V: Still-Lifes and Film Decors

 

  In addition to landscapes and figure compositions Lahner periodically painted still-lifes.[46] In many cases they are of startling virtuosity. As often as not, the impact of these works derives from their simplicity. In Nature morte, dated l938, Lahner describes three objects: a yellow vase and two vessels resembling champagne glasses, one blue, one white, set against a patchwork of colors in an indeterminate setting. The three objects stand out from their surroundings on account of their brilliantly uniform colors. The yellow and blue are echoed in more restrained tones in the background. As there is no white elsewhere in the painting except for the dish, Lahner models it slightly to mute the boldness of the lighting effects.

In a watercolor drawing of tulips, Lahner restricts his color scheme to three tones: a contrast of the red of the flowers against the green of the stems and leaves, made more brilliant by the gray wash that serves as a backdrop and the bits of white paper that he allows to shine through. Many of Lahner's still-lifes, however, are based on subtler color harmonies. In a pencil drawing of grapes, pears, and apples, he adds light touches of yellow, green, and brown to the fruit with a darker band of gray/brown wash encircling the arrangement. This sober range of colors is enlivened by the blue of the plate, a small touch that nonetheless adds a measure of tonal opulence and acts a buffer between the fruit and the background.

Other still-lifes, like his Nature morte aux pommes and Nature morte aux poissons, enchant the eye with their luscious surface textures and subtle gradations of color. Most of Lahner's work consists of bold compositions and a palette of primary colors. The still-lifes serve as a reminder that he achieved his greatest effects, however, through the careful analysis of color relationships.

For most of the l930s Lahner continued to show his work regularly at the Salon des Artistes Indépendants as well as at the Salon des Tuileries.[47] He also exhibited in galleries like the Vignon and the Myrbor, and at the Bonaparte in l936 with Daria Gamsaregan. He was represented at a show of contemporary prints in Milan, and once again in the United States, this time at the Courvoisier Gallery in San Francisco. But the market for art was not what it had been before the Depression and most gallery owners were unwilling to speculate on the works of unknown painters.[48] This summary exclusion from the possibility of sales assured the continuity of an avant-garde outside the traditional institutions and perpetuated the notion of the peintre maudit as representative of the Ecole de Paris. During this period Lahner developed a deep-seated distrust of gallery owners and became dissatisfied with the increasing commercialism of his vocation.

In l931 Lahner moved, once again, this time to the rue des Périchaux, near the Porte Brancion, south of Montparnasse.[49] Friends who later visited him there described the neighborhood as working class and his studio as a single room scattered with books and paintings with a tiny kitchen in the corner.[50] The floor was of beaten earth. To make ends meet, Lahner occasionally took on odd jobs as a scene painter for Paris theaters and for the movies. Very little of this work has been documented, owing no doubt in part to Lahner's silence on the subject, but apparently through his friendship with Vincent Korda, he was able to work on the sets for at least two of Alexander Korda's films. The Private Life of Henry VIII , the Academy Award winner of l933, was shot in London but the sets were designed and constructed in Paris under Vincent Korda's direction.[51]

In the same year Lahner assisted in the decors for La Dame de chez Maxim, this time filmed in Paris.[52] It is likely that he also helped with the sets for Marius (l931) and Fanny (l932) -- the latter directed by Marc Allegret -- the first two installments of the Marcel Pagnol trilogy set on the Marseille waterfront.[53] One story has it that Alexander Korda called on Lahner in the rue des Périchaux, arriving as was his custom in a limousine. The neighbors were suitably impressed and Lahner's stock in the community rose accordingly.[54] This source of income for Lahner apparently dried up when Korda shifted his operations entirely to London. Lahner continued to work for the director Esvay, however, on Une Vie perdue and La Mauvaise graine .[55] In l937 he was sufficiently known in the field to be asked to execute the decors for the Folies-Bergère in a program headlined by the chanteuse Damia.[56]

Other than scene painting and design, little is known about Lahner's daily activities during the l930s. In addition to his landscapes and female subjects, he painted acrobats (Scène de cirque, ), peasants in the fields (Le Répos, ), a Europa and Jupiter disguised as a bull (Figure mythologique,), and still-lifes, often employing the same white cloth as a studio prop in the subjects taken directly from life. Around l928, he is said to have produced his first abstract paintings, but apparently for his own use.[57] It was not a direction he would actively or publicly pursue until the l950s. At the same time, he sometimes reverted to an Impressionist-like facture in his landscapes. In his Paysage du Midi , Lahner applied his colors thinly and with loose, rapid strokes. The subject, a group of houses with red tile roofs set in an olive grove, is like that of numerous other pictures of the period but seemingly by an altogether different artist.

During the late 1930s when the art market began to recover, Lahner appears by contrast to have exhibited less frequently. The last pre-war exhibition in which he is known to have participated was the Exposition Internationale in Paris in l937. [58] Similarly, there is a noticeable lack of paintings from the late 1930s in collections of his works. It is difficult to say whether this drop in production stemmed from a lack of private funds and a corresponding need to work outside the studio, or if his career as a theatrical designer took him away from his painting. Another possibility is that Lahner had for the time being run short of inspiration, as painters often do, and was searching for new material for his work. Whatever the reason, Lahner seems to have hit a dry spell by l936, well in advance of the Second World War.

On the eve of the war Lahner painted a self-portrait (1939), one of three known to have been executed by the painter. Executed realistically in muted tones, this portrait displays the artist in a sober frame of mind, hair swept under a beret, lips firmly set, and eyes staring directly out at the viewer. It is worthwhile remarking that Lahner's self-portrait hardly seems that of a man who created so many exuberant landscapes and lyrical interpretations of female subjects. The sudden jolt of self-awareness that Lahner displays in this fine, carefully composed work reflects a guarded psyche coming to terms with its external appearance.



Footnotes

(46) Of all the themes Lahner treated in his paintings, his still-lifes have been the best-liked and most quickly sold. On account of their dispersal into numerous private hands, it is difficult to assess with any degree of accuracy what proportion of his entire oeuvre they represent.

(47) Bouret 114.

(48) For a discussion of the art market in Paris following World War I, see Malcolm Gee's published dissertation on Dealers, Critics and Collectors of Modern Painting. Aspects of the Parisian Art Market Between 1910 and 1930, New York/London 1981.

(49) Bouret 114.

(50) Mme Georgette Trichet occasionally visited Lahner at this studio apartment, and her vivid description of it complements the few extant photographs of Lahner taken there.

(51) M. Korda 345-347; see also "Lahner" file, Musée Georges Pompidou, which contains a listing of some of Lahner's film decors.


(52) "Lahner" file, Musée Georges Pompidou.

(53) The final installment, César (1936), was directed by Pagnol himself.

(54) J. Bouret, "Un Lahner dans son cadre habituel," in Formes , Paris 1959. Bouret does not mention Korda by name, but both Laszlo Laky and André Tranié believe it was he.

(55) "Lahner" file, Muée Georges Pompidou.

(56) Bouret 114. Lahner also found a good deal of satisfaction in creating large decorations for the stage and for film. "Isolated, feeling my way, " he wrote, "I needed to make a living and spent long hours making decorations which revitalized me and left me complete freedom in painting." "Lahner" file, Musée Georges Pompidou.

(57) The story that Lahner painted abstracts as early as 1925 seems to have circulated only from 1957, with the publication of Jean Bouret's L'Art abstrait (p. 63). While it is true that a few of Lahner's non-representational subjects are marked "1928" on the back of the canvas, such dates are unconvincing. Presumably, Bouret's assertion derives from conversations with the painter himself, who unfortunately could not always be depended upon to relate important details of his early career.

(58) Bouret 114.