The battle of Paris

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 47, Summer 2016

Page 16

Georges Mathieu 1921-2012 Untitled

The battle of Paris

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 47, Summer 2016

Page 16

The battle of Paris

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 47, Summer 2016

Page 16

Shozo Shimamoto 1928-2013 Punta Campanella 36 (Canvas 29)

The battle of Paris

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 47, Summer 2016

Page 16

Sadamasa Motonaga 1922-2011  Work

The battle of Paris

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 47, Summer 2016

Page 16

Long overshadowed by his American rivals, Georges Mathieu's works are rightly enjoying a major revival. Matthew Wilcox looks back on a controversial career

In 1957, Time Magazine covered a show by French abstract painter Georges Mathieu at Shirakiya Gallery in Tokyo. Before a rapt Japanese public, the abstract artist, barefoot and clad in a loose-fitting 'kimono', enacted an unprecedented, three-day long orgy of performance painting. The result was the eight-metre long Battle of Hakata and 21 canvases in total, including Untitled (1957), to be sold in June's Modern & Contemporary sale in Hong Kong.

Mathieu, a self-taught painter, sometime PR man and founder of Lyrical Abstraction – and the idea of setting it against American Abstract Expressionism – was in Tokyo at the invitation of Jirō Yoshihara, the leader of the Gutai Art Association, who had founded the avant-garde group along with Shozo Shimamoto in 1954.

Yoshihara's Gutai manifesto was published in 1956, a year prior to Mathieu's visit to Japan. In it, the Osaka impresario called for artists to "do what has never been done before" and beatified Mathieu alongside Jackson Pollock as twin patron saints of the movement: "Concerning contemporary art, we respect Pollock and Mathieu because their work seems to embody cries uttered out of matter, pigment and enamel."

The citing of these two artists was an attempt to straddle the emerging New York-Paris split in the art world, an ongoing feud that would all but shatter the international modernist community the Japanese were so keen to rejoin.

The Frenchman's entrée into this world had come ten years earlier in 1947, when he met and befriended Salvador Dalí while running press junkets for a transatlantic shipping company in Le Havre.

The ambitious young artist quickly turned this fortunate introduction to the Paris art scene to his advantage, founding the group L'Imaginaire with major figures such as Wols, Jean-Michel Atlan, Hans Hartung, Camille Bryen, Jean-Paul Riopelle, and later the curator, theorist and art grandee, Michel Tapié.

In 1948, as Mathieu's career was stuttering to life, Clement Greenberg, the US art critic and champion of Abstract Expressionism, announced Paris's obsolescence as capital of the art world. The "torch of high culture", he declared, had relocated from Europe to the United States – wrested, it was implied, from the limp grip of the ideologically compromised pinkos of the Parisienne scene. In response to this, Tapié (with whom Yoshihara and the Gutai group were to become increasingly intertwined) promoted Mathieu as a sort of national champion and counterweight to the dominance of the Abstract Expressionists.

Unlike Gutai, however, Mathieu was never slavishly devoted to the original. He was, by nature, something of a magpie. For a start, he adopted the affected aristocratic mannerisms of his friend Dalí, including the use of the third person when referring himself. He combined these idiosyncracies with an artistic style based upon a variation of drip painting – for which he also claimed ownership. Then there was his 'tubism' phase in which he applied paint to the canvas directly from the... tube.

But Mathieu's real stroke of genius was to understand that Hans Namuth's film and photographs of Jackson Pollock at work conveyed an impression of brilliance far more vividly than any reproduction of the American's paintings ever could. Namuth's images, disseminated in magazines such as Time and Life, were responsible for transforming Pollock, an alcoholic and awkward misanthrope, into the first US art superstar. Quick to grasp this lesson, Mathieu took every opportunity to have himself photographed and filmed in the act of painting.

It was the synthesis of Dalí and Pollock that saw Mathieu realize the potential of painting-as-performance, and of the painter as subject. Throughout the 1950s, in his frantic performances – "an orgasm of uncontrolled expression", as he told Time – he drew together photography, music, painting and performance into a genuinely innovative oeuvre that foreshadowed Allan Kaprow's first Happenings and deeply influenced Yves Klein, who acknowledged Mathieu as a mentor.

Mathieu's performances – or rather battles enacted in paint which were carried out in historical costume –became big draws in the early days of French television, while his work, increasingly ubiquitous, appeared in murals, posters for Air France, the ten-franc coin and corporate logos.

In a way, this success seemed only to deepen the rift with America's Abstract Expressionists. In one particularly cold attack in ARTnews, the painter Barnett Newman savaged Mathieu's "clumsy and provincial" painting of the medieval Battle of Bouvines, a six-metre canvas painted live in public for the 10th Salon de Mai in 1954. During its creation, Mathieu claimed to be channeling a 13th-century ancestor who had taken part. As Newman acidly pointed out, "Too bad he and his Tapié friends could not find a more recent fighter-ancestor ... but I suppose they had no relatives who were fighting in 1940."

Unable to escape the part of the philosopher- dilettante and armed only with Tapié's brand of pseudo-intellectual art patter, he looked impotent compared to his rivals across the Atlantic. "I pride myself on having denounced the determinism of de Broglie and Einstein, putting my faith in Heisenberg and Pauli, siding with Lupasco against Bertrand Russell, with the Orient against Greece, with Plotinus against Plato ..." he wittered. Mathieu and his associates were ill-equipped to counter the swaggering, denim-clad, anti-intellectual machismo of Abstract Expressionism in its pomp.

The discourse of the time was one of rivalry, a struggle for mastery both politically and culturally in the battle for history. There is a sense that, for a time, Mathieu – a serial painter of battles – was himself a casualty of Tapié's losing struggle with the American post-war art establishment, an encounter that also left the Gutai group bruised after a disastrously misunderstood show at the Martha Jackson gallery in New York in 1958.

But the remarkable revival of interest in their work and the string of major museum retrospectives the Gutai movement has been awarded have restored their reputation. Mathieu, too, has shown it is still possible to lose the battle, but win the war.

Matthew Wilcox is Deputy Editor of Bonhams Magazine.

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