IX: The Human Figure


During the 1930s, Lahner regularly portrayed idealized nudes like those in Les Deux amies. In the post-war period, however, this is not the case. Pictures in which women are portrayed either fall under the category of portraiture, such as the portrait of the gallery owner, Jeanne Castel, or of genre scenes in which the female forms are generalized and highly abstracted. The notable exception here is his graphic work, in particular a series of hand-colored etchings made for the underground publication L'Éducateur (l950).[81] A putative sex manual of more titillating than educational content, this book provided Lahner with the opportunity of imbuing with his special brand of poésie some explicitly erotic subject matter. The result is a lesson in decorum, a fantasy world of sexual delight removed from notions of responsibility on the one hand and excessive lasciviousness on the other. As such, Lahner's designs also not inconsequentially suited the scenario of the book.

In addition to his work for L'Éducateur Lahner also made a number of prints and line drawings of women that bear a clear relationship to works by Matisse and Picasso. One of his favorite motifs was the reclining nude, often described in abstract form, and sometimes particularized with the addition of facial features and color. In general it is fair to say that the more abstract compositions are the most successful, corresponding best to Lahner's notion of ideal beauty. Another often-repeated subject is the female head, treated sculpturally as a bust, or as a flat and decorative linear composition. L'Adolescente, from 15 Gravures au burin d'Emile Lahner , exemplifies the latter.[82][83] The girl's head appears in profile as on a frieze but is counterbalanced by the rhythmic flow of the line that softens the effect. Lahner, like nearly every painter in post-war Paris, knew Picasso not only by his work but also personally. In 1951 Lahner was an honored guest in Saint-Paul, the recipient of the Prix des Oliviers, a prize for modern art.[84] During that time he paid Picasso a call at nearby Vallauris. L'Adolescente , like much of Lahner's graphic work, resembles Picasso's with its simple classicizing formula animated by a satisfying graffito style.

Otherwise, in painting, Lahner prefers to portray women as automata or abstract icons of femininity devoid of sexuality. The female subjects of Sortie de l'église (Dordogne) are a case in point. The two female figures are somewhat humanized by their attributes: the presence of children indicates that they are mothers; the square church tower in the background reveals that they inhabit a country town where religion remains the focal point of social interchange; the dog alludes to a simple life of quiet domesticity. But the cloisonniste arrangement of the forms and colors counteracts the lyric note here with its hard-edge character and assertive palette, prefiguring the abstractions and stained-glass designs of the l950s. Even with the hint of narrative discernible in Sortie de l'église , the human form is treated primarily for its sculptural quality as in a still-life, and it is the absence of specifically human characteristics that Lahner seems to find so attractive.

This tendency towards abstraction of the human figure reflects a progressive change in manner from the painter's early days in Paris to his post-war style. In La Musique of around 1928, a trio of women perform on musical instruments. Lahner distinguishes the central figure of the harpist by painting her larger than the other two women; he also distances her somewhat from the cellist on the right by indicating an interval of space behind the harp. Nonetheless, the three figures function as a compositional unit against an undefined setting of mottled greens and blues.

Lahner treats the peasant women in Le Trio of around 1935 in a like manner -- as a single group of closely-knit figures with an interval between the central figure and the one on the right. In reducing their human features into geometric forms, Lahner integrates the Trio into the network of lines and colors that stand for a mountainous landscape. In 1960, Lahner again undertakes this kind of figure group in Formes et couleurs. As the title indicates, the painter is now interested solely in the formal relationships between elements which only casually resemble human beings. The forms cast shadows against a neutral background and the interval from the previous paintings here becomes a fourth figure. Lahner's increasingly detached treatment of his subjects confirms that by the 1950s he no longer employed models. The presence of a sitter, whether for a portrait or a studio composition, appears at this stage in his career to have been at odds with his known preference for working in solitude.

Animals appear rather often in Lahner's paintings, usually with an even greater degree of stylization than his human subjects. They are generally there to perform a function in subservience to the painting's main theme, as in Sortie de l'église , but in themselves are of no special interest. Nothing in his painted oeuvre could prepare us, then, for a series of prints and drawings of animals in which Lahner not only captures their physical features with great fidelity but characterizes them with insight and humor. Some of the animal prints in Lahner's "bestiary" come from an aborted plan to illustrate Aesop's Fables . These charming tales permitted Lahner to exercise his talent for whimsy to the hilt.[85] In one etching, a cat stalks a rooster; in another a goggle-eyed fly faces off two ants. The muscular tension, the individual features and expressions of each are carefully observed and interpreted with just the right degree of fantasy. The Fables clearly served as a serendipitous source of inspiration for Lahner and one regrets that further projects of this sort did not come his way.


(81) L'Éducateur , with illustrations by Emile Lahner, Saint-Malo 1950.

(83) According to Georgette Trichet, Lahner admired Picasso's work but did not care for the artist personally. Nonetheless, he told Rene Barotte that "At Vallauris...I passed one exquisite hour after another alongside Picasso. He is an admirable man and I wish I could say as much for those in his entourage." R. Barotte, "Lahner, peintre aujourd'hui...et hier mathématicien,"Paris-Presse. L'Intransigeant, 3 June 1950.

(84) "A Emile Lahner le Prix des Oliviers," Paris-Presse. L'Intransigeant, 12 October 1951, 6. The notice in L'Intransigeant states that the recipient of the prize was to be given a "one-month stay in the home of the creator of the prize, M. François, at Saint-Paul." Lahner wrote Georgette Trichet from Paris that he was to stay at the "Hotel des Oliviers." The Prix des Oliviers was created only in 1950 and was given that first year to the artist Mejenski.

(85) Lahner undertook this project in the 1920s but it was never completed. See J.-M. Dunoyer, L'Art graphique d'Emile Lahner, Paris 1980, 229.