Artwork of the month


July 2021 Fine Arts

Polders enneigés [Snow-Covered Polders] by Alfred Manessier

Fuelled by success, Alfred Manessier spent a few days in Holland during the winter of 1955. He was captivated by the beauty and dazzling clarity of the snowy landscapes. This sensorial and chromatic experience transformed his way of painting. Evidence of this change can be seen in the painting Polders enneigés [Snow-Covered Polders], a masterpiece from the Dutch Period (1955-1956), which will be on show throughout the summer in Geneva in the intimate setting of the Saint-Germain church.

See the artwork in the Collection

Alfred MANESSIER
(Saint-Ouen, 1911 — Orléans, 1993)
Polders enneigés [Snow-Covered Polders]
1956
Oil on canvas
Signed and dated "Manessier 56" lower left; titled "Poldeer" on the back on the frame
200 x 150 cm
FGA-BA-MANES-0001

Provenance
Galerie de France, Paris, 1956
Private collection, France
Ader-Picard-Tajan auctioneers, Paris, 30 June 1988, lot 632
Collection Maurice Coutot, Paris
Galerie Larock-Granoff, Paris
Private collection, France
Galerie Applicat-Prazan, Paris, 2007

The Dutch Experience

Alfred Manessier (1911-1993) was a man from the North. The painter was strongly attached to his native Picardy which inspired, as a child, his first landscapes. Views of the Somme Bay, in particular, were among his favourite subjects. Every summer, he would set off from his holiday residence in Le Crotoy to roam the coastline. He drew inspiration from these summer walks for numerous landscapes painted in the non-figurative vein of which he was one of the most influential reformers after the end of the Second World War. Word of his talent soon spread abroad. In 1955, the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, then under the direction of Edy de Wilde, offered the most prominent French painter of the day his first retrospective1. This gave Alfred Manessier the opportunity to discover the Netherlands in winter2: “I knew Holland, of course, and its museums, having made several trips there previously, but I did not know it in February, at the coldest time. I was struck by the purity of the light, the beauty of those white landscapes and its pale sun, and above all by the vitality of its canals and bridges - ice does not inhibit life.”3 Spellbound and moved by this wintry spectacle, the painter returned to Paris highly motivated in his work. On his arrival, he wrote to his host Edy de Wilde: “I sense some kind of major development, a Dutch song that has been latent in me for a long time.”4 Alfred Manessier was happy to be experiencing the joy of having found in Holland what he had been looking for in the Somme Bay for many years: a sharp quality of light, "noble as the brilliance of silver"5 and capable of sculpting nature in its image.

Celebrating Nature

Back in the studio, Alfred Manessier composed works from his sketches and the colourful impressions he recalled. A year and a half later, the artist unveiled the results of his Dutch experience at the Galerie de France, namely, eighteen paintings including Polders enneigés [Snow-Covered Polders] and the equally poetic Près d’Harlem [Near Harlem]. The two paintings both feature the same blanket of snow, against which stand out forms freely inspired by ports, canals and bridges, all iconic motifs from the Dutch landscape, just like the windmills whose sails turn to drain the water from the polders.

Alfred Manessier, Près d'Harlem [Near Harlem], 1956

An aerial view of these artificial expanses of land reclaimed from the sea shows how little Manessier deviated from the topographical reality of the terrain when he created Polders enneigés [Snow-Covered Polders].

 

Netherlands, Wormer, Polder over village and farmland. Aerial view

With its network of vertical and horizontal lines, the painted composition follows the course of the canals damning the polders. The colour reinforces the description of the elements within the landscape: blue and mauve for the canals and basins filled with sea water; an almost golden brown for the lines of reeds; and orange for the tiled roofs of houses and farm buildings. This trio of colours delineates the labyrinthine cartography of the snow-covered polders against the whiteness of the emerging areas. These are represented by numerous plain areas of white, whose pearlescent shades reflect the internal light of the painting. It is so vivid that it bathes in colour the forms’ outlines, thus reproducing "the brilliance of snow on contact with the sun"6. This realistic detail is not at odds with the attempts at synthesis deployed elsewhere by the painter. The same concern for brightness can be seen in Printemps proche [Early Spring], a work of similar dimensions, but horizontal in format.

 

Alfred Manessier, Printemps proche [Early Spring], 1956

This inversion of the reading, which has no impact on the understanding of the main motif, shows how the landscape depicted has freed itself from reality without betraying its subject. This then gave Manessier endless possibilities for the abstract grid of his polders, which he illuminated with a more or less cold or warm light depending on the seasonal variations. In Printemps proche [Early Spring], the white mantel of winter has shrunk back, making way for the soft green of the young shoots and the bright yellow of the first rapeseed plants that line the canals. With his totally Impressionist sensibility, the "last Monet"7 celebrates the awakening of nature and shares his joy in painting the changing seasons.

Manessier has proven that a non-figurative style of painting which does not completely abandon representation is possible.

Architecture of light

This link with Impressionism places the art of Alfred Manessier in an "avant-garde tradition" of landscape painting. His talent lies in having succeeded in shaping this pictorial oxymoron by exploiting the area of freedom between figuration and abstraction. Between these two extremes, which many people after the war considered antithetical, Manessier has proven that a non-figurative style of painting which does not completely abandon representation is possible. As Jean-Paul Ameline explains: “If reality is captured in the painting, it is therefore within a set of '' lines of force'' that unifies the objects with the space that envelops them and is translated into coloured equivalences suggesting depth."8 Alfred Manessier experimented with this composition method in painting before transposing it to the art of stained glass. His first attempts in this medium date back to 19489. Manessier then became the very first artist to create non-figurative stained glass windows for a religious building. Those he designed in 1957 for the chapel in Hem, near Roubaix, tangibly evoke the architecture of light of the polders.

Stained glass windows in the Chapelle Sainte-Thérèse-de-l’Enfant-Jésus-et-de-la-Sainte-Face in Hem (Alfred Manessier, 1957)

The concrete that replaces the traditional lead in such windows meanders between the coloured glass in the same way as the seawater does in the Dutch canals. As for the light, it passes through the material with the same radiance as that of snow in sunshine. In short, inspiration in Manessier’s work, whether secular or religious, matters little. What was essential for the artist was to succeed in conveying a visual equivalent of everything he saw or perceived, from the light of a landscape to the expression of religious sentiment.

Bertrand Dumas
Curator of the Fine Arts Collection
Geneva, July 2021

Notes and references

  1. Manessier, Eindohven, Stedelijk Van Abbemuseum, 26.02 – 10.04.1955.
  2. The first of his stays in the Netherlands, and no doubt the most significant, dates back to 1932, when he and his fellow architecture students at the École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris were taken by their teacher Jean-Baptiste Mathon (1893-1971) to visit the city of Hilversum. The latter had just inaugurated its new town hall, a modernist-style building designed by the Dutch architect Willem Marius Dudok (1884-1974).
  3. Extract from Alfred Manessier's reply dated 11 January 1967 to a letter from Pierre Quarré, chief curator of the Museum of Fine Arts in Dijon, dated 23 December 1966. Correspondence published in WASSENAAR, Steven, Manessier et les Pays-Bas, Entre paysages et expérimentations, peintres et influence, Master's thesis, Université François Rabelais, Tours, 1997, vol. 1, app. V, p. 151.
  4. DE WILDE, Edy L.L., Manessier 1955-1956. La Hollande, exhibition catalogue [Paris, Galerie de France, 05.06 - 12.07.1956], Paris, Galerie de France, 1956, n. p.
  5. Ibid.
  6. BARITEAU, Anne, in Les Sujets de l'abstraction. Peinture non-figurative de la seconde école de Paris, 1946-1962. 101 Chefs-d'œuvre de la Fondation Gandur pour l'Art, exhibition catalogue [Geneva, Musée Rath, 06.05 – 14.08.2011; Montpellier, Musée Fabre, 03.12.2011 – 18.03.2012], Milan, 5 Continents Editions, 2011, cat.81, p. 240.
  7. ENCREVÉ, Pierre, Manessier, Pierre Encrevé : textes et entretiens, Paris, Somogy; Abbeville, Musée Boucher-de-Perthes, 2013, p. 29.
  8. AMELINE, Jean-Paul, “Non-figuration, abstraction lyrique, informel, tachisme : émergence d’une abstraction non géométrique à Paris (1945-1960)”, in Les Sujets de l'abstraction, op. cit., p. 39.
  9. Stained glass windows for the church of Saint-Michel in Les Bréseux in the French department of Doubs, 1948-1950.

Bibliography

AMANN, Armand; DUMAS, Pierre, Couleurs de neige, exhibition catalogue [Chambéry, Musée Savoisien, 17.01 – 29.03.1992], Geneva, Éditions d'art Albert Skira, 1992, cited pp. 102 and 103, col. repr. p. 103

BIARD, Bernard, Manessier, une peinture proche de la musique, Geneva, Georges Naef, 2012, cited p. 46, col. repr. p. 49, fig. 32

CEYSSON, Bernard; LHÔTE, Jean-Marie; MANESSIER, Christine, Manessier. Lumières du Nord, Roubaix, La Renaissance du livre, 2000, col. repr. p. 79

CEYSSON, Bernard; MÂCHE, François-Bernard; JACCOTTET, Philippe, Manessier & le paysage, peintures 1945-1985, exhibition catalogue [Issoire, Centre culturel Nicolas Pomel, 01.07 – 30.09.1989], Issoire, Association Art Contemporain, 1989, col. repr. n. p., No. 11

CHASSEY, Éric de (dir.); NOTTER, Éveline (dir.); MOECKLI, Justine et al., Les Sujets de l'abstraction. Peinture non-figurative de la seconde école de Paris, 1946-1962. 101 Chefs-d'œuvre de la Fondation Gandur pour l'Art, exhibition catalogue [Geneva, Musée Rath, 06.05 – 14.08.2011; Montpellier, Musée Fabre, 03.12.2011 – 18.03.2012], Milan, 5 Continents Editions, 2011, cited p. 240, col. repr. pp. [241] and 302, No. 81

DE WILDE, Edy L.L., Manessier 1955-1956. La Hollande, Paris, Galerie de France, 1956, listed, col. repr. n. p., No. 1

HODIN, Joseph-Paul, Alfred Manessier, Adams & Dart, Bath, 1972, col. repr. p. 61 and b/w repr. p. 89

HODIN, Joseph-Paul, Alfred Manessier, Neuchâtel, Éditions Ides et Calendes, 1972, cited p. 70, col. repr. p. 162

HODIN, Joseph-Paul, Alfred Manessier, Neuchâtel, Éditions Ides et Calendes, 1996, cited p. 98, col. repr. p. 95

SADEKOVA, Souria (dir.), Восточный джаз / East West Jazz, exhibition catalogue [Moscow, The Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, 30.09 – 14.11.2019], Moscow, The Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, 2019, listed p. [219], col. repr. p. 193; col. repr. pp. [181] and 74-[75] on booklet (detail), No. 2.43

WASSENAAR, Steven, Manessier et les Pays-Bas, Entre paysages et expérimentations, peintres et influences, Master’s thesis, Tours, Université François Rabelais, 1997, cited pp. 45-46 and 168-169, listed p. 181 (vol. 1), col. repr. p. 26 (vol. 2), No. 67.

See also