Artwork of the month

October 2019 Fine Arts

Évanescence by Georges Mathieu

Can chance generate a work of art? In response to this question, the ambitious exhibition Par hasard (By Chance), opening on 17 October at the Centre de la Vieille Charité in Marseille, is full of examples as surprising as they are instructive. From Victor Hugo's ink stains to Christian Jaccard's burnt canvases, by way of Max Ernst's frottages and Jean Dubuffet's texturologies, a whole repertory of free forms appears to have evolved from the uncertainty of the creative gesture. The latter is more or less dependent on chance, according to artists’ conscious or unconscious experimentation with it in the desire to explore its endless possibilities. These include dripping, a process popularised by American painter Jackson Pollock in the 1950s. To understand why and how this new technique changed the course of Western painting, one must go back to its inventor, Georges Mathieu, and especially to Évanescence, one of his groundbreaking artworks painted in 1945.

See the artwork in the collection

(Boulogne-sur-Mer, 1921 - Paris, 2012)
Oil on canva
Unsigned, no markings
97 x 80 cm

Jean-Baptiste Dumont, Paris, 2015

Getting out of limbo

Nothing predisposed Georges Mathieu to paint, at the age of 24, a work as innovative as Évanescence. Only three years earlier, as a student of Law and English at the University of Lille he was still painting views of London from postcards. Though modest, these learning exercises led the self-taught painter to question the difference between an illustration and a painting. He found the answer in a book by Edward Crankshaw that discusses the literary qualities of the Polish novelist Joseph Conrad, writing in English.1 According to the critic, they stem neither from the descriptions nor the characters’ psychology, but purely from Conrad’s style itself. "This prompted me to ask," says Mathieu, "if it wasn’t possible to express oneself in painting through style alone, without going through the intermediary of representation. That’s when I began eliminating any form of representation from my painting.”2

Much more than a discovery, it was a revelation. With no transition whatsoever, Georges Mathieu went straight from his charming sketches of London to resolutely abstract artworks. The first of these were created between 1944 and 1946, a so-called "limbo" period, during which he developed, in complete solitude, the origins of a previously unknown pictorial language. With Inception, his first attempt, Mathieu moved directly into non-figurative work. The next year, in 1945, he did the same again with Évanescence, a more aerial and luminous composition in which jets of molten paint erupt like solar flares, crossing over each other in their ascent. Emanating from this magmatic flow is an intense energy, translated into painting by totally new visual means devoid of references to the past. With insolent freedom, Georges Mathieu explored the range of possibilities open to him after getting rid of the formal and material requirements that even a partial return to figuration would have imposed on him.

Daniel Abadie picked up perfectly on the disturbing character that paintings like Évanescence still possess today "through their insights into the future possibilities of painting".3 With regard to this piece, he points out that "the long rhythm of the curves doubling back on themselves"4 no longer owes anything to the use of a paintbrush, since the white paint, Riposin5 in this case, has been poured directly from its container onto the horizontal canvas. The result of this experimental process can be regarded, "just like André Masson’s sand paintings or the Young Man Intrigued by the Flight of a Non-Euclidean Fly by Max Ernst, as one of the intuitive precursors of Pollock’s dripping technique”,6 which, as Abadie constantly reminds us, was only used by the father of Action Painting from 1947 onwards.7

Genesis of signs

Mathieu’s renouncement of traditional painting tools in favour of stains, drips or splashes overturned the last remaining principles still standing in his way. Each new canvas then became a field for fresh experimentation. This is apparent in three works painted at Istres in 1946,8 which he unveiled the following year at the second Salon des Réalités nouvelles exhibition.9 Its organisers, taken aback by the originality of the pieces Georges Mathieu presented to them, struggled to find a place for them. Indeed, they are unclassifiable. Mathieu recalls that out of the "384 paintings exhibited, you can count on the fingers of one hand [those] that escape the tyranny of rule and compass".10 The painter here is referring to the general situation of abstraction in France, still dominated by geometric constructivist painting and neo-plasticism.

With insolent freedom, Georges Mathieu explored the range of possibilities open to him after getting rid of the formal and material requirements that even a partial return to figuration would have imposed on him.

At the time, very few artists deviated from this geometric formalism. Of those who did, the German artist Wols stood out from the start for his informal daring. His works most closely echo the originality of Évanescence. Mathieu, on visiting the Galerie René Drouin on 23 May 1947, the opening day of the first Parisian exhibition of Wols’ paintings, was enthralled by what he discovered there: "Forty canvases: forty masterpieces. Each one more striking, more harrowing than the rest [...]. After Wols, everything has to be started all over again, and if I’m so moved, it’s because in one go he has just effaced all that I’d achieved in isolation, over the past three years, those paintings I made in Cambrai (1944), in Biarritz (1945) and in Istres (1946), using the same language as him, I mean the same technical means: stains, drips and splashes. But even with my dreams shattered, I don’t feel any jealousy. Only the deep joy of having discovered, and for myself - far from Paris and from any kind of influence - solely through the organic life of my painting and of painting in general, a mode of expression, a language. Yet Wols and I speak this unknown language and that's why this is a rare moment.”11

This mysterious language, whose original semantics derive from the limbo of Georges Mathieu's youthful painting, would soon find its own personal grammar. After the amoebic forms of Évanescence, evoking the first manifestations of cellular life, came more structured works, such as Arithmée12 and Phosphène. In these two paintings of 1948, the white paint applied directly from the tube onto the canvas (another of Mathieu’s inventions), makes the painter’s gestures more visible than before. This trend is confirmed in Açone. In this canvas of 1948, the painting continues to invent its own organisation to the point of defining an embryonic sign. The latter, "in the form of an exploding nucleus",13 is immobilised in the thickness of the material on the verge of imploding. To convey the telluric force of this pictorial Big Bang, Georges Mathieu makes speed central to his work, "a way of closing any gap between the gesture and its trace, to bypass the mechanisms of reflection and so give free rein to emotion and the urgency of expressing it."14

Georges Mathieu, "Açone", 1948

Pictorial revolution

Detail of « Évanescence »

This impatience soon came into conflict with the traditional methods offered by painting prior to Évanescence. This is why the only way out for Mathieu was to create his own language. Developing from a physical engagement with the material, this vocabulary rapidly became inseparable from the gesture that gave it its appearance, texture, speed and expressiveness. The forms erupting from nothingness gradually become enigmatic signs. Being shapeless, they defy any form of convincing description. And yet their ability to move us and to convey intense and complex feelings is very real. It is even their raison d’être. For the inventor of this nascent language, its effectiveness "arises now from the sign and not from the signified".15 Through this sacrilegious dissociation, Georges Mathieu accomplished a pictorial revolution, whose consequences, according to Lydia Harambourg, are as important as the emergence of perspective during the Renaissance.16

This giant leap, whose potential to go adrift through misuse Mathieu himself foretold, took place between 1944 and 1945 in the apocalyptic climate of the end of the Second World War. After Auschwitz and Hiroshima, artists from all horizons were confronted with the difficulty of apprehending the world and the individual. For many, reality appeared insurmountable and truly indescribable. Jean Fautrier was one of the first to venture to do so. When he exhibited Les Otages (The Hostages) in October 1945,17 he was initially accused of aestheticising horror. Critics reproached him for the opulence and fine substance of his paintings, considered incompatible with the terrible subjects that had inspired them. The works of Wols and Mathieu were not better received. The same commentators were not any more prepared to accept the radicality of their respective paintings. Yet these works were a direct and unfiltered response to the agonising uncertainty afflicting humanity once it began to doubt its own future.

From Paris to New York, other painters would express in their own way the anxiety of this new era. Their works, concludes Daniel Abadie, "shared less a vocabulary of forms than an expressive concern: they all saw themselves as a cry rather than a style".18 Georges Mathieu nevertheless remains the instigator of an abstract and gestural form of painting that he himself named Abstraction lyrique (Lyrical Abstraction),19 a movement that would embody the vitality of the Second School of Paris until the early 1960s.

Bertrand Dumas
Curator of the Fine Arts collection
Translation by Deborah Fiette

Notes and references

  1. CRANKSHAW, Edward, Joseph Conrad, Some Aspects of the Art of the Novel, London, John Lane, The Bodley Head, 1936.
  2. Interview with BOSQUET, Alain in "Cent questions discrètes et moins discrètes posées à Georges Mathieu", Ring des Arts, 1960, p. 83.
  3. ABADIE, Daniel, "Mathieu, l’aube des signes" in Mathieu, exhibition catalogue [Paris, Galerie nationale du Jeu de Paume, 17.06 – 06.10.2002; Liège, Salle Saint-Georges, 23.01 – 02.03.2003; Milan, Galleria Gruppo Credito Valtellinese Reffetorio delle Stelline, 12.09 – 15.11.2003], Paris, Éditions du Jeu de Paume, 2002, p. 20.
  4. Ibid., p. 21.
  5. Variant of Ripolin, a French brand of gloss oil paint that dries quickly.
  6. ABADIE, op. cit., p. 21. André Masson’s first sand paintings mentioned by Abadie date from 1926. As for Young Man Intrigued by the Flight of a Non-Euclidean Fly, it was painted by Max Ernst in 1942 (painting not located).
  7. In a note, Abadie however remarks that Mathieu, while he saw the possibilities of this form of expression before Pollock, only used it occasionally and without considering it a style.
  8. The three artworks in question are Conception, Survivance and Désintégration, with colour reproductions of the first two found in Georges Mathieu. Vers l’abstraction lyrique, exhibition catalogue [Boulogne-sur-Mer, Musée de Boulogne-sur-Mer, 07.06 ­­– 29.09.2014]; Boulogne-sur-Mer, Édition Musée de Boulogne-sur-Mer, 2014, pp. 25 and 26; the third one appears in Mathieu, 50 ans de création : extraits de textes de Giulio Carlo Argan, Renato Barilli, Doov Bas Roodnat … [et al.], Éditions Hervas, Paris, 2003, p. 31.
  9. The second Salon des Réalités nouvelles exhibition was held at the Palais des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris from 21 July to 18 August 1947.
  10. MATHIEU, Georges, Au-delà du tachisme, Paris, Éditions René Julliard, 1963, p. 41.
  11. Ibid., p. 35-36.
  12. Work reproduced in b/w in Mathieu, 50 ans de création [op. cit.], Éditions Hervas, Paris, 2003, p. 38.
  13. ABADIE, Daniel, op. cit., p. 21.
  14. Ibid., p. 21.
  15. MATHIEU, Georges, De la révolte à la Renaissance, au-delà du tachisme, Gallimard, Paris, 1972, cited in L’Art en Europe, les années décisives 1945-1953, exhibition catalogue, [Saint-Étienne, Musée national d’Art Moderne de Saint-Étienne], Geneva, Édition d’art Albert Skira, 1987, p. 239.
  16. HARAMBOURG, Lydia, Georges Mathieu, Neuchâtel, Ides et Calendes, 2013 [2002], p. 18.
  17. Les Otages : peintures et sculptures de Jean Fautrier, exhibition at the Galerie René Drouin, Paris, 26 October - 27 November 1945.
  18. ABADIE, Daniel, op. cit., p. 20.
  19. The expression "lyrical abstraction" was used for the first time by Jean-José Marchand and Georges Mathieu during the exhibition organised in December 1947 at the Galerie du Luxembourg (Paris), which the artist wished to entitle "Vers l’abstraction lyrique” (Towards Lyrical Abstraction). In the end, the gallery imposed "L'imaginaire" (The Imaginary) as the title of the group exhibition which united, in addition to Mathieu, artists such as Arp, Atlan, Brauner, Bryen, Hartung, Vulliamy, Wols and several others.


Musée d'Art moderne de Saint-Étienne, L'Art en Europe, les années décisives, 1945-1953, exhibition catalogue [Saint-Étienne, Musée d'Art moderne de Saint-Étienne, 10.1987 – 02.1988], Geneva, Éditions Skira, 1987, cited p. 314, b/w repr. p. 240

AIMÉ, Jacqueline, L'aventure prométhéenne de Georges Mathieu, Paris, Édition du Garde-Temps, 2005, cited p. 17

BOSQUET, Alain, “Cent questions discrètes ou indiscrètes posées à Georges Mathieu”, Ring des Arts, 1960, b/w repr. p. 84

CEYSSON, Bernard; DAVAL, Jean-Luc; WILSON, Sarah, et al., L'École de Paris? 1945-1964, exhibition catalogue [Luxembourg, Musée national d'histoire et d'art Luxembourg, 12.12.1998 – 21.02.1999], Luxembourg, Musée national d'histoire et d'art, 1998, cited p. 297, col. repr. p. [149]

DEL JUNCO, Manuel Fontán; LAHUERTA, Juan José; JIMENEZ-BLANCO, María Dolores, LO NUNCA VISTO. De la pintura informalista al fotolibro de postguerra (1945-1965), exhibition catalogue [Madrid, Fundacíon Juan March, 26.02 – 05.06.2016], Madrid, Fundacíon Juan March, Editorial de Arte y Cienca, 2016, cited p. 40, col. repr. p. 41, n° 17

Georges Mathieu. Les années 1960-1970, exhibition catalogue [Paris, Galerie Templon, 08.09 – 20.10.2018], Paris, Templon, 2018, col. repr. p. 11

HARAMBOURG, Lydia, Georges Mathieu, Lausanne, Ides et Calendes, 2013, cited p. 19, col. repr. p. 4

HULTEN, Pontus (dir.), Paris-Paris, 1937-1957, créations en France, exhibition catalogue [Paris, Musée national d'Art moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, 28.05 – 02.11.1981], Paris, Centre Georges Pompidou, 1981, cited p. 512, b/w repr. p. 221, n° 435

Mathieu, exhibition catalogue [Paris, Musée d'Art moderne de la Ville de Paris, 29.03 – 31.05.1963], Paris, Musée d'Art moderne de la Ville de Paris, 1963, cited n. p., b/w repr. n. p., n° 6

MATHIEU, Georges; ARGAN, Giulio Carlo et al., Mathieu. 50 ans de création, Paris, Hervas, 2003, col. repr. p. 30

MATHIEU, Georges, De l'abstrait au possible, jalons pour exégèse de l'art occidental, Zurich, Éditions du Cercle d'Art Contemporain, 1959, b/w repr. n. p.

RITSCHARD, Claude, Les figures de la liberté, exhibition catalogue [Geneva, Musée Rath, 27.10.1995 – 07.01.1996], Geneva, Musée d'art et d'histoire, 1995, b/w repr. p. 266, n° 161

See also