Marguerite Burnat-Provins - Portrait of Marie-Therese Provins, 1900, Musee d'Art, Sion, Valais.
No, this is not an article about how Art Nouveau became the 'house' style of drug-inspired artists in the late 1960s. It is an appreciation of the French-born artist Marguertie Burnat-Provins (1872-1952) inspired, at least in part by the recent Art + Feminism Wikipedia Edit-a-thon, an international effort to promote women's voices online as editors and as subjects. In spite of this, Burnat-Provins still goes unrecognized (except in French).
The basic argument for Burnat-Provins is made by her work. That said, I think this multi-talented artist is at least as significant and arguably more interesting than her friend and contemporary, the better-known Swiss artist Ernest Bieler (1863-1948). Burnat-Provins was also an unconventional and passionate woman at a time uncongenial to such a character and it shows in her work, even before learning something of her life.
Marguerite Burnat-Provins - Allegorie, 29 October 1895, crayon and sepia.
I. "I like what is wild (sauvage) in a garden."
In her 1909 autobiography Le Couer sauvage (The Savage Heart) Burnat-Provins pays tribute to her father, a cultured man who loved the arts and encouraged his daughters to make of her own life an original work. Marguerite recalled writing dramas and verses from the age of nine.
At nineteen she enrolled in the women's atelier at Academie Julian where she found a mentor in the painter Benjamin-Constant. Unusually for a woman at the time, Provins began a course of study in anatomy at the College of Medicine. An early self-portrait shows a young woman holding a pencil to a blank paper, her gaze averted from the viewer, seemingly deep in contemplation. Perhaps she was thinking that she would soon end the dearth of female artists in the Symbolist Movement.
II. The division in me - la division du moi.
Ambivalence was a common theme in Provins' early works, even as she experimented with various styles and media. The portrait of her sister Marie-Therese (1900) nods lightly to pre-Raphaelitism with abundant hair and a, yet with wary eyes and a fragile turn of the lips. She was only twenty-three when she began a series of allegories depicting the subconscious life of a young girl on the brink of womanhood. These dream-pictures are unsettlingt unsettling and are meant to be. Is it enough to desire and be desired in return? What other goals does society allow a woman to pursue ? Allegorie, (1895), is awash in ambivalent symbolism: a young woman turns away in her sleep from the rising sun and fecundity of nature. To underline the point, she is doubly boxed in to this beautiful world by the frame around the image.
In May of 1895 Marguerite Provins met Adolph Burnat, an architect Ernest Burnat, from Vevey, Switzerland. Religious differences hardly mattered when they fell in love. The Catholic Marguerite and the Protestant Adolph were married on February 13, 1896. The newlyweds settled in Vevey, where they became friends with Ernest Bieler (1863-1948) who invited them to his home in Saviese in the French-speaking canton of Valais, for the first time in 1898. The area, known for its fruit farming and vineyards captured her imagination immediately. She would spent several months there each year until 1914, the only French artist in the group L'école de Savièse.. Her enthusiasm for the Valais region contrasted strongly with her boredom at Vevey.
Burnat-Provins met Paul de Kalbermatten, an attractive young engineer in 1907 and the two fell in love, a fact underlined by the publication later that year of Le Livre pour Toi the first of a series of passionate books about love. The next year, she and Adolphe Burnat divorced end she moved to Savoie to be with Kalbermatten, Then, in 1909, Burnat-Provin underwent surgery that left her unable to have children. Her divorce from Burnat and her relationship with Paul de Kalbermattan were at odds with conservative mores of her adopted home of Valais. Like her contemporaries Colette and Camille Claudel, rumors of scandal circulated around her personal life.
Marguerite Burnat-Provins - Self Portrait, no date given, private collection, France.
Marguerite Burnat- Provins -Jeune fille Savieuse, 1900, watercolor, crayon and pastel, Fondation Neumann, Lausanne.
Marguerite Burnat-Provins - Vielleuse Rouet, 1900, from L'Art Nouveau a l'art hallucinataire.
Unidentified photographer - Marguerite Burnat-Provins, 1904, Collection art Brut, Lausanne.
Marguerite Burnat-Provins - Composition aux Salamandres et Perce-Neige, 1898, from L'Art Nouveau a l'art hallucinataire.
Her particular contribution to L'Art Nouveau was to adapt its curvilinear style to realistic depictions of flora (blackberries) and fauna (salamanders), making her work recognizably personal at a time when the movement was in decline thanks to a reliance on imitation that appeared mechanical and spiritless.
Marguerite Burnat-Provins - Grape Leaves, no date given, from De L'Art Nouveau a l'art hallucinataire.
Marguerite Burnat-Provins - Cover of Heures d'Automne, 1904, Sauberlin et Pfeiffer, Vevey.
In 1904, the year L'Heures d'Automne,was published Burnat-Provins opened the shop A La Cruche Verte (At The Green Jug ) to market her art work.
Marguerite Burnat-Provins - cover for Le Livre pour Toi, 1907, Editions de l'Aire, Vevey.
Marguerite Burnat-Provins - a page from Chapter XII of Dream for You, c. 1911, Editions d' l'Aire, Vevey.
For Burnat-Provins, the first hallucinations were fever dreams she endured during an episode of typhoid in 1910, an experience made more harrowing by being far from home. She and Kalbermatten had wed in London earlier that year and then move to Alexandria, Egypt where her husband supervised construction projects. To her, the creatures of her dreams seemed "ames parasitaires" (parasitic souls) engaged in a combat for her spirit between the forces of unity and disintegration. She visualized them as bird-like creatures, sinister and inscrutable..
When she was recovered, Burnat-Prrovins returned to her adventurous ways, visiting the Pyramids and sight-seeing in Syria and Lebanon. But after war broke out in 1914, Kalbermatten was drafted into the French Army and Burnat-Provins, left alone with her anxieties for his safety, began to experience hallucinations again. So disturbed was she by these visions that, in 1916, she consulted a psychoanalyst. By then, she had already begun to incorporate her them into her work, creating what became a series she called Ma Ville (My Town).
Ma Ville is populated with what the artist characterized as "des etres qui s'imposent" (beings who force themselves on me). She described the experience: "I endure them, cringe as I feel them coming and simply cannot help drawing them."
Unlike the characters she created under the influence of symbolism, these creatures confront the viewer open-eyed, their faces shaped by fathomless distress. Animals appear, often hovering around the humans, sometimes protectively (a cat around a woman’s head) and sometimes menacingly as birds that circle like vultures, sensing human vulnerability, ghostly manifestations of the artists’s febrile emotions.
In Les Etres d'Abimes (The Scourge of the Abyss) they cluster and multiply. But in Anthor et L'Osieau Noir (Anthor and the Black Bird – 1922), the bird appears to have fused with the woman in an ambiguous embrace. Frilute le Peureux (Frilute the Timorous - 1915) shows a face transfixed by horror, with indescribable eyes that hold the viewer transfixed, trying to imagine what terrors they apprehend. She even said that it felt as if the nightmarish creatures of her dream life came to her and "dictated" her paintings of them.
Marguerite Burnat-Provins - Les Etres de l'Abime (The Scourge from the Abyss), 1921, Collection Art Brut, Lausanne.
Marguerite Burnat-Provins - Anthor et l'Oiseau noir (Anthor and the Black Bird), 1922,
Marguerite Burnat-Provins - Ma Ville (My Town), 1926, Galerie Laura Pecheur, Paris
If the Symbolist movement had a mantra it would have been this: Close your eyes and look within. Burnat-Provins returned to this idea again and again, here in 1926, a middle-aged woman and a successful artist.
Her hands are clasped, as if in prayer and another pair of hands, possibly meant to suggest the hands of her sister Marie-Therese or a singular sense of wholeness, cover her eyes. This picture created at this point suggests a sense of trust and a sense of resolution are at least possible, along with ambivalence.
Burnat-Provins continued to work - and experiment - writing a novel in the 1930s, just published for the first time in France by Plaisir de Lire. The Hotel takes place in colonial Maghreb and, although peppered with stereotypes typical of its time and place, tells a tale of Europeans adrift and maladroit in a country they fail to understand.
Marguerite Burnat-Provins died in 1952 at Grasse, in the Alps-Maritime region of her native France
Marguerite Burnat-Provins, La Confiance 1926.
For further reading: Marguerite Burnat Provins: De L'Art Nouveau a l'art hallucinatoire by Helen Bieri, published by Somogy, Paris: 2003.
Burnat-Provins founded the Ligue Pour La Beauté in 1905 to preserve the architecture of her adopted home, an organization that still exists today.
Place Marguerite Burnat-Provins, Saviese honors her work.
The Alps-Rhone River region straddles the border between France and Switzerland is th locale where Eric Rohmer filmed Le genou de Claire (Claire’s Knee) in 1970 in and around Annecy.