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Jean Fautrier : Matière et Lumière

Musée d'art moderne de la Ville de Paris


11, avenue du Président-Wilson (XVIe)
January 26, 2018 - May 20, 2018

Published at Hyperallergic as The Dark, Unruly Brilliance of a Master of Art Informel


https://hyperallergic.com/442637/jean-fautrier-matiere-et-lumiere-museum-of-modern-art-of-the-city-of-paris/

Exhibition entrance, photo by Pierre Antoine

Jean Fautrier was a subtle, solitary, strange, severe and serene French painter. To the extent that he is known, it is
as a harbinger of the loosey-goosey Art Informel (Informal Art) movement and chief practitioner of Tachisme, the
European equivalent to Abstract Expressionism. Fautrier experienced a good deal of abeyance in his saw-tooth
shaped career with both moments of pronounced recognition and operative nihility. Co-organized with the
Kunstmuseum Winterthur, the Musée d'art moderne de la Ville de Paris is shining the light on this obscure artist
with an enormous show of 200 works, including 160 paintings. There are also wonderful drawings here, like the
feathery one from 1947 created to illustrate Georges Bataille’s L’Alleluiah, Catéchisme de Dianus (Hallelujah,
Catechism of Dianus) - a blistering text translated by Stuart Kendall into English in Bataille’s Guilty – along with
numerous prints and a substantial group of sculptures.

“Dessin de femme pour l'illustration de L’Alleluiah de Georges Bataille” (Drawing to illustrate Georges Bataille’s L’Alleluiah, 1947) ink on
paper, 24,6 x 20 cm Département des Hauts-de-Seine, Musée du domaine départemental de Sceaux, photo Philippe Fuzeau © Adagp, Paris,
2017
“La Juive” (The Jewess,1943), oil on marouflé paper on canvas, 73 x 115,5 cm, gift of the artist in 1964 Musée d’Art moderne de la Ville de
Paris, photo by Eric Emo/Parisienne de Photographie © Adagp, Paris, 2017

“Tête d’otage n°20” (Head of Hostage #20, 1944) 33 x 24 cm, private collection Cologne © Adagp, Paris, 2017

“Otage aux mains ou Nu aux mains” (Hostage Hands or Nude Hands, 1942), 46x55cm, photo by the author

Though Fautrier’s crusty, lumpy, smeared canvases dominate the exhibition, to me these materialistic muddles wane
next to his earlier works, and all of Abstract Expressionism’s august offerings. Textural effects seem their main
subject matter. That they illuminate the limits of abstraction as a communicative style is much apparent with “La
Juive” (The Jewess, 1943), a gloppy dried croûte (crust) painting that says little about either women or Jews. To me
it simply evokes a slipped-on cow pie.

At the beginning of World War II Fautrier’s studio became a meeting-place for his friends who were active in the
Résistance and after a temporary arrest by the German Gestapo, he went into hiding in a sanitarium where he began
painting the otage (hostage) series he first showed in 1945. These clumpy conjectural canvases were his response to
the torture and slaying of French citizens by the Nazis, and they made him a famous painter (then). They also use
subtle color, central placement, and rough hand gestures that moved around thick, earthy impasto, sometimes
streaked with a red line down the middle that might suggest a ragged profile, as in “Tête d’otage n°20” (Hostage
Head #20, 1944). The problem is: the impasto materiality accumulated on the picture plane works against the
supposed symbolism of disintegration. Even less convincing is “Otage aux mains ou Nu aux mains” (Hostage Hands
or Nude Hands, 1942) that has peaceful pale blue strokes on the cow pie. I feel nothing of the torturous pain and
despair that political prisoners must feel and bear, even what as Fautrier the painter himself must have felt when was
he was gassed fighting in the first World War. Nothing in these paintings seem to me to be suffering or have suffered;
only rearranged. Engaging in other less ‘political’ topics of daily life, in 1958 he painted what could almost be a swirly
Cy Twombly canvas called “Green Trees” (1958).

“Green Trees” (1958) 114x146cm, photo by the author

But mostly because of the Otage series of twisted faces lost to rugged matter, Fautrier was seen as an artist engagée
and bathed for a bit in the limelight. Famous collectors and gallery owners like Jeanne Castel, Paul Guillaume and
Léopold Zborowski took interest in his work and he even received the Painting Grand Prix of the 30th Venice
Biennale in 1960. But since his death in 1964, Fautrier has fallen into virtual obscurity. That was that.

Nevertheless, within today’s social concerns and aesthetic preferences, I find his earlier, quirkier, semi-abstract
figurative work from the 1920s darkly brilliant and germane. With them I discovered Fautrier as an inspiring
example of an artist who ignores many of the customary and superfluous ‘rules’ of painting - and who through that
rejection finds his own pictorial sensibility, albeit a demanding one.
“Portrait de ma concierge” (Portrait of my Concierge, 1922) 81x60cm, photo by the author

“La Promenade du dimanche au Tyrol (Tyroliennes en habit du dimanche)” (The Sunday Walk in Tyrol (Tyroliennes in Sunday Dress),1921-
1922)

Early on in the early-1920s, Fautrier painted freaky, somewhat German Expressionist-tinged figurative paintings like
the highly-accomplished and highly-weird “Portrait de ma concierge” (1922) and “La Promenade du dimanche au
Tyrol (Tyroliennes en habit du dimanche)” (The Sunday Walk in Tyrol (Tyroliennes in Sunday dress),1921-1922).
Then, influenced by the darkness of Rembrandt and the fogginess of Joseph Turner, he began an eccentric series
of black paintings with turbulently scratched lines that dissolve as much as they render. These were some of my
favorite things in the show, as they vaguely suggested to me rage variegated with refinement, as in “L’Homme ouvert
(L’Autopsie)” (The Open Man (The Autopsy), circa 1928). Another small strange wonder is “Tete de femme”
(Head of a Woman, circa 1928), a diminutive quaint canvas depicting a brown women’s head that resembles the
quirky lady in Carol Rama’s “Appassionata” (1943) watercolor, minus the bevy of shlongs.
“Tete de femme” (Head of a Woman, circa 1928), oil on canvas, 32.5 x 27 cm, courtesy Galerie Haas AG, Zürich, photo Lea Gryze, Berlin.
Fautrier © Adagp, Paris, 2017

“L’Homme ouvert (L’Autopsie)” (The Open Man (The Autopsy), circa 1928) 116x73cm, oil on canvas, photo Pierre Antoine
“Petit nu II” (Small Nude II, 1926) 35 x 27 cm, oil on canvas, photo by the author

“Petit nu” (Small Nude, 1926) 35 x 27 cm, oil on canvas, private collection Cologne, photo by the author
“Nu de face I” (Frontal Nude I, 1928), oil on canvas, 100 x 65 cm, private collection © Adagp, Paris, 2017

Three black standing female nudes are powerful and peaceful and infinitely soft. Their simplified dark female bodies
make no apologies for their fierce fertility and they struck me with the force of a sexual Paleolithic Venus goddess.
So did the lighter-toned bushy woman in the almost deliquescing painting “Nu de face I” (Frontal Nude I, 1928)
who bristles with unapologetic sensual enigma.

Joseph Nechvatal