Jean Fautrier: 1898-1964

by Donald Goddard


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. . . it is more difficult for people now to believe in the Devil than to love him.

--Charles Baudelaire, 1861


Fautrier's images emerge from a miasma of material, from paint and gesso. Illusion was important to the generation earlier, to cubists and fauvists as they evolved from impressionism and postimpressionism. However radical in other respects, their work is still basically illusionistic. Space is structured, to be seen into and through. Light is an assumed phenomenon of the natural world, and it makes possible the concretion of color and form. Even, or perhaps especially in Mondrian's two-dimensional compositions, the site is illusionistic space.

Fautrier has no illusions. In the early paintings of the 1920s, images--flowers, nude figures, hanging carcasses, even landscapes--come out of a darkness or light or both that is indeterminate except for its existence as paint. There are no edges to that which surrounds the center, nor is there a context except paint and the confinement of the frame. It is a primordial state, like the beginning of the cosmos, when light and darkness are substances and space has no discernable limit. Light does not shine upon The Hung Sheep, The Glaciers, The Rabbit Skins, or Chrysanthemums (also known as Flowers of Disaster, perhaps in reference to Baudelaire's Flowers of Evil), it is as much part of them as the darkness from which it emanates. Drawing is rudimentary, a force that exists only to create the thing it depicts and only the thing it depicts. Some of this comes from Chaim Soutine, the eastern European expressionist in Paris with whom Fautrier was associated, but Soutine's hanging carcasses smell of Europe's slaughterhouse, encapsulating life and death; Fautrier's stench is both specific and universal, however aesthetic its sources.
The Rabbit Skins
© Jean Fautrier
Les peaux de lapin
(The Rabbit Skins), 1927.
Oil on canvas,
51 1/8" x 38 1/4".
Marie-José Lefort, Geneva, Switzerland.

Nothing in the exhibition is dated between 1929 and 1940. Fautrier seems to have done little art during that time, bereft of money and disgusted with the art scene. Some lithographs illustrating Dante's Inferno were turned down for publication and then shown in Paris in 1933, and from 1934 to 1939 Fautrier was a ski instructor and ran a jazz nightclub in the French Alps. Returning to Paris in 1940, he produced paintings in which the subjects--landscapes, still lifes, nudes--are increasingly subsumed in the physicality of the work. One has the sense in The Cider Apples of the delicate green and red fruit being overwhelmed by a black storm of brushstrokes that seems to come from nowhere, or perhaps from the delineation of the apples themselves and the white bed in which they lay. There is no escaping the energy that defines things.

Neither was there escaping the death and destruction of the war in Europe. It is difficult to definitively place Fautrier during this time, but he did illustrate works by Georges Bataille, Robert Ganzo, and Paul Eluard from 1942 to 1944; he had two one-person shows in Paris, including a retrospective at the Galerie Drouin in 1943; and he appears to have maintained an apartment in Paris at least until October of 1944 (Paris was liberated in August of that year), though he was skiing in Chamonix in winter 1944 and starting in April lived and worked, under an assumed name, at the medical clinic of Dr. Henry le Savoureux in the Vallée-aux-Loups near Paris. This was more than a year after he had been detained for a while (it is not clear why) by the Gestapo and after the beginning of his series of small paintings called Otages ("Hostages"), which he did in response to the rounding up and killing of French citizens by the Nazis. Later he wrote that from his studio in the Tour Valléda near Savoureux's clinic he heard the cries of people being tortured and slaughtered in the nearby woods.


The Cider Apples
© Jean Fautrier
Les pommes à cidre (The Cider Apples), 1940-41.
Oil on paper mounted on canvas,
31 7/8" x 46 5/8".
Private Collection, Paris.

But the series had already begun with paintings like Le fusillé ("The gunned-down"), The Jewess, and Tète d'otage, no. 1, all of 1943. In the end there were twenty heads in all, and other figures, extending into 1945. No more than Fautrier's early carcasses do these bodies and heads exist in an "other" place. They exist, but the place has only to do with them, just as one's death, and life (one's existence), ultimately has only to do with oneself, which is precisely what makes it meaningful to other selves. The figures are mounds of plaster paste in the roughly oval shapes of heads and bodies, applied and manipulated with a palette knife on indistinct fields of thin scumbled paint, often green like plant matter. Some broad drawing and scratching on the surface suggest hands, eyes, or mouths. The images are built up in layers of paint on the thick plaster on paper on canvas, so that there is the feeling that nothing can be separated without pain, without tearing asunder the organism itself, however precarious its construction. This separation, of course, is exactly what was happening in the woods.

Fautrier was inside the cluster of those layers. Anything else, any historical, spatial, or physical perspective, would be a lie. When peace came, he railed (not in any terribly effective manner) against the elitism and privileges of art, the supposed magic of an artist's touch that presumably placed high art on a higher plane. He was interested in commonness, in what could be held by a person rather than a museum. (It was the impossibility of his position, as well as its being perpetually misunderstood, that proved his point, and his angst.) So in the late 1940s, he and his wife, Jeanine Aeply, turned out reproductions of works by famous recent artists, called Reproductions Aeply, and into the 1950s he worked on a series of Originaux multiples ("Original multiples"), lithographs produced in large editions that were then to be painted individually, by Fautrier and others, thereby diminishing their specialness as unique works of art. I don't think many were done, but the ones that were fit in with his other work.
Head of Hostage
© Jean Fautrier
Tète d'otage, no. 20
(Head of a Hostage, No. 20), 1944.
Various media and plaster on paper mounted on canvas,
13" x 9 3/8".
Mr. and Mrs. Jörg Rumpf, Cologne.

In the paintings of his later years, Fautrier continued to use the methods he had adopted in the Otages series. There are simple objects at first, like The Coffee Grinder of 1947 and The Crystal Flask of 1948. Then there are "otages" again with the heads of partisans from the Hungarian revolution in 1956. And finally, in 1957 and 1958, there are abstractions that really are abstractions, oval shapes on fields given the names of American popular songs, like All Alone and Body and Soul, and rectangles on fields with stripes or grids of lines or brushstrokes. These latter pieces are called "pictures with four sides" and seem to represent, in all there roughness and immediacy, the final statement of what a painting is, an organization of lines and shapes and brushstrokes within a rectangle. It is the successor to what a hostage is, or what a life is.

Donald Goddard © 2003


Colored Surface
© Jean Fautrier
Surface colorée, Tableau à 4 côtés

(Colored Surface, Picture with Four Sides), 1958.
Various media and plaster on paper mounted on canvas, 19 3/8" x 24".
Private Collection, Courtesy Galerie Daniel Malingue, Paris.

The exhibition was at the Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Gallery, Columbia University, 1190 Amsterdam Avenue, New York, NY 10027. It began at The Patrick and Beatrice Haggerty Museum of Art, Marquette University, Milwaukee, WI, and travelled to and concluded at the Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.
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