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Braque, Miro, Calder, Nelson: a constellation of artists at Varengeville-sur-mer

at Musée des Beaux-Arts de Rouen (Esplanade Marcel Duchamp 76000 Rouen)

and at Varengeville-sur-Mer (Normandy) curated by Sylvain Amic, Joanne
Snrech and Martine Sautory
April 4 – September 2, 2019

Published at Hyperallergic as A Creative Colony of Modernists in Coastal France


Anonymous 1938 photo of the Nelson home adorned with the Miró mural “Birth of the Dauphin” (1937),
gelatin silver print, private collection.

Currently, with tribal identity and intolerant nationalism on rabid rise, it is

relieving to encounter the convivial mentality of internationalism deemed
customary in Modern Art circles. In Normandy, the two-part exhibition Braque,
Miro, Calder, Nelson: a constellation of artists at Varengeville-sur-mer offers just such an
The show starts at the impressive Musée des Beaux-Arts de Rouen (where the art
works mentioned below are to be seen) and then continues at the petite coastal
village of Varengeville-sur-Mer where a small artistic community formed in the
1930s of two Americans; sculptor Alexander Calder and Chicago-born architect
Paul Nelson; a Catalan, Joan Miró; and the esteemed French painter George
Braque, co-father of Cubism. The show tells the story, not only of their
international friendship in face of growing fascism, but of their artistic exchanges
with one another, making many swaps of ideas and art works.

Calder, “Portrait of Joan Miro” (1930) wire and 2 shadows, photo by the author
Braque “Héraclès” (1931) Fondation Marguerite and Aimé Maeght © Paris, ADAGP 2019

The story of the exhibition begins in 1928 when Nelson, who had moved to
France in 1920, introduced Braque and his wife Marcelle to Varengeville-sur-
Mer. Perched up high on the Alabaster Coast, this charming village has attracted
many painters, writers and musicians there since the end of the 19th century.
Rightfully impressed, the Braques decided to build a painting studio next to a
house they purchased, that they will keep until Georges Braque’s death in 1963.
Indeed Braque is buried in the cemetery there atop the cliff at the church of St.
Valery. His tomb topped by a mosaic of a flying white dove of his own design.
Inside the church is a lovely cubist stained-glass window by Braque depicting the
Tree of Jesse. Also, at the chapel of St. Dominique on the road from Varengeville-
sur-Mer to Dieppe, Braque has more stained glass windows to admire.
Braque (with Jean Barillet & Raoul Ubac) “L’Arbre de Jessé” (circa 1956-1961) stained-glass window at l’eglise
Saint-Valery de Varengeville-sur-Mer

Braque (with Paul Bony) “Dominique marchant vers la sainteté” (1954) three stained-glass windows at la
chapelle Saint-Dominique de Varengeville-sur-Mer.
Suzy Frelinghuysen photograph of Francine Le Cœur (Mrs. Nelson) and Paul Nelson in front of the Miró mural
“Birth of the Dauphin” (1937) at the Nelson home, gelatin silver print, Paris, Centre Pompidou, Musée national
d’Art moderne / Centre de création industrielle, Bibliothèque Kandinsky, gift from the Nelson family

Miró, “Tête de femme, Varengeville II” (Head of a Woman, Varengeville II, 1939), Private collection of Helly
Namhad) © Paris, ADAGP 2019

In 1937, Calder and Miró both spent their summer in Varengeville-sur-Mer,

contributing to Nelson’s hanging house project. Inspired by the sea, Miró even
painted a huge mural “Birth of the Dauphin” (1937) in Nelson’s living room the
same year he painted the (now destroyed) large mural “The Reaper” (1937), also
known as “El campesino catalán en rebeldía” (Catalan Peasant in Revolt) for the
Pavilion of the Spanish Republic for the Paris Exposition Universelle. Then in
August 1939, a month before the outbreak of World War II, Miró and his family
escaped the dread of an occupied Paris and moved back to Varengeville-sur-Mer
to the Clos of the Sonnets for a year during the darkest days of the beginning of
the war where he paints, on a rough burlap-like ground, the powerfully fearsome
and fierce “Tête de femme, Varengeville II” (Head of a Woman, Varengeville II,

Also, as inspired by the night sky and as a form of psychic release from the
pressures of the war, he began creating his celebrated “Constellations” series
(1939-1941). Realized in the darkest hours of the beginning of the war, these
works release an impressive formal and conceptual power, suggesting a new
mythology of connectivity: something that Calder intuitively picked-up upon and
later amplified with his enchanting network sculpture “Constellation
biomorphisme” (1943).

Calder, “Constellation biomorphisme” (1943) © Calder Foundation New York / ADAGP, Paris Localisation :
Paris, Centre Pompidou - Musée national d'art moderne - Centre de création industrielle, Photo © Centre
Pompidou, MNAM-CCI, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Philippe Migeat
Partial view of the “Constellations” area in the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Rouen, photo courtesy Réunion des
Musées Métropolitains

Shorter withdrawals from political confrontation into an ascetic communal life

were also had at Varengeville-sur-Mer by German-French painter Hans
Hartung, Georges and Marguerite Duthuit (Henri Matisse’s son-in-law and
daughter), art theorist Herbert Read, gallery owner Pierre Loeb, English painter
John Piper, art critic Myfanwy Piper (née Evans), and the artists Ben Nicholson
and Barbara Hepworth. At one point the Calders lived there at the Clos du
Timbre, not far from the Nelsons’ home, where Calder set up his workshop in a
garage to realize his gay gossamer objects. Consistently, inclusive beach parties
were organized, as the hysterically playful “La plage” (The Beach, 1932) painting
by Braque suggests. But with the war, Braque began painting dark severe vanités,
black fish, skulls and shady ladies, such as “La Pianiste” (The Pianist, 1937) and
“Vanitas” (1939) even as Nelson sought to incorporate a wide spectrum of
Modern Art into his architectural projects.
Braque, “La plage” (The Beach, 1932) oil on canvas, 30.5 x 41 cm. Collection A.-M. Laurens, Lausanne, photo
by the author

Braque, “La Pianiste” (The Pianist,1937) private collection of Helly Namhad © Paris, ADAGP 2019

Braque, “Vanitas” (1939) oil on canvas, 38 x 55 cm, Centre Pompidou Paris / musée national d’art moderne /
centre de création industrielle inv. AMA 4302P Donation de Mme Georges Braque en 1965 © ADAGP 2018 /
Given the onslaught of anti-international shibboleths that surround us and
circulates within the world today, this display of a small constellation of artists
living and working together, albeit independently, at Varengeville-sur-mer
reinforces the model of commitment to a distinctly social-democratic set of
internationalist values informed by the tradition of Modern Art’s
internationalism. In so doing, it contributes to the re-invigoration of the
normative dimensions of international artistic appreciation and cooperation, as
well as internationalism more generally.

Joseph Nechvatal