Auguste Herbin


NewsFrom 10 October to 21 December 2019

Herbin: Volutes

An exhibition dedicated to the work of Herbin on the theme of volutes? A paradox! Is not Auguste Herbin one of the painters most strongly identified with geometric abstraction, whose compositions consist entirely of squares, rectangles, triangles, circles, and half-moon shapes, their forms marked out using a ruler and compass and strictly ordered within a vertical-horizontal grid? This is certainly true of Herbin at the prime of his career—the period after 1945 in which he towered over the world of European art due to the beauty of his compositions and the force of his ideas.

Yet this would be to see only one aspect of Herbin’s vast and varied oeuvre that stretches from the beginning of the twentieth century until 1960. There is also Herbin the pointillist, Herbin the fauvist, Herbin the pioneer of cubism, Herbin the forerunner of abstract art, Herbin returning to representational art, Herbin returning to abstraction, then Herbin the co-founder with Georges Vantongerloo of the Abstraction-Création group in 1931.

Is it sufficiently clear that the latter transition in his work developed from 1925 through a focus on subjects derived from the real world that were increasingly transposed and stylized to the point of being no longer recognizable? This can be seen in the composition Le petit bonhomme et l’âne from 1926, in which the source of all elements is nonetheless present: the donkey, its rider, the landscape, the ground, the sky. It is also significant that the subject as a whole is interpreted in a single language: that of curves. Herbin did not deviate from this approach until 1942—a period of seventeen years in which he produced over 180 paintings. This is the subject of this new exhibition at Galerie Lahumière.

Within this extended series of works, we can identify a clear progression and a great variety of families of paintings that all share a respect for the picture plane in the arrangement of forms, with generally vibrant colors applied in solid areas combined with a sense of neutrality and a precision of execution that remained of key concern to the artist in later years. The compositions are complex and at times highly charged, becoming more simplified in the 1930s, when references to reality became more tenuous and the artist adopted a truly abstract stance, as demonstrated in Composition à la ligne noire from 1932 (private collection, Paris), which can be likened to several watercolors from 1936 that are also displayed in this exhibition. For many years, Herbin also retained a commitment to the traditional representation of motifs as standing out from the background consistent with a centralized composition—of which Composition sur fond blanc from 1932 is a superb example. This work has great power with its interlaced curves set in contrast to a family of circles. Here, it is movement that the artist seeks to convey, as it is in many of his paintings that directly allude to dance. Following this approach, Herbin composed three monumental designs for the cinema at the Railways Pavilion for the International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts in Paris in 1938.

Curves, spirals, scrolls, twisting and crisscrossing forms—volutes in an infinite variety of configurations that evoke as many organic forms, such as droplets, amoebas, bean-shapes, bones, shells, or knots that link together, evolve, give rise to each other, and which connect Herbin’s work to the specific style of non-geometric abstract art known as biomorphism. Its main exponents in the 1920s and the following years were leading art world figures: Arp, Kandinsky, Kupka—from the early part of the latter half of his career—Miró, Calder, Moholy-Nagy, Domela, Erni, Béöthy, Vantongerloo, as well as artists both at the margins and the forefront of abstraction, such as Léger, Baumeister, and Le Corbusier. Herbin is from this world, and he is one of the earliest, one of the most important, and one of its most original representatives. His Composition from 1930, presented here, meets its match in Le Corbusier’s painting Étreinte III from 1938 (Musée d’Art et d’Histoire, Geneva). In the late 1930s, Herbin gave the title Réalité spirituelle to one of his works, also included in this exhibition. While remaining resolutely abstract and pursuing his own particular journey through his exploration of organic forms and all they contain within them in terms of germination, transformation, and metamorphosis, Herbin adds a new dimension to his art by endowing it with spiritual content.

Serge Lemoine
translated by Sarah Tooth Michelet

Serge Lemoine


Auguste Herbin . Volutes