PARIS — Jean Fautrier was a subtle, solitary, strange, serene, and even severe 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 suspension in his saw-tooth-shaped career, with both moments of pronounced recognition and operative nihility. Jointly 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 into English as Bataille’s Guilty — along with numerous prints and a substantial group of sculptures.
Though Fautrier’s crusty, lumpy, smeared canvases dominate the exhibition, to me these materialistic muddles wane next to his earlier works. Textural effects seem their main subject matter. That they illuminate the limits of abstraction as a communicative style is much apparent in “La Juive” (The Jewess, 1943), a gloppy, dried 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 French Resistance, and after a temporary arrest by the German Gestapo, he went into hiding in a sanitarium. There 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 momentarily famous painter. 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 impastoed 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) which 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 Fautrier must have felt when 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.”
But mostly because of the Otage series of twisted faces lost to rugged matter, Fautrier was seen as a politically committed artist 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.
Early on in the 1920s, Fautrier made freaky, somewhat German Expressionist-tinged figurative paintings like the highly accomplished and highly weird “Portrait de ma Concierge” (Portrait of My Guardian, 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 J. M. W. 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 mottled 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 which resembles the quirky lady in Carol Rama’s “Appassionata” (1943) watercolor, minus the bevy of shlongs.
Also, 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 mystery.
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