“Painters Lives: Marguerite Louppe and Maurice Brianchon” is a strong exhibition documenting the work of the married couple Marguerite Louppe and Maurice Brianchon, active from the 1920s through the 1970s. The show, curated by David Hirsh, connected to the couple from a distance (as a relative and as a friend of Brianchon’s son) and William Corwin, a sculptor, curator, and writer active in New York, sheds much light on the painterly consequences of post-Impressionism. The works of both artists are particularly interesting for their ongoing development of a modernist vision actively pursued into the early period of contemporary art. What is particularly interesting is that while some of the work may feel academic—many still life’s are on view—the level of achievement in French painting then was so high that even lesser lights were able to paint within a style that was highly meaningful and accomplished. This is not to downplay the unusual proficiency and imaginative verve of the two artists, for, as this small but informative show makes clear, remarkable art could be made by painters who were not given to innovation. Instead, they practiced an inspired treatment of a style originating with an artist like Gauguin and perhaps, later, ending with Matisse.
In fact, the terms of French painting in the 20th century were so high as to lift even academic practitioners of modernism into a place of high critical regard. Brianchon taught at the Ecole des Beaux-arts in Paris, so his painting efforts closed in on his teaching concerns. As a result, sometimes the works look as if a technical problem is being solved, rather than being a push into the unknown future. But, even so, despite the limited nature of many of the paintings in the show, there is an ongoing, very high level of artistic practice. In a way, Louppe and Brianchon were very lucky to be where they were at the time they painted—up through the early middle of the 20th century, Paris was the Western center of art, painting in particular. They rode a wave that would last for decades before finally finishing the arc of its travel. (We can see something similar today in the art schools in America, where the long shadow of abstract expressionism continues to affect both the ambitions and style of teachers and artists, in New York especially. But our expressionism has always been as much an attitude as it has been a technique, and for this reason, the generations following an artist like Jackson Pollock do not maintain painterly standards the way Louppe and Brianchon did.)
Is technical competence by itself enough to support a highly visible career? Certainly, the still lives by Louppe are extremely accomplished and attractive. But they do fit into the category of relatively minor art, in the sense that they are a small appreciation of everyday life. Nonetheless, there is little choice but to admire the paintings, whose thematic modesty hides the wonderful technical achievement of what we see. And Brianchon’s classically inspired imagination renders figures and compositions with a dignity that we have not seen in a long time in contemporary art. If we can say that art today is fast, as well as occurring in a cultural vacuum, we can also comment that the French artists’ process is comparatively slow, and takes place in a milieu in which the legacy of earlier painting is remembered and made use of rather than being rejected. This is not an easy point for the current crop of artists under forty, most of whom—at least in America—have been mostly trained to talk politics. Somehow, the issue of skill has been buried.
At the same time, it is wrong to see Louppe and Brianchon’s paintings as a mere rehash of the great French art preceding them. Sometimes one looks to the lesser painters to see clearly how a style has developed and been established, and this is true of the artists here. The radical language of post-Impressionism has been transformed into a heartfelt, even a conservative, attempt to guard the efforts of the great artists done earlier, before the activities of the couple whose work we see. This does not mean that Louppe and Brianchon are the equivalents of scholars—instead, it suggests that there are times when maintaining ties to the past can be seen as attempting a new creativity. Perhaps many people would react to Louppe and Brianchon’s work as dated and out of touch, despite the fact that their work in tandem suggests just how good that 50-year moment in painting was! The artists deserve attention now because we are in the middle of a rejection of high culture. As a result, the work in this show is a bit hard to judge, primarily because the atmosphere toward art has changed so much.
Skill by itself is a major virtue, especially when it is contrasted with art that is deliberately ill-made. Brianchon’s Nu-Assis (1936) is a classically inspired nude sitting on a chair, quite reminiscent of Matisse. Bare to the stomach, the woman looks downward in a gaze of reverie, sitting on a chair with an ornately carved top. Behind her is a wall hanging, of white plant leaves placed on top of a dark-blue background. The scene is sensual but restrained. While Brianchon’s style may appear derivative, at the same time he makes excellent use of the French gifts of color and design. This would be his signature as a painter. Today, it is very hard to conceive of such work as effectively new, but in 1936, when the painting was made, this kind of realism had a prestige attached to the current esthetic of the time. Bal-Masque, a later painting created in 1948, shows a broad array of men and women in formal clothes and, in one case, a harlequin’s costume, standing in small groups on a wooden floor. Several of the women are dressed as ballerinas, suggesting an attention directed toward Degas. The painting is well composed, with the revelers punctuating the space throughout the room. This portrait of a masked ball shows us how effective Brianchon is in a technical sense, balancing the figures in space and generating an overall design that brings the viewer’s gaze across the breadth of the painting.
Louppe’s Chair, Brushes, and Palette (Undated) presents an understated but accomplished study of studio tools: a palette resting on a chair; a set of brushes in a can and tubes of paint on a small circular table. Behind these materials, the viewer sees a painting held up by a set of windows. There is nothing new about the work’s subject matter, but the subtlety with which the artist has arranged her painting’s components is finely done. Muted tones of color—brown, gray, dark orange—establish an atmosphere of quiet, in which the tools of painting become a metaphor for art itself. This may be a self-limited theme, but it is one of understated poetry. View of the Basin, Truffieres (undated) depicts an excellent study of the outside of a house with a pond. Cement steps lead down to the small pond, while outdoors the atmosphere and light suggest early evening. A metal gate is opened toward the dark fields and trees beyond. The modesty of the painting belies its actual achievement. It is a truly accomplished rendering of architecture and nature, done in a way that satisfies the viewer’s attraction to both exact depiction and atmospheric feeling.
Louppe and Brianchon may not have been painters of major insight, but their fine possession of craft made them practitioners of genuine realization. They helped maintain the general level of painting practice in France by protecting the accomplishments of modernism, even as they appear to have stayed close to traditional subjects. The realism we encounter in their art is neither deliberately minor nor an attempt at aggrandizement. Instead, they painted the world as they saw it, refusing to reduce the evidence of the world to esthetics alone. At the same time, their adherence to French painting’s legacy is noticeably loyal. Louppe’s Rustic Chair (undated) places a brown chair with a curved back before us—behind it is a series of complicated planes of color that reference cubism. But the work is not a mere historical footnote to French art’s past. Instead, it has become an image infused with a genuine feeling for a realism that communicates depth and esthetic awareness. Brianchon never gave up on his style—as late as 1970, he was still painting in the same manner: his work Nature Morte aux Brioches consists of a bowl holding several brioches. It stands on a plate on top of a wooden table, wherein the foreground a single brioche sits. The background is very simple: planes of white and black, the latter likely indicating a dark passageway. If we think of American avant-garde artists working in 1970 (the same year Brianchon’s painting was made), people like Robert Smithson and Gordon Matta-Clark, inevitably Brianchon’s work will seem old-fashioned, transparently retrograde. But painting, a genre with a long, long past, must be seen in light of its legacy. And Louppe and Brianchon make wonderful use of the consequences stemming from a great painting tradition. They should not be faulted because they stayed close to a vision of art that surrounded them when they were young, and French painting was truly cutting edge.
Writing by Jonathan Goodman