assisted Manet in printmaking, amassing in the process probably the finest collection of Manet prints (now in the permanent collection of AIC). You can see his image in Manet's 1878 painting Au Café (in the Oscar Reinhart collection at Winterthur), in which he poses in La Brassserie de Reichshoffen with the actress Ellen Andrée.

Henri Guérard, La rue Chevert

I have quite a few etchings by Guérard, some in his early style based on the study of Rembrandt, mostly in his mature Impressionist style, as well as interpretative etchings by him after artists such as Corot, Courbet, and Whistler; the art of the 19th-century interpretative etching is a subject I’m going to have to save for another day, but Guérard was one of its masters.

Henri Guérard, Tête de jeune fille

Henri Guérard was describe by the 19th-century prints expert Beraldi as "having in his head an imagination that explodes in a thousand capricious directions". He was a great collector of prints, and encourager of other printmakers, and also an important figure in French Japonisme. The Hokusai etching below is almost certainly etched by Guérard after a Hokusai drawing, though the editor of Paris à l’eau-forte, Richard Lesclide, pretends it was etched by Hokusai himself.

Hokusai, Une partie d'échecs
etched by Henri Guérard?

The three-year pose

Philippe Cattelain, Une cellule de prison

I found this bleak study of a prison cell in an 1876 issue of the weekly journal Paris à l’eau-forte, It’s signed in the plate by the artist Philippe Auguste Cattelain (French, 1838-?), unusually dated 1871-1874, with an etched dedication “à ma cherie Desirée.” The editor of Paris à l’eau-forte, Richard Lesclide, notes wrily that, “Our friend Cattelain took a long time to complete the etching we publish today. The cell posed for him for three years.”

There was obviously a story here, and it turns out that publishing this etching was as much a political statement as an artistic one. In 1876 Philippe Cattelain was in exile in England, after serving a three-year jail sentence for his part in the Paris Commune of 1871, in which Cattelain was Chef de la Sûreté. Freed from prison in 1874, Cattelain was exiled until an amnesty was granted to former Communards in 1880.

Philippe Cattelain published his first drawings in the satirical journal Le Rire in 1868, but his artistic career was interrupted and essentially wrecked by his prison sentence. In 1884 Cattelain published his Memoirs du Chef de la Sûreté de la Commune, an important historical source on that turbulent time.

Cattelain wasn’t the only artist involved, or the only one to be exiled. Gustave Courbet was also deeply implicated, having joined the Commune and been placed in charge of all Paris’s art museums. Courbet was able to preserve the Paris museums from looting, but his role in the destruction of the Vendôme column saw him imprisoned for six months, exiled to Switzerland, and burdened with crippling fines. But as he said, "I have always lived my life in freedom; let me end my life free; when I am dead let this be said of me, 'He belonged to no school, to no church, to no institution, to no academy, least of all to any regime except the regime of liberty.'"

Gustave Courbet, Femme couchée
Etching by Charles Waltner after Courbet's painting

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Being and knowing

Ghislaine de Menten de Horne, Qui pleure là?

One of my favourite recent purchases is one of just 125 copies of the suite of etchings with colour aquatint executed by a little-known Belgian artist, and heroine of the Belgian Resistance, Ghislaine de Menten de Horne, for an edition of La jeune Parque (The young Fate) by Paul Valéry. Published in 1935, these intense etchings marry the spiritual and the erotic in a way that makes them, to my mind, the last masterpiece of a pure Symbolist aesthetic.

The etchings were printed on a hand press by Eugène Delâtre, signed in pencil by the artist, and simply interleaved with the separately printed text. The book, issued by the Belgian publisher Goossens, was published in a numbered edition of 109: 1 on Japon Vellum Kozo, with an extra suite of the prints; 16 on Japon Impérial, with a suite of all the states of one print; and 100 on Rives (as mine). There were also 8 hors commerce copies, 5 on Japon, and 3 on Rives. I know that Paul Valéry himself had one of the copies on Japon, with an extra suite of the prints in black only.

Valéry wrote this dramatic monologue between 1912 and 1916; it was first published in 1917. Intending to compose a 30-line poem as a farewell to literature, for the 1920 revised collected poems Album de vers anciens, Valéry instead wrote a major work of 500 lines, his first poem since his existential crisis of 1892. Spoken by a young woman, La jeune Parque is concerned with the battle between body and spirit; and between being and knowing. Its dreamlike quality was perfectly suited to Ghislaine de Menten de Horne. Other artists attracted by the same text included the vastly underrated Marianne Clouzot, Jean-Gabriel Daragnès, and Jean Carton. But it is Ghislaine de Menten de Horne who gave us the most personal and powerful interpretation of the inner music of Valéry’s highly-wrought text.

Ghislaine de Menten de Horne, Souvenir

Paul Valéry himself was bowled over by the quality of her work, writing, “Ces belles épreuves en couleurs témoignent d’une possession peu commun du difficile metier de l’aquatinte. Dans certains d’entre elles la taille et la morsure très nettes et fermes s’accordent particulièrement bien avec la finesse des tons et le subtil emploi des grains. Cette technique complexe vous a permis de réaliser des compositions d’ordonnance très noble.” (The beautiful colour proofs testify to a rare command of the difficult art of aquatint. In certain of them the very clear line and confident bite accord particularly well with the finesse of the tones and the subtle grains. This complex technique has enabled you to realise compositions of a very noble order.)

Plans were laid for a second collaboration, Album de vers anciens, for which Ghislaine de Menten de Horne etched 42 copper plates. This book was in proof when the Second World War broke out, but was never printed. One of the 125 copies of La jeune Parque is in the Koopman Collection of the National Library of the Netherlands, together with the original zinc plates and a sketchbook of preparatory drawings. The Koopman Collection also acquired from the artist’s estate the copper plates, proofs, and preparatory drawings for the unrealised Album de vers anciens.

With the outbreak of WWII, the life of Ghislaine de Menten de Horne took a dramatic twist. She became an active member of the Resistance, placing explosives for sabotage, and acting as back-up to the agent Max Londot, who was parachuted in from London. She was twice arrested and interrogated by the Gestapo, but won her release by playing “the stupid innocent aristocrat who knew nothing but paint.” For her outstanding acts of bravery she was awarded many medals.

After the war, Ghislaine and Max married, and went to live in Kivu in the Belgian Congo, where Ghislaine painted still lives and portraits. The marriage did not last, and in 1960 Ghislaine de Menten de Horne returned to Belgium, where she resumed her artistic studies in the atelier of Marcel Hastir. She divided her time between her castle of Sparmont in Huy and her studio in Vorst (Brussels). An idealistic intellectual, Ghislaine de Menten de Horne lived for her art.

Ghislaine de Menten de Horne, Abandonne-toi vive aux serpents

She was born Marie Cécile Armande Ghislaine de Menten de Horne, into an aristocratic Belgian family. She attended the Académie Julian, and studied printmaking in the studio of the engraver Paul Bornet. Subsequently she continued her artistic studies at the Académie Royale des Beaux Arts in Brussels. Ghislaine de Menten de Horne’s early artistic career was full of promise, culminating in the commission from Goossens to illustrate La jeune Parque.

She first exhibited at the Salon des Indépendants in 1931. The thirties were marked by her friendships with the philosopher Marie-Anne Cochet and the writer Paul Valéry, and by her work on La jeune Parque and the unpublished Album de vers anciens. In 1942 she exhibited in the Toison d’Or and Breughel galleries in Brussels. Swept into the maelstrom of WWII, her work with the Luc-Marc Resistance network and the romance of her relationship with Max Londot, she did not exhibit again until 1966, with shows at the Mont des Arts and La Licorne in Brussels. Regular shows followed in her remaining years, mostly in various Brussels galleries, with a posthumous exhibition in the Veilingshuis “Vanderkindere” in 1996, the year after her death. Her artistic estate was auctioned in aid of Médecins sans frontiers. The art of Ghislaine de Menten de Horne has been gradually recognized as an important strand of Belgian art of the twentieth century, by critics such as Jacques Collard (for instance in 50 Artistes de Belgique, 1976) and Dr Eric Cabris (in Ghislaine de Menten de Horne, 1988).

The mystery of Denis Volx

Denis Volx, etching

An artist named Denis Volx published a suite of 10 copper engravings to illustrate Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal in 1918, in an edition of 400 copies, and a suite of 15 etchings in 1921 to illustrate the classic of French light erotica by René Boylesve (the nom de plume of René Tardiveau). This second set of prints has no stated limitation, but in his Manuel de l’amateur de livres illustrés modernes, Luc Monod describes it as printed "à petit nombre". It is exceptionally scarce.

The Koopman collection of French illustrated books at the National Library of the Netherlands has a copy, attached to a later edition of La leçon d’amour dans un parc. My own proofs of these rare etchings by Volx came loosely interleaved in an otherwise unillustrated copy of the book published in 1921 by Calmann-Lévy. 500 copies of this text-only reprint were published. I have not been able to find any record of another copy with the Volx etchings, but as the page size is identical it seems very likely that Volx’s publisher, the bookseller A. Blaizot, commissioned the etchings with the specific intention of trying to sell them to select customers buying the Calmann-Lévy edition. My etchings are keyed into this text with discreet pencil page references on the back.

The etchings are printed in sanguine on wove paper, and are signed Denis Volx in the plate. The Koopman collection website reproduces the etched cover for the print portfolio, which I do not have. But even the super-knowledgeable librarians at the National Library seem to have been stumped by Denis Volx, for they give no biographical information about him at all, not even dates of birth and death.

Denis Volx, etching

I assumed Volx was a young artist, fresh from the killing fields of WWI, who died young, possibly at the tail end of the great influenza pandemic that followed in the wake of the conflict. I had pretty much given up hope of ever finding anything more about him, when the name leapt out at me from a page of the Dictionnaire des illustrateurs 1890-1945 by Marcus Osterwalder.

Denis Volx, it transpires, was just one of a bewildering series of pseudonyms adopted by the artist Denis Valvérane. His full name was Louis Joseph Marie Denis Valvérane according to Osterwalder, and Louis Jean-Marie Denis-Valvérane according to Bénézit’s Dictionnaire des peintres, sculpteurs, dessinateurs, et graveurs.

Valvérane chose for some reason of his own to obscure his tracks by signing works in different media by different names. He signed his canvases L. Denis-Valvérane, his etchings Denis Volx, his drawings D. Valvérane, and his drawings for the press Valdès, Valdex, Val d'Es, Montelli, and Zed. This must have amused him, but it has left his reputation fragmented. This is sad, because he was obviously a talented minor artist.

Denis Volx, etching

Denis Valvérane was born in Manosque in the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence on 20 September 1870, and died in Tarascon on 12 April 1943. He studied in Paris under Jean Benjamin-Constant and Jean-Paul Laurens. He exhibited at the Salon des Artistes Français from 1904, at the Salon des Dessinateurs Humoristes from 1911-1935, at the Salon d'Automne and the Salon des Indépendants.

His etchings for La leçon d'amour dans un parc are very much in the "galante" tradition stretching back to Boucher and Fragonard, with a twist of late Art Nouveau. I have another very different set of plates illustrating the same text by Pierre Brissaud (1885-1964).

Pierre Brissaud, pochoir

These are hand-stencilled pochoirs, retouched by hand, from one of 98 separate suites of Brissaud’s colour plates for a 1925 edition of the book, published in an edition of 501 numbered and 20 lettered copies, my copy being copy C reserved of the publisher, Édouard Champion, and printed on Japon Impérial paper. These pochoirs, published only four years after the Denis Volx etchings, mark a dramatic shift in French taste towards a distinctly Art Deco aesthetic.

Pierre Brissaud, pochoir

Monday, October 15, 2007


Edmond Heuzé, Ubu Roi

The savage satirical comedy Ubu Roi was written by Alfred Jarry, and first performed as a puppet show for his schoolfriends in 1888, when Jarry was just 15. The coarse, inept, vicious tyrant Ubu is based, it is said, on his physics teacher. The first public staging, which caused outrage with its very first word, Père Ubu’s scatological neologism “Merdre”, was not until 1896. It only lasted for two nights (the only non-puppet productions Jarry ever saw), but the ensuing controversy made his name, and ensured his legacy: the whole of the Theatre of the Absurd stems from Jarry’s violent knockabout farce. Jarry was an important and influential figure in artistic Montmartre through the 1890s until his death in 1907 at the age of 34. The Père Ubu cycle exercised a magnetic pull on many artists, and was illustrated by Pierre Bonnard, Georges Rouault, Jean Puy, and Joan Miró, as well as by Jarry himself.

I have a set of exuberant colour lithographs for Ubu Roi by a less well-known but fascinating artist, Edmond Heuzé (1884-1967). They date from 1947.

Heuzé was the perfect choice to illustrate this most seminal of Montmartre texts. His real name was Amédée Le Trouvé. He was born in Paris, the son of a tailor and a seamstress. Heuzé wanted to be an artist from early childhood, and refused to follow his father into the tailoring profession. When he was 11, His parents moved to Montmartre, and it was there, in rue Cortot, that the thirteen-year-old Edmond Heuzé and his boyhood friend André Utter met Suzanne Valadon, whom Utter would later marry. Heuzé moved into an attic room in 8, rue Cortot, with another friend, the young Russian sculptor Laxine. For two years they studied under Valadon, until Laxine entered the atelier of Fernand Cormon at the Beaux-Arts; Laxine was soon to kill himself. Edmond Heuzé too studied under Cormon, but flounced out when Cormon made fun of his large nose; ironically, an oversized hooter is also one of Père Ubu’s distinguishing features.

Edmond Heuzé, Père Ubu rides to war

Discouraged, Heuzé took up a tailoring job at the department store La Samaritaine. But when his portrait of Suzanne Valadon was accepted by the 1902 Salon d’Automne, he resolved to devote himself to art. To support himself, Heuzé took a job as a dancer at the Moulin Rouge, where he danced with La Goulue. For two years he entered dance competitions across Europe under the name Williams. He also taught the painter Maurice Utrillo, who was the son of Suzanne Valadon. He described Utrillo, in a nice turn of phrase, as “a genius without talent.”

In 1908, Heuzé had his first solo exhibition, at the galerie Berthe Weill. The following year he went to Saint Petersburg, where he was the curator of the art collection of Grand Duke Nicolas. On the outbreak of WWI Edmond Heuzé returned to Paris to join up, but was only mobilized for a few months. In Paris he survived doing odd jobs in Les Halles. Continuing with his own art, Heuzé also acted as an intermediary between collectors and artists such as Picasso, Vlaminck, and Valadon. This led to Heuzé being appointed artistic director of the galerie Sagot in rue Lafitte. In 1920 Heuzé exhibited at Bernheim alongside Maurice Asselin, Emily Charmy, and Lucien Mainssieux.

Edmond Heuzé, The Flight of Mère Ubu

In 1923 an exhibition of paintings of filles de joie at the galerie Chiron finally made his name, and enabled him to live on the proceeds of his art. From this time Heuzé made the world of the circus a primary focus of his art; though he also painted portraits and views of Paris. He took over the former studio of André Utter at 38 rue Ramsey, above the café À la Belotte. Here he had an open teaching studio, becoming influential in the between-the-wars École de Paris, alongside now-more-famous figures such as Jules Pascin and Chaim Soutine. Heuzé won the Prix Paul Guillaume in 1938. In 1948 he was admitted to the Académie des Beaux-Arts of the Institut de France, to be joined the following year by his friend Jean-Gabriel Domergue; the two shocked the staid members of the Institut by their Bohemian ways. Nevertheless in 1951 Edmond Heuzé was appointed as Professor of Portraiture at the École des Beaux-Arts, a post that had lain vacant since the death of Léon Bonnat.

Edmond Heuzé remained a true Bohemian till the end: Time Magazine, reporting in 1956 on the new popularity of striptease in Paris, where the International Amateur Striptease Contest was being staged, interviewed an enthusiastic Edmond Heuzé: "’I support the striptease out of admiration for female loveliness and respect for human dignity,’ boomed 73-year-old Professor Edmond Heuzé, of the Beaux Arts Academy." Heuzé exhibited at the Wildenstein Gallery, London, in 1963, at the age of 80. There was a retrospective of his work at the Musée de Montmartre in 1972.

Edmond Heuzé, The Ascension of Père Ubu

Ubu Roi, by the way, wasn’t the only play of its kind in fin-de-siècle Paris. The nightclub Le Chat Noir, for instance, staged absurdist satirical skits by the artist Henry Somm, starting with The Elephant in 1886, that prefigure the work of Jarry. Somm may in turn have got the idea for such playlets from the short play Une Maison de Fous by Richard Lesclide which he illustrated with orginal etchings in 1876 for the journal Paris à l’eau-forte. Henry Somm was a key figure in Japonisme, and associated with the Impressionists. He was born in 1844, 19 years Jarry’s senior; both men died in 1907. Somm’s full name was François-Clément Sommier.

Henry Somm, Le Poète

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Ex-pats on the razzle

Emeric Timar, The American Girl

The writer Henry Miller immortalised Bohemian ex-pat life in Paris in his scabrous novel-memoir Tropic of Cancer. Another ex-pat in Paris at the time was the Hungarian artist Emeric Timar (1898-1950). Anyone who has visited the Henry Miller Library in Big Sur, California, will have seen copies of Timar’s marvellously energetic Expressionist lithographs inspired by Miller’s book on display there. They were made in 1949. Miller reportedly disliked them, perhaps because for the title page vignette Timar drew Miller with a penis for a nose. When I bought a suite of Timar’s lithographs, it came with three original watercolours and two drawings relating to the project. The drawings have a Surrealist edge: one shows an anthropomorphic Parisian pissoir, while the other shows a headless, one-armed, one-legged, pregnant streetwalker, reflecting an encounter with a pregnant woman of the streets which prompts Miller to reflect that, in Paris, as soon as a woman loses an incisor, an eye, or a leg, she becomes a prostitute.

Emeric Timar, Pissoir
ink drawing

Whether Timar and Miller knew each other in 1930s Paris is unclear; Timar moved to Paris in 1925, becoming a student and protégé of Jacques Villon (the brother of Marcel Duchamp and Suzanne Roger). Miller’s closest artistic ally in Paris was the photographer Brassaï, another Hungarian émigré, so it seems likely their paths would have crossed. Another Paris friend of Miller’s was the American painter John Nichols (1899-1963), satirised in Tropic of Cancer as Mark Swift, and depicted with a deliberately repulsive nude in Timar's leering lithograph The Painting.

Emeric Timar, The Painting

Tragic nights of Paris

Georges Gorvel, Rue du Cherche-Midi (Impression)

The First World War – the war I still think of as the Great War – is the pivotal fracture point of modern history. I’ve acquired quite a few prints of WWI subjects, many showing the life of soldiers on or just behind the front line. But the most haunting and disquieting WWI prints I’ve seen are the fifteen etchings and aquatints – some with hand-colouring - in the 1926 portfolio Les Nuits Tragiques de Paris, by Georges Gorvel. Gorvel (French, 1866-1938), showing the unpeopled streets of Paris under aerial bombardment in the First World War. Georges Gorvel lost two sons in WWI. At night, while Paris was becoming the first major city to experience attack from the air, Gorvel haunted the eerie, empty streets, recording the special atmosphere of a city under threat from the sky. They are extraordinary documents in the history of modern warfare, and of the city of Paris; only 90 copies were printed. Gorvel himself was a highly-regarded etcher; in 1905 he exhibited with Henri Matisse at the gallery of Élie Faure. Gorvel also engraved French postage stamps, and made interpretative etchings of the work of other artists, including Raoul Dufy and Charles Guérin. The prints in Les Nuits Tragiques de Paris have an introduction by another interesting figure, the Belgian man of letters Albert t’Serstevens, whose life has been recorded by his widow, the artist Amandine Doré, in L’Homme au T apostrophe. A. t-Serstevens was a close friend and collaborator of the poet Blaise Cendrars; others in his circle included Robert and Sonia Delaunay, Louis Jou, Fernand Fleuret, and Pierre Mac Orlan. As a completely irrelevant aside, Albert t’Serstevens’ uncle Theodore was the judge in the 1873 trial of Paul Verlaine for the shooting of Arthur Rimbaud.

Georges Gorvel, Boulevard du Montparnasse

I once was blind but now I see

Julien Lemordant, Maisons en construction

The etching with aquatint above was published in the Gazette des Beaux-Arts in 1912. The artist is the Breton painter Jean Julien Lemordant (1882-1968). Lemordant was a close associate of Charles Cottet, influenced by both Gauguin and the School of Pont-Aven and by the Fauves. Lemordant was evidently moving towards Modernism when he created this strikingly bold – almost Vorticist - etching of buildings under construction. Lemordant was severely injured, and blinded, at the battle of Artois in October 1915. There is a portrait of Lemordant recovering from his wounds by Susan MacDowell Eakins in the Eakins Gallery at Thomas Jefferson University. When Lemordant was made a Commandeur of the Légion d’Honneur, the greatest artists of the day carried him on their shoulders through the Grand Palais. In 1919 Lemordant was awarded the Howland Memorial Prize at Yale University, for his distinguished contribution to French art; the same year saw an important retrospective at Gimpel & Wildenstein in New York. In an ironic twist, Julien Lemordant’s sight was restored 50 years after it was lost, following a series of operations. I find it moving to think of Lemordant’s long wait for the return of his vision. What must that have meant to a visual artist? Georges Braque, having been reported missing, was retrieved from the battlefield of the Somme completely blind. His sight was restored by trepanning – if not, would Cubism, and all the modern art that followed, ever have happened? And if the same cure had been possible for Julien Lemordant, what would his contribution to 20th-century art have been? As it was, Lemordant devoted the rest of his life to the cause of pacifism.

Hey, Mr. Spaceman

Aleksei Leonov, Cosmonaut

Aleksei Arkhipovich Leonov (Russian, 1934- ) was the first human being to walk in space, on 18 March 1965. A great life-defining moment, but how do you follow it? No one can live as a footnote in a history book. Leonov decided to become an artist, often drawing on images from his experiences in space. If this lithograph of a spaceman heading towards the Eiffel Tower – published by Maeght in the art revue Noise in 1991 – has a certain self-taught clumsiness, it makes up for that in authenticity. Can there be a truer “Outsider Art” than that conceived while floating solitary and weightless in the vast chasm of space?

Friday, October 12, 2007

A duck, a cat, a flower, and a hanged man

"La Haute-Seine"

I recently acquired an incomplete run of an obscure weekly journal of the 1870s, Paris à l’eau-forte.

The editor, Richard Lesclide, and art editor, Frédéric Regamey, were cashing in on the French etching revival. In the process, they helped launch the Impressionist movement. They actually published quite a few Impressionist etchings in the year running up to the First Impressionist Exhibition in 1874, especially by Armand Guillaumin (who will probably get his own blog entry in due course). In the issues I have, the first print they actually describe as “impressioniste” is La Haute-Seine, published on January 9th, 1876, and credited to Van Ryssel. There’s a second etching by the same artist on February 27th, an “impression” titled Le chemin creux d’Auvers.

La Haute-Seine is signed in the plate three times: with the name P. Van Ryssel and the date 1874, with the initials V. R., and with the emblem of a duck. Although my copy is marred by having been splashed with liquid on the reverse, it’s a lovely river scene with smoking factory chimneys that captures the very essence of early Impressionism, in a style very like that of Camille Pissarro. But who on earth was Van Ryssel?

Scattered through earlier issues of Paris à l’eau-forte are more etchings by the same artist, each with the fresh, lively immediacy of an Impressionist sketch.

How could the Impressionist aesthetic have permeated the commercial print market so early? The search for an answer to that question uncovered a marvellous untold story of the dawn of Impressionism.

The clue was in the duck.

Van Ryssel, it turns out, was a pseudonym; Ryssel is the Flemish name for Lille, where the artist was born. The artist’s real name was Dr. Paul Ferdinand Gachet – the same Dr. Gachet who was twice painted by Vincent Van Gogh. One of these portraits sold at auction in 1990 for a record $82.5 million.

"Le chemix creux d'Auvers"

Gachet had been recommended as the right doctor for Vincent by the painter Camille Pissarro. Gachet had treated a number of the Impressionists, including Manet and Renoir, and counted most of them among his friends. He and Pissarro became close when Gachet bought a house in Auvers-sur-Oise. The two men were neighbours, and they cemented their friendship over Gachet’s etching press.

Unlike his artist friends, Paul Gachet had enough money from his thriving practice as a homeopathist and psychiatrist to buy a press and copper etching plates. Once he had installed his etching studio in Auvers in 1872, he shared it with Pissarro and two new artist friends, Armand Guillaumin and Paul Cézanne.

The plates these friends produced were so alike in approach that they each adopted an emblem to distinguish them. Pissarro signed his plates with the emblem of a flower; Guillaumin with a cat; Cézanne with a hanged man; and Gachet with a duck.

Paul Gachet remained an amateur artist. He did not exhibit in the First Impressionist Exhibition, featuring instead as a collector; it was Gachet who lent Cézanne’s controversial “A Modern Olympia”. Gachet’s art collection ended up in the Musée d’Orsay. When it toured Paris, Amsterdam, and New York in 1999, as Cézanne to Van Gogh: The Collection of Doctor Gachet, it became clear that Gachet’s gift as a painter was essentially that of a copyist or imitator.

The same is not true of Gachet’s etchings, which today stand head and shoulders above the tired clichés repeated endlessly by other artists of the 1870s etching boom. That Gachet’s obsession with capturing the essence of a moment was inspired by Pissarro and Cézanne is not in doubt, but his work is original and vital. And it was Gachet, not Pissarro or Cézanne, or Monet or Renoir, who first introduced the originality and vitality of Impressionism to the French public.

Gachet’s entrée to the print journal Paris à l’eau-forte was his friendship with its publisher, Richard Lesclide, whom he knew through their mutual friend, the author Victor Hugo. Lesclide and Regamey, encouraged Paul Gachet, and gave him, in the pages of Paris à l’eau-forte, his only taste of the artistic success he had dreamed of since his youth.

Until now, Dr. Paul-Ferdinand Gachet’s role in the development of Impressionism has been obscured by his presence in the tragic last weeks of Vincent Van Gogh. With the discovery of these etchings in Paris à l’eau-forte, Gachet can be restored to his minor but important place as one of the pioneers of Impressionism.