Colette Brunschwig, Untitled, 2016, india ink on paper, 66 1/4 × 44 3/4".

Colette Brunschwig, Untitled, 2016, india ink on paper, 66 1/4 × 44 3/4".

Colette Brunschwig

Galerie Jocelyn Wolff

Colette Brunschwig, Untitled, 2016, india ink on paper, 66 1/4 × 44 3/4".

Despite having been created over five decades, from 1970 to the present, these eighteen works on paper by Colette Brunschwig in the exhibition “Papiers” had a similar dominant chromatic quality, with surprising correspondences, as if they were all part of a single series. It is difficult to say if, over time, Brunschwig’s graphic works have proceeded toward darkness or light, if they are variations on black or experiments with the way in which a ray of light pierces, or at least illuminates, the accumulated densities of color. This ambiguity is partly a result of the technique employed: diluted ink on Chinese paper with frayed edges (except when the image is surrounded by a white border within the composition), so that the ink, absorbed by the support, seems to vibrate. The works are shown unframed and (in most cases) on an invisible mount that suspends the work slightly away from the wall.

Brunschwig refers back to classical Chinese painting, which stands in stark contrast to the window-canvas of Renaissance perspectival theory, with its convention of keeping the surface affixed to the armature of an easel. For Brunschwig, who lived through the Holocaust, Chinese tradition was also a way to escape European history (maybe history tout court) in the wake of the tragic events of World War II. This runs counter to developments in France in the 1970s, when the Tel Quel group was drawn to Maoist China and members of the Supports/Surfaces movement gauged the efficacy of painting according to Marxist-Leninist positions. Brunschwig began painting in Paris in 1945. While she associated with artists such as Pierre Soulages, she gravitated above all to the world of writers and poets (among them Emmanuel Levinas, René Char, Robert Antelme, and Jean Bollack—a specialist in Greek philology and later on the poetry of Paul Celan). She easily embraced the entire history of modernist abstraction, establishing a dialogue with both the historical avant-garde movements and their neo-Dada reinvention between the ’50s and ’70s.

In retrospect, Brunschwig’s abstractions seem to relate less to the modernism of Malevich or Mondrian than to the dark watercolors and drawings of Victor Hugo. She turns neither to geometry, the last resort of those who have abandoned the forms of the world, nor to art informel, to the expressive, spontaneous, or “lyrical” gesture. She rigorously avoids any recourse to figuration—upon which the catastrophe of the war seemed to stake a claim. She does not paint the last painting or an image beyond the visible, but rather observes, and produces, the conditions whereby an image can still come to light. The artist’s activity is attested to by lines, scratches, and grids created by stenciling, a technique dissociated here from fashion, design, and the decorative arts, in which it was traditionally used in France.

Brunschwig’s grids are irregular, incomplete, and undulating. At times they suggest snakeskin, life forms observed under a microscope, or sea depths through which light can barely filter. Rather than measuring a space, they evoke what, in 1946, Henri Michaux—with whom Brunschwig shares her predilection for abstraction, a confusion between painting and writing, and a passion for Chinese aesthetics—called fantomisme. Michaux used this neologism to describe the abandonment of any residual mimeticism in painting, the elimination of any physiognomic features in a portrait. There would no longer be hair, a nose, eyes, or other facial features, but rather an “être fluidique,” a fluidic being that escapes any firm implantation in an image. This is the way that Brunschwig explores the texture of the paper, or what she calls its third dimension. Moreover, wasn’t it Michaux who encouraged people to see their reflection not in the mirror but, precisely, in a sheet of paper?

Riccardo Venturi

Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.