Monday, 12 August 2013

Èdouard Pignon: capturing Catalan women

La Catalane, 1945
If there’s a particular value to seeing exhibitions of work by a single artist, and a further value to seeing exhibitions from a particular period of a single artist’s oeuvre, then imagine how fascinating it is to see successive such exhibitions of different artists, where the linking theme is that of a single place.

Collioure’s Musée d’Art Moderne may perhaps not have intended it to be quite so much the case, but this summer’s exhibition, Édouard Pignon, femmes en Méditerranée: Catalanes à Collioure, étés 1945-1946, is the perfect sequel to last year’s Les années Collioure: 1925-1932, which presented the Collioure paintings of Leopold Survage.

Pignon was a fascinating character. Born in Bully-les-Mines in 1905 (the year Matisse arrived in Collioure) he was the son of a militant miner.

Leaving for Paris in 1927, he worked in the Renault and Citroën car factories, studying art in the evenings.

Femme assise (Catalane), 1945
In 1931, with the Depression taking effect in France, he joined the Association des Ecrivains et des Artistes Revolutionnaires, while the decade also saw him meeting and moving much closer artistically toward Picasso.

But although a founding member of the influential Salon de mai and considered a leading figure in young French painting of the time, by 1945, Pignon was feeling the need for change.

He spent that summer in Collioure and then, inspired, the following months back in Paris painting a series of works based on his trip. The following summer, he returned, and the Collioure series continued.

The Catalanes paintings, almost exclusively of women, formed a solo exhibition in Paris in 1946. After that, they’ve never been seen together in this number until the Musée d’Art Moderne brought them back together for this exhibition.

Femme assise, 1946
They reveal not only a serialist approach – the artist working and reworking the same themes – but also a return to a much more figurative art.

Here we have something that happened with Survage's work too. When he arrived in Collioure, he found himself returning to a more classical way of capturing the world that he saw around him in the village.

And the links continue in other ways. Where Survage’s recurring theme was the Pêcheuses, or women with fish, Pignon took a number of themes for his Catalan women.

But one of them is Remailleuses – in effect, women making or mending fishing nets – in a variety of media (charcoal, oil, gouache, water …), which absolutely echoes and compliments Survage's women with fish.

The exhibition also brings together subsets of Pignon’s Collioure work: a series of both elderly women and a series of rather younger women.

The older women are pictured in traditional, dark dress, with lined faces and toothless mouths. Most are pictured seated, some with hints of stoves and pans to their right as we look at them.

They pose with decorum for the artist, but their faces are strong and the expressions direct.

Les Remailleuses de filets, 1946 (detail)
La Catalane, from 1945 (see top), is a particularly strong example: dignity, decorum – look how the hands, coarsened by working on the nets, are held – but the lips are still sensuous and the eyes challenging.

The surroundings and the colours bring to mind Matisse, while the style of the face displays the influence of Picasso, yet Pignon’s whole becomes something else.

In the second group – the younger women – many of the poses echo those of the older women, but there is also an element of flirtatiousness here, while the dress is not dark and their props are not so practical either: this is a not a generation, Pignon seems to be saying, that will spend their lives mending nets or cooking for their menfolk.
Catalane, 1946

Indeed, not one young women is pictured making or mending the nets.

Femme assise, from 1946, is the least conventional and the most sexual.

Yet even here, with one shoulder raised and, therefore, one breast higher than the other, she echoes the paintings of her foremothers.

The exhibition has a number of sketches and studies too, which allow the visitor to appreciate the artistic process that Pignon used in order to realise his finished works.

Like other artists who came to Collioure before and after him, he discovered his own palette to reflect the Mediterranean light and colours.

Seeing the dusky, burnt and burnished hues of Catalanes au filet, from 1946, brought Survage instantly to mind.

Personnages, Collioure, 1945
Personnages, Collioure, from 1945, with a greeting or bidding farewell to a fisherman, is also reminiscent, in its use of browns and yellows, of Survage.

If Survage saw something religious in his Collioure women – there are hints of pietàs in more than one – Pignon seems to have seen something different; a much more secular world, which seems in keeping both with his politics and also with what the world had just experienced.

Yet it is as though Pignon took up where Survage left off; as though Pignon painted the same women as Survage had, but as far older women, with their granddaughters now present in a changed and changing world.

There is sense of continuum here, but there is also a sense of finality.

Catalanes au filet, 1946
The way of life that Survage had painted was dying.

It could not stay the same in the post-war period, and Pignon’s pictures of younger women reflect that and illustrate the passage of time and the process of change.

It’s a subtle and fascinating exhibition, which also includes some of the artist’s pots and vases that pick up the same theme of the older women and the fishing boats, and which additionally marks the twentieth anniversary of the Pignon’s death.

It’s not a vast display, but at just €6 it’s a bargain and excellent cultural food for thought. If you’re in the area, it’s most certainly well worth a visit.

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