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Jean Fautrier (French, 1898–1964)

About this artist

Source: Oxford University Press

French painter, printmaker, illustrator and sculptor. An illegitimate child, he was given his mother’s surname but was brought up by his grandmother. On the death of both his father and grandmother in 1908 he joined his mother in London, where he entered the Royal Academy Schools in 1912. Finding the teaching too traditional, he left to enrol at the Slade School of Fine Art, which had a reputation for being more avant-garde, though he was again disappointed. He then decided to work alone and devoted himself to painting, concentrating on nudes and still-lifes. He also regularly visited the Tate Gallery, where he was particularly impressed by the works of Turner. In 1917 he was called up for the French Army, but because of his poor health he was soon transferred to the auxiliary corps. Suffering from a pulmonary complaint, he lived in the Tyrol from 1920 to 1921 and was finally discharged from the army in 1921.

In 1922 Fautrier moved to Paris. Later that year, at the Salon d’Automne, he exhibited works in a proficient realist technique, such as Tyroleans in Sunday Dress (1921–2; Paris, Mus. A. Mod. Ville Paris) and Portrait of my Concierge (1922; Tourcoing, Mus. Mun. B.-A.). Later that year he travelled to Corsica, returning in 1923 to Paris, where he exhibited works at the Galerie Fabre; there he met the dealer Jeanne Castel, who soon became his friend and first collector. In the same year he started to produce engravings and etchings, for example Self-portrait: Fautrier Etching (1923; see Mason, pl. 8), in which he shows himself at work on a plate. Other prints from that year included several inspired by texts by Charles Baudelaire and Edgar Allen Poe. His first one-man show, held in Paris at the Galerie Visconti in 1924, attracted several reviews, some of them favourable. In 1926 he met the dealer Léopold Zborowski, who exhibited his works alongside those of Amedeo Modigliani, Moïse Kisling and Chaïm Soutine. His paintings at this time were dark and violent, taking as their subject-matter dead animals, flowers and mountain landscapes and often incorporating linear marks scratched into the paint surface, as in Flayed Wild Boar (1927; Paris, Pompidou). His mountain landscapes, such as Blue Lake II (1926; Paris, Pompidou), recall Turner in their suggestions of the power and majesty of nature.

Through Castel, in 1928 Fautrier met André Malraux, who asked him to illustrate a text of his choice. Copyright problems prevented him from using Arthur Rimbaud’s Les Illuminations, so he settled on Dante’s Inferno, producing 34 lithographs, one for each canto. Since many of these, such as Inferno, Canto XXV (1928; Paris Mus. A. Mod. Ville Paris), came close to abstraction, the proposed publication by Gallimard was deemed impossible and finally abandoned in 1930. A similar trend towards abstraction was apparent in Fautrier’s pastels and in oil paintings such as The Trees (1928; Paris, Mus. A. Mod. Ville Paris), executed in an expressive gestural style. In fact, much of his work of that year foreshadowed his later Art informel. From 1927 to 1930 he produced a number of paintings in sombre tones of female models, such as Large Nude from the Front (1930; Amiens, Mus. Picardie); these women with mask-like faces are often shown nude or undressing. Concurrent with these were his first bronze sculptures, again of female figures, such as the roughly modelled Large Torso (h. 660 mm, 1928; Paris, Pompidou).

During most of the 1930s, with his life straitened by poor financial circumstances, Fautrier’s output was very slight. In order to earn a living, from 1934 to 1936 he lived in the mountain resort of Tignes, where he worked as a ski-instructor and also set up a jazz club; in 1936 he moved to Val d’Isère and again set up a club. His exclusion from L’Art indépendant: Maîtres d’aujourd’hui, a large exhibition of modern art organized by Raymond Escholier in Paris in 1937, caused him considerable indignation. At the outbreak of World War II in 1939 he left the mountains and lived in Marseille, Aix-en-Provence and Bordeaux before returning in 1940 to Paris, where he began to paint again. In Paris he soon became acquainted with the writers and poets Jean Paulhan, René Char, Robert Ganzo, Francis Ponge and Paul Eluard, later illustrating works by them, such as Paulhan’s Les Causes célèbres.

After being arrested and briefly imprisoned by the Germans in January 1943, Fautrier settled in the outskirts of Paris in Châtenay-Malabry, where in 1945 he bought an old château in which he remained until his death. There he began work on a series of paintings on paper entitled Hostages (e.g. Head of Hostage No. 3, 1943; Sceaux, Château, Mus. Ile de France), executed with tactile blocks of colour of thick impasto. Although consisting of highly simplified, almost abstract forms, these despairing, fugitive heads and figures reflected the events of the war. The mood of such works by Fautrier and other painters of his generation gave rise to their characterization in the early 1950s as Art autre. The simplification of form and method of execution of these paintings, exhibited together in 1945 at the Galerie Drouin in Paris with a catalogue preface by Malraux, characterized all his subsequent production and proved highly influential in the development of Art informel in the following decade. A similar tactile quality can be found in the bronze heads made from 1940 to 1944, such as Large Tragic Head (1942; Paris, Pompidou), in which the left side of the face has been all but scratched away, culminating in Hostage (bronze, h. 485 mm, 1943; Gunter Sachs priv. col., see Engelberts, pl. 22), which bears virtually no facial features.

In 1947 Fautrier worked on a number of etchings to illustrate Paulhan’s Fautrier l’enragé (Paris, 1949), and in the latter half of the 1940s he painted several still-lifes, for example The Key (1949; Paris, Mus. A. Mod. Ville Paris). His prints at this time, such as Violent Head (1947; Geneva, Mus. A. & Hist.), are often more overtly figurative than his paintings. Together with his mistress Jeanine Aply, in 1950 he developed a technique of ‘multiple originals’, combining elements of printing and painting, which enabled him to produce numerous variations of a work. His exhibition of such pictures in Paris (1950 and 1953) and New York (1956), although designed as a means of attracting a wider public, proved a commercial failure.

After the Soviet crackdown in Hungary in 1956, Fautrier painted a number of works entitled Head of Partisan in homage to the tragic courage of its victims, for example Head of Partisan, Budapest (1957; Paris, Paul Haim priv. col., see 1989 exh. cat., pl. 134). Other works of the 1950s included landscapes such as Sunset in Alabama (1957; Paris, Mus. A. Mod. Ville Paris), in which he reduced the landscape forms to horizontal bands of colour. He continued to work within the terms of Art informel, approaching total abstraction in paintings such as Heresies (1964; Geneva, priv. col., see Cabanne, p. 143). He won the international grand prize at the Venice Biennale in 1960 and another major award at the Tokyo Biennale in 1961. He made major donations in 1964 to the Musée de l’Ile-de-France in Sceaux and to the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, where a large retrospective of his work opened posthumously later that year.

Philip Cooper
From Grove Art Online

© 2009 Oxford University Press

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