IV: Along the Mediterranean Coast

 

 Like many an artist before him, Lahner was entranced by the sunlight and the prospect of blissful repose along the shores of the Mediterranean. The year after visiting Sanary-sur-Mer he spent the summer in Saint-Tropez. [38] He also visited other towns along the Riviera like Vence and Saint-Paul-de-Vence, and spent the summer of l93l at Cagnes-sur-Mer.[39] Both Saint-Paul and Cagnes had by this time developed into full-blown art colonies with a seductive and casually licentious ambience as described in Cyril Connolly's The Rock Pool. [40] Among the seasonal residents was the Hungarian expatriate Vincent Korda, a painter with whom Lahner appears to have been friendly and later collaborated.[41] From these villages perchés , the distant seacoast was barely visible through a network of olive trees and lush undergrowth. The long walk to the shore, along with a dread of crowds, may explain why Lahner painted no pictures of the Mediterranean. All his paintings of Saint-Paul and the surrounding region were executed high up in the hills with the sea appearing more often than not as a slice of blue on the horizon.

Paysage méditerranéen apparently represents the view from Saint-Paul-de-Vence toward the sea. The colors are, by and large, non-naturalistic and so thinned out in some cases as to resemble pastel. Other areas are built up in rich impasto, anchoring down a composition unrelieved by either white or black. Generally speaking, green predominates in the lower half of the painting and blue in the upper portion, appropriate to the depiction of earth and sky. Both areas are shot through with pink, yellow, and lavender, giving the painting a strangely luminous quality. The spatial orchestration is carried out by a maze of lines that give some suggestion of planar development and in places imitate the contours of nature. The band of blue that stands for the sea is a restful point of focus in an otherwise busy composition.

Despite the intricate surface structure Lahner makes use of conventional perspective in all his landscape paintings. Paysage du Midi structurale best reveals Lahner's working method. Here the field running between two areas of greenery is placed on a grid of horizontal and orthogonal lines running into space and meeting at the center of the painting. Tall slender forms at left denote Lombard poplars and a few curved lines at right indicate a continuous mass of trees. Colors sometimes remain within contour lines or share an area with another shade; in other cases they overlap the lines, linking different areas tonally. In Paysage du Midi structurale , the same shade of green traverses the lower center of the canvas in a more or less downward fashion from left to right, abruptly dividing foreground from background areas while at the same time creating a sense of unity. The background or sky is conceived rather like a mosaic in mostly square or rectangular forms, and the numerous patches of yellow suggest sunlight filtering through the atmosphere. In other landscapes Lahner hides his perspectival arrangement underneath a more minutely patterned surface, but the underlying structure remains the same. .

Lahner's landscapes, with their complex faceting, derive in a general way from the post-Cubist idiom favored by many painters in Paris in the era between wars.[42] Cubism itself owes much to Cézanne, and this influence received widespread appreciation during the l920s and 1930s.[43]While Lahner's views on Cézanne remain unrecorded, there is considerable internal evidence in his pictures that he, too, found inspiration in the work of the master from Aix. Lahner is known to have visited Aix, and a number of his pictures resemble Cézanne's many paintings of Mont-Saint-Victoire.[44]

One such painting is Paysage (Alpes-Maritime) which probably depicts the view east from the town of Vence, with its mountainous curtain as the backdrop for the sharply sloping valley below. A farmhouse appears at right center half obscured by trees; other features of the landscape, however, have been cleansed from the scene with long, alternating strokes of hot and cool color. The purple mountain in the distance rolls up to a summit near the far side of the formation and then drops off, repeating the familiar configuration of Mont-Saint-Victoire in Cézanne's paintings. As late as 1977, Lahner was still using this motif, notably in a lithograph known as Hommage à Cézanne for a one-man exhibtion at the Galerie René Drouet .

There is, moreover, something palpably Cézannesque about Lahner's compositional structure and in his reliance on an Impressionist palette. The various tilting planes of light and shadow are indicated by strokes of tonally graded color interlock like pieces of a puzzle, delineating solid forms and creating space. Unlike Cézanne, however, Lahner makes extensive use of line to shape his color fields into recognizable entities. This procedure is not without its ambiguities, and one gets the feeling that Lahner wants to have it both ways. On the one hand, the broken areas of color in his landscapes create a surface pattern that comes very close to denying the illusion of space and of content, rather like some of the advanced work of Seurat and Signac. On the other hand, the shaping lines dilute the message, creating forms and compositional depth which in the end compromise Lahner's impulses for abstraction with conventional legibility. This internal war waged between illusionism and the picture plane, also found in the paintings of other École de Paris artists like Rouault, remained unresolved for Lahner until the 1950s when the artist took on the ambiguous nature of illusionism itself as the subject of his paintings.[45]

In a picture from the mid-l930s Lahner gives full reign to his expressive use of color, which functions almost independently of the design imposed upon it. Called Byzance the painting represents a cluster of rooftops with the portal of a church in the foreground at left. Here the kaleidoscope of color seems to radiate light and the effect is joyful. The setting might as well be another provençal village rather than Byzantium for all it differs from other treatments of this subject, and the title should be understood figuratively rather than literally. For Lahner, the modern-day Byzantium was the Mediterranean coast, which rivaled the ancient empire in luxury and sun-drenched splendor.



Footnotes

(38) Bouret 113-114.

(39) Ibid.

(40) C. Connolly, The Rock Pool , New York 1981. The towns described by Connolly in this tale of a writer's spiritual degeneration were apparently Cagnes and Antibes.

(41) For Vincent Korda, see M. Korda, Charmed Lives, New York 1979.

(42) This group of artists includes Albert Gleizes, Jean Metzinger, Henri Le Fauconnier, Roger de la Fresnaye, Louis Marcoussis, Jean Lurcat, and André Lhote, in addition to the originators of the Cubist movement, Braque, Picasso, Gris, and Léger.

(43) The connection between Cézanne and Cubism is discussed in William Rubin's "Cézannisme and the Beginnings of Cubism," in Cézanne. The Late Work , New York, Museum of Modern Art, 1977, 151-202.

(44) One reviewer commented that Lahner's landscapes show the "frankly acknowledged influence of Cézanne." "Lahner," Carrefour , 3 May 1961. Similarly, Bouret observed that Lahner's "garden is lively, albeit always rigorously composed like that of Cézanne, as he knows how to use green, blue, and yellow, and line and composition." J. Bouret, "Pour saluer Lahner," in E. Lahner , ex. cat., Galerie René Drouot, Paris, 1977. Lahner also painted a few works which in their titles as well as their subject matter indicate that the painter had been to Aix: La Maison jaune à Aix-en-Provence (1927) and the 1977 lithograph called Hommage à Cézanne .

(45) Georges Rouault (1871-1958) began his career as an apprentice in the shop of a stained-glass window maker, which accounts for the dark contours he later adopted in his numerous oil paintings. Superficially, Lahner's use of contour lines bears a striking resemblance to Rouault's method. But whereas Rouault employs this device to stress the underlying pathos of his subjects, Lahner seems to use the lines primarily as a means of arranging the space.