In May 1964, the International Grand Prize of the Venice Biennale was awarded to Robert Rauschenberg: a historical event acknowledging the ascent of Pop Art and the beginning of American dominance of the international art market, which is still very much in place today. This hegemony, not just in the art world but in the socio-politico and economic realms as well, seemed like just another symptom of an old and exhausted Europe being justifiably superseded by a young and dynamic America.
What is less well known, at least on this side of the Atlantic, is that Rauschenberg’s selection was confirmed at the last minute after intense lobbying from American members of the jury, including an intransigent Clement Greenberg, against the official French candidate, Roger Bissière (1886-1964), who was awarded a special mention — an honor that the jury never repeated afterwards. In the ensuing controversy about the importance of Pop Art, Bissière’s work was promptly forgotten and relegated to the dungeons of history.
In the context of 1964, Bissière’s selection by André Malraux, the then all-powerful French Minister of Cultural Affairs, proved to be a major miscalculation. Bissière had already been included in the 1958 Biennale and had very strong misgivings about his upcoming participation to the 1964 Biennale, which he had voiced on multiple instances in the French national press in the months leading to the opening.
The Venice Biennale episode amounted to nothing less than a cultural arm wrestling match that Malraux lost to Greenberg. This loss would throw the French art world into such a tailspin of self-criticism and self-doubt that it would take the emergence of a new generation of curators and historians to finally regain enough firm historical footing to reopen the case of many artists who had worked in Paris between 1945 and 1964.
Bissière would die in December of that same year, and with his passing an entire way of looking at painting would fade away as well. In a peculiar twist of fate, he painted his strongest work right after the Biennale and just before he died. The four “Silence” paintings that he finished then are still unequaled today in their deep and humble emotional intensity: “Silence of dawn”, “Silence of noon”, “Silence of dusk”, “Silence of the night.” Four quiet masterpieces with a powerful spiritual statement, before historical silence settled in turn onto his work.
What prompted these recollections and a reexamination of his legacy was a substantial retrospective at the Bordeaux Musée des Beaux-Arts, France, in 2015, and the fact that, perhaps unsurprisingly, Bissière’s work has still not been shown in the US since his sole exhibition at the World House Galleries in New York in 1961. He therefore remains unknown to many younger American abstract painters now interested in finding artists who worked outside of the official American Modernist narrative that lingered for years in Greenberg’s wake.
In so many respects, Bissière was the polar opposite of Robert Rauschenberg. In 1964, Bissière, who was born in 1886, was 78, exactly twice Rauschenberg’s age. They were not only two continents but two generations apart. Where Rauschenberg developed as an iconoclast quickly and precociously, Bissière matured very slowly, going through multiple phases of development and experimentation.
In the Paris of the 1920s he had a rising career as a supporter of Georges Braque and the French painting tradition coming out of Fauvism and Cubism, which he ardently endorsed as an art critic from 1912 to 1924. Through the ‘30s, he supported himself by teaching at the Académie Ranson in Paris, where he had many promising students, including Louise Bourgeois and Alfred Manessier. In 1939, with the war approaching, he retreated to his family home in the Lot area, in the southwest of France, far from Paris. But his withdrawal was also symptomatic of a need to distance himself from the art scene, to look inward and start shedding what he had learned in his Paris years: a process which, in hindsight, recalls Agnes Martin’s own retreat to the desert of New Mexico. During the war, Bissière became a farmer to survive and like so many other European painters stopped working altogether.
In 1945-46, he found his way back into art via a series of homemade quilt-style tapestries, mostly due to the scarcity of artistic materials. A transition period followed, from ’46 to ’55, marked by the use of egg tempera instead of oil paint, during which he abandoned Cubism for a vocabulary of ideograms inspired by Paul Klee, as in “Jaune et gris” 1950, not too distant from the Surrealist-influenced pictographs that Adolph Gottlieb created in New York at around the same time.
During his 1914s travels in Tunisia, Klee wrote in his journal: “I am possessed by painting, I don’t need to look for it, it possesses me forever […] I am a painter.” The same self-evident discovery drives Bissière’s late paintings.
Around 1947, when both Bissière and Jean Dubuffet were represented by Galerie Jeanne Bucher in Paris, Bissière’s radical un-learning, a kind of Deconstruction before its time, and his recycling of found materials, attracted Dubuffet’s attention to the point where he briefly attempted to lure Bissière into his anti-cultural esthetic. But Bissière, too fiercely independent, did not return the interest.
Finally, after years of false starts, with his return to oil paint in 1954, his work went through a remarkable late blossoming and an unexpected measure of commercial success. As with many older painters, his canvases from the last ten years of his life seem to have come to him in an effortless flow, in such an unencumbered and natural way that they evoke the late Pierre Bonnard’s own extraordinary ease with paint, even if Bissière’s work had more affinities with the northern light painted by Corot than with the Mediterranean glow bathing Bonnard’s last works.
With his disappearance, a whole chapter of Modernism, one that we could call the “Primitive Paradigm,” came to a close. The end of the primitive model in Modern art also signaled the emergence of what would later be called the Postmodern. While, in the typical Modernist tradition, Bissière struggled to be ‘primitive,’ that is, to see with an innocent eye, the new business model — so to speak — would be that of artists as intellectuals, entrepreneurs, technological wizards, or any combination of the above. Second-degree meta-discourses and irony would soon replace first-degree sincerity, which after the ‘60s, was seen as mere empty posturing.
In the Western art historical narrative, the ‘primitive’ chapter started with Paul Gauguin’s fascination with recently colonized cultures and what they could bring to a late 19th-century Western civilization in the throes of redefining itself.
Philosophically, the roots of that interest could be traced all the way back to Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s nostalgia for nature in an ideal state and his concept of the noble savage, later relayed by Friedrich Nietzsche’s longing for the primal artist. “Primitivism,” as it would be called, would become a major component of Modernism’s efforts to affirm itself against an academic tradition based on codes from the Italian Renaissance. The early Modernists saw the Primitive as a model for how they perceived themselves: they would be the Primitives of their own esthetic enterprise. As French art historian Jean Laude remarked in 1968, “It may not be African art which Modern artists discovered at the turn of the century, but most likely Modern art discovered itself as it discovered African art”.
Primitivism ran through Modernism as a filigree (sometimes in the background) from beginning to end, and took many guises, from Fauvism and Cubism to Surrealism and Gottlieb. Mark Rothko’s 1943 statement on the importance of the myth (“we profess spiritual kinship with primitive and archaic art”) and post-World War II Europe’s flowering of Cobra, Art Informel, and Dubuffet’s Art Brut became the latest versions of the art of the “Other” among us. Primitivism meant different things for different groups: African art for the Cubists; Oceanian art and the cult of the child —as Robert Goldwater framed it — for the Surrealists; the untamed self for the German Expressionists and Cobra; the de-conditioned cultural self for the Informel artists and Dubuffet; and the anonymous Medieval artist for Bissière.
What interested Bissière in the primitive side of art was not the exoticism of the art from distant lands and the radical formal solutions they offered Modern artists, but rather the stoic sincerity of the anonymous Romanesque fresco painter. His retreat in the woods of the Lot was his Walden Pond: a necessary rite of passage, of ridding oneself of the useless and reconnecting with the essential in order to be reborn. But unlike the Walden Pond of the American Transcendentalist David Thoreau, Bissière’s version, Boissièrette, was surrounded by great examples of early Romanesque architecture. One could say that where Thoreau needed to re-establish a connection with an earlier state of nature, Bissière’s need was to re-establish a connection with an earlier state of culture.
What characterized his work between 1954 and 1964 was a particular inner glow of bright touches of color often smattered over a dark background in a loosely organized post-cubist grid, sometimes bringing to mind the work of Mark Tobey, as he does in “Voyage au bout de la nuit”, 1955 (“Journey to the end of the night”, titled after Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s novel from 1932)
In his lecture “Encounters and Avoidance,” French historian Yve-Alain Bois recently examined Picasso’s conflictual relationship to abstraction. But it is not just Picasso (or Matisse) in France who stubbornly rejected abstraction between the two World Wars. Starting with the cultural “return to order” of the 1920s, the whole French Catholic cultural establishment developed an aversion for abstraction, a style accused of not incarnating enough its relationship to reality.
The official French narrative of progress in art at that time passed through Impressionism, Fauvism, and Cubism, all conveniently claimed to be French inventions, rather than through such foreign imports from the likes of Piet Mondrian or Anton Pevsner, who also lived in Paris through the ‘20s. After the war, under the critical pressures of Social Realism on one side and Surrealism on the other, many young French Catholic painters preferred to use the ungainly term ‘Non-Figuration’ to describe their esthetic program rather than use terms (such as Cercle et Carré or Abstraction-Création) that could refer directly or indirectly to the “cold” geometries of abstraction. What these young Non-Figurative painters were attempting to start in the late ‘40s, with Bissière as their reluctant elder statesman, was to expand Fauvist color and Cubist structure into a new “abstract” language still haunted by a sensual experience of the world. Landscape was their primary vehicle for translating the deep rhythms of the real in painting, as Jean Bazaine, a key player, would so lucidly articulate it in his writing.
In the US, prompted by the Museum of Modern Art’s purchase of Monet’s “Water Lilies” (1914-26) in 1955, the term Abstract Impressionism entered the critical lexicon. First coined by Elaine de Kooning and used by Lawrence Alloway in 1958 for an exhibition of the same name featuring Milton Resnick, Philip Guston, Sam Francis, Richard Pousette-Dart, and Jean-Paul Riopelle (who, born in Québec but living in Paris, straddled the great cultural divide), Abstract Impressionism would infuse Abstract Expressionism with elements of the landscape in an esthetic program quite similar to French Non-Figuration. That exhibition should have included Joan Mitchell, who was quite close to Riopelle, were it not for the art world’s stifling machismo.
What kept Abstract Impressionism and Non-Figuration apart in terms of their relationship to landscape were two non-negligible degrees of separation: first, the Non-Figurative painters’ blindness to abstract Surrealism, mostly to the work of Joan Miro and André Masson, along with automatic drawing (this is in my view was their most important shortcoming, one that allowed Arshile Gorky, Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock to develop their own synthesis of Cubist and Surrealist space — if Greenberg had any qualms about French painting, it should have been that one, instead of his uninformed blanket statements).
The second difference is the use of large-scale formats by the Abstract Impressionists, while the Non-Figuration canvases remained relatively easel-sized. Other than these two differences, the esthetics programs of the two movements were remarkably close to one another, and, in hindsight, a dialogue between them could and should have happened, but Greenberg’s ideological shortsightedness made sure that it did not.
Bissière remains particularly relevant, not so much for his abstracted landscapes as for his example of resilience and hard-won humility — his emotional sincerity and an esthetic of self-effacement. Such a stance has become almost extinct today, when unabashed self-promotion and egotism reign supreme, as exemplified in politics by the rise of the pathetic figure of Donald Trump.