18 January 2011

A Spray Of Pollen: Lucien Levy-Dhurmer

What a difference a decade makes.  The  four elements of classical antiquity (earth, air, wind, and fire) that appear in benign decorative form on this vase made in 1889 become the pretext for dark dreams in 1900. 
In that millennial year Lucien Levy-Dhurmer won a bronze medal at the Universal Exposition in Paris.  Not-quite-human creatures cavort with black swans in an inflamed aura uniting fire and water. Black swans, representing deep mysteries, were a staple of symbolist imagery.    Gliding with no obvious effort through the water, they also suggested the permeability of everyday reality.

Often dismissed as an art form for amateurs, pastels became the favorite medium for the peripatetic Levy-Dhurmer, as for many of his contemporaries.  Easy to transport and easy to use, he found new ways to create spectacular effects with grains of chalk.  One that became a signature  created the appearance of a scrim between the viewer and the subject, a veil similar to the floral sprays of pollen that attract butterflies.

In his interpretations, such real locations as Venice and Constantinople inhabit the same universe as the imaginary City of Ys, said to exist under the waves off the Breton coast.  My Mother - An Evening - To See The City Of Ys draws from a whole other world of archaic imagery from his portrait of the Breton people. 

Levy-Dhurmer applied a refined style to every new medium he tried.  In 1910,  he accepted his first commission as ensemblier, (see The Wisteria Dining Room - Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC, May 2008) designing not only architectural settings but everything  that went into them, so that no single element would offend the eye or be inconsistent with the whole. 


In his portrait of Georges Rodenbach Lvey-Dhurmer used literature as a stimulant to his imagination. Music often moved him to translate his aural sensations into personal images of powerful yearning. The Beethoven triptych, a Tchaikovsky Swan Lake (1905), Prélude à l'aprés-midi d'un faune after Debussy, and The Roses Of Isfahan After a melody by Gabriel Faure among them.

Like swans, like butterflies, his female listeners seem to move through time and  space effortlessly, achieving an integration of the senses that teases and eludes us.  Do they float or levitate?  The artist offers no clues.

In his later years, Levy-Dhurmer continued to travel.  He outlived Symbolism and its other practitioners, turning  to landscapes, including the series  he titled  La Calanque.

In La Calanque the rocky outcroppings appear like ghostly  icebergs thanks to extreme cropping.  Brights pinks and reds are the visible tokens of warmth on a summer evening; the green outcroppings among the rocks appear more robust in their fierce light.  The Belgian Fernand Khnopff created a Symbolist vocabulary with his cropped images; refusing to explain their meanings but insisting on their necessity.   Possibly, Levy-Dhurmer through this device lets us know that he has not forsaken his earlier preoccupations but still finds inspiration in them.  Abstraction and verisimilitude coexist in works that deserve an audience.

1. Fantasmagorie, c. 1900-1905, private collection, NYC.
2. The Four Elements, c.1889, Jason Jacques Gallery, NYC.
3. The Lake at Night, c.1910 , August Rateau Collection, Paris.
4. Ma Mere - Un Soir - A Vue la Ville d'Ys, 1898, Musee des Beaux-Arts, Brest.
5. Clair de lune, 1929, Louvre Museum, Paris.
6. Appasionata, from the Beethoven Triptych, 1906, Musee du Petit Palais, Paris.
7.  La Calanque, c. 1936, Musee d'Orsay, Paris.

For further reading:
Autour de Lucien Levy-Dhurmer by Reynold Arnould, et al, editions des Musees Nationaux, Paris, 1973.


bessfones said...

They images seem to give equal weight to all elements creating a beautiful and sensuous unity. Did he ever visit Venice or Istanbul?

Jane said...

Bess, Levy-Dhurmer visited those cities and many others numerous times. It was just after a trip to Venice in 1895 that the artist turned from work with ceramics for Massier Pottery to full-time painting. Then again, in 1910, as an ensemblier - what an apt word - he integrated his painting with plastic arts. Whatever medium he worked in, he excelled. What technical mastery and what aesthetic sense. Levy-Dhurmer never overdid anything.

bessfones said...

His work has an effortless quality about it. I wonder if it came naturally to him?

Jane said...

My guess is that it is difficult but Levy Dhurmer's efforts were bent to a deliberate end. He created ethereal atmospherics in such disparate media. I think he was an artist who knew what he wanted.