VIII: Landscape Painting in the 1950s


The post-War era was one of steady work for Lahner; it was also a period of extensive travel. In l948 he made the first of a series of lengthy annual visits to Algeria, then a département of France.[73] In Algeria, Lahner produced a magnificent series of landscapes that recall the luminous works executed on his summer-long visits to Provence in the l930s. As in his provençal scenes, specifics of the site are subordinated to the general theme of abundant nature. His Paysage d'Afrique du Nord of about l947 is set in a grove of trees of extraordinary height, dwarfing the solitary figure below. There is less freedom, however, in the use of line and color than before; the color areas are organized more strictly by a network of lines which themselves are more evenly distributed throughout the composition. Lahner's understated modulations of tone still achieve their effect and the description of refracted light testifies to the accuracy of his vision.

The recherché quality of Lahner's paintings from his first few seasons in Africa constitutes an attempt to revive a career seriously set off course in the late 1930s. There is nothing particularly Algerian about these paintings; Lahner seems merely to have wanted to reassert his old feelings about tropical nature in a new setting. By around l950 he had thoroughly worn out this method of picture construction, this time for good. Subsequent landscapes like the Paysage d'Algérie are painted in the straight-forward manner associated with his views of Collonge-la-Rouge and objects such as the group of white-washed houses with their red tile roofs and the date palms that frame them are treated not as distant eye-catchers but as the focal points of the painting. The paradox of Lahner's painting during the l950s was then the abandonment of this middle ground between realism and abstraction in his landscape paintings. Landscapes were henceforth either fully non-representational or literal transcriptions of a scene with a simple chromatic structure.

Lahner alternated his stays in Paris and visits to Algeria with frequent trips to the French provinces: the Ile-de-France; the Sologne; Saint-Malo, Douarnenez, stretches of coastline in Brittany; the Pyrénées; and the Vendée. In l954, he was invited by Philippe Baslé to help inaugurate the new Galerie d'Art, rue Broussais, in Saint-Malo.[74] Besides the painting Maternité which he is known to have exhibited, Lahner probably put on view a selection of canvases and works on paper depicting the city encircled by battlements and dramatic stretches of the coastline.[75] The response to Lahner's work at the Saint-Malo exhibition was highly favorable and he was touted in the local press as the "poet of color."[76]

In an interview Lahner explained his reflective approach to landscape:

"I go into nature and I look at it. When something moves me, I stop... The point of departure for a painting is the idea; if I remain in front of the object or the landscape that has attracted me to paint it, little by little that seductive feeling disappears leaving behind only the object or the landscape. Same thing as making a photograph.

"True art consists in being able to transcribe the sensation with the aim of arriving at a more profound reality."[77]

Although Lahner does not use the word, the process he describes here is one of synthesis, the capturing of the essence of a thing rather than its mimetic reproduction. Lahner's breton landscapes are realistic up to a point. On closer inspection they reveal a careful analysis of the forms and a generalization of the colors seen in nature, thereby imparting the spirit of the place instead of clinging to a detailed representation of its appearance.

One such painting isPort-Blanc, Bretagne, an enchanting work misleading in its simplicity. The setting is a fishing village on the wind-swept cliffs of Brittany. A cluster of white-washed houses stands on a bluff overlooking a little bay with boats under a dazzling blue sky. The palette is reduced to a few colors that through subtle appear exceptionally vivid, and the straightforward arrangement of the space into a few broad zones of color is appropriate to the austerity of the scene. Although Lahner remains faithful to the actual geography of the site, it is the exhilarating impact of the light, with its hint of a stiff breeze, that captures the true spirit of this weather-beaten coast.

Where Lahner could not get away from the object and indulge in his own sentiments about the thing depicted, the results were at once more spontaneous and more literal. This is the case with his few paintings and numerous drawings of La Girardie, the sixteenth-century château in the Vendée belonging to the Treuttel family.[78] During the l950s and 1960s Lahner frequently visited the family, spending his days contemplating the massive façade and four round towers of the main house, the surrounding outbuildings, the adjacent pond, and the view of the ensemble as seen from the park. By contrast he seems not to have been attracted to the wooded hills in the immediate vicinity. In the works that have survived from this period he returns with persistent fascination to the main theme of the house itself. Most of these are works on paper and, accordingly, were quite likely executed on site rather than in the studio. There is an attempt to summarize some of the features of the buildings and to create a sense of atmosphere in terms of light and color, Impressionist preoccupations that allow the artist to filter the thing seen through an apparently impassive temperament.

The cool, restrained manner with which Lahner handles the motif of La Girardie stands in marked contrast with the painter's choice of opulent colors. This tendency, which dates from his landscape paintings of the late 1920s, can be traced in large degree to the influence of Matisse.[79] Both painters use color intuitively in a direct appeal to the senses rather than the intellect, while maintaining a certain feeling of distance and objectivity about the subjects depicted. The Matisse parallel is particularly striking in light of Lahner's post-war activity: frequent visits to the Mediterranean region; the commissions for book illustrations, chapel and stained-glass designs; the use of primeval forms; and the attempt to create formal and tonal equivalents to music. Matisse's often-quoted statement about an "armchair" art composed "of balance, of purity and serenity, devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter," might easily be used to describe Lahner's own artistic aims.[80] As Lahner moved farther toward an abstract art where the arrangement of colored forms and their implied interaction is everything, the resemblance of his work to Matisse's grew, indicating that he may consciously have been modeling his work after that of the older master.

Most of Lahner's oil landscapes from the l950s can be assigned to a particular site, but this is not always the case with his watercolors and drawings. Some are mere exercises in light, color, and perspective, relying on little or no underdrawing. These studies clearly served as preparation for his landscape-inspired abstracts of later years. Other drawings tantalize on account of their subject matter: an unidentified stone bridge spanning a river set in rugged countryside reminiscent of the Dordogne; a port city set behind a lighthouse and jetty with a mountainous backdrop -- possibly Marseille. There are also a few sketches of Paris: the Place de la Concorde, the Place du Vert Galant on the Île de la Cité, and a view of the Conciergerie. The drawings and watercolors are seldom dated, however, making it difficult to say with any degree of precision when they were done or to relate them to his work in oils.


(73) The best account of the Algerian paintings is Geo-Charles' "Emile Lahner. Oeuvres récentes et peintures algériennes," Le Courrier Graphique , LXX, February-March 1954, 21-24.

(74) See Th. B. (Theophile Briant), "Une Nouvelle galerie a Saint-Malo...," Ouest-France , 23 June 1954; G. Cey, "Avec Philippe Baslé a l'exposition de la rue Broussais," Le Pays Malouin , 9 July 1954; and G. Cey, "Une Heure avec Emile Lahner," Le Pays Malouin , 24 September 1954.

(75) Ibid.

(76) Cey, September 1954.

(77) Ibid.

(78) I am grateful to Pierre and Madeleine Treuttel for their invitation to visit La Girardie in October-November 1986.

(79) The standard work on Matisse is Alfred Barr's Matisse. His Art and His Public , New York 1951.

(80) H. Matisse, "Notes d'un peintre," 1908; in Barr 122.