Art

A Creative Colony of Modernists in Coastal France

The Musée des Beaux-Arts de Rouen’s display of artists living and working independently, but together, reinforces the modernist commitment to internationalist values.

Partial view of the “Constellations” area of Braque, Miro, Calder, Nelson: a constellation of artists at Varengeville-sur-mer at the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Rouen (photo courtesy Réunion des Musées Métropolitains)

ROUEN and VARENGEVILLE-SUR-MER, France — With nationalism rabidly on the rise in the US, UK, and Europe, the convivial internationalism of modern art circles is a relief to encounter. The two-part exhibition Braque, Miro, Calder, Nelson: A Constellation of Artists at Varengeville-sur-mer offers just such an occasion.

The show starts at the impressive Musée des Beaux-Arts de Rouen, where the artworks mentioned below are exhibited, 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 not only of their international friendship in face of growing fascism, but of their artistic exchanges with one another, as they swapped ideas and artworks.

Georges Braque with Paul Bony, “Dominique marchant vers la sainteté” (1954), three stained-glass windows at la chapelle Saint-Dominique de Varengeville-sur-Mer (photo by the author)
Alexander 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)

The exhibition’s story begins in 1928, when Nelson, who had moved to France in 1920, introduced Braque and Braque’s wife, Marcelle, to Varengeville-sur-Mer. Perched high on the Alabaster Coast, this charming village has attracted many painters, writers, and musicians since the late 19th century. Rightfully impressed, the Braques built a painting studio next to a house they purchased, that they would keep until Georges Braque’s death in 1963. Indeed, Braque is buried in the local cemetery atop the cliff at the church of St. Valery, his tomb accompanied by a mosaic he designed of a flying white dove. Inside the church is a lovely cubist stained-glass window by Braque depicting the Tree of Jesse. (At the chapel of St. Dominique on the road from Varengeville-sur-Mer to Dieppe are more Braque-designed stained-glass windows to gaze upon.)

Georges Braque, “La Pianiste” (The Pianist,1937) (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 Suspended House project (1936-38) that made daring use of mesh enclosure and included copious amounts of modern art. Inspired by the sea, Miró painted a huge mural, “Birth of the Dauphin” (1937), in Nelson’s living room the same year he painted the (now destroyed) mural “The Reaper” (1937). In August 1939, a month before the outbreak of World War II, Miró and his family escaped the dreadful prospect of an occupied Paris and moved back to Varengeville-sur-Mer for a year during the darkest days of the beginning of the war. At that time, Miró painted the powerfully fearsome (and fierce) “Tête de femme, Varengeville II” (“Head of a Woman, Varengeville II,” 1939).

Inspired by the night sky and as a form of psychic release from the pressures of the commencing war, he began creating his celebrated Constellations series at this time (1939–1941). The impressive formal and conceptual power of these works suggests a new mythology of connectivity, something that Calder intuitively picked up upon and later amplified with his enchanting network sculpture “Constellation biomorphisme” (1943).

Alexander Calder, “Portrait of Joan Miro” (1930) wire and 2 shadows (photo by the author)
Anonymous1938 photo of the Nelson home adorned with the Miró mural “Birth of theDauphin” (1937), gelatin silver print, private collection

Shorter withdrawals from political conflict into an artistic communal life were also savored at Varengeville-sur-Mer by German-French painter Hans Hartung, as well as 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 artists Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth. At one point the Calders lived near the Nelsons’ home in Varengeville-sur-Mer, where Calder set up his workshop in a garage to realize playful “mobiles” and “stabiles.” In the early 1930s Braque wildly re-counted the group’s beach parties in paintings such as the hysterically humorous “La plage” (“The Beach,” 1932). But with the war, Braque began painting dark, severe vanités, sometimes of black fish or of stark crosses, skulls and prayer beads, as in the somber “Vanitas” (1939).

Georges 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)

This display of a small constellation of artists living and working independently, but together, at Varengeville-sur-Mer reinforces the modernist commitment to internationalist values. In so doing, it contributes to a re-invigoration of international artistic appreciation and cooperation, as well as internationalism in general.

Braque, Miró, Calder, Nelson: A Constellation of Artists at Varengeville-sur-Mer continues at Musée des Beaux-Arts de Rouen (Esplanade Marcel Duchamp 76000 Rouen) and at Varengeville-sur-Mer (Seine-Maritime, Normandy) through September. The exhibition was curated by Sylvain Amic, Joanne Snrech, and Martine Sautory.

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