PRINT September 1988


WHEN THE FRENCH PAINTER Jean Fautrier died, in 1964, his exhibition record stretched back to the late ’20s, and included three substantial shows—in 1945, in 1957, and a large retrospective in the year of his death. He had won the grand prize at the biennales of Venice and Tokyo in 1960 and 1961 respectively, and writers such as Jean Paulhan, Francis Ponge, André Malraux, and Giuseppe Ungaretti had all contributed to the body of criticism that addressed him. And yet, despite this attention, and a 1980 retrospective of his work that I curated at the Cologne Kunsthalle, Fautrier’s achievement today remains shadowed and in dispute.

The reservations about Fautrier’s art are deep rooted and complex, arising from qualities in both the work itself and its maker’s own character. In an era that valued in its artists the passionate flamboyance of a Picasso, or the luminous sensuality of a Matisse, or the demanding rigor of a Mondrian, Fautrier’s idiosyncracies were far less alluring. The descriptions we have of him fashion a difficult and diffident man, one who so zealously guarded his privacy that sometimes even his closest neighbors did not know they were living near an artist. The few existing photographs of the painter at work show a scrupulously maintained studio occupied by a man in a business suit, as though to don an artist’s working clothes, for him, would be to attract unwanted attention or curiosity. Determined to develop his painting alone, Fautrier deliberately avoided outside influences, and consistently perceived the exhibition system and the social and political trappings of the art market as threats to his mission. Not surprisingly, then, there was always a marked disjunction between Fautrier’s painting and prevailing artistic trends. And yet it is precisely the distance he kept from what was happening around him that provides the key to appreciating his contribution.

In the formative years of his career, 1925–28, Fautrier’s unconventional choices of subjects and methods of painting defy a simple reading. It’s true that the work implies the same kind of return to representation as that reflected in the success of André Dunoyer de Segonzac and André Derain after World War I. Yet in tone and technique, Fautrier’s spare still lifes and solitary nudes arc far removed from those sonorous classical orchestrations. Nor could we place Fautrier within the rappel à l’ordre emanating from the circle around Fernand Léger, or within the Esprit Nouveau group; his distorted renderings of recognizable forms do not articulate mechanistic or geometric hierarchies. In fact, it seems that Fautrier was quite consciously experimenting with the question of what was, and what was not, acceptable subject matter in a picture of that time. Drawing on a radically outré tradition, Fautrier did several paintings depicting animal carcasses, for example. It’s true that Chaim Soutine was painting the same subject in the ’20s. But Fautrier’s slaughtered animals do not read to us as expressionistic vehicles. Instead, they stand as simple, almost transparent gestures of paint. Despite the fact that the viewer can sense the brutality of these creatures’ shuddering last moments, the works are closely allied with the tranquil mood of the still life tradition. His carefully composed images always give a sense of deliberation, of care, of conscious control and restraint. That is not to say that these works—just as the seemingly measured yet eerily illuminated nudes, still lifes, and landscapes that Fautrier also painted at this time—are not washed through with suggestions of rage, despair, and fear. But those passionate emotions seem to fester beneath the surface of his paintings; through subtle deformations of the subject’s body, and through such techniques as strong chiaroscuro, these emotions are absorbed, sublimated, and dissolved into the work, like tasteless poison in a glass of dry wine.

By the end of 1927, however, a feeling of calm, of release, starts to override the more poisonous strain beneath. Three times between 1927 and 1929 Fautrier painted crucifixions, in what seems to be an attempt at resolving the themes of suffering and death played out in the earlier paintings of flayed animals. In an earlier 1927 Le Christ en Croix, the Christ figure, like the suspended forms of his earlier Le Mouton pendu (The hanging sheep, 1926), dominates the vertical canvas: his body is a plunging, bottom heavy Y pinned by extending arms to the upper two edges. But in a later 1927 Le Christ en Croix, the figure is far more iconographically and angularly rendered. Here, too, the picture’s strength lies in its simplicity of composition. But Christ’s stiff, stick like figure, firmly and stably balanced with his arms outspread, communicates a quiet calm in the face of adversity. Fautrier has untied the knots and gravity pulls of torment; this Christ seems quietly, compassionately poised for his ascent.

In Fautrier’s paintings, color has a powerful, elemental presence unconfined by line or convention. Through color he converted destructive impulses into something transcendent and magical—even visionary —so that his reds, for example, will simultaneously evoke blood and a transparent, unearthly light. Often, edges made by gradations of color within the paintings suggest a picture within a picture; the painting’s subject lies like a jewel set in a frame. And by the time of his landscapes of Port-Cros and his illustrations from Dante, in 1928, Fautrier begins experimenting with color in higher relief. The pasty surface begins to flow and churn. Clearly he understood the potential of the gestural, expressive application of paint as a medium in itself. In paintings of bundles of leaves, or clusters of trees, such as Les Arbres (Trees, 1928), the forms described correspond more and more to tense, active modelings of thick color surface. It seems appropriate that Fautrier was also creating sculptures during these years; the crusty hardness of his work here parallels his explorations and manipulations of materiality in his canvases. The Cubists had explored the objecthood of a painting through collage, as well as through a rejection of the notion of the canvas as a familiar, illusionistic window onto reality. Fautrier was traveling down the same path, but through the use of paint alone. Though he remained loyal to a more-or-less recognizable image, his work paved the way for the informel and Abstract Expressionist painters of two decades later.

His exploration continued in the ’40s, after Fautrier came back to Paris following several years in the Alps, where he worked primarily as a ski instructor. (During the ’30s, the artist’s production slowed to such an extent that one can say he had, to all intents and purposes, stopped painting. Again, due to his extreme reticence and reserve, we have no records, no way of knowing, the reasons for this.) Fautrier’s first paintings on his return to Paris were primarily landscapes and still lifes; a bit later, he turned again to nudes as well. At this point, these works recall his earlier sculptural works such as Grande Torse (Large torso, 1928) and Petit nu couché (Small reclining nude, 1929). Soon, however, more abstract torso forms begin to emerge. These distorted figures, often limbless, are sometimes only minimally distinguished from the surrounding ground, as if under threat of dissolution. It is easy to speculate that these truncated articulations of suffering reflect the artist’s reaction to the Nazi occupation of Paris. For his next body of work, in fact, is a series entitled “Otages” (Hostages, 1943–45), created during the period of the Nazi deportations. First shown at the Galerie René Drouin, Paris, in 1945, these paintings had a powerful impact. Most of them are recognizable as heads, though they generally provide little of the detail of the face; instead, the surface becomes the image, through a technique of “haute pâte” (high paste), a thick, heavily gestured buildup of applied pigment that brings to fruition Fautrier’s experiments of the late ’20s, not only in painting but also in sculpture. Isolated against their grounds, these rough heads that become brutal, brutalized, clotted masses of paint operate as powerful emblems for an anguish that is both personal and collective, specific and general. Once again, in his “Partisans” series of 1956–57, his protest against the suppression of the anti-Soviet uprising in Hungary, Fautrier will return to these paint-clumped forms to express his outrage.

For the most part, from the “Otages” onward, Fautrier’s paintings, almost stubbornly, come to revolve around single forms emerging from the canvas’ thickly painted center. These central forms are increasingly built up, in thick, curled and incised impastoes; they rise almost like reliefs from the picture plane. Yet this reductive formal vocabulary retains the quality of a still life, and the tone is generally elegant and light. Perhaps released from the representational image by the art movements of the late ’40s and ’50s he had helped to pioneer, Fautrier, in his later work, tends to let go of the organic subject more and more. The paintings are not so much representations of objects as equivalents for them, brilliant plays of lines, planes, colors, and surfaces, all both implicit in and consumed by the materiality of the pigment. Yet beneath, one can also make out the free, spirited versions of structures in the early work—the gestural trees and landscapes of around 1928 and ’29. And even when such forms are absent, one gets the sense of some object standing out from the ground, of the transformation or transmutation of it, and the world, effected by paint. By virtue of his technique, Fautrier was at first a forerunner of, and by this point a participant in, the radical manipulations of materiality that characterized the work of Antonio Tàpies and the early Alberto Burri. Yet one always finds in Fautrier, shimmering through the deep thickness, the controlled though sensuous calculations of the French tradition going all the way back to Chardin; even his pastellike colors are reminiscent of 18th-century French landscapes.

In striking an independent course, Fautrier could not shake his innate conservatism; an art world hungry for more radical ruptures in the areas he pioneered found greater heroes in the painters of the informel. And ironically, by the time of the advent of Pop and other figurative modes in the late ’50s and early ’60s, when Fautrier was finally beginning to shake free of the representational image, his garnering of the grand prize at the Venice Biennale looked like, and was roundly attacked as, a retardataire honoring of an old-guard painterly abstractionist. It is time to look at Fautrier afresh and with accuracy. Surely he did the “right” things, but at the “wrong” times. But if we are to look at the developments of the 20th century with accuracy and clarity, we find Jean Fautrier an isolated yet significant artist who, on the outskirts of every camp or school, demonstrated the possibilities of transporting the objective and object-filled world into the spirit and substance of paint.

Siegfried Gohr is the director of the Museum Ludwig, Cologne.

Translated from the German by Cornelia Lauf.