What we owe Georges Mathieu
Georges Mathieu passed away in June, 2012. Far from merely offering witness to a bygone artistic context about which understanding would be reserved only for art historians, he continues to this day to represent a vibrant power in the world of modern and contemporary art.
Mathieu’s works, enriching the collections of dozens of museums worldwide as well as countless private individuals, continue to resonate in the mind of the public, both for their intuitive approach and their dynamic vitality — in a kineticism that bears witness both to the energy and the speed unleashed during the creative act, which in no way diminishes their sensitivity and aesthetic dimensions — that are accessible to the viewer without having to resort to the integration of a concept presented on a plaque off to the side of the work.
A flamboyant artist, Mathieu’s writings were no less so. Unwilling to let himself get pigeonholed as the figure of the artist who, in his desire to please, would only express himself through his canvases, he fully participated in intellectual life, going from organizing exhibitions, to serving as chief editor of a bilingual review1United States Line Paris Review, to contributing his perspectives as an art critic, making it impossible to sum up his work within a single label. If his writings or his public stances set themselves apart because of their tremendous and some would say polemical frankness, in private he demonstrated a rare elegance, combining the gentility of a gentleman and the distinction of a dandy.
For Mathieu, artists should play three roles in society, which would allow them to usher in a “new Renaissance”: that of the creation of forms, the creation of a style, and finally the assumption of a moral responsibility.2in Le rôle de l’artiste vis-à-vis de la cité dans le monde de demain (The role of the artist vis-à-vis the city in the world of tomorrow), interview conducted by André Parinaud in La Galerie des Arts n° 75, October, 1968 While few currently working artists could maintain that they espouse such a wide definition of the vocation of artist in society, the ideas defended by Mathieu continue to demonstrate their relevance and their prescience.
Each of the successive phases of the life of this total artist, an eclectic and prolific pioneer, managed to eclipse the preceding phase in the mind of the public. Therefore, the thematics referenced later in the text equate to the attempt of achieving a synthesis — daring and fragmentary to say the least — of what could have constituted the artistic and intellectual testament of Mathieu, but before doing anything, it would appear necessary to return to the first post-war years, to a foundational time in the career of Mathieu.
In the latter half of the 1940s, after quickly releasing some figurative works – his first painting on canvas was Oxford Street by night, completed in 1942 – Mathieu devoted himself to fundamental research during which he put to the test all possible technical forms and languages in order to materialize his desire to liberate art. While Europe had to rebuild itself, pictorial arts also had to cross through a transformational phase in order to evolve beyond the paradigms of the past.
Establishing that geometric abstraction was a mere intermediary stage along the path toward abstraction, exhorting art to overtake the norms and constraints of the Hellenic heritage — in particular Platonic beauty and Aristotelian rationalism —, from the Renaissance and Cartesian and Hegelian logical traditions, excluding any reference to Nature, Mathieu opened the way, through the foundation of Lyrical Abstraction, to the freest possible creative forms, granting “total liberty to improvisation, speed, the unknown, the imaginary, and risk.”3in the speech at his election to the Académie des Beaux-Arts, 1976
Lyrical Abstraction, when form precedes meaning
The term Lyrical Abstraction was inspired by the idea of a lyrical abstractivism derived from the work of critic Jean José Marchand. In fact, Marchand used this term to describe the works of Mathieu exhibited in November, 1947, at the fourteenth Salon des Surindépendants, four months after he noticed Mathieu at the Salon des Réalités Nouvelles:
I would first note the work of abstract artist Georges Mathieu. This young man is showing two large, very lyrical paintings that are very moving, and capable, I believe, of touching the viewing public, even though they do not represent anything.
Instead of lyrical abstractivism, Mathieu preferred the term Lyrical Abstraction because “abstract lyricism is not a new ‘ism’ that is likely to exhaust its message in one, or even three generations.”4Heidelberg Conference, 1980 Therefore, he proposed the name Vers l’abstraction lyrique (Toward Lyrical Abstraction) for the polygraphic exhibition where 14 painters were exhibited, held in December, 1947 at the Galerie du Luxembourg, which was finally entitled The Imaginary. This was undoubtedly the event that signaled the official birth of this movement.
Lyrical Abstraction was free reign granted to form, an incarnation of the sign, or the signifier, which at the moment of its formation must precede meaning, or the signified, in a revolutionary semiotic reversal, a breach into which countless artists have since plunged.
Mathieu, after reading and annotating a book in 1944 in which Edward Crankshaw engaged in a literary analysis of the work of Joseph Conrad5Edward Crankshaw — Joseph Conrad, some aspects of the art of the novel, Ed. John Lane, The Bodley Head, London, 1936, did indeed have the intuition to extend to visual arts Crankshaw’s proposition, according to which the value of a written work could reside in its style rather than in its narrative, and that more generally speaking form could take precedence over content, and could even constitute it. Mathieu’s conclusion was that “painting could exist without needing to represent.”6in Au-delà du Tachisme (Beyond Tachism), Ed. Julliard, 1963
In his first writing on art, entitled La liberté, c’est le vide (Liberty is the void, written in 1947 and published on April 22, 1948 in the H.W.P.S.M.T.B. exhibition catalogue, Mathieu laid out the basis for a “metaphysics of the void”, heralding the metaphysics of risk and inaugurating the roadmap of Lyrical Abstraction.
Poetry, music, and painting have in fact just shed their last servitude: words, tonality, figuration. The reassuring aspirations to which the secretions of human beings have clung to having disappeared, two means of transcendence remain available to them: one, illusory, which coagulates the sensibilities into cosmic universality, and the other, which exacerbates them and exalts them by reappraising everything possible in the impermeability of individual consciences.
Mathieu became aware that a work of art could not result only from the play of chance or automatic reflex, any more than it could result from the media or the techniques employed. Lyrical Abstraction, requiring an upheaval of the “semantic, aesthetic, and morphological order”7in Pour une désaliénation de l’art (For a disalienation of art), 1961 is not limited, for purposes of allowing for a real and complete abstraction, to the encouragement of total liberty, at the risk of ending up in confusion, or even anarchy:
Conscious that I have accomplished my role, having done everything that was in my power to do, I know that time is on my side, that the truth will end up bursting into the light of day, that this free Abstraction will enjoy a fatal triumph, and I even guess that it may even give rise to the greatest confusion, and to the greatest facility.8in Au-delà du Tachisme (Beyond Tachism), Ed. Julliard, 1963
Therefore Lyrical Abstraction requires that “concentration supplants the classical notion of improvisation.”9in Approches de la création pure (Approaches to pure creation), 1987 It promotes the call to spirituality, to energy, and to intuition to the detriment of methods and formulas, ultimately requiring a real sensibility and an “opening onto the Cosmos”10in De l’abstrait au possible — Jalons pour une exégèse de l’art occidental (From the Abstract to the Possible — Milestones for an Exegesis of Western Art), Éd. du Cercle d’Art Contemporain à Zurich (Ed. of the Contemporary Art Circle, Zurich), 1959 on the part of the artist.
The importance of Lyrical Abstraction
The historic importance of Lyrical Abstraction, a major pictorial movement of the 20th century, would be undoubtedly perceived even more broadly if it hadn’t been disturbed by various factors over the years.
Firstly, one can lay the blame for a certain confusion on the multiplicity of designations due to the critical arguments of the 1950s, but whose differences have blurred over time and which should cross through a single perimeter:
— Tachism (tachisme), a term employed pejoratively by the art critic Pierre Guéguen, and then popularized in its positive definition by art critic Charles Estienne;
— Informal Art (art informel) or Another Art (art autre), terms employed by the art critic Michel Tapié, deemed “vague” by Mathieu, if not “pure nonsense, because there could be no art without the existence of form”11Heidelberg Conference, 1980, in L’abstraction prophétique (The Prophetic Abstraction), Ed. Gallimard, 1984;
— Abstract Expressionism (expressionnisme abstrait), usually referring to American artists (practicing in an equivalent movement on the other side of the Atlantic), or Action Painting, an older designation employed by art critic Harold Rosenberg.
What’s more, it seems difficult to prepare a definitive and exhaustive list of the artists who may be connected to this movement, because it offers a rather wide and flexible meaning, to the degree that is resembles an open invitation to all rather than a current of artists gathered around a specific manifesto.
Relations with the United States
The real reason for the relegation, albeit relative, of Lyrical Abstraction — and by extension its champion — in the mind of the public should be sought elsewhere. In fact, it was only over the course of the 1960s that the center of artistic gravity shifted from one side to the other of the Atlantic, at the conclusion of a battle for influence led in America by the cultural institutions and art critics of the time. Starting with the second half of the 1940s, well before the emergence of Pop Art, Americans had countered European Lyrical Abstraction with an Abstract Expressionism that was specific to the American continent, promoted by critics Harold Rosenberg and Clement Greenberg, as Serge Guilbaut illuminated in his work How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art12Ed. University of Chicago Press, 1983. As a matter of interest, Greenberg appreciated Mathieu’s painting and told him that he was the European painter he admired the most, but he did not want this opinion to be known publicly, arguably because he wanted to preserve the fiction of a complete independence with respect to European art.
When Robert Rauschenberg’s Pop Art won the grand prize in painting at the Venice Biennale in 1964, American artists were able to lay claim to international recognition, the fruit of a particularly voluntarist cultural policy of the United States, especially on the part of art dealer Leo Castelli and the American museums. New York took the place of Paris, with the lasting consequence that Abstract Expressionism, the transatlantic cousin of Lyrical Expressionism, succeeded it in critical validation, valuation and international notoriety. This allows today both art lovers and art collectors to have extraordinary opportunities to discover and acquire art in advance of an inevitable restoration of balance.
Mathieu was a major player in the artistic relations between the two continents: he was the first in Europe to “reveal the importance and the originality” of new American painting13in Au-delà du Tachisme (Beyond Tachism), Ed. Julliard, 1963, and he worked to make it known and get it shown in France at a time when Paris was still the world’s artistic stronghold.
In fact, in October and November, 1948 — shortly after the H.W.P.S.M.T.B. exhibition held in April, 1948, at the Colette Allendy gallery, bringing together Hartung, Wols, Picabia, Stahly, Mathieu, Tapié, and Bryen — Mathieu organized an exhibition at the Galerie du Montparnasse that was to bring together for the first time both lyrical abstract American and Parisian painters: Bryen, de Kooning, Hartung, Gorky, Mathieu, Picabia, Pollock, Reinhardt, Rothko, Russell, Sauer, and Wols. The objective of this exhibition, “which was accomplished only partially”14due to difficulties in borrowing works from American galleries, was achieved three years later, in March, 1951, at the Galerie du Dragon of Nina Dausset, in the framework of the Véhémences Confrontées (Confronted Vehemences) exhibition, organized jointly by Mathieu and Tapié, bringing together works by Bryen, Capogrossi, de Kooning, Hartung, Mathieu, Pollock, Riopelle, Russell, and Wols.
In April, 1952, Mathieu confirmed his critical interest in American abstract painting with the publication of Déclaration aux peintres d’avant-garde américains (Declaration to American avant-garde painters), in which he lamented the death of Wols and the return of Pollock to figuration. In October, 1953, in fact, he also published an article in the Art Digest journal entitled L’avant-garde américaine est-elle surestimée? (Is the American avant-garde overestimated?). He responds in the negative to this question while insisting on the preponderance of the role of painter Mark Tobey, who was its “greatest promoter”. Alas, History is written by the victors, and Georges Mathieu is still today pushed to the side of the official story of post-war abstraction as it has been spread by the Americans, and sometimes repeated by the Europeans.
Tubism and dripping
Those who wish to categorize Mathieu as a disciple of Pollock — which is historical nonsense one still encounters in some books — must not know that Mathieu created Evanescence in 1945 using the dripping technique, two years before Pollock’s first examples:
I used the most direct means possible to paint: the free play of essence and color, that is to say dripping, sprinkling the canvas with Ripolin poured from a certain height right from the box.15in Cent questions discrètes et moins discrètes (One Hundred Discreet and Less Discreet Questions), interview conducted in 1958 by Alain Bosquet and published in the journal Ring des Arts in 1960
Very quickly, Mathieu came to favor tubism, which consists of painting directly on the canvas with the tube of paint, a technique he invented. Thus, we can see in Éternité (Eternity, 1945) one of the first applications of this use of the material right from the tube. Beyond the elimination of the brush, which is in the end just a dispensable intermediary interposed between the artist and the creation, between the material and its support, the use of tubism contributed to the logic of speed to which Mathieu attributed major importance. From that point on, more than ever, we are talking about a method of “direct painting”.
Belgian painter and art critique René Guiette sums up the precursive use of these techniques as follows: “Consciously, Mathieu, alone, has produced his work truly freely since 1945-1946, thereby preceding the spurting techniques of Pollock and Wols and creating his technique by directly wielding the tube to draw and to paint.”16Foreword by Blaise Distel, literary pseudonym of René Guiette, in De l’abstrait au possible — Jalons pour une exégèse de l’art occidental (From the Abstract to the Possible — Milestones for an Exegesis of Western Art), Ed. of the Contemporary Art Circle in Zurich, 1959
Mathieu was both theoretician and artist
In his text Anagogie de la non-figuration (Anagogy of non-figuration, 1949), Mathieu theorizes the non-contradiction of the “notions of efficiency and gratuity” in art, in an eclectic comparison with the equations of uncertainty (Heisenberg principle) utilized in quantum physics and by relying on the logic of the contradictory set forth by the philosopher Stéphane Lupasco with whom he was close. Likewise, in his Esquisse d’une embryologie des signes (Draft of an embryology of signs, 1951)17in Au-delà du Tachisme, Ed. Julliard, 1963, p. 164, Mathieu presented an outline of the cycle of renewal of pictorial movements, positioning Lyrical Abstraction as the latest stage to date.
He identified the six phases, of variable effectiveness, of this perpetual cycle: the search (for signs), the incarnation (or the recognition of the signs at their maximum effectiveness), formalism (or academicism), the baroque (refinement, exaggeration, or deformation of signs), destruction (of signs), the informal (use of means without possible significance). The spiral of the pictorial evolution laid out by Mathieu begins in the search and incarnation phase with the primitives, then strings two rounds together across the six phases with classicism, baroque, impressionism, pointillism, fauvism, cubism, neoclassicism, surrealism, and the informal, to finally end up with lyrical abstractivism located in the search and incarnation phases, deemed to be the most effective.
With the exception of the two texts previously mentioned – the most extreme in their formalism – the work of Mathieu as theoretician has most often taken the form of a definition of the essential characteristics and objectives of Lyrical Abstraction, as well as a commentary on the evolution of the classic or contemporary artistic movements in the style of an art critic or historian. Nevertheless, unlike the current expectations of conceptual art with respect to its audience, any knowledge of the concepts uttered by Mathieu is completely optional for appreciating his works, with which a direct, personal, and unprejudiced contact is possible.
Risk and speed
The concept of risk, “this celebration of being”, of which Mathieu was the first theoretician and practitioner, is intimately linked to concepts of liberty and intuition for which it is the corollary, offering the opportunity for a totally free creation that does not depart from any presuppositions:
It is this liberty with respect to references which introduces both improvisation, and thereby speed. Speed therefore signifies the definitive abandonment of the artisanal methods in painting in favor of methods of pure creation. Now, is that not the mission of the artist: to create, not to recopy. Speed and improvisation are the reasons we are able to associate the creative forms of this painting with those of liberated and direct musical forms like Jazz or with Oriental calligraphy.18in De l’abstrait au possible — Jalons pour une exégèse de l’art (From the Abstract to the Possible — Milestones for an exegesis of Western Art), Ed. of the Contemporary Art Circle in Zurich, 1959
In the framework of public creation, the concept of risk also covers the notion of endangering the artist, not for purposes of sensationalism, but for purposes of generosity and willingness to share with the public:
The notion of risk confers for the first time upon the artist a heroic aspect and at last, in the most privileged of cases, the establishment of a second state, the ecstatic.19in Approches de la création pure (Approaches to Pure Creation), speech given to the Academic of Moral and Political Sciences on Monday, January 19, 1987
Along with risk, the characteristic of speed was introduced by Mathieu for the first time in Western painting. As an artist who scorned bourgeois values and conventions, for him a work of art should be judged on the result, for its own qualities, both aesthetic and sensible, and not by virtue of the time passed in creating it, going against the grain of the bourgeois vision that associates the value of a work with the amount of time spent on it:
Nobody in the East ever thought of rejecting any notion of artistic quality in calligraphy under the pretext that it is produced in a few seconds.20in D’Aristote à l’Abstraction lyrique (From Aristotle to Lyrical Abstraction), article appearing in L’Œil, n°52, avril 1959
The intersection of risk and speed results in a “vehemence” expressed “in the heat of the moment”, echoing the terms used by the critic Michel Tapié in “Un art autre” (An Other Art, 1952):
The first time that some of Georges Mathieu’s works were shown to André Malraux, the latter employed for the overall climate that for him emanated from them the adjectives of “sulfurous” and “vehement”: I don’t think there’s a better shortcut. Mathieu’s graphics, far from any softness connected with automatism (about which we now know there is rather little to expect in force and in renewal), seem like traces issuing from the movements of gigantic orthopterans, traces that were not left per se but actually made as the most flagrant possible witness to a moment of creative pinnacle, an act of the creator for whom expression is truly and only to create, to act instantaneously because it is only instantaneously that the Act assumes all of its meaning: therefore it is a vehement act once and for all.
In his Épître à la jeunesse (Epistle to Youth) in 196421in L’abstraction prophétique (Prophetic Abstraction), Ed. Gallimard, 1984, Mathieu connected the notions of revolt, speed, and risk, concluding on the opportunity, which was hitherto unseen, to conceive of painting as spectacle.
Revolt, Speed, Risk, these three words are also at the heart of Lyrical Abstraction today. Isn’t this the same revolt against established rules, the same taste for risk in all its forms, the same passion for speed and violent intensity, the same scorn of the absence of originality and grandeur, the same spontaneous surge of energy that is both confident and generous? Yes, because today, what is a painting? It is the most direct expression of a dissatisfaction and an ambition. Painting is an ambition, it is no longer an act. The canvas is whipped, jostled around, hacked open; the color spurts, bursts, pierces, flits around, rises, and crushes. The artisanal, the finite, the polished forms of the Greek ideals are all dead. Tension, density, the unknown, the mysterious reign and succeed on all counts. For the first time in history, painting has been able to become a spectacle, and you can witness its creation, just like you would a jam session.
International tours, public performances, and gigantism
Strengthened by the creation of a pictorial language that was totally his own, Mathieu in the 1950s reached a level of international renown, traveling around the world to give life to his creations on site and in public in a revolutionary way: Germany, Argentina, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, Spain, the United States, Israel, Italy, Japan, Lebanon, the United Kingdom, Sweden, Switzerland… Placing the work of art “at the crossroads of the object, the act, and the behavior”22in Au-delà du Tachisme (Beyond Tachism), Ed. Julliard, 1963, he was the first to organize performances and happenings, preceding Yves Klein and the American artists by several years: Hommage au Maréchal de Turenne (Homage to Maréchal de Turenne), painted before a photographer in 1952, La Bataille de Bouvines (The Battle of Bouvines) and Les Capétiens partout ! (Capetians everywhere!) painted in front of a movie camera in 1954, many large format canvasses painted in the street, as a precursor to urban art, with the best example being La Bataille de Hastings (The Battle of Hastings) created incognito in 1956 on a street of London while surprised onlookers walked by.
In 1957, he took his celebrated trip to Japan where he was warmly received by the artists of the Gutai group – whose manifesto in December, 1956, affirmed that they had “the greatest respect for Pollock and Mathieu because their works reveal the screaming pushed forth by the material, the crying out of the pigments and the varnishes”:
In September, I went to Japan where I received a triumphant welcome, and executed in Tokyo 21 canvasses in three days including an 8- and a 15-meter fresco, painted in the street, in front of a crowd of 10,000 people who came together in a climate of fervor unknown in the West. In Osaka, I painted Hommage au général Hideyoshi (Homage to General Hideyoshi) with an unheard of degree of violence on the roof of the Daimaru and under a sky criss-crossed by helicopters.23article in le Figaro, dated July 5, 1988, in 50 ans de création (50 Years of Creation), Ed. Hervas, 2003
Following Tokyo and Osaka came public performances in Düsseldorf, Vienna, São Paulo, and then on April 24, 1959, Mathieu created le Massacre de la Saint-Barthélemy (The Saint-Barthélemy Massacre) under the eyes of the cameras of television studio 3 in Cognacq-Jay street in Paris, and in the presence of the jazz drummer Kenny Clarke.
Even though this fact was not well-known and taught in the curriculum of the history of modern art, Mathieu appeared already in May, 1956, in front of around 2,000 people at the Théâtre de la Ville – Sarah-Bernhardt, on the Night of Poetry, to create a canvas measuring twelve by four meters, which was absolutely unheard of at the time, either in terms of the dimension of the canvas or the number of spectators.
If for the audience that evening this execution took on the appearance of a challenge or a provocation — when it was really about giving people the rare privilege of participating in an act of creation —, for me feeling responsible before several thousands of people was an event, with the double obligation not to fail with the canvas and to complete it in a half hour, working to bring to life a surface area measuring forty-eight square meters. At my disposal I had more than eight hundred tubes of paint, brushes of different lengths, and I had had made a rolling ladder so I could move around quickly to paint at an average height of three meters from the ground. The canvas was completed in less than twenty minutes.24in Au-delà du Tachisme (Beyond Tachism), Ed. Julliard, 1963
Although he repudiated designations like happenings and performance art in describing his work, arguing that pictorial work was the principal result and the objective, and that the lyrical abstract artist “favors improvisation and not chance”25Response to Kristine Stiles, in 50 ans de création (50 Years of Creation), Ed. Hervas, 2003, his creative acts can be qualified as the precursors to art in action, realizing the linkage between “private”26Apart from the photographs of Jackson Pollock by Hans Namuth productions of Action Painting and those public productions of Performance Art, well before Yves Klein’s Anthropométries (Anthropometries, 1960).
Beyond the canvas created at the Théâtre Sarah-Bernhardt and the frescos created in Tokyo, Mathieu also created on October 13, 1963, a twenty- by four-meter fresco entitled En hommage à Jean Cocteau (In Homage to Jean Cocteau), which can be viewed at the Maison de la Radio in Paris27classified since 2018 as Historical Monument of France. While gigantism seems to be a recent artefact of contemporary art in the minds of critics today, it was in fact Mathieu who laid down the first premises for such an innovation:
Under such conditions, all the connections between strength, energy, and as a result speed, are changed. (…) I love painting canvasses that are disproportionately large, maybe because the risk also is greater.28in Cent questions discrètes et moins discrètes (One Hundred Discreet and Indiscreet Questions), interview conducted in 1958 by Alain Bosquet and published in the journal Ring des Arts in 1960
The calligraphic nature of Mathieu’s work
Georges Mathieu encountered the Far East during a trip to Japan in 1957, when he came into contact with calligraphy and Japanese tradition. However, André Malraux was already qualifying it as “Western calligraphy” during the Hiroshima Place Vendôme exhibition at the Galerie René Drouin in 1950, establishing an implicit rapport with the calligraphy of the Far East. Shortly after his trip to Japan, Mathieu affirmed that even if calligraphy paints forms that are based on references from which they do not stray very far, they give rise to creations rather than copies because they are freed through the power of speed and improvisation. Without really identifying oriental calligraphy as an ancestor to his work, he recognizes the evolution, parallel to his research on the abstract sign, of calligraphy as a fully artistic discipline, particularly kyo-so (狂草), a freer and informel style of cursive calligraphy (sōshotai 草書体 in Japanese, tsao shu 草書 in Chinese). While they are not oriental, the signs created by Mathieu cannot be qualified as Western either, according to the criteria of speed that he did not find in his contemporaries:
The signs by Masson, those of Tobey before 1957, and those of Hartung are the signs of artisans. They are elaborated slowly, redone ten times (Hartung), composed, enhanced, outlined, contoured (Masson, Tobey): they are Western.29in Au-delà du Tachisme (Beyond Tachism), Ed. Julliard, 1963
Perhaps it is this particular link to Far Eastern calligraphy that allowed Soichi Tominaga, Director of the National Museum of Western Art in Tokyo to proclaim that Georges Mathieu was the “greatest French painter since Picasso.”
The Applied Arts
Recognized as the major artist in France in the 1960s and 1970s, Mathieu opened up the way for the applied arts, imagining for artists the role of creating “a style and ultimately a lifestyle”. At the opposite extreme of the method proper to Pop Art in which the multiplication of images is intended to void them of their meaning, Mathieu sought an “all-terrain” diffusion for his work in order to build a true rapport with the public, to “participate with all his might in the quality of the environment of his country”, and if possible, to bring to life a French 20th century style. Although his work was appreciated by President Georges Pompidou and Minister of Culture André Malraux, Mathieu in no way consented to the designation of “official artist”, which may sometimes have been attributed to him in spite of himself, his popular success and his notoriety were in no way based on any willingness to become a figure of institutionalized art.
In the 1950s, he designed some jewelry, and then from the 1960s to the 1980s, he applied himself to the creation or decoration of numerous other types of objects, including posters, medals, dishes, stamps, tapestry cartoons, and even a Frigidaire (1958), a four- by seven-meter state bed (1962) and the design for Deutz champagne bottles (1971). In particular, he created sixteen posters for Air France in 1967, representing various countries or continents, done in an abstract figurative artistic style. He was also interested in the realm of architecture, working on the “star-factory” in Fontenay-le-Comte in Vendée, France (1969), the ceiling of the City Hall of Boulogne-Billancourt, France (1982), and he drew several architectural gratings and meshes for building façades.
For all time, this has been the ambition of great artists, from Michelangelo to David, with Le Brun in between. Let me on this occasion salute the memory of Walter Gropius who, with Bauhaus, was the author of the last great attempt to integrate all of the Western arts. In the period of decline in which we live today, it is necessary for the artist to reestablish a dialogue with the daily world and that he recreate the happiest harmonies between man and his environment. Since 1962, I have been conscious of this responsibility on the part of the artist to once again penetrate all of life’s forms, be they ever so humble. I participated in the reawakening of the Manufactures Nationales, including both Sèvres and les Gobelins, I created posters and medals, drew plans for a factory and its gardens, and the mesh for architectural façades, gratings, and even furniture.30Heidelberg Conference, 1980, in L’abstraction prophétique (The Prophetic Abstraction), Ed. Gallimard, 1984
The creation that rendered his work accessible to the widest audience was without contest his famous 10 Francs coin, selected after a contest open to the public in which 342 entries were received. 100 million copies of the coin were released between 1974 and 1987, circulating in the hands of the entire French public during those years.
A dogged battle for sensibility
Elected to the Académie des Beaux-Arts (French Academy of Fine Arts) in 1975, Mathieu was in no way content to consider his election as an honorific distinction and decided to use it for leverage to defend the arts.
From the end of the 1960s to the 1990s, he waged a combat for sensibility which included critiquing artistic movements like Pop Art, Conceptual Art, and the New Realism, about which he expressed regret with respect to their lack of transcendent capacities, and participating in a project for reform intended to renew the content of educational programs in grade, middle and high schools. He also denounced the weight of “financial imperatives” on human relations, and expressed his disappointment that television was only used as a medium for entertainment while it offered formidable potential for awakening sensibilities.
Concerned with the place of the artist in society, but also with the question of access for everyone to an aesthetic sensibility, in 1971 Mathieu gave a speech at the Circle of Nations in Brussels — all in all he gave more than thirty — on the theme “Can the artist help people live better in the future?”, in which he called for “not only creation shared by all but creation made by all, with each person becoming a particular form of artist, with each of our actions bathing in a grace in which the aesthetic would be indissociable from the ethical.”
As a revolutionary, rather than a conservative, a dissenter, rather than a reactionary, he called upon young people to thrash conformism out of bourgeois society in his Epistle to Youth31in L’abstraction prophétique (Prophetic Abstraction), Ed. Gallimard, 1984, published for the first time in 1964 under the title “Réveillez-vous !” (“Wake Up!”), a premonition of the events of May, 1968, and whose incipit sets the tone: “Revolt, Speed, Risk: three key words.”
After the working class, it is you who have become conscious of the fact that the bourgeoisie has placed barriers everywhere. That everywhere, the bourgeoisie has spread its scorn for manual labor, its scorn for creation, its scorn for feminine values, its scorn for the true meaning of life. That everywhere the bourgeoisie has revealed its two obsessions, profit and security. It hoards and it locks away. With the fear of seeing property escape its grasp, it closes in a “single gesture vaults, hearts, homes” (…)
An artist in perpetual renewal
Sir Herbert Read, British art historian and co-founder of the Institute of Contemporary Arts, noted that “Mathieu is inimitable because he doesn’t imitate himself”. Over decades, Georges Mathieu has treated widely varied subjects that are theoretical and practical, artistic and philosophical, and his pictorial work has undergone major evolutions. The 1940s allowed him to experiment with new techniques, like dripping and tubism, to theorize a new pictorial movement and to propose a new language. The 1950s witnessed him presenting his art internationally in public places, putting into practice the notions of risk and speed. The 1960s and 1970s gave rise to the development of a French everyday artistic style, defined by fine art storming into the applied arts. And then, the 1980s witnessed the beginning of the “cosmic shift”, which was then followed by the “barbaric period”; therefore, one sees appearing in the canvasses, which correspond even more than ever to the letter of Lyrical Abstraction, more violent spurts, multiple flows and explosions, unprecedented choices of color, often highly contrasting, sometimes cavernous backgrounds that can then achieve a three-dimensional quality in the composition.
The many facets of Mathieu make of him an artist who is total, free, sensitive, visionary, lucid, and more relevant than ever. Because of his taste for risk, major accomplishments and exploits, his rejection of comfort and conformism, this “rebel dandy” left himself wide open to attacks by the critics. In Japan, the young painters of Tokyo continue to make a pilgrimage to admire the Bataille de Hakata (Battle of Hakata) in the Sogetsu collection, and American artists and art historians have still not recognized the breadth of their indebtedness to him; France and Europe still need to fully recognize and celebrate the heritage of the “enfant terrible” of abstraction. It is more than time to pay homage to him.
— Édouard Lombard, Director of the Georges Mathieu Committee
An initial version of this essay was published in October, 2016 in the exhibition catalogue “Mathieu 1951-1969” of the Dellupi Arte gallery.
|↑1||United States Line Paris Review|
|↑2||in Le rôle de l’artiste vis-à-vis de la cité dans le monde de demain (The role of the artist vis-à-vis the city in the world of tomorrow), interview conducted by André Parinaud in La Galerie des Arts n° 75, October, 1968|
|↑3||in the speech at his election to the Académie des Beaux-Arts, 1976|
|↑4||Heidelberg Conference, 1980|
|↑5||Edward Crankshaw — Joseph Conrad, some aspects of the art of the novel, Ed. John Lane, The Bodley Head, London, 1936|
|↑6, ↑8, ↑22, ↑24, ↑29||in Au-delà du Tachisme (Beyond Tachism), Ed. Julliard, 1963|
|↑7||in Pour une désaliénation de l’art (For a disalienation of art), 1961|
|↑9||in Approches de la création pure (Approaches to pure creation), 1987|
|↑10||in De l’abstrait au possible — Jalons pour une exégèse de l’art occidental (From the Abstract to the Possible — Milestones for an Exegesis of Western Art), Éd. du Cercle d’Art Contemporain à Zurich (Ed. of the Contemporary Art Circle, Zurich), 1959|
|↑11, ↑30||Heidelberg Conference, 1980, in L’abstraction prophétique (The Prophetic Abstraction), Ed. Gallimard, 1984|
|↑12||Ed. University of Chicago Press, 1983|
|↑13||in Au-delà du Tachisme (Beyond Tachism), Ed. Julliard, 1963|
|↑14||due to difficulties in borrowing works from American galleries|
|↑15||in Cent questions discrètes et moins discrètes (One Hundred Discreet and Less Discreet Questions), interview conducted in 1958 by Alain Bosquet and published in the journal Ring des Arts in 1960|
|↑16||Foreword by Blaise Distel, literary pseudonym of René Guiette, in De l’abstrait au possible — Jalons pour une exégèse de l’art occidental (From the Abstract to the Possible — Milestones for an Exegesis of Western Art), Ed. of the Contemporary Art Circle in Zurich, 1959|
|↑17||in Au-delà du Tachisme, Ed. Julliard, 1963, p. 164|
|↑18||in De l’abstrait au possible — Jalons pour une exégèse de l’art (From the Abstract to the Possible — Milestones for an exegesis of Western Art), Ed. of the Contemporary Art Circle in Zurich, 1959|
|↑19||in Approches de la création pure (Approaches to Pure Creation), speech given to the Academic of Moral and Political Sciences on Monday, January 19, 1987|
|↑20||in D’Aristote à l’Abstraction lyrique (From Aristotle to Lyrical Abstraction), article appearing in L’Œil, n°52, avril 1959|
|↑21, ↑31||in L’abstraction prophétique (Prophetic Abstraction), Ed. Gallimard, 1984|
|↑23||article in le Figaro, dated July 5, 1988, in 50 ans de création (50 Years of Creation), Ed. Hervas, 2003|
|↑25||Response to Kristine Stiles, in 50 ans de création (50 Years of Creation), Ed. Hervas, 2003|
|↑26||Apart from the photographs of Jackson Pollock by Hans Namuth|
|↑27||classified since 2018 as Historical Monument of France|
|↑28||in Cent questions discrètes et moins discrètes (One Hundred Discreet and Indiscreet Questions), interview conducted in 1958 by Alain Bosquet and published in the journal Ring des Arts in 1960|