The current exhibition at Galerie Lahumière brings together three twentieth century artists who are linked to one another through their social commitment and their artistic and aesthetic concerns, and deeply original in their conceptions of geometric abstraction.
What strikes us first is that Félix Del Marle (1889–1952), Georges Folmer (1895–1977), and Jean Gorin (1899–1981) all started out as figurative painters. Curiously, some artists return to representational subjects after a period of abstraction, as did Malevich, Hélion, and Herbin. In this way, Del Marle went back to representational painting between 1930 and 1940, while Folmer continued in this vein until 1943, reverting back to it from time to time until 1960. Gorin abandoned it altogether in 1926.
The earliest work presented is by Del Marle : Étude pour Musicalisme (1925). At that time, the artist was influenced by Futurism and aligned himself with the German Simplicissimus group and František Kupka. Most importantly, he founded the Vouloir group and the eponymous journal in Lille, advocating a regionalist and moderately avant-garde stance. The same year, he gave a lecture on Henri Valensi, founder of Musicalism, a movement that explored connections between painting and music, colors and sounds, without, however, aspiring for a total synthesis of the arts as Kandinsky had sought in The Yellow Sound in 1909.
From 1926, Del Marle and the Vouloir group became actively involved with the De Stijl movement and Neoplasticism : Mondrian was commissioned to write articles for the journal and Del Marle visited his Paris studio. The same year, Del Marle traveled to the Netherlands with César Doméla and met with architects Gerrit Rietveld and J. J. P. Oud. This led to a number of architectural projects, including the Esthétique Moderne bookshop in Lille and the apartment of Léonce Rosenberg in Paris. In 1926, Del Marle struck up a friendship with Jean Gorin, who also met Georges Folmer that year.
At this time, Gorin was drawn to Purism, a movement led by Amédée Ozenfant and Le Corbusier, an architect who was also a keen sculptor and painter. When Purism (which Del Marle vehemently criticized) ultimately petered out to little more than a decorative system, Gorin discovered Neoplasticism through the Vouloir group (which now counted Folmer among its ranks) and Del Marle in Lille, and became friends with Mondrian, remaining his loyal disciple until the end of his life. In 1932, he founded the Abstraction-Création group in Paris along with Auguste Herbin, Jean Hélion, and Georges Vantongerloo. He traveled to Moscow, where he admired the work of Malevich. He was undoubtedly familiar with the Russian and Soviet avant-garde’s interrogation of the relationship between art and daily life, the work of architect Konstantin Melnikov, Kandinsky’s porcelain tableware, the work of Nikolai Suetin and Malevich, and Rodchenko’s furniture designs. This "utilitarian," socially-oriented direction of art was already firmly anchored in the work of Del Marle and his newly-founded S.T.U.C.A. group that included Gorin, Doméla, and Mondrian, and which, over a few months in 1928 in Lille, set its sights on a new synthesis of art and industry in the spirit of the Bauhaus (which Del Marle had visited in 1926).
Here emerged a subject of investigation whose twists and turns can be followed to the end of the twentieth century. A focus on geometry was underpinned by a new reading of the world : a desire to discover the true, unchangeable structures of reality beyond appearances. Continuing the innovations of Cézanne, then Cubism, geometric abstraction was dedicated to "pure" forms, drawing on the principles of the hermetic tradition. Mondrian and Kandinsky were proponents of theosophy, Malevich adhered to a combination of aesthetic mysticism and revolutionary ideals, Del Marle was a Freemason who converted to Catholicism in 1930, while Gorin, in 1977, called for artists to find "new means of expression based on the universal, eternal laws of the cosmos" and Folmer was fascinated by the golden section and its universal presence—explorations that were as much spiritual as they were artistic.
Nonetheless, the connection with the public was at risk of being permanently severed. They needed to find a path that allowed all actors in the process to follow these new principles and to live in a finer, therefore more just, world (a reasoning that is not far from Platonic idealism).
Two possibilities were thus pursued :
- A concept of architecture united with painting, visible to all : a new society, a new humanity. Works were created that integrated into the real world : the unreservedly Neoplasticist interior design of Del Marle’s home in Pont-sur-Sambre (1926), Gorin’s homes in Nort-sur-Erdre (1926–27) and Sainte-Pézenne (1967), and two (among many) planned projects—that are presented in this show (from 1952 and 1964)—as well as numerous studies for furniture, building designs, and polychrome works. Their path ran parallel to that of Le Corbusier after 1923 (particularly his Architectural Polychromy projects from 1947 and 1953 : the Radiant Cities in Marseilles, in 1947, and in Rezé in 1953).
- Endeavors to involve the public, including exhibitions, with the Salon des Réalités Nouvelles and its first general secretary, Jean Gorin, playing a key role. Gorin co-founded the group with Herbin (who formulated his "plastic alphabet" in 1942), a new project to connect the arts. Del Marle was general secretary from 1947 to 1951, while Folmer regularly exhibited at the Salon from 1947 to 1972 and was general secretary from 1956 to 1968. An essential meeting point where current topics and conflicts were debated, this annual exhibition juxtaposed wide-ranging approaches and championed the vitality and necessity of geometric art in the face of Abstraction Lyrique and the highly dynamic American avant-garde movements.
As well as these more visible activities, Folmer was also searching for the true shape of reality beneath appearances, and maintained a lifelong interest in the golden section, music, the poetry of Mallarmé, and the synthesis—or, at least, interconnection—of the arts, as expressed in numerous discussions held during the Salon des Réalités Nouvelles and with Gorin, Del Marle, and his collaborator Servanes. Folmer’s works shown here date from 1949 to 1959 and attest to a keen regard for construction and balanced solidity. His explorations are perhaps less evident than those of Del Marle or Gorin, although we can find a hint in the titles of the works : A travers l’encens bleu des horizons pâlis (Across Blue Incense and Fading Horizons), 1953, Et tout-à-coup le soleil frappe la nudité (And Suddenly Sunlight Beat Down on Nudity), 1959, evoke Mallarmé and bring to mind architectural facades (compare Mondrian’s work from 1914). In the same way, the oblique planes of ochre and black in Composition 1950 (1950) seem to echo the fruit forms on the pylons of Egyptian temples. References to Egypt, the mother of ancient mysteries, appear here and there in Folmer’s work—a field of interest that was not shared by Gorin or Del Marle.
In 1952, Folmer joined the Espace group founded the previous year by Del Marle and André Bloc to promote collaboration between designers, architects, and artists. In 1951–52, the group developed wide-ranging projects including polychrome schemes (Lille trade fair), public housing (Guebwiller, Flins), and student accommodations at the Cité Universitaire de Paris. Folmer left the group in 1956, considering it ineffective. In 1960, he founded the Mesure group (which disbanded in 1965) along with Gorin (vice-president), Léo Breuer, Aurélie Nemours, and Luc Peire, among others, to pursue the goal of a synthesis of the arts.
In parallel, new aesthetic and spatial concerns were emerging. From around 1948, Folmer embarked on the manipulation of polychrome volumes, then added motion—and with movement came the implication of time—and after 1960, explored the possible transformations of an artwork. Gorin, working with planes, lines, and colors, also alluded to time in his paintings, reliefs, and assemblages, such as Composition spatio-temporelle no. 51 (1959) and no. 60 (1969), both presented here. These works can be read as distant, possible architectural ideas (perhaps following the example of the "architectons" created by Malevich in the 1920s—an artist whom Gorin admired in Moscow in 1932. Produced at the same time, Gorin’s interior design sketches have a utopian allure : Maison de repos pour un club (1952) and Architecture plastique des couleurs dans l’espace-temps (1964) continue his Neoplasticist explorations of the 1920s. As for Del Marle, he directed his attention to the notion of space without reference points : Petit espace cosmique and Composition, both from 1948, could even be mementos of Suprematism. Moreover, his Structure spatiale (1949) appears to presage Gorin’s Constructions spatiales (1969), with both artists remaining faithful to Mondrian’s palette.
Clearly, these decades between 1925 and, here, 1969, offer us a rich panorama in terms of works, the ideas developed, and the artists’ endeavors to enhance humanity and society through art : a sort of horizontal dimension. On the other hand, Del Marle, Gorin, and Folmer were all dedicated to surpassing appearances and reconstructing a kind of temple for the new Mankind, to rediscovering "true reality"—one of lost origins, mathematical rules, and unchanging structures as they dreamed of a new Harmony, a grand unity between all of the arts in a newfound Golden Age… This vertical dimension is contained within the thinking of our three artists (and that of many others), who mutually admired each other, worked together, compared ideas, pursued their own directions, and met up in various artists’ groups including the Salon des Réalités Nouvelles, while always maintaining their individuality. But before they reached the end of their lives, Kinetic Art, Op Art, and Pop Art would establish a different hegemony…
Honorary Museum Director
Translated by Sarah Tooth-Michelet