Georges Mathieu And His Paintings, The Legacy of French Post-War Abstraction Lives On

Installation view of George Mathieu’s Tuz Gölü (1978) on view in “Calligraphy Rhapsody – Retrospective Exhibition of Georges Mathieu” at K11 MUSEA, 2021. Image courtesy of K11 Art Foundation and Comité Georges Mathieu.
Georges Mathieu, dressed in a kimono, painting in public on the roof of the Daimaru department store in Osaka, Japan, 1957. © Comité Georges Mathieu / ADAGP, Paris – SACK, Seoul, 2021.
Georges Mathieu painting La Rentrée triomphale de Go Daïgo à Kyoto (currently in the collection of the Fondation Gandur pour l’Art), in the garden of Tarō Okamoto, Geijutsu Shinchō, vol. 8, 1957. © Comité Georges Mathieu / ADAGP, Paris – SACK, Seoul, 2021.
Georges Mathieu, Évanescence, 1945, oil on canvas. © Comité Georges Mathieu / ADAGP, Paris – SACK, Seoul, 2021.
Georges Mathieu painting Les Capétiens partout ! in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, 10 October 1954. © Comité Georges Mathieu / ADAGP, Paris – SACK, Seoul, 2021.
10-franc coin from 1987 designed by Georges Mathieu. Issued by the French government, Mathieu’s design was in circulation with more than 100 million pieces from 1974 to 1987. © Comité Georges Mathieu / ADAGP, Paris – SACK, Seoul, 2021.
Georges Mathieu, Souvenir de la maison d’Autriche (Remembering the House of Austria), 1978, oil on canvas, 250 x 600 cm. © Comité Georges Mathieu / ADAGP, Paris – SACK, Seoul, 2021.
Georges Mathieu, Tuz Gölü, 1978, oil on canvas, 250 x 600 cm. © Comité Georges Mathieu / ADAGP, Paris – SACK, Seoul, 2021.
Georges Mathieu, Zonguldak, 1978, oil on canvas, 250 x 600 cm. © Comité Georges Mathieu / ADAGP, Paris – SACK, Seoul, 2021.
Installation views of Georges Mathieu’s 1978 retrospective at the Grand Palais in Paris. © Comité Georges Mathieu / ADAGP, Paris – SACK, Seoul, 2021.
Georges Mathieu painting. Photo by Dmitri Kessel//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images. © Comité Georges Mathieu / ADAGP, Paris – SACK, Seoul, 2021.
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CoBo Social Design and Architecture

On the occasion of Hong Kong’s largest retrospective of Georges Mathieu to date, CoBo Social Managing Editor Denise Tsui delves into the preeminent French painter’s decades-long oeuvre and pivotal development of Lyrical Abstraction.

TEXT: Denise Tsui
IMAGES: Courtesy of Comité Georges Mathieu / ADAGP, Paris – SACK, Seoul, 2021, unless otherwise stated

Picture this. Tubes of paint lined up in an endless row. Paintbrushes with handles as long as your arm lay at rest. All eyes are on the man dressed in a kimono, splashing, dripping, and swirling paint with fervent energy. The canvas, limp on the floor, is so large, so demanding of his attention that there exists nothing else in the world. The man kneels directly on the canvas, rubbing paint with bare hands as spectators look on and cameras flash away. The canvas is now hung up; presenting the man face to face with his beast. Decisive and certain, the man moves between brush and paint in short, abrupt, and explosive acts. He steps back, taking in the result of his mark, only to quickly step forth executing his next move. There is no hesitation, no rest; the beast must be tamed. Finally satisfied, he signs off his masterpiece. Standing amidst a battlefield of empty paint tubes and exhausted brushes, the man is met with astounding rounds of applause. The date is 11 September, the year is 1957, the city is Osaka, and the man is none other than Georges Mathieu.

Mathieu’s painting Hommage au général Hideyoshi (Homage to General Hideyoshi), stretching six metres long and created in front of a live audience on the rooftop of the department store Daimaru is widely regarded as a historic moment in modern art discourse; greatly admired in the same vein by fans of Kazuo Shiraga’s 1955 performance Challenging Mud and Shōzō Shimamoto’s famous act hurling glass bottles of paint onto canvas in 1956. But my fascination with the late French instigator of Lyrical Abstraction didn’t happen with such a profound moment of discovery. My first memorable encounter with the work of Georges Mathieu (1921–2012) was a few years ago standing alone in front of the 1967 painting Air de France. It consumed an entire wall of the gallery I was working in at the time. I was taken aback by its size, the sheer immensity of its rich blue background, and struck by the simplistic portrayal of Paris through sparse, delicate lines—but it wasn’t love at first sight, or even second. It was over several months. Each day as I arrived to work and looked at the painting, it seemed to exude an air of confidence from where it stood on the wall, filling the inert space with energy. I became hungry to know more about the artist whose painting, nearly 50 years on, seemed to be alive. The painting was soon sold, and I was both elated and sad to see it find a deserving home. Five years later, by chance I came across this painting again, hanging discreetly on the wall of another gallery, and just like that first day I stood in front of Air de France, it was glowing with an indescribable aura.

 

Georges Mathieu, dressed in a kimono, painting in public on the roof of the Daimaru department store in Osaka, Japan, 1957. © Comité Georges Mathieu / ADAGP, Paris – SACK, Seoul, 2021.
Georges Mathieu painting La Rentrée triomphale de Go Daïgo à Kyoto (currently in the collection of the Fondation Gandur pour l’Art), in the garden of Tarō Okamoto, Geijutsu Shinchō, vol. 8, 1957. © Comité Georges Mathieu / ADAGP, Paris – SACK, Seoul, 2021.

 

Hong Kong—still the leading global art market hub for Asia—has seen a renaissance of interest in European post-war artists, Mathieu among them. In 2019, mega-gallery Perrotin, co-representing the artist’s estate, mounted the first solo exhibition of the artist in the city, focusing on 1983–1991, the final years Mathieu actively painted. Meanwhile not a single major auction series goes by without his paintings—of all sizes and periods—being put up on the block. On this premise, “Calligraphy Rhapsody – Retrospective Exhibition of Georges Mathieu” seems like a very timely show. Co-organised by K11 Art Foundation (KAF) and the Consulat général de France à Hong Kong et Macao, with support from the Comité Georges Mathieu, the exhibition brings together 14 paintings spanning four decades of the artist’s oeuvre and seeks to introduce the preeminent artist to the city’s general audience. While calling it a retrospective might be a stretch—simply for the fact that more than half of the paintings are dated only to the last period 1985–1990—the exhibition is nonetheless an impressive survey starring a few historically key works that alone is enough to make up for any shortcomings.

The exhibition begins in 1951, with Eginhardt, an early example of Mathieu’s calligraphic visual idiom. But to comprehend the significance of the painting one has to look back earlier. An artist, theorist and editor, Mathieu was a highly educated man, having studied mathematics, literature, and foreign languages including English, Latin, Greek, Spanish and Russian. Painting was a self-taught endeavor that he took up in 1942, by transposing photographs and attempting to recreate his memories of London.[1] Fast forward a couple of years towards the end of World War II in 1944 and Mathieu was living in the north of France, studying philosophy, English and law. It was in this time that he stumbled across the writing of Edward Crankshaw, which inspired him, with utmost determination, to dedicate himself to pursuing the path of a painter—or more precisely, to painting that removed itself entirely from formal figuration and representation.[2]

 

Georges Mathieu, Évanescence, 1945, oil on canvas. © Comité Georges Mathieu / ADAGP, Paris – SACK, Seoul, 2021.

 

Mathieu’s earliest abstract works, such as Inception (1944), Stridence (1945), Disintegration and Survival (both 1946), show a heavy-handed treatment of paint, thicker strokes and lines, and a murkier palette. A highly experimental period, it was against the backdrop of war-torn Europe that Mathieu developed his pictorial aesthetic, which emphasised “total liberty to improvisation, speed, the unknown, the imagination and risk.”[3] Mathieu discovered for himself the technique of dripping paint directly from tube to canvas, which he came to favour. Produced two years before Jackson Pollock created his first drip painting across the other side of the Atlantic, Mathieu’s Évanescence (1945) possesses the thin, interlaced sinuous forms that he later become so renowned for such that André Malraux, then Minister of Culture in France, famously labeled the artist a “western calligrapher”.[4] By 1950, Mathieu’s paintings began to show refinement of his technical process and this is what we see in Eginhardt. A sharp departure from the grimy rawness of his early works, Eginhardt has a distinct separation of foreground and background; red and white are the dominating colours, strewn across the black canvas in slender, curving and intersecting lines. The painting also demonstrates a marked change in Mathieu’s use of space, no longer crowding the edges, but leaving expansive areas empty of noise.

 

Georges Mathieu painting Les Capétiens partout ! in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, 10 October 1954. © Comité Georges Mathieu / ADAGP, Paris – SACK, Seoul, 2021.

 

1950s: A Trailblazer Like No Other

Although the exhibition does not include any paintings from the mid to late 1950s, no discussion of Mathieu’s life and work should ever forgo this important period where he arguably reached the pinnacle of developing his artistic language. Mathieu spent much of this decade traversing the world. From his first solo exhibition in Paris in 1950, at Galerie René Drouin, to making his New York debut at Stable Gallery in 1952 and being acquired into the collections of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and the Art Institute of Chicago in 1953, Mathieu was reveling in international recognition and it only propelled him to push the limits of his painting practice even further. Mathieu—already credited as pioneering Lyrical Abstraction in Europe[5]—also found himself at the centre of some fierce transatlantic rivalry from his American counterparts who were spearheading Abstract Expressionism.[6] Over the course of this decade, Mathieu’s canvases became colossal, ambition grander, risk calculated but higher. Mathieu’s confidence reached a new peak—evident in the sharpness and speed with which he applied paint. It was in these years that Mathieu—pre-dating the Happenings of the 1960s of Yves Klein and others[7]—introduced the performative dimension to his practice, placing the action of painting firmly into the realm of performance art. Oftentimes these were staged, with the accompaniment of musicians, dancers, or even martial artists. Sometimes he painted in front of an audience, other times in front of cameras.

The year 1957 was a pivotal one for Mathieu. On the invitation of Jirō Yoshihara, co-founder of Gutai Art Association, Mathieu travelled to Japan, spending three weeks in Osaka, Tokyo and Kyoto.[8] His artistic output was nothing short of spectacular, famously executing 21 canvases in the span of just three days in Tokyo including the eight-metre wide La Bataille de Hataka (The Battle of Hakata) and a 15-metre long fresco. In Osaka, on the rooftop of Daimaru, Mathieu painted six canvases on the same day, including the aforementioned legendary Hommage au général Hideyoshi (Homage to General Hideyoshi). So admired was Mathieu by artists of Gutai that he was named in the Gutai Manifesto of 1956. The late Professor Sôichi Tominaga, then director at the National Museum of Western Art in Tokyo famously praised Mathieu as “The greatest French painter since Picasso.”[9] That same year, Mathieu globetrotted from place to place, painting live for audiences all across the world. Aside from Japan, Mathieu travelled to Brussels and Liége, Belgium; Honolulu and New York, US; Milan and Rome, Italy; Zurich and Ascona, Switzerland; Stockholm, Sweden and elsewhere, leaving behind a blazing trail of paintings.

 

10-franc coin from 1987 designed by Georges Mathieu. Issued by the French government, Mathieu’s design was in circulation with more than 100 million pieces from 1974 to 1987. © Comité Georges Mathieu / ADAGP, Paris – SACK, Seoul, 2021.

 

The 1960s and 70s: The Golden Decades of Success

By the 1960s, Mathieu’s philosophies on the practice of painting and of painting itself had been firmly established. With his pictorial language now sufficiently rooted; the calligraphic nature of his marks, which emerged in the late 1940s, became the ultimate visual idiom to define Mathieu’s liberation from all that came before him. He had arrived at the conclusion set out some two decades earlier, that “painting could exist without the need to represent.”[10] Furthermore, the necessary requirements for arriving at the language of unbridled lyrical abstraction in the purest sense was by now entrenched in Mathieu’s writings.

Speed was the means by which Mathieu abandoned the conventions of painting to arrive at free creativity, dictated only by the artist’s choices of method and configuration. The canvas becomes nothing more than an accumulation of these gestures, a trace of his actions, which are at times rapid and violent, other times slow and solemn. Vital as speed was, however, it was not the sole requirement. The act of painting was also all encompassing, demanding Mathieu’s full body energy on a spiritual level; immersing the artist in a dionysiac manner. “I will add to these conditions of speed and improvisation that of needing to be in a trance-like zone: it is both a concentration of psychic energies as well as the most total state of vacuousness possible,” wrote Mathieu in 1959.[11]

Mathieu placed his art “at the crossroads of the object, the act, and the behaviour.”[12] The canvas was his beast, the performance locale delineated the boundaries of his arena, and through the action of painting, he unleashed energy until he arrived at a point of rupture, a moment in which the forces he had let loose found a semblance of equilibrium.

The culmination of all this, and his unparalleled popularity in France—where Mathieu’s influence in the applied arts saw him design posters for Air France, stamps, and the national 10-franc coin among many other projects—places the 60s and 70s as the height of his career, a period well illustrated in the exhibition through the inclusion of three six-metre-wide paintings—Souvenir de la maison d’Autriche (Remembering the House of Austria); Zonguldak; and Tuz Gölü. Part of a suite of seven Mathieu created for his major retrospective at the Grand Palais in Paris in 1978, he began the series on 27 January 1978 and completed all seven in just six weeks.

 

Georges Mathieu, Souvenir de la maison d’Autriche (Remembering the House of Austria), 1978, oil on canvas, 250 x 600 cm. © Comité Georges Mathieu / ADAGP, Paris – SACK, Seoul, 2021.
Georges Mathieu, Tuz Gölü, 1978, oil on canvas, 250 x 600 cm. © Comité Georges Mathieu / ADAGP, Paris – SACK, Seoul, 2021.
Georges Mathieu, Zonguldak, 1978, oil on canvas, 250 x 600 cm. © Comité Georges Mathieu / ADAGP, Paris – SACK, Seoul, 2021.

 

True to Mathieu’s nature, who described his need to negate the previous painting upon execution of a new, each of the three paintings carry individual characteristics while all distinctly bear the artist’s signature calligraphic strokes. Souvenir was the second of the seven to be completed and stands out for its particularly vibrant burst of colours emanating from the centre of its composition. Zonguldak, by contrast, demonstrates a more rigid, albeit less densely packed, focal composition in an overall warm palette dominated by red strokes against a muted brown. Starkly different again, Tuz Gölü is comprised of a horizontal top-bottom separation of red and blue—two colours common in Mathieu’s oeuvre—delineated by a heavy mass of black strokes, its weight offset only by Mathieu’s addition of white paint blended somewhat softly into the blue of the background. Despite not being the complete suite, these three monumental paintings, when viewed together in this exhibition, exemplify the many techniques Mathieu adopted in his paintings, and the deliberate compositional use of space, which favoured a central focal point, an aspect that he would shift away from in the 1980s.

 

Installation views of Georges Mathieu’s 1978 retrospective at the Grand Palais in Paris. © Comité Georges Mathieu / ADAGP, Paris – SACK, Seoul, 2021.

 

1980s: The Mature Years

The final years Mathieu actively painted were also some of the most extraordinary. These paintings, created in his 60s, show the maturation of an artist who has confidently secured his place in the canon of art history, found the answers to questions proposed by his younger self, and laboured through the hours demanded for true technical refinement. What we see is a departure from the experimental mindset, unyielding angst and aggressive forces of the early days, arriving at a more mellow energy and deliberate precision in execution. In the exhibition, we first see this shift in the 1985 painting Chton, which with its bold, wide blue strokes and elimination of methodical empty space, appearing almost as if it exists as a close-up detail of the artist’s earlier grand-scale paintings. Arriving at Cruautés déroutées (Rerouted Cruelties) (c. 1989) and La justice fourvoyée (The Misdemeanour of Justice) (1990), the mastery of Mathieu is without question. Both paintings shine with the spirit of Mathieu’s decades-long practice, while all his various techniques and methods are distilled into a single canvas, including the reintroduction of a dripping technique that had been largely put aside in the 1960s and 1970s. Where La justice fourvoyée utilises colours that run through all of Mathieu’s years of painting—black, yellow, red, blue—Cruautés déroutées possess a delicate and beautiful plum and magenta palette, seen in several paintings of this period but in previous years only in the most miniscule amount.

Mathieu, who was born to a banker father and a mother who descended from the purportedly noble bloodline of Godefroy de Bouillon, the 11th century first ruler of the Kingdom of Jerusalem and leader of the First Crusade, was without question an eccentric character, evident in the flamboyancy of his performances, the grandeur of his gestures, the intense pursuit of pure creativity. Mathieu’s paintings were oft named after battles, places or noteworthy figures in history, revealing Mathieu’s points of interest. With the exception of a few, however, the artist claimed there was no direct correlation of the names to the composition of his paintings. Nevertheless, I can’t help but feel many of these titles added to the emotional sway of the paintings, perhaps in a way permitting them to hold the zealous energy Mathieu imparted on the canvas.

“The present is my solitude and solitude is my painting,” said Mathieu in his 1971 documentary film Georges Mathieu ou la fureur d’être (Georges Mathieu or The Fury of Being) directed by the late Frédéric Rossif. These words struck me as I watched documentary clips of him painting, on view in the exhibition. Mathieu harnessed the power of painting to evoke emotions, to contain energy within its canvas fibers and paint layers. His paintings are a tour de force that will continue to move its viewers for years to come.

 

Georges Mathieu painting. Photo by Dmitri Kessel//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images. © Comité Georges Mathieu / ADAGP, Paris – SACK, Seoul, 2021.

 

[1] Mathieu, Georges, Mathieu, 50 Ans de Création, Hervas, Paris, 2002, p. 24.

[2] Quignon-Fleuret, Dominique, Georges Mathieu, transl. from French by Arsham, Jeffrey, Crown Publishers, New York, 1977, p. 8.

Mathieu, Georges, Mathieu, 50 Ans de Création, Hervas, Paris, 2002, p. 28.

[3] Mathieu, Georges, speech on the occasion of his election to the Academie des Beaux-Arts, 1976, extracted from Georges Mathieu: The 1960s and 1970s, exhibition catalogue, Galerie Templon, Paris, 2018, p.9.

[4] Mathieu, Georges, Mathieu, 50 Ans de Création, Hervas, Paris, 2002, p. 9; on the occasion of Mathieu’s first solo exhibition in Paris in 1950 at Galerie René Drouin.

[5] The name Lyrical Abstraction (L’Abtraction lyrique) was inspired by the term “lyrical abstractivism” (abstractivisme lyrique) which was used by French art critic Jean José Marchand in 1947 to describe Mathieu’s paintings exhibited at the 14th Salon des Surindépendants in Paris. Soon after, the term Lyrical Abstraction was coined. Mathieu was also one of the artists who propagated Art Informel (L’art informel), a general term conceived by the eminent French art critic and curator and Mathieu’s longtime friend and supporter Michel Tapié to describe all the gestural approaches to abstract painting coming out of post-World War II France and elsewhere in Europe.

[6] Although Mathieu expressed a critical interest in the work of his American counterparts, such that he even organised exhibitions bringing their works to audiences in Paris, including “The Imaginary” (1947) and “H.W.P.S.M.T.B.” (1948), his paintings, his representation by a New York gallery and his popularity among US institutions, divided critics at the time and stirred uproar among the artists, some of who were very vocal with their opinions such as Mark Rothko, Robert Motherwell, Clyfford Still and Barnett Newman. Meanwhile, in 1954, The New York Times claimed Mathieu to be an abstract as powerful in Paris as Willem de Kooning was for Manhattan in a review of Mathieu’s work, and Clement Greenberg, in 1959, who praised Mathieu as the transatlantic painter he admired most.

Quignon-Fleuret, Dominique, Georges Mathieu, transl. from French by Arsham, Jeffrey, Crown Publishers, New York, 1977, p. 19.

Mathieu, Georges, Mathieu, 50 Ans de Création, Hervas, Paris, 2002, p. 32.

Perl, AnnMarie, Mathieu, as Seen from the United States, from the 1950s to Today, published in Georges Mathieu: The 1960s and 1970s, exhibition catalogue, Galerie Templon, Paris, 2018, p.37.

[7] Mathieu, Georges, Mathieu, 50 Ans de Création, Hervas, Paris, 2002, p. 55.

[8] Mathieu’s pursuit of painting as the purest act of creativity was in parallel to the goals of Gutai. The same year Mathieu travelled to Japan, Gutai held their second public art performance where Kazuo Shiraga famously donned a red Pinocchio suit, suspended himself from the ceiling and created a painting using his feet as the brush, a method for which Shiraga is heralded for.

[9] Mathieu, Georges, Mathieu, 50 Ans de Création, Hervas, Paris, 2002, p.7, 62.

[10] Mathieu, Georges, Mathieu, 50 Ans de Création, Hervas, Paris, 2002, p.28–29.

[11] Mathieu, Georges, From the abstract to the possible — Foundations for an exegesis of western art, Ed. Of the Circle of Contemporary Art in Zurich, 1959, p. 39.

[12] Mathieu, Georges, Au-delà du Tachisme (Beyond Tachism), Ed. Julliard, 1963, p.144.

 

 

 

 
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