In the 1960s, Anne and Jean-Claude Lahumière, publishers at the time, met with Jean Dewasne and produced his first published works. This encounter proved to be pivotal in their decision to return to their profession as gallerists with a special focus on geometric abstraction. It seems to me that among the artists whose work they have collected with admirable passion, Auguste Herbin, Jean Gorin, Victor Vasarely, and Jean Dewasne stand out due to a particular connection they share : these men were visionaries with a keen determination to give their work a social significance. They firmly believed that a visual environment that was constructed with a rational spirit could play a part in humanity’s progression toward an order that was more just. Consequently, their approach aimed for a high degree of clarity and logical rigor. The rigor of their pictorial language is the result of a universal aspiration—hence the title of this exhibition, "Vision and Rigor." The simultaneous presence of the works selected in this show invites us to make cross-comparisons that can color our perception of each individual work.
The works exhibited date from a period that spans almost three decades : from 1945 to 1975. Due to their birth dates, these artists are separated by more than a generation. Herbin was born in 1882, Gorin in 1899, Vasarely in 1906, and Dewasne in 1921 : they therefore did not have the same experience of history. Yet their pictorial language easily lends itself to comparison. At the beginning of the period in question, in 1945, all four artists had committed themselves to non-representational painting—not an obvious path to follow at the time. Herbin had just formulated his "plastic alphabet" and the young Dewasne had adopted him as his guide. As for Jean Gorin, he had been working since the early 1930s on the creation of reliefs and sculptures that adhered to the principles of neoplasticism. Encouraged to pursue this approach by Mondrian, Gorin, like a lone star, kept pace with all of the events relating to non-representational art, never deviating from his chosen trajectory. He had met Herbin in the 1930s in the ABSTRACTION-CRÉATION association, in which both artists held positions of responsibility. Both also frequented the "a.r. group of revolutionary artists," with whom Gorin traveled to Moscow in 1932 to learn about the reality of the Soviet utopia. However, despite the parallels between these two artists’ convictions and the causes they supported, there is no suggestion of mutual influence in their work.
Victor Vasarely, a Hungarian artist who had emigrated to Paris in 1932, brought to the turbulent postwar art scene his wealth of experience gained in Budapest while studying at the Mühely Art Academy, which was founded by Sándor Bortnyik according to Bauhaus principles. In 1945, Vasarely’s pictorial language was still tentative, as documented in a 1946 exhibition held at the Galerie Denise René. His subsequent discovery of the art of Herbin was to give his work a major impetus. In 1952, Dewasne wrote a monograph on Vasarely. The encounters and exchanges of information between these four artists were tied to their association with the activities of the Salon des Réalités Nouvelles and the Espace group, as well as exhibitions at the Galerie Denise René.
Jean Dewasne quickly increased his prestige and influence due to his considerable organizational skills. In 1950, he joined forces with Edgard Pillet to cofound the Atelier d’Art Abstrait in Paris, where he taught painting techniques based on the precepts of dialectical materialism. He advocated the rejection of traditional painting, promoting the use of industrial colors and media such as hardboard panels, and campaigned for access to large-scale urban spaces where he could create his works in public. Dewasne’s career is signposted by monumental paintings ranging from Apothéose de Marat in 1950 to Longue Marche in 1969 and finally to gigantic-scale paintings produced in the last years of his life for the Grande Arche de la Défense on the edge of Paris. With his "antisculptures," Dewasne made an important contribution to the development of the language of visual art : in these works, he explores his topological reflections on convex and concave spaces.
In the early 1950s, the art of Herbin was at its high point : his paintings of this period reveal a clarity of thought and a serene harmony that made him the undisputed master of "cold abstraction." He had succeeded in elevating non-representational art to a position of esteem, giving it almost mainstream status. The new generation respected him, read and discussed his writings, attributing him the role of champion of the legitimacy of non-representational art. Many of his admirers gave exposure to his work in their native countries, such as Baertling and Jacobsen in Sweden and Denmark, and also in Belgium and the Netherlands. His work was known in Germany thanks to his participation in the first two editions of documenta.
During this time, in the shadow of the triumph of Herbin’s abstract art formed a movement of radical innovation that was highly technical and pragmatic. Its exponents included Dewasne and Vasarely. After his arrival in France in 1932, Vasarely achieved success in the business world with the founding of an advertising agency. It was only in 1946 that he decided to embark on a career as a painter. Thus, at the age of forty he began his long quest for personal expression in this field. Thanks to his previous work, he understood the effects that activate "optical illusions" ; he knew how to construct works that induced a state of perceptual instability and sought to translate these effects in his artistic explorations. For a time, he limited his palette to black and white in order to intensify the kinetic power of his constructions. In 1955, he held an exhibition at the Galerie Denise René titled "Le Mouvement" and published his Yellow Manifesto. This exhibition was enormously influential and can be seen as the starting point of kinetic art, or op art, which continued to evolve throughout the 1960s. This period saw the incursion of scientific findings, particularly in Gestalt psychology, into the realm of visual art and the expansion of mechanical and electrical processes.
But the truly profound revolution was set in motion by the method of production and dissemination of art works that Vasarely devised and put into practice in the years that followed. While Dewasne’s visionary inspiration was expressed in his claim for the use of large-scale public spaces, for Vasarely it lay in his ability to predict the arrival of a new category of art-world consumers, a new audience that it was necessary to accommodate with mass production and distribution. He equipped his Paris studio for the manufacture of anonymous, mechanically produced works that were easily memorized and recognizable—procedures that Andy Warhol would also put into practice some years later at The Factory. For Vasarely, the process was conceived as a musical score, and almost all of his works after 1960 consist of an orthogonal grid on which were positioned squares or circles that were prepared in advance in large quantities. There is no trace of any personal touch in their execution ; their dimensions vary from the size of a traditional painting produced for private ownership to their incorporation into architecture, urban projects, and even "planetary folklore." Vasarely’s name is also associated with the "multiplication" of the art object—the multiple—and the distribution of "kits" that engage the user as an active participant in the creative process.
At the same time as these movements and events were taking place, Jean Gorin silently followed his own path, remaining faithful to his neoplasticist credo. His dream had always been the same : to transform his reliefs and sculptures into architectural forms—houses, districts, cities. If we are to speak about UTOPIA, the notion most certainly applies to the work of Jean Gorin : his creations are there in front of our eyes, but their location is nowhere to be seen.
Up to this point, we have discussed the visionary qualities of these four artists. But what can we say about the rigor with which they articulated their ideas ? This rigor can be determined by the degree to which they adhered to a constructive principle that was proclaimed by each artist as being the basis of his work. In the case of Gorin, his compliance with an ideological system—Mondrian’s neoplasticism—was total and consistent, yet always approached with sufficient creative input to escape the trap of dogmatism. For his part, Auguste Herbin provided viewers in 1943 with a decoding principle he called his "plastic alphabet," which he rigorously applied to the execution of his paintings.
Jean Dewasne set himself the goal of introducing new materials and hitherto unexplored techniques. Very early on, he imposed a requirement for artistic work to satisfy objective criteria and to obey the laws of science in order to allow for the creation of monumental works whose purpose could only be public, therefore collective. Jean Dewasne’s stance on scientific theories also connects him to Victor Vasarely, who drew inspiration from the same sources and who spoke about minute particles and waves, of quantum theory and the topology that lay at the foundation of his "plastic units."
To conclude these observations, we can thus see that two pairs can be distinguished in this exhibition : Herbin and Gorin as inventors of an autonomous pictorial language, while remaining loyal to the tradition of personal, manual execution of works ; and Vasarely and Dewasne as artist-engineers willing to delegate the execution of their projects to external producers, even to machines.
Hans Jörg Glattfelder, November 2019