Monday, September 21, 2009

La Bande Noire

The School of Pont-Aven that centered on the maverick Paul Gauguin in the late 1880s and early 1890s spawned two art movements of the 1890s. The first is Les Nabis. Founded by students at the Académie Julian, including two of Gauguin’s Pont-Aven acolytes, Paul Sérusier and Maurice Denis, Les Nabis took a mystical slant on Gauguin’s innovations in colour and composition. In the Kunstmuseum, Winterthur, is a canvas of 1902-1903 by one of the Nabis, Félix Vallotton, entitled Five Painters. It shows four leading Nabis, Pierre Bonnard, Édouard Vuillard, Ker-Xavier Roussel, and Vallotton himself, clustered admiringly round a fifth figure, who seems to be the leader of the group. This fifth man is Charles Cottet (1863-1925).

Charles Cottet, Pays de la mer: soir orageux
Lithograph, 1897

Although Cottet too attended classes at the Académie Julian, he is not usually counted even as a member of the Nabis (though he did take up lithography at their urging, contributing his first lithograph to La Revue Blanche in 1894). Instead he is regarded as the leader of the second movement influenced by Pont-Aven, La Bande Noire, or Les Nubians. As the name La Bande Noire suggests, this group, looking back to Gustave Courbet for their inspiration, painted in sombre colours. Whereas the Nabis carried Gauguin’s artistic innovations forward, the Nubians devoted themselves to the subjects that had inspired his art in Pont-Aven—the Breton landscape and the daily lives of the Breton peasants and fisherfolk.

Charles Cottet, Marine
Drypoint, 1906

In the wake of Barbizon artists such as Millet, peasant life was now an accepted subject for art, and one that allowed the artist, in dignifying the toil and hardship of the poor, to offer a subtle critique of the established social order. The Newlyn School in Cornwall, the Danish Impressionists in Skagen, and the Hague School in Holland, all followed Millet’s lead in their choice of subject matter, as did Gauguin’s key artistic ally, Vincent van Gogh.

Charles Cottet, Au pays de la mer: douleur
Etching, 1908

Charles Cottet’s little band of Nubians have been overlooked by art historians, and are long overdue for re-evaluation. Cottet himself was born in Le Puy-en-Velay (Haute-Loire). Although he studied under Puvis de Chavannes and Alfred Roll, even as a student Cottet preferred to work directly from nature rather than under instruction in an atelier. Cottet exhibited at the Impressionist exhibitions organised by Leparc de Bouteville, and exhibited for the first time at the Salon de Paris in 1889. His 65 etchings were all made between 1903 and 1911 when, increasingly disabled by illness, Cottet ceased to etch. In 1906 he was co-opted as a member of the Société des Peintres Graveurs Français, at the invitation of its president, Léonce Bénédit, who was Cottet's friend and patron throughout his career.

Charles Cottet, Bretonne
Etching, 1911

Cottet was one of the founder members of the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts, and in 1900 of La Société Nouvelle; he also exhibited with the Salon de la Gravure Originale en Couleurs. Although he travelled to Algeria and Egypt, he was most truly at home with the melancholy landscapes of Brittany. Bénézit calls him "un des artistes les plus intéressants du XIXe siècle". Cottet was represented in the 1973 exhibition Visionnaires et Intimistes à l'époque 1900 at the Grand Palais, Paris. There was an exhibition of his work at the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Quimper and the Musée d'Art et d'Histoire de Fribourg in 1984, but the art of Charles Cottet is still waiting for a full re-appraisal. The last major retrospective was in 1911, when 431 works were shown at the Galerie Georges Petit. Cottet's graphic work, however, has been fully assessed, with an exhibition at the Musée de Pont-Aven in 2003, and an accompanying Catalogue raisonné de l'oeuvre gravé by Daniel Morane. I am indebted to this work for a number of details in this post.

Charles Cottet, Vieille femme d’Ouessant
Etching and acquatint, published 1922

Cottet’s two most prominent followers were André Dauchez (1870-1948) and Lucien Simon (1861-1945). Dauchez and Simon were not only firm friends and artistic colleagues, but also brothers-in-law.

André Dauchez, La récolte du varech
Etching, 1906

The self-taught painter and printmaker André Dauchez was born in Paris. Dauchez studied printmaking with Gaston Rodriguez; his first prints date from 1887, and his output includes lithographs, etchings, and wood engravings. The Breton landscape was an inexhaustible source of inspiration for Dauchez.

André Dauchez, La chapelle de Beuzec
Etching, 1906

As a painter, André Dauchez exhibited with the Salon de la Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts from 1894, becoming a member of the Society in 1896, its secretary in 1927, and its president in 1938.

André Dauchez, Au-dessus du port de Douarnenez
Etching, 1923

Lucien Simon was also born in Paris. Simon taught at the École Nationale des Beaux-Arts; among his pupils were Lucien Fontanarosa, Yves Brayer, and Georges Rohner. Lucien Simon was himself taught by William Adolphe Bouguereau and Tony Robert-Fleury.

Lucien Simon, Les Marguilliers
Lithograph, 1897

Lucien Simon exhibited regularly at the Salon des Artistes Français; from 1931-1934 he also exhibited at the Royal Academy in London. He specialised in Breton and religious subjects.

Lucien Simon, Causerie du soir
Etching, 1902

One of Cottet's closest allies was René Ménard (1862-1930). Marie Auguste Émile René Ménard was born in Paris, into an artistic family - his father René Joseph Ménard and uncle Louis Nicolas Ménard were both noted painters. He first exhibited at the Salon des Artistes Français in 1883.

René Ménard, Automne
Lithograph, 1897

Another member of La Bande Noire was René François Xavier Prinet (1861-1946). Like Lucien Simon and René Ménard, Prinet was a contributor to the Art Nouveau/Symbolist lithographic portfolios L'Estampe moderne. Prinet was born in Vitry-le-François (Marne). He studied under Gérôme, Courtois and Dagnan-Bouveret. With Albert Besnard, Bourdelle, and Edmond Aman-Jean, Xavier Prinet founded the Salon des Tuileries. Prinet taught many pupils, first at his open studio in Montparnasse, and then at the École Nationale des Beaux-Arts, where he ran an atelier specifically for female students.

Xavier Prinet, Manon
Lithograph, 1898

A younger artist associated with this group was the Breton painter Jean Julien Lemordant (1882-1968), about whom I have posted before. Lemordant was close to Cottet, and influenced both by Gauguin and the School of Pont-Aven and by the Fauves. Lemordant was blinded at the battle of Artois in October 1915.

Julien Lemordant, Dans le vent
Etching, 1914

You could write a Catalogue Raisonné of Julien Lemordant’s etchings on the back of a postcard: he only made three, all marked by the extraordinary vigour with which he attacked the etching plate.

Julien Lemordant, Ramasseurs de goëmon
Etching, published 1919

Since I first posted about Lemordant I have acquired proofs of his two very Bande Noire etchings of Breton fisherfolk (including one of seaweed gatherers that makes an interesting comparison with an etching of the same subject by Dauchez; both “varech” and “goëmon” mean seaweed). In the interests of completeness, I am re-posting his etching Maisons en construction, which shows his art taking off in a Modernist direction.

Julien Lemordant, Maisons en construction
Etching, 1912

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Crimes and punishments

Félix Vallotton (1865-1925) was born in Lausanne, which is now home to the Fondation Félix Vallotton. He moved to Paris in 1882 to study under Jules Joseph Lefebvre and Gustave Boulanger at the Académie Julian. In 1891 Félix Vallotton made his first woodcut, an art to which he devoted much of his time for the next decade, inspired by the Japanese ukiyo-e prints that were such a formative influence on the Impressionists, post-Impressionists, and Symbolists. Also in the 1890s Vallotton was a key member of the post-Impressionist alliance known as Les Nabis; he was particularly close to Édouard Vuillard, Pierre Bonnard, and Maurice Denis. As a printmaker, Félix Vallotton is best-known for his woodcuts, but he also produced some powerful lithographs, in particular the 23 original colour lithographs that comprise the 1902 Crimes et Châtiments issue of the anarchist satirical journal L'Assiette au Beurre, protesting oppression by all forms of authority: the state, church, bosses, parents, sexual predators, and especially the police.

A note on the back cover tells us that "The current number presents many innovations. It is lithographed, it is only printed on the recto, and its format is larger than ordinary issues of L'Assiette au Beurre." It is worth noting that this was the only issue of which this can be said. Paul Balluriau did illustrate an issue with original lithographs, but they were printed on recto and verso. In practically all other issues, the illustrations (even those by major figures such as Kees van Dongen) were reproduced drawings rather than original prints. I think L'Assiette au Beurre was right to accord this extra respect to these marvellous lithographs by Félix Vallotton, which are angry, powerful, funny, and always drawn with the most expressive of lines, and the subtlest use of tiny patches of colour. I'll let them speak for themselves, with the original captions and my free translations (and of course will be grateful for any improvements to these).

S’agit pas de savoir si j’ai volé, mais si vos agents ont le droit d’entrer chez moi le képi sur la tête!
The question’s not if I’m a thief, but if your officers have the right to come into my house with their caps on!

Bougeons pas, c’est la femme du commissaire
Don’t move a muscle, it’s the superintendent’s wife

Là dedans tu pourras gueuler!
You can yell as loud as you like in there!

Il est mort, entendu! mais était-il ou non sur ma terre!
He’s dead, certainly! But was he or was he not on my land?

Salue d’abord, c’est l’auto de la Préfécture
Salute first, it’s the Prefect’s car

Tu la trouves un peu dure celle-là!
Did you find that one a bit hard?

Tu finiras par le savoir ton catéchisme!
By the time we’ve finished you will know your catechism!

Ta mère n’aurait pas pu te faire passer ça!
Your mother won't be able to let you off this!

Tu y reviendras, cochon, pisser sur mon mur!
Come back, would you, you pig, to piss on my wall!

Le jour de boire est arrivé!
The day of drinking has arrived!

Vous me donner votre argent, je vous prête mon experience, voila!
You give me your money, I give you the benefit of my experience!

Vos cinquante francs seront bien mieux-là qu’à la caisse de l’Épargne
Your fifty francs will be much safer here than in a savings bank

Et celui-là?
Il a crié Vive la liberté!

And this one?
He shouted “Long live Liberty”!

Une heure dix... Monsieur voux ne faites plus partie de la maison!
Ten minutes past one... Sir, you are no longer employed here!

En plus, le condamne à mort pour outrage et voies de fait
In addition, sentence him to death for insulting behaviour and assault

Vous me conjuguerez dix fois le verbe “Je regarde voler les mouches au lieu d’écouter mon professeur.”
You will conjugate for me ten times the verb “I watch flies instead of listening to my teacher”

Ah! mon gaillard! Vous montrez votre derrière aux dames
Oi, matey! You are exposing your bottom to the ladies

C’est pour votre papa... Passez donc dans mon cabinet
It’s for your father... Come into the back room

Au secours! On me vole une côtelette
Help! Someone’s stealing a chop!

Par ordre du Sultan, vous avez vingt-quatre heures pour quitter la France
By order of the Sultan, you have twenty-four hours to leave France

Ah! bougre de salaud, tu m’as appelé vache
Ah! You filthy bastard, you called me a swine!

La voulez-vous cette belle broche
Would you like this pretty brooch?

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

A burnt stick and an empty cement bag

Photograph of Walter Spitzer from the cover of Sauvé par le dessin

A burnt stick and an empty cement bag – with these pitiful materials, Walter Spitzer made his first real drawings, in the Buchenwald concentration camp. It was, as the title of his harrowing memoir Sauvé par le dessin – Buchenwald (Favre, 2004), suggests, his talent for drawing that saved him. Destined one day for one of the “transports” to a satellite death camp, the 16-year-old artist was protected by the internal resistance (who styled themselves the Comité international de résistance aux Nazis) in return for his promise “to engrave in my memory the daily horror, to draw and draw again, to snatch up images from time in order to recall one day in front of the whole world what was happening here.”

Concentration camp, 1965
Lithograph for La Mort dans l'Âme by Jean-Paul Sartre

Spitzer has been true to his word, in paintings, etchings, and in two important sculptures. The first is his bronze Muselman, which won an international competition in 1992 for a monument to the 10,000 Jews murdered in Buchenwald. This was obviously an intensely personal project for Spitzer, who also had a retrospective of 50 years of work at the Buchenwald museum in 1995 to celebrate the presentation of the Muselman statue and the 50th anniversary of the liberation of the camp. A muselman was a prisoner condemned to die because they were too weak to work. Spitzer’s second major sculpture commemorating the Shoah is his Monument du Vel’ d’Hiv’, erected in 1994 in memory of the 12,884 French Jews rounded up by the French police and deported to extermination camps from the Vel’ d’Hiv’ in 1942. In 2000 a documentary, The Art of Survival, was made about Walter Spitzer’s story, but unfortunately I have never seen it.

Hitler, 1965
Lithograph for Le Sursis by Jean-Paul Sartre

Nazis in the street, 1965
Lithograph for Le Mur by Jean-Paul Sartre

Degenerate art, 1965
Lithograph for La Mort dans l'Âme by Jean-Paul Sartre

Born in 1927 in Cieszyn, Poland, Spitzer did survive the camps, and since WWII has lived and worked in France. He studied at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, and forged a successful career as a painter and printmaker. There is a substantial book on his work, Walter Spitzer (Fragments, 2002), with a preface by Elie Wiesel and texts by Daniel Sibony, Youri, Walter J. Strachan, Emmanuel Hayman, and Joseph Kessel. I’ve also consulted Walter Spitzer, la symphonie philosophale de la peinture (Artspectives, 1982).

Prisoners of war, 1960
Lithograph for the Oeuvre romanesque of André Malraux

Soldiers and a woman, 1965
Lithograph for La Mort dans l'Âme by Jean-Paul Sartre

In 1951 Spitzer suffered a catastrophic studio fire which destroyed all his work since 1945. All he saved were two paintings, and the portfolio containing the drawings he had made in Buchenwald; this portfolio then went to the Museum of Israel, to keep it safe from any future conflagrations.

Woman with a water jar, 1960
Lithograph for the Oeuvre romanesque of André Malraux

1957 was the year Spitzer’s fortune changed. In this year he had his first solo show, at the Galerie Monique de Groote in both Paris and Brussels, and also won the Grand Prix des Jeunes Peintures.

Mother and baby, 1965
Lithograph for L'Âge de Raison by Jean-Paul Sartre

Walter Spitzer’s paintings are often on themes from the Torah. Like Marc Chagall, his inspiration wells up constantly from the Old Testament. There are, too, many paintings that evoke the lost world the shtetls.

Ploughing, 1968
Lithograph for L'Odyssée by Nikos Kazantzakis

As a printmaker, Spitzer – often working to illustrate a particular text – reworks his religious themes in human terms. As W. J. Strachan writes in his classic study The Artist and the Book in France, “Spitzer is a notable experimenter in both etching and lithography who yet never ceases to paint and exhibit easel-pictures.”

Pink nude, 1965
Lithograph for L'Âge de Raison by Jean-Paul Sartre

Taken as a whole, the art of Walter Spitzer is concerned with two great, interlinked themes: man’s inhumanity to man, and the humanity of man. Relatively little-known today, he will surely be recognized in the future as one of the great witnesses to the 20th-century experience.

Striptease, 1965
Lithograph for L'Âge de Raison by Jean-Paul Sartre

My prints by Walter Spitzer, lithographs and etchings, derive from limited editions of works by important 20th-century writers – Nikos Kazantzakis, Jean-Paul Sartre, Henry de Montherlant, André Malraux, and his friend Joseph Kessel. In all of these writers the themes of war, peace, grief and compassion are central. In other words, Spitzer was never an illustrator for hire – he accepted invitations to illustrate the work of distinguished writers whose concerns chimed with his own. In the case of Sartre, for instance, Spitzer not only illustrated the collected novels with 64 original lithographs, but also made a whole series of paintings based on the same texts, exhibited at the Galerie Drouant, Paris, in 1966.

Couple by the sea, 1965
Lithograph for Le Sursis by Jean-Paul Sartre

All his important book illustrations are colour lithographs, except for the black-and-white etchings with aquatint for Kessel’s Le Tour du Malheur (La Belle Édition, 1963-64) and the etchings with aquatint for Aucassin and Nicolette (Les Impénitents, 1961).

Joseph Kessel, 1963
Etching for the frontispiece of La Fontaine Medicis by Joseph Kessel

Aucassin and Nicolette was, I believe, Spitzer’s first book commission, for the Bibliophile society Les Impénitents. I haven’t seen a copy of this book (only 126 copies were published), but several are reproduced in Walter Spitzer. Unfortunately the plate W. J. Strachan reproduces as a full-page illustration on p.275 of The Artist and the Book in France, attributed to Aucassin and Nicolette, is in fact one of the etchings from Le Tour du Malheur.

Nude, 1964
Etching for L'Homme de Plâtre by Joseph Kessel

Artists, 1963
Etching for L'Affaire Bernan by Joseph Kessel

Strachan describes the etchings for Le Tour du Malheur (The Tower of Misfortune) as “characteristic of his grimmer mood”. In a preface for the catalogue of Spitzer’s exhibition at the Galerie Romanet in 1963, Joseph Kessel writes that, “I met Walter Spitzer about 2 years ago, when he was illustrating Le Tour du Malheur with etchings as harsh and brilliant as a black diamond.”

Cockerel, 1963
Etching for L'Affaire Bernan by Joseph Kessel

These etchings are perfectly suited to the tone of Joseph Kessel’s autobiographical four-volume novel, which takes us through the life and adventures of Kessel’s alter-ego Richard Dalleau in the First World War and the inter-war years. These etchings seem to me to be a really substantial artistic achievement. There are 41 of them – 32 single and 8 double pages, and they combine pure etching, aquatint, and drypoint with confidence and flair. They show, perhaps more clearly than Spitzer’s colour lithographs, what an incredible draughtsman he is. Spitzer learned his virtuoso etching technique in the atelier of Édouard Goerg. He is a particular master of aquatint.

Orgy, 1964
Etching for Les Lauriers Roses by Joseph Kessel

Horse and cart, 1963
Etching for L'Affaire Bernan by Joseph Kessel

Armistice, 1963
Etching for La Fontaine Medicis by Joseph Kessel

The four volumes of Le Tour du Malheur were published in a surprisingly large edition of 1200 copies, of which 200 were on Arches and 1000 on Lana, plus a further 20 collaborators’ copies. This is quite a substantial print-run for an artist’s book, though there is some doubt in my mind as to whether all these books were actually printed, as at the time of writing there is not a single copy of any of the four volumes being offered for sale. In addition to a set of the books on Lana, I have managed for the first three volumes to additionally acquire one of the 100 suites of the etchings in their first state (printed on Hollande Van Gelder Zonen), and one of the 200 suites of the etchings in their definitive state with remarques (printed on handmade Japon nacré). Sometimes there is a quite extraordinary difference between the first and final states. In the etching The battle, for instance, the first state is a wild explosion of aquatint; in the final state a whole battle scene has been etched on top of this with repeated bitings of the plate and expert use of a drypoint needle. The result is extraordinarly atmostpheric.

The battle (first state), 1963
Etching for La Fontaine Medicis by Joseph Kessel

The battle, 1963
Etching for La Fontaine Medicis by Joseph Kessel

There were also 100 suites of “planches refusées” on Hollande, which I have not managed to see. The etchings were printed quite separately from the text, by the etcher and taille-doucier J.J.J. Rigal.

Opium den, 1964
Etching for Les Lauriers Roses by Joseph Kessel

I first came across Walter Spitzer’s work when I bought one of 450 suites (printed on Arches by Fernand Mourlot) of the lithographs created by Spitzer, Paul Guiramand, André Cottavoz, and André Minaux for a deluxe edition of The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel by Nikos Kazantzakis, published by Éditions Richelieu in 1968. This monumental sequel to Homer’s Odyssey is one of the most remarkable literary achievements of the 20th century. It comprises 33,333 lines of verse, in 24 books. Alternately wonderful and infuriating, it doesn’t make much sense in either Jacqueline Moatti’s French translation or the English version by Kimon Friar. The four French artists evidently felt fairly baffled by this work, and of the 48 lithographs they produced (12 each), most bear only a tangential relationship to the text.

Orgiastic rites at Knossos, 1968
Lithograph for L'Odyssée by Nikos Kazantzakis

Bull-leaping at Knossos, 1968
Lithograph for L'Odyssée by Nikos Kazantzakis

But I was impressed enough to seek out further examples of the work of all four men. In the case of Spitzer, I have added to the Odyssey lithographs one of 695 suites of his lithographs for the Oeuvre Romanesque of Malraux (Éditions Lidis, 1960-1961), one of 500 suites of his lithographs for the Le Chaos et la Nuit and Les Bestiaires by de Montherlant (Éditions Lidis, 1963), and one of 1000 suites of his lithographs for the Oeuvre Romanesque of Jean-Paul Sartre (Éditions Lidis, 1965-1966). All are printed by Mourlot on pure rag Arches. It was Fernand Mourlot himself who recommended Walter Spitzer as the right artist to illustrate the complete fiction of Malraux, which in turn led to the Sartre, Montherlant, Kessel, and Kazantzakis commissions.

Bull's head, 1963
Lithograph for Les Bestiares by Henri de Montherlant

Raging bull, 1960
Lithograph for the Oeuvre romanesque of André Malraux

In 1963 Walter Spitzer exhibited at the Salon des peintres témoins de leur temps at the Musée Galliéra, supplying a lithograph for the accompanying book L’Évènement par Soixante Peintres Témoins de Leur Temps, alongside artists such as Roger Bezombes, Yves Brayer, Jean Carzou, Roger Montané, and Kostia Terechkovitch. Of almost no other artist can it be so literally true that he has been a witness to his time. He himself has said, “I think that is my role, I have to testify.”

Avenging angel, 1965
Lithograph for L'Âge de Raison by Jean-Paul Sartre

The terrible experiences of his youth in the Polish ghetto, in Auschwitz, on the death march to Gross-Rosen, and then in Buchenwald, marked Spitzer for life. He is unflinching in his portrayal of man at his worst; Walter Strachan rightly calls his lithographs for Malraux’s Les Conquerants “violent and tormented”. But in the testimony of his art, Walter Spitzer finds room also for grace notes of redemption, tenderness, and beauty.

Girl with a bouquet, 1965
Lithograph for Le Sursis by Jean-Paul Sartre