Temporary exhibitions

The Liberation of painting

From 14 July 2020 to 31 January 2021

An ambitious exhibition dedicated to abstract painting in Europe between 1945 and 1962. 

Book now your visit of the exhibition on our online ticketing => HERE

Disruptions

The Second World War left a battered, ruined Europe. 

The scale of the destruction, coupled with the death toll of those killed in combat and in concentration camps, had a profound and enduring impact on artists. For those who didn’t take up arms or go into exile, there was the continual fear of bombing, German Occupation, collaboration, rationing and deportation. The multiple traumas of war pushed them to radically rethink man’s relationship to the world and the way of representing it. Faced with what mankind had been capable of doing to his peers, many were led to question the relationship to the other. Art and culture offered a potential response to such subjects. Questioning the possibility of writing poems after Auschwitz, as the German philosopher Theodor Wiesengrund Adorno wrote in 1949, resonated across all art forms. Painting had become unthinkable after Auschwitz and the question of representation became a crucial one. Was it possible to express the inexpressible; paint the unrepresentable? 

Marked by the experience of war, artists reconsidered the representation of the world and the traditional tools of painting. While many of them were unable to express their sense of horror to events as they happened, like Francisco Goya and Otto Dix, others, such as Jean Fautrier, painted to the sound of weapons and warfare. Overcome by the executions of hostages and the persecution of the Jews, Fautrier realized his most important series, Les Otages, during the war. By working with paint in a new way, Fautrier’s human forms can be said to emerge from a shapeless mass of pigments, in which we recognize faces and body parts that have been tortured and mutilated. 

Painted in 1943, his emblematic work Sarah evokes the fate of European Jews, just as Léon Zack’s Hommage aux amis would do fifteen years later. Jean-Michel Atlan would evoke his fear of deportation through the black eagle, while Wols haphazardly applied networks of co- lour and disordered lines to the canvas. This experimental form of painting was born from the new manipula- tions of materials, where accident and chance played an essential role. The violence of man was reflected in the violence of painting. While voicing nightmares, many ar- tists also believed that the representation of war required a tabula rasa, the only possible response to the traumas of destruction and mass murder. It was for this reason that the members of the CoBrA group called for a return to a fundamentally primitive form of painting. 

Sarah, 1943

Jean FAUTRIER

Sarah1943
Blanc de plomb, huile, encre, poudre de pastels et vernis sur papier chiffon marouflé sur toile
116 x 80,7 cm


Inv. FGA-BA-FAUTR-0001 © Fondation Gandur pour l’Art, Genève. Photographe : Sandra Pointet
© ​Adagp, Paris, 2020
Sans titre, 1945

Jean-Michel ATLAN

Sans titre1945
Huile sur panneau d’isorel
65,7 x 54,2 cm

Inv. FGA-BA-ATLAN-0013 © Fondation Gandur pour l’Art, Genève. Photographe : André Morin
© Adagp, Paris, 2020

Georges MATHIEU

Obscuration, 1952
Huile sur toile
129,8 x 195 cm

Inv. FGA-BA-MATHI-0005 © Fondation Gandur pour l’Art, Genève. Photographe : Sandra Pointet 
© ADAGP, Paris, 2020

WOLS

Composition, vers 1948
Huile sur toile
80,3 x 81 cm

Inv. FGA-BA-WOLS-0002 © Fondation Gandur pour l’Art, Genève. Photographe : Sandra Pointet
© ADAGP, Paris, 2020
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The CoBrA Adventure

In Paris, on 8 November 1948, a small group of foreign artists attended the Second Conference of Revolutionary Surrealism. In total disagreement with their French counterparts, a number of dissenting artists stormed out of the meeting. 

These included Danish painter Asger Jorn, Dutchman Karel Appel and Belgian painter Corneille. Their dissent led them to found their own movement, which they called CoBrA, an acronym composed of the first letters of the capital cities of their native lands: Copenhagen, Brussels and Amsterdam. In five letters, the group immediately asserted its difference by avoiding a name ending in “-ism”, in coherence with its rejection of dogmatism. 

More than an artistic movement and in the aftermath of the war, CoBrA was the promise of a better society founded on another way of living and creating. This “real utopia”, as the poet Christian Dotremont called it, advocated an experimental, free and spontaneous art, like the paintings presented in this chapter, where the colour was directly applied to the canvas, without any prior or preparatory drawing. In the same way, the artists did not impose any constraints, seeking to create out- side of any control exerted by reason. This bold sense of freedom was expressed in the liveliness of the colours, the excessive thickness of the paint and through the energy of the compositions, which combined, in an indescribable chaos, fabulous creatures that were part man, animal and plant. 

In their quest for authenticity, CoBrA members drew their inspiration from art forms that they deemed “uncontaminated” by bourgeois and academic for- malism. They were passionate about the primitive arts, including African masks, of which Corneille was an enthusiastic collector, but also oriental calligraphy, prehistoric and medieval art, and all forms of naïve art, from folk art to that produced by the mentally ill and by children. They believed that in these elementary and instinctive forms of expression lay the path to a “universal primitivity” with which CoBrA sought to reconnect following the disaster of the war. This ambition was shared by French artists Roger Bissière and Jean-Michel Atlan who, without joining the group that dissolved in 1951, experimented with the same sincerity and energy in their own works

Figures

Karel APPEL

Figures, 1952​
Huile sur toile
60,8 x cm

Inv. FGA-BA-APPEL-0001 © Fondation Gandur pour l’Art, Genève. Photographe : Sandra Pointet
© ADAGP, Paris, 2020

 

 

Homme et bêtes

CORNEILLE

Homme et bêtes, 1951-1952 
Huile sur toile
73,2 x 107 cm

Inv.FGA-CORNE-0001 © Fondation Gandur pour l’Art, Genève. Photographe : Sandra Pointet
© Adagp, Paris, 2020
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Between Figuration and Abstraction

With the return of peace, another battle began with the questioning of the traditional canons of painting.

This avant-garde struggle was spearheaded by the artistic youth, who no longer recognized themselves in Post-Impressionism, Cubism, or even in Surrealism, which was still very active at that time. 

The new generation turned instead to abstraction, a field of experimentation that was in theory more promising. 

Nevertheless, doubt persisted amongst certain actors of non-figuration who wondered if painting could be en- tirely abstract. This question is illustrated in this chapter through Nicolas de Staël and Olivier Debré, whose work demonstrates the simultaneous shift from a total abstraction to a partial figuration. This transition took place in 1949. On this date, Debré painted his first “signes- personnages” and de Staël produced compositions with realistic accents. From the thick matter of their paintings, emerged the silhouette of a figure, the outline of an object or the horizon of a landscape. 

By refusing to choose between figuration and abstraction, de Staël and Debré settled on a middle ground where they focused on the quest for a balance between gesture, matter and colour. This tempered approach was the opposite to that of Jean Dubuffet or the artists of the CoBrA group who used figuration with the sole aim of destroying it. 

Fleurs blanches et jaunes

Nicolas DE STAËL

Fleurs blanches et jaunes, 1953 
Huile sur toile
130 x 89 cm

Inv. FGA-BA-STAEL-0003 © Fondation Gandur pour l’Art, Genève. Photographe : Sandra Pointet
© ADAGP, Paris, 2020
Nature morte

Olivier DEBRÉ

Nature morte, 1956 
Huile sur toile,
129,8 x 161,8 cm

Inv. FGA-BA-FGA-BA-DEBRE-0003 © Fondation Gandur pour l’Art, Genève. Photographe : Sandra Pointet
© ADAGP, Paris, 2020
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A new Material Language

Once the war was over, everything had to be rebuilt and reinvented. In this field, artists had a head start. Amongst them, painter Jean Fautrier was a kind of pioneer. 

Two years before the end of hostilities, he be- gan Les Otages, a series of ghostly heads inspired by corpses piled up in the mass grave dug by the Germans behind his studio. In October 1945, Fautrier exhibited his portraits of these victims for the first time at the Galerie René Drouin in Paris, along with other canvases with evocative titles like Oradour and Massacre. Tackling such timely and controversial topics challenged the artist to represent the unbearable. This obliged him to rid his painting of any references to the past. Starting from scratch, Fautrier stopped painting in oils and introduced new materials and techniques into his paintings that would radically change the course of abstract art. 

When Jean Dubuffet discovered Les Otages, he was fascinated by these shapeless bodies and faces emer- ging from the mass of colour and immediately sought to unravel their mysteries. His Portrait Cambouis, painted in December 1945, is the striking result of his early experimentation with new materials. Oil, sand, gravel and bits of string, smeared with tar, soot or shoe polish, were the ingredients of this “high paste” that covered Dubuffet’s contemporary paintings, providing them with an unprecedented relief. His Savonarole, a sculpture made from clinker and cement attests to this same penchant for poor materials, which until then had been deemed unworthy of a work of art. To manipulate the materials, Dubuffet made use of highly ordinary tools: a trowel, tablespoon, scraper and wire brush. The natural resistance of the materials fired the imagina- tion of the father of Art Brut, leading him to invent a new pictorial language oscillating between figuration and abstraction. 

In the wake of Fautrier and Dubuffet, other artists did not completely reject the representation of reality. This was the case with Henri Michaux whose water- colour presented here shows a human face emerging from the coloured iridescence. The same can be said about the heart-wrenching Crucifixion by Spanish artist Antonio Saura and more suggestively, about the “carnage” painted by Belgian artist Pierre Alechinsky. These two works can be said to challenge the meaning of religion in the face of the atrocities committed during the war. The other Matterist works in this chapter bear witness to the vitality of Art Informel, which throughout the 1950s, gave shape to the elusive. 

Tenants et aboutissants, 1959

Pierre ALECHINSKY

Tenants et aboutissants, 1959
Huile sur toile
199,8 x 232,3 cm

Inv FGA-BA-ALECH-0001 © Fondation Gandur pour l’Art, Genève. Photographe : Sandra Pointet
© Adagp, Paris, 2020
Portrait Cambouis, décembre 1945

Jean DUBUFFET

Portrait Cambouis, décembre 1945
Huile, sable, gravier et ficelle sur panneau de bois
41,3 x 32,5 cm

Inv. FGA-BA-DUBUF-0006 © Fondation Gandur pour l’Art, Genève. Photographe : André Morin
© Adagp, Paris, 2020
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The Art of the Gesture and the Sign

In their desire to reinvent painting, artists no longer sought to represent the tangible reality of the beings and things around them. 

Rather they aspired to make art a constantly evolving adventure. Without a predefined plan, the place accorded to gesture and chance in their work became crucial. For artists like Simon Hantaï and Jean Degottex, the gesture was no longer a mark of artistic subjectivity. Instead, they sought to develop a language using new signs. Interested in cal- ligraphy and the relationship his art could have with certain types of writing, Degottex explored the way in which his gestures could be understood as pictorial signs. Certain works by Hantaï may also be compared to Far Eastern calligraphy where the gesture is the expression of a vital force. For Georges Mathieu, art was a language and the sign, the key element of its vocabulary. He even claimed that the effectiveness of his gestural painting was born of the sign and not of the signified. This revolutionary premise removed any last barriers hindering the gestural Art Informel in its quest for solutions to paint reality, without having recourse to traditional codes of representation. 

Non-figurative artists wanted to free the gesture so that it did not respond to any need, other than being the product of their expression. The violence of painting at this time reflects a feeling of insecurity, associated with the urgent need for self-expression. Scratches, scrapings and lacerations, similar to the use of monumental formats in the art of Degottex and Emilio Vedova (see p. 132-133), allowed artists to explore new means and forms of expression. Antonio Saura’s oftentimes rapid and violent gestures transformed the material into a living organism. Hantaï’s works demonstrate a discipline of gesture based on movements that were both rapid and controlled, where the traces and signs inscribed in the material are sufficient in themselves. The speed, spontaneity, unpredictability and energy of the gesture is central to the work of the artists presented in this chapter, reflecting their need for absolute freedom. 

Simon HANTAÏ

Peinture, 1957
Huile et poudre de pigments sur toile 
88,3 x 80,3 cm

Inv. FGA-BA-HANTA-0001 © Fondation Gandur pour l’Art, Genève. Photographe : Sandra Pointet
© ADAGP, Paris, 2020
 
 

Georges MATHIEU

Hommage à la mort, 1950
Huile sur panneau de contreplaqué
160 x 119,5 cm

Inv. FGA-BA-MATHI-0025 © Fondation Gandur pour l’Art, Genève. Photographe : André Morin
© ADAGP, Paris, 2020

Jean DEGOTTEX

L'Adret, Novembre 1959
Huile sur toile
201 x 367,8 cm

inv. FGA-BA-DEGOT-0003 ​ ©  Fondation Gandur pour l’Art, Genève. Photographe : Sandra Pointet
© Adagp, Paris, 2020

 

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Towards Lyricism

Following the Liberation, Paris once again became the world capital of the arts. The artists who had been forced to leave the occupied city against their will, at last returned to their studios. 

The French came back from the Free Zone and foreigners flocked here from all over Europe. The joy of returning to the City of Light was often accompanied by very precarious working conditions as the art market had been affected by four years of Occupation. The artists, unlikely to receive any support from the community concerned with reconstruction, took the initiative by organizing exhibitions in avant-garde salons, like Réalités Nouvelles, created in 1946. 

Salons, formerly key venues in the art world, now had to compete with new art galleries. The most innovative of these were led by women, ready to support, against all economic logic, the new non-geometric trend of abs- tract art. Along with Denise René, Jeanne Bucher and Colette Allendy, Lydia Conti was one of these daring young gallery owners who took a risk by successively exhibiting, between 1947 and 1949, painters Hans Har- tung, Gérard Schneider and Pierre Soulages, whom the public discovered by the same opportunity. From the outset, these three artists were supported by an enlightened fringe of art critics who identified their indi- vidual talent and realized the revolutionary scope of their way of painting. Furious brushstrokes, nervous and instinctive writing, the impression of speed and spontaneity, such were the shared features of this Abstract Expressionism that sought to remove any distance between the gesture and its trace, between the painter’s intentions and the raw emotions conveyed. 

The collective exhibition bringing together Hartung, Schneider and Soulages for the first time in Lydia Conti’s gallery, in 1949, contributed to widening the gap between the perpetuators of geometric abstraction and its reformers, supporters of gestural and Art Informel painting for which the painter Georges Mathieu coined the unifying term “lyrical abstraction”. The apparent unity of style in the initial stages fell apart in the mid-1950s, as may be seen in the works of Pierre Soulages in this chapter. Their large “slowed-down” gestures, held back by the thick matter, are the first signs of a less tumultuous relationship between gesture, matter and colour. 

T 1946-9, 1947

Hans HARTUNG

T 1946-9, 1946
Huile sur toile
99,5 x 64,8 cm

inv. FGA-BA-HARTU-0008 © Fondation Gandur pour l’Art, Genève. Photographe : André Morin
© ADAGP, Paris, 2020
Opus 49 B, octobre 1953

Gérard SCHNEIDER

Opus 49 B, octobre 1953
Huile sur toile
130 x 162,4 cm

Inv. FGA-BA-SCHNE-0006 ​ © Fondation Gandur pour l’Art, Genève. Photographe : Sandra Pointet
© Adagp, Paris, 2020

Pierre SOULAGES

Peinture 195 x 130 cm, 1er septembre 1957 
1er septembre 1957
Huile sur toile
195 x 130 cm

Inv. FGA-BA-SOULA-0008 © Fondation Gandur pour l’Art, Genève. Photographe : Sandra Pointet
© ADAGP, Paris, 2020
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Questionning Space and Formats

After the Second World War, many artists rethought their prac- tice by redefining the space and format of their paintings.

Some reconsidered their very manner of painting, by reducing the means used. Martin Barré for example favoured the reduction of materials, colour and form. From the mid-1950s onwards, he produced works by superimposing layers of paint that seemed to want to extend beyond the limits of the work. The pictorial matter was not applied uniformly but scraped so that the background and form merged, eliminating any effect of depth or perspective. This penchant for the construction of the pictorial space may also be found in the work of Maria Helena Vieira da Silva. Jean Degottex chose to privilege the gesture and its force, while considering its relationship to writing and space. Others, on the contrary, such as Emilio Vedova, rethought the format of their works, which underwent a new expansion. Painted by the Italian artist in 1959, the large triptych (275 x 444 cm) presented in this chapter is emblematic of this period where Vedova increased the space of his painting, giving the impression of an explosion where streaks, projections and marks collide in a chaotic and monumental all-over. 

57-50-B

Martin BARRÉ

57-50-B, 1957
Huile sur toile
89 x 116 cm

Inv. FGA-BA-BARRE-0001 © Fondation Gandur pour l’Art, Genève.
© ADAGP, Paris, 2020
 
Scontro di Situazioni

Emilio VEDOVA

Scontro di Situazioni [Conflit de situations], 1959 
Détrempe vinylique, huile, sable, charbon et poudre de pigments sur toile
275 x 444 cm

Inv. FGA-BA-VEDOV-0001 © Fondation Gandur pour l’Art, Genève.
© ADAGP, Paris, 2020
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New Supports and Materials

The disaster of the Second World War forced certain artists to rethink painting and to seek new forms. 

This desire to find another way of representing the world saw the traditional canvas being replaced by materials coming primarily from everyday use: the burlap in Alberto Burri’s work, wire for Manuel Rivera, fabric for Salvatore Scarpitta, wooden slats for César and nylon threads for Pol Bury. Marked by the shortages experienced during the war years, artists recycled what they could find and invented new tools. Both ingenious and crafty, they were quick to use “poor” materials and left an important place to chance, as evident in the first sculpture by Jacques Villeglé, made from steel wires found amongst the ruins of Saint-Malo. They also sought to go beyond the frame of the painting with three-dimensional, mobile and mechanical works, like those of Jean Tinguely. It is not so much the question of the opposition between abstrac- tion and figuration that is at stake here but rather the questioning of the very foundations of painting. Painting no longer had to confront the real world be- cause the latter was an intrinsic part of the work through the materials used, such as the posters torn and removed from walls by Raymond Hains. Some even went further by using not only advertising boards, but also their supports, such as the sheet metal or the wall on which they were pasted, as is the case in Mimmo Rotel- la’s work. Urban reality was now very much part of the works, as were their political, social and economic contexts. After having photographed the bombed cities of Saint-Malo and Dinard as a teenager, Hains created a series of politically engaged works such as La Colombe de la paix, while Villeglé evoked the reality of the Algerian War and the confrontation of two irreconcilable factions in Rue au Maire.

 

Relief SYN n° VII, 1956

Jean TINGUELY

Relief SYN n° VII, 1956
Panneau de bois avec huit formes en aluminium peints et un système mécanique électrique au revers
62,5 x 56 x 22,5 cm

Inv FGA-BA-TINGU-0003 © Fondation Gandur pour l’Art, Genève. Photographe : André Morin
© Adagp, Paris, 2020
Umbira Vera, 1952

Alberto BURRI

Umbria Vera (Ombrie véritable), 1952
Acrylique, acétate de polyvinyle, huile, sac en toile de jute, tissu, fil et papier de journal
99,2 x 149,3 cm

Inv. FGA-BA-BURRI-0001 © ​Fondation Gandur pour l’Art, Genève. Photographe : André Morin
© Adagp, Paris, 2020
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