Geometric Sensitivity

Jean Deyrolle, Emile Gilioli, Jean Leppien, Alberto Magnelli

NewsFrom 13 March to 25 September

Alberto Magnelli, Jean Leppien, Jean Deyrolle, and Emile Gilioli, brought together by the Galerie Lahumière for a show titled Géométries Sensibles, represent the rebirth of geometric abstraction in France after the Second World War. These artists—born between the end of the nineteenth century and the first decade of the twentieth, in Germany, Italy, or France—were not always at the same stage of artistic development, the war having been a period of exile, imprisonment, isolation, and great destitution. Yet during the optimistic post-war reconstruction, all four imparted a renewed vitality to their work, established strong bonds of friendship, and often exhibited together in Parisian galleries and salons. They did not meet only in Paris, for sometimes they preferred the quiet, delightful atmosphere of Provence, where some of them moved permanently (Magnelli to Grasse, Leppien to Roquebrune, and Deyrolle to Gordes). The works assembled for this show reveal the extent to which southern light, color, landscapes, and architecture inspired them and helped to reinvigorate their creativity.

For Magnelli, the eldest of the four, the post-war period saw the culmination of a nearly forty-year career divided between his native Italy and his adopted country, France. Magnelli’s paintings, endowed with what art critic Achille Bonito Oliva called “a silent, internal geometry all their own,” sought a state of rhythmic equilibrium in which clearly defined shapes, often set against black, went from acute angles to rounded arcs, as in Formes Variées (1958). The mat quality of his colors, applied with respect for the picture plane, evoked the art of frescoes, so beloved by Magnelli (who originally came from Florence and was a great admirer of Piero della Francesca). Imbuing his paintings with a delicate light, Magnelli developed highly refined chromatic relationships based on the use of shot effects in hues of brown, ocher, bistre, gray-blue, etc. He thereby offset the strict compositional architecture of his paintings with sensual colors and supple shapes. This geometric sensitivity appealed to younger artists who, seeking to escape overly rigid pictorial construction, opted for less formal stylistic principles.

Jean Deyrolle, who came to abstraction in 1944, particularly appreciated the sense of visual rhythm in Magnelli’s paintings. Malon, painted in Gordes in the summer of 1953, is typical of Deyrolle’s first abstract period, in which geometric shapes overlap in a way that establishes broad areas of color. Warm and cool hues alternate, thereby creating a gentle harmony that accords with the use of tempera, a medium that Magnelli had taught him. Oreus (1966), from Deyrolle’s mature period, testifies to his simultaneously methodical and sensitive grasp of painting: the central motif is a broken circle with echoes that create an impression of spatial reverberations across the canvas. Diagonal slashes crossing the pictorial field contribute to the impression of breakage, which is nevertheless attenuated by the use of a palette knife to apply paint in fluid, rhythmic strokes, producing an expressive power that also stems from the artist’s bodily involvement: for Deyrolle, a work’s sensuality arises from physical gesture of stroking. His specialty entailed the marriage of a rigorous abstract language with a heightened pictorial sensitivity allied to nature—as notably found in the south of France.

The same determination to avoid an overly formal organization through the supple use of line can be seen in Jean Leppien’s work. His idea of painting, derived from Kandinsky—under whom he studied at the Bauhaus in 1930—involved “translating a mood or state of mind into pure forms and colors.” Indeed, a composition from 1949 (6/49 LIII) is based on a dynamic articulation of large curves whose interpenetration delimits the colored surface into the two strict dimensions of the pictorial field. Leppien’s smooth, precise handling adds to the harmony of the painting, whose melodious nature expresses his own sensibility. This poetic grasp of painting would be also seen in his later adoption of more richly layered paint and warmer tones, endowing his works with a luminous, fleshy presence. In the paintings of that period, Leppien reconciled geometry and impasto by extensively simplifying the elements in a composition, reduced to basic symbols like circles or rectangular shapes, as seen in a work from 1961 (5/61 XIII).

Sculptor Emile Gilioli went abstract after the war, a period when he notably became friends with Deyrolle, Dewasne, and Poliakoff. He, too, was seeking a balance between rigor and sensuality in his work. “I wanted my sculpture to be like overripe fruit that bursts from too much juice,” declared Gilioli in 1946. “I wanted my statues to radiate with substance. I wanted to make sculpture that was three-dimensional, static, dynamic, and cosmic.” His clear interest in Brancusi’s sculpture led Gilioli toward a pure abstraction in which the perfection of volumes and a striking precision of lines were attained thanks to absolute mastery of materials and polishing techniques. The light that generously plays across gilded bronze surfaces fluidly underscores the transition from curve to angle, from dense volumes to smooth planes (Vitesse, 1976). The two themes dear to Gilioli, a diagonal line (illustrating the conquest of space) and a sphere (symbolizing the sun) meet in Fleur Coupée (ca. 1960). The pure, elementary shapes of Gilioli’s sculptures, like their sensual, luminous presence, transcend the anecdotal to attain the universal.

The Géométries Sensibles exhibition demonstrates the way that Magnelli, Leppien, Deyrolle, and Gilioli drew on the warm, light-drenched climate of southern France to find a new source of inspiration for their works, as perfectly illustrated by earthy colors and shimmering textures brought to life by a soft, delicate luminosity.

Domitille d’Orgeval

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Geometric Sensitivity. Jean Deyrolle, Emile Gilioli, Jean Leppien, Alberto Magnelli