20 February 2014

All that Glitters: Landscapes of Lucien Levy-Dhurmer

Drowned bodies, crumbling houses reflected in stagnant pools of water, a suffucating atmosphere of decayed vegetation.  That's the vision that springs to mind when at mention of 'symbolist art.'  But looking at Venice - View of the Lagoon at Dusk  (private collection, no date given) or  other  pictures by Lucien Levy-Dhurmer, a more apt comparison is with the master of Impressionism, Claude Monet.  Levy-Dhurmer's works, especially his shimmering pastels of fantastical landscapes share the vocabulary of color and light familiar from  Monet's experiments  with the Rouen Cathedral. 
Like his Symbolist contemporaries Edmond Aman-Jean, Louis Welden Hawkins and Alphonse Osbert, the young Levy-Dhurmer  received a traditional  and rigorous Academic training. As a student, he earned honors at  L'École communale supérieure de Dessin et Sculpture  in 1885.

Fascinated by butterflies throughout his life, Levy-Dhurmer  tried to reproduce the reflection of their fluttering wings in  ceramic glazes and later by sparkling swathes of chalk.  He even decorated the entrance to his Paris apartment with  images of butterflies.  "Winged flowers of light”, the poet Andres Suares called them.  No wonder we view his pastels through a scrim of pollen. 
Born Lucien Levy (1865-1963) to a family of French expatriates in Algiers, he changed his surname to Levy-Dhurner (a contraction of his mother's maiden name, Goldhurmer) for his first exhibition as a painter.  Before that he had been artistic director of the Massier Pottery at Golfe-Juan from 1887 to 1895. . It was thanks to Levy-Dhurmer's innovative metallic luster glazes that the firm won a gold medal at the Exposition Universelle at Paris in 1889.    He left the firm to concentrate on painting in 1895, having recently returned from travels in Italy, where he executed several delicate pastels.  His change from ceramiste to painter may have been influenced by the trip. Levy-Dhurmer liked to travels with pastels; they were portable and took up little room in his luggage.  We know that Venice captured his imagination with its  endless configurations of light and water, his favorite elements of landscape.

His first solo exhibition in 1896, at Galerie Georges Petit was a great success.   Critics wee beside themselves with enthusiasm.  One asked rhetorically,  was Levy-Dhurmer  “Symbolist, Mystic, or Romantic” ?   Another compared  his work  to “da Vinci, Botticelli and Memling, the ancients, the moderns…”   This was not  far-fetched as the artist''s later nudes would  borrow from classical models and his frequent use of the color blue, long understood to convey spiritual qualities.   Albert Aurier in Les Symbolistes pointed to the influence of Swedenborg's theories: “There are correspondences between the spiritual world and the natural world…”  This last comment went straight  to the soul of the Symbolist landscape.  In Renaissance art the landscape was the background for spiritual teachings, but in Symbolist paintings the landscape was the lesson.   In a catalogs of the Salon de la Rose + Croix, Sar Josephin Peladan quoted  Hegel: “Art is the rival of Nature.  Like Nature, and with greater success, Art conveys ideas.  It uses forms as symbols of experience, and it fashions these in such a way that they become transformed into something more perfect and pure.”

 Constantinople - The Habor - Evening, private collection, France.

After visiting Galerie Petit, the Symbolist impresario  Peladan invited Levy-Dhurmer to exhibit at his Salon Rose+Croix.  The artist declined, being more attuned to the the Symbolist literati  Before his return to Paris in October of 1895, he had been invited by the Belgian writer George Rodenbach, author of the influential novel Bruges-la-Morte, to draw his portrait (Musée d’Orsay, Paris) and the two men had become friends.
Peladan knew less about painting than he did about music or mysticism but he kept popping up in Symbolist circles and, in fact, created his own circle, the Order of the Rose + Croix.  Full of energy and extremely well read, Peladan knew that artists were susceptible to the flattery of being likened to priests and magicians,  “Our aim is to tear out Love from the Western soul and replace it with the love of Beauty, the love of the Idea, the love of Mystery is a typical pronouncement.   Muddled though it may be with occultism, Peladan’s effect on a generation of artists should not be underestimated
Although he made no grand claims, Levy-Dhurmer did foresee the future, as has been recently noticed.  The artist who found mystery in the glitter of electric lights twinkling  across the water had,  created ceramic glazes to represent infinity in the 1890s that are the colors of deep space, as revealed in the 1990s by the Hubbell telescope.

Lucien Levy-Dhurmer died  in 1952.  A retrospective exhibition was organized by the French Museums in Paris at the Grand Palais in 1973, Autour de Lévy-Dhurmer: visionaires et intimistes  celebrated the acquisition of a group of major pastels now in the Musée d’Orsay.  
In 2008 the Denver Art Museum was the first U.S. Museum was the first to acquire a pastel by Lévy-Dhurmer.  That spring, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York installed the Wisteria Dining Room,  designed and executed  by the artist, after years in storage.

For further reading:
1. Autour de Levy-Dhurmer: visionaries et intimistes en 1900 by Antoinette Fay and Reynould Arnould, Paris, Editions des Musees Nationaux: 1973.

Scene a Venise, c, 1930, private collection.


 Evocation de Venise, Musee departementale de l'Oise, Beauvais.

 Le Cor fleuri, 1904, Musee departementale de l'Oise, Beauvais.

Levy-Dhurmer never embraced abstraction but he didn’t need to;  he continued to draw on Monet’s experiments in effet de lumiere, and as well as  his own experiments with iridescent glazes in new media. 
In 1936, Levy-Dhurmer exhibited a groupf of four pictures of the same landscape, the shoreline on the island of Corsica.  Quatour de Calanques (Quartet of Coves) revives musical themes that the artist had used several times, for instance in the Beethoven Trio, but this time with a difference: there are no classical female nudes in sight, just jagged white cliffs and blue water.  The theme is time itself, viewed at six hour intervals, Matin, Crepuscule, 6 Heures du Soir, and Nocturne.  Whether sun or moon, the source of light is never shown directly but the artist inscribes dashes of pink and yellow on the white cliffs

Quatour de Calanque:

1. La Calanque a 6 heures du soir, c.1936, Musee d'Orsay, Paris.

2. La Calanque - Crepuscule, no date given, private collection, Belgium.

3. La Calanque  - Nocturne (Corse - Ile) c. 1936, Musee d'Orsay, Paris.

4. Matin (Morning), 1936, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.


Roll Cage Mary said...

What sublimely beautiful work!

I wonder if you have done a post on Australian impressionist, John Peter Russell [1858-1930)?

Jane said...

Yes, Levy-Dhurmer's pastels are magical. I haven't heard of J.P. Russell before. I will have to investigate ! Thanks a bunch.

Tom Sarmo said...

A great, informative post as always--I only knew of his figurative works. Thanks!

Jane said...

C.B., if you haven't seen it already, The Wisteria Dining Room, designee and painted by Levy-Dhurmer, is on display at the Metropolitan Museum in NYC. I've written two pieces about it that are in the backlist here.