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An exploration on Fautrier’s avoidance of the illusory through his 1945 mixed media piece, DÊpouille. Written by Maximillian Piras, 2011.

Maximillian Piras: On Jean Fautrier & No Illusions

Creating original work outside of illusory practices removes unnecessary convolutions. Yet only the original can remain outside of illusion, as the process of reproducing in itself can create and mediate the illusive. A reproduction of an original work can often be unfit to replace said original. Theoretically, mediation should never replace originals except in certain scenarios when serving significant and verisimilar purposes. These purposes might revolve around a discussion of an image: not a painting but the image a painting contains, an image of a sculpture referring to the original sculpture itself, and so on. The difference should be obvious, but is not always. It does not take an expert to discern a photograph of a sculpture from the original as the two differ in dimensionality. One might always be aware that they are not seeing a sculpture itself when referencing mediated reproductions of it. But a painting can be more problematic as it may become drastically intermingled with its reproductions. Pablo Picasso’s 1937 Guernica expresses this mediated paradigm, as reproduced images of the painting have possibly had more universal influence than the original.1 This occurrence was possible because the importance of the painting was held foremost in what could be reproduced as an image. Specifically because the original’s physical attributes were superfluous to the power of the image the painting contained and could project through reproduction. The Guernica the world became so intrigued by is largely represented by illusion of the original. Illusion in the sense that the vast awareness of Guernica through mediated reproductions is independent from seeing the original at all, and many supporters of the painting have not seen it. But the importance of Guernica’s image suppresses the fact that a reproduction is simply an allusion. Guernica was represented through an abundance of posters and picket signs in World Ward II protests, and has served as a backdrop to many United Nations’ speeches. Yet it was not the original Guernica, but only reproductions that made such an impact. Thus, the unimportance of an original’s physicality paired with its allusion can create the illusion of ubiquity seen in the case of Guernica. Where reproduction and original become synonymous, and the image becomes


Gijs van Hensbergen, Guernica: The Biography of a 20th Century Icon (New York: Bloomsbury USA, 2005).


Maximillian Piras: On Jean Fautrier & No Illusions

recognizable to the extent that whatever medium it was originally created in can become irrelevant. The importance of this paradigm is actually only contained in its negation when discussing Jean Fautrier. It is inextricable from discussing Fautrier’s work because the opposite scenario has occurred. His originals could not suffer such a mediated fate as Guernica has because “Fautrier has no illusions”.2 Fautrier’s adamant rejection of Illusionism resulted in a body of work devoid of hard edges, easily recognizable reference, and flat surfaces. Though flat surfaces are not to be confused with flatness, Fautrier’s work was presumably concerned with flatness. As Clement Greenberg discusses in his essay Modernist Painting, flatness is an opposition to practices like chiaroscuro that were illusory.3 Flatness is the reversal of Illusionism’s contradiction: three-dimensionality in appearance on a two-dimensional plane. Fautrier’s work does not use illusion to convince the viewer they are looking at three dimensions instead of two. Fautrier brings his two-dimensional ideas into the third dimension by giving them physical attributes inextricable from their composition. The work is not flat, but utilizes flatness. The result is what makes reproductions of Fautrier’s work problematic, and thus serves his rejection of Illusionism on two levels: the pictorial and the mediated. The problematic nature of reproducing Fautrier’s work came to light when I went to the Museum of Contemporary Art to view his 1945 piece Dépouille. A digitized photograph of this work is available online on MOCA’s website.4 For anyone who has seen both that image and the original, the differences are obvious. Foremost because the image on MOCA’s website alone appears to be a flat painting, but in actuality the piece is a composition of mixed media on paper mounted to linen with multiple points extruding beyond two-dimensionality. The twodimensional breach is to such an extent that some points cast shadows, which might lead one to believe that these shadows have created the illusion of black paint in MOCA’s image. This is why

 2 3 4

Donald Goddard, Jean Fautrier: 1898-1964 (New York: New York Art World, 2003). Clement Greenberg, Modernist Painting (District of Columbia: Voices of America, 1960). Museum of Contemporary Art, Jean Fautrier (


Maximillian Piras: On Jean Fautrier & No Illusions

the original and its photographic reproduction seem so distanced. Thus Dépouille would not have a single vantage point but multiple and is influenced heavily by its light source, which also connects it to the problem of photographing sculpture since one angle can be drastically different than the next. To rationalize the detachment apparent between Dépouille and the other work framed and hung around it on MOCA’s walls, we can look to Fautrier himself as he too was distanced from his contemporaries. Fautrier was considered to be a loner during his lifetime and in his solitude he sought out a unique vision of painting. He was born to Paris in 1898 but is rarely discussed with his French contemporaries. Some might consider this due to the subjective success of his work, but others would claim it is because he “challenges the ‘Frenchness’ of French art”.5 He attended various prestigious institutions of art, but eventually rejected their teachings out of disappointment. Fautrier might have been searching for a resolution to painting he did not find in the Old Masters, Matisse, Braque, or any other of his predecessors nor contemporaries. Presumably, his body of work represents his discovery and contribution to painting. But one might be incorrect by calling him ahead of his time, as he also seems detached from the postwar painters after him. The only place Fautrier seems to even slightly fit in is within the style of German Expressionism. This might be logical as he did at one point in his life hold a studio in German-occupied France during World War II. Inside his studio “he painted within earshot of the woods where German forces conducted massacres at night”.6 This consideration fits in perfectly to Dépouille’s formal and conceptual analysis. This work was originally from a series titled Otages (“Hostages”), which is considered to be Fautrier’s response to the Nazi regime. Fautrier’s aesthetic elements that reflect German Expressionism might be due to a similar provoking subjectivism. Otages has been noted for "epitomising a 'new

 5 6

Michael Brenson, Jean Fautrier, France’s Caustic Outsider (New York: Times, 1989) 2. Museum of Contemporary Art, Jean Fautrier (


Maximillian Piras: On Jean Fautrier & No Illusions

human resolve' against the horrors of war".7 Dépouille as a title has been translated to “human remains”, the piece is 45 by 57 inches and as mentioned before is mixed media on paper mounted on linen. The result appears very painterly, lacking in hard edges and formal clarity. Fautrier’s color is heavily subdued, allowing only blue in abundance and varying it through contrasting shades. The rest of the piece is achromatic aside from a few hints of very de-saturated red. At first glance Dépouille appears more Abstract than Expressionist, but on closer inspection the “human remains” reveal themselves and their supposed implications. The darker shades of pigment and applied material, as well as the indiscernible shadows in the reproduction, seem to make up fragments of a face. The original is actually much harder to make out, so I attribute the photographic reproduction’s relative clarity to the aforementioned shadows. The result of Fautrier’s fragmentation and achromatic composition is a desperate image: a debacle of human form. The fractured hint of a devastated visage is Fautrier’s interpretation on the horrors of war. He paints the sounds of massacre resonating through the trees and into his studio. He paints the memory of his own military service during World War I: being gassed on the French army’s front lines. Fautrier’s survival after his war injuries might explain his unique approach to painting. Perhaps the gassing took away his ability to see hard edges anymore, or perhaps he was no longer concerned with the harmony of Matisse’s Fauvism nor the analytics of Braque’s Cubism. It seems that the war might have had a profound effect on Fautrier and influenced his avoidance of the illusory. In my best understanding of Dépouille I have regarded the human remains outside of the referential. The glimpse of the visage is secondary to the other formal aspects of the work. These other aspects are ones we cannot understand aside from being rooted deep within Fautrier himself. Expressionism is noted for producing works inextricable from the biography of their creator. The work does not represent a physically apparent subject but one that transcends into


Frances Morris, Paris Post War: Art and Existentialism 1945-55 (London: Tate Gallery, 1994) 89.


Maximillian Piras: On Jean Fautrier & No Illusions

metaphysical understanding. Fautrier’s series might be on the hostages of war: those taken in under chauvinistic illusion of sacrificing the self for the country. Those Fautrier likely knew well during his service, possibly being one himself. This is not a claim that Fautrier was enlisted under irrational chauvinism, but merely an allusion to its coexistence with war. If Fautrier wanted to commemorate his fallen brothers from battle and express an opinion on war, perhaps operating outside of reference was a truer attempt. If Fautrier’s understanding of Illusionism was like Greenberg’s, then he would acknowledge it as a guise: a denial of its own substance. To work outside of the illusory is to understand the contradictions of Realism, and to proclaim the true nature of one’s medium. Why would a veteran honor his comrades through a guise? And not only in the pictorial sense, but also the reality of the situation: if Fautrier’s “hostages” were the lives lost for war, then nothing of them may remain. The “human remains” might be the last essence of the obliterated bodies, nothing aside from the human spirit. Fautrier’s Dépouille is not a memory of humans, but perhaps it is their metaphysical reincarnation. It hangs like a painting but breaches two dimensions: it does not operate in accordance with common physicality. Its existence is to be just as obscure as the notion Fautrier hopes to explain. To understand why Dépouille sits in theoretical distance from the other work in MOCA’s white cube museum space, we first had to understand why Jean Fautrier sits in distance from his contemporaries. The work appears as obscure as the artist’s life, and we may never truly understand it or his motivation. What we can assume is that it was influenced by war; it was not bound in creation or concept to a single designation of dimension; and the intrigue of illusion had escaped Fautrier. The consequence of such metaphysical exploration and extreme denial of the illusory is a relatively obscure existence: misunderstood for multiple generations and perhaps still, as well as relatively unknown in the mainstream but perhaps contently. Denying the illusive to such an extent, regardless of the rigorous justification, results in some sense of ostracism from our world fixated on illusion in many aspects. Illusion is an inextricable element operating in our


Maximillian Piras: On Jean Fautrier & No Illusions

conception of reality, in many ways humanity has manipulated it to justify existence or even merely providing a reason to exist. Perhaps the human acceptance of illusion can explain the widespread recognition of Guernica but not Dépouille. For what good is an original painting that you cannot reproduce and sell as a poster? Perhaps Fautrier understood the merit in that and eluded his opportunity to sellout long before it ever came to fruition. That opportunity still may not have come, but what is the point anyways? It’s all just an illusion.

Works Cited Brenson, Michael. “Jean Fautrier, France’s Cuastic Outsider.” New York Times 1989: 2. Goddard, Donald. “Jean Fautrier: 1898-1964.” New York Art World 2003. Greenberg, Clement. “Modernist Painting.” Voices of America 1960. Hensbergen, Gijs van. Guernica: The Biography of a 20th Century Icon. New York: Bloomsbury USA, 2005. Morris, Fances. Paris Post War: Art and Existentialism 1945-55. London: Tate Gallery, 1994. Museum of Contemporary Art. “Jean Fautrier.” MOCA.


On Jean Fautrier & No Illusions  

An exploration of Jean Faturier's paintings in relation to Illusionism amongst other things.