Jean Dewasne

Exposition passéeDu 7 novembre au 18 décembre 2021

Jean Dewasne
From painting to Antisculptures and architecture
An oeuvre of total art

A major figure of geometric and constructivist abstraction, Jean Dewasne was the first recipient of the Prix Kandinsky with Jean Deyrolle in 1946, the year the Salon des Réalités Nouvelles was created. He joined the Salon’s board at the request of Auguste Herbin, whose presence at his side would be decisive.

Born on May 21, 1921 in Hellemmes, near Lille, Dewasne was from the North of France like Matisse and Herbin, who was a founder of the Abstraction-Création movement and then of the Salon des Réalités Nouvelles. Through his research into geometric abstraction, which he adhered to immediately at the end of the war, his career followed a very coherent trajectory.
In 1950, Dewasne opened, with Edgard Pillet, the Atelier d’Art Abstrait, a place for teaching and reflecting on the “technology of painting.” This ephemeral abstract art laboratory (it would close in 1953) immediately provoked strong reactions following the publication of Charles Estienne’s lampoon, L’art abstrait est-il un académisme ? (Is Abstract Art an Academicism ?) (Paris : Éditions de Beaune, 1950) denouncing, with a codifying determination, a dogmatism to which his colleague, the critic Léon Degand, responded in a text called “L’épouvantail de l’académisme abstrait” (The Specter of Abstract Academicism).
It was in this polemical climate that Dewasne produced his first paintings. In 1949 with his Traité de la peinture plane he laid the foundations for his first paintings. After a debut exhibition in 1941 at the Esquisse bookstore gallery, where he presented subjects influenced by Matisse and Seurat, he showed a first abstract painting at the Salon des Indépendants in 1943, then at that of the Surindépendants in 1945, testifying to his commitment to abstraction following on from the Bauhaus. Faced with the partisans of a lyrical abstraction, he chose his camp and imposed himself as an ardent defender of an aesthetic line : “Abstraction is an ethic, a way of life that adapts.” His activism drew on all available means, including figuration. His first mural painting La Joie de vivre (1948) contained, in substance, his theories on the plane and the form bringing about optical illusions without resorting to perspective. His theories stemming from the work of mathematicians on abstract spaces were based on non-Euclidean geometry, topology, n-dimensional spaces, and the four-color theorem that offer artists the possibility to “exit” from the frame of the flat surface to work in curved spaces, something entirely new.
Having become a “leading” painter of the Galerie Denise René alongside Victor Vasarely, Marie Raymond, Serge Poliakoff, Deyrolle, and the pioneers Hans Hartung and Gérard Schneider, in 1953 he exhibited six small Antisculptures, including L’Enfant de chœur (Musée Matisse, Le Cateau-Cambrésis).
He contributed to the rise of geometric abstraction in Scandinavia, Belgium, and especially in Denmark, with his friends Robert Jacobsen and Richard Mortensen.

Flat painting. Constructed color
The Antisculptures
Glycerophthalic lacquer

Dewasne began developing a visual vocabulary made up of simple and evolving forms, arranged according to complex rhythms in a baroque spirit, with flat tints of bright and contrasting colors, lacking any reference to reality.
In 1951, he painted L’Apothéose de Marat, a huge painting measuring 2.50 meters high by 8.335 meters in length (purchased by the state in 1982. Loaned to the Musée de Grenoble. Centre Pompidou, Paris, Musée National d’Art Moderne/Centre Création Industrielle). It was preceded by a prototype painted on metal (1.68 meters by 5.68 meters in eight panels) dated 1951 (Derom, Lahumière Collection). Dewasne innovated with the use of glycerophtalic lacquers, an industrial paint that he applied on aluminum, then later, on a new inalterable material, Isorel (also known as Masonite), a hardboard precursor to chipboard and plywood. These supports make it possible to approximately establish a chronological listing of his works, which he rarely dated. These industrial techniques responded to his aesthetic concerns and led him to turn to unexpected supports : car bodies, or very occasionally motorcycle fairings (Grandeur moto series), whose volume he painted like a canvas possessing bumps and hollows. “I found the rear end of a pre-war racing car whose shape interested me. I sawed off the base, placed it upright, and realized that I could paint its interior and exterior. It’s not a sculpture : it’s a painting that instead of being on a plane, is a hollowed out and rounded surface.”
In 1951, he created his first Antisculpture, Le Tombeau de Webern (Centre Pompidou), which he painted on a racing car carcass purchased in a dump in Suresnes for 3,000 francs. This carcass became for him the symbol of modernity. This homage to the great Viennese dodecaphonist composer, Anton Webern, recalled his passion for music (he was familiar with Pierre Boulez’s Domaine musical concert society) and demonstrated the symbiosis of his plastic and expressive research with mathematics, architecture, and music.
About the term Antisculptures, Dewasne explained : “It was not ‘anti,’ it was out of honesty. Here is the principle of Antisculpture ; I started from the plastic vocabulary elaborated on the plane, then I asked myself why always execute it on flat planes, why not on planes which evolve in space while safeguarding the paintings’ two dimensions. I found ready-made shapes in industry that I used as supports, and on which I painted as if they were canvases. I’m a painter. I am not a sculptor.” The painter asserted using the three primary colors in the field of optics, unifying elements of his plastic research and fundamental to his palette : red, green, and blue, with yellow showing through by oscillation. White and black radiated harmonies and sonorous dissonances within a structuring system which would be radicalized.
Industrial colors : the red of fire trucks and the blue of service cars were harmonious with a visual grammar which became his signature. From 1972, the Cerveaux Mâles series sealed a collaboration with the Régie Renault car manufacturer within the framework of the “Recherche, art et industrie” laboratory. He chose parts of a Berliet-Saviem truck chassis with a span of about two meters from the assembly lines in the Blainville-sur-Orne truck factory (Calvados).
Twenty-four Antisculptures would be produced. With them was enacted the synthesis to which Dewasne tended between painting and support conceived not by a sculptor but by an engineer.

Confronting architecture : a total art
La Longue Marche 1969

Dewasne was equal to his ambitions when he adapted his art to the technology of his time. He created photomontages of his Cerveaux-Mâles Antisculptures that he incorporated into the city (Tour Montparnasse in Paris), convinced of the unifying role between abstract art and human beings, making them become part of urban architecture.
He changed scale in the desire to create a total work of art. In 1968, he created murals for the ice rink hosting the Grenoble Winter Olympics, followed in 1970 by those for the former library of the Musée de Grenoble. This building in the Napoleon III style, illuminated by huge cupolas, was filled with a series of panels sixty meters long and fifteen meters wide. The lacquered and brilliant paint trapped the light with reflection effects. Made on plastic-coated supports stretched on wooden frames, the Grenoble suite was then rolled up during the dismantling phase, which led to the work’s destruction (as reported by Jean-Claude Lahumière to his daughter Diane).
La Longue Marche, created in 1967, initially intended for the technical high school in Haubourdin (Nord) and probably never installed, was presented in 1969 at the ARC at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris and in 1981 at the Centre Pompidou. This masterful work was inspired by the story of Mao Zedong’s Long March. Composed like a sonata, presupposing a fragmented progression, interrupted by prints, which recalled different rhythms and a chromatic polyphony, it brought together thirty-six compressed, kiln-enameled panels, reaching a total length of eighty-eight meters. At the time when donations were presented and made to the state in 2014, Patrice Deparpe had located only one panel in the Musée de Villeurbanne. No trace has been found of the others.

Of these two monumental works, only the two editions produced at the time by Jean-Claude and Anne Lahumière, following their meeting with Dewasne, in 1968 remain. They presented La Longue Marche at the first Art Basel in 1970.

In his determination to strive for a total art in which the viewer penetrates and experiences the artwork through interaction, and following Jean-Claude Lahumière’s advice, Dewasne imagined a round structure : Habitacle rouge (1972, Musée Matisse, Le Cateau-Cambrésis), which took the form of the symbol of infinity. The motifs in red enamel molded volumes and concave and convex curves and were reflected in the ceiling painted in black lacquer. The culmination of his Antisculptures work, this penetrable structure in aluminum tubing was the receptacle of a circular fresco that “sucks us into a vortex of highly geometric visual magic.” This monumental penetrable Antisculpture was exhibited in numerous museums until its final public presentation for the opening of the new wing of the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh in 1975.

In 1975 Dewasne continued his architectural integration work for the Renault headquarters within the framework of a collaboration with contemporary artists (Arman, Vasarely, Jean Dubuffet, Jesús Rafael Soto, among others) initiated by Claude-Louis Renard, the car manufacturer. Dewasne created forty meters of paintings and glycerophtalic lacquers on wood in the computer room. The same year he received a commission to decorate the tunnels of the Hanover subway. The destroyed city where Leibnitz once lived offered him lively inspiration.

Invited by Gori Vaerk, the director of a paint factory in Koldong, Denmark, Dewasne painted an Antisculpture in situ in 1979. It comprised twenty cubic tanks painted with concentric patterns arranged in three rows and the seven kilometers of pipes that ran through the factory. A fresco dating from 1979 can still be seen in situ in the Lycée Jean Vigo in Millau, of which the city is very proud.

The encounter between painting and architecture : the Grande Arche de la Défense 1986–89

These monumental creations in which forms and colors dialogue in space and allow the “communication of the mind” convinced the architect Johan Otto Von Spreckelsen, in charge of the design of the Grande Arche de la Défense, who was familiar with the Antisculptures, to entrust Dewasne with the production of the largest painting in the world. Only two sides would be created, measuring 100 meters high and seventy meters wide covering a 15,280-square-meter area with enamel paint fired at 1200 degrees on steel plate. “To respond to the architect’s wish and to express the connections which unite thought and human beings, I started from the theory of graphs and I imagined combinations in tree diagrams which represent the complexity of the relations between ideas,” he wrote in 1996.
Another monumental Antisculpture in Zeevenaar (The Netherlands) for the tobacco factory in Stuyvesant became a Hommage à Spinoza in a seven-meter-high machine room.
The gigantic proportions continued with an impressive work for Politiken newspaper in Copenhagen, Denmark in 1995. Motifs spread out across the 800-square-meter ceiling, overhanging all the workspaces.

Paintings, gouaches, and screen prints

The monumentality of the painted productions incorporated within architecture also permeated his paintings, which were always initially prepared through drawings and sketches around structure and color. These works constituted a parallel activity to which Dewasne paid the greatest attention. They could be described as easel paintings : La Clé ou l’Architecte, 1959, lacquer paint on Isorel (Lahumière Collection, Paris) ; Prométhée I, 1952, oil on Isorel (Donation Daniel Cordier, Centre Pompidou) ; Grande Ourse, 1958 (Donation Daniel Cordier, Centre Pompidou).

Some paintings preserved a monumentality, for example Badia La Grande, 1953 (Donation Jean Dewasne, on loan from the state to the Musée de Cambrai) ; Aurora (on loan to the Musée de la Poste, Paris), in connection with the stamp that was issued in 1983.
Numerous screen prints disseminated his monumental works : La Grande Marche, Grenoble 72…

Dewasne, visionary creator
Opening art up to life
Bard of color and joy

His Antisculptures established the need to find ever larger spaces to be within the heart of the city and close to people, and to engender a better society. To meet this utopia, he again made use of technology. He anticipated graphic software by resorting to a process of montages and collages of images and photographs, which he incorporated into the urban environment. Dewasne activated playful visual surprises in the field of reality. By freeing up color he created random spaces according to non-Euclidean geometry, leading to spatial deformations through continuous transformations following the known model of the Möbius strip defined by topology. Order was supplanted by the dream.

The colored Antisculptures at the Centre Pompidou

In 1970, having discovered the construction model of the Centre Georges Pompidou by the architects Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers, Dewasne invited them into his studio, where the painted heating pipes were surrounded by Antisculptures. The effect was striking. The architects were immediately convinced : the gray color initially planned for the Centre was abandoned. “They decided to use this as a model because the issue suddenly seemed obvious to them : the Centre Pompidou must be colored,” Dewasne said.

In 1956, Dewasne joined the Galerie Daniel Cordier, one of his first collectors. For Jean Moulin’s former secretary, who opened a gallery on Rue de Miromesnil (it closed in 1964), Dewasne knew how to introduce into abstract painting “the tormented dreams of a Piranesi and to maintain an exuberant sensitivity within the most severe constraints. Geometric painting was cold. He gave it a baroque flourish.”

He would then be exhibited by the Galerie Lahumière in their Paris gallery and at international art fairs (Art Basel).

Institutional recognition

In 1966, a first retrospective of his works was held at the Kunsthalle in Bern.
He represented France at the 1968 Venice Biennale.

In 1993 he was elected a member of the Institut, Académie des Beaux-Arts, to the chair of Hans Hartung, his friend.

Between 1973 and 1989, successive donations and gifts from Daniel Cordier led to the inclusion of Jean Dewasne’s works in national and institutional collections : Centre Pompidou, Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, CNAP-FNAC, MACVAL, Statens Museum Copenhagen, Musée de la Poste, Paris, Villeneuve-d’Ascq, Cambrai, Dunkerque, Abattoirs Toulouse, to mention just a few.
In 2012, Mythia Kolesartova Dewasne, the artist’s widow, made a major donation to the French state of most of Jean Dewasne’s works and archives, of which she was the guardian.
This imposing donation covering the years 1940 to 1990 completed a pre-existing Dewasne collection that the artist had generously offered to the national collections. The works were distributed among the museums of France : Amiens, Caen, LAAC Dunkerque, Le Cateau-Cambrésis, MASC Abbaye Sainte-Croix–Les Sables d’Olonne, Nantes, Pontoise, Rennes, Saint-Etienne, Strasbourg, Villeneuve-d’Ascq, MacVal, Musée d’Art Moderne Ville de Paris, Centre Pompidou.

In 2014, a major Jean Dewasne exhibition was organized at the Musée Matisse in Le Cateau-Cambrésis, with works drawn from those donated by Mythia Dewasne.

Jean Dewasne died on July 23, 1999

Lydia Harambourg
Historian and art critic
Correspondant de l’Institut, Académie des Beaux-Arts


Panoramas. Jean Dewasne