X: Primitivism and Pre-History

 

When not painting Lahner supplemented his income by working as an art consultant for a few collectors who had taken special interest in his work. Chief among these was the Comte Guy de Bragelogne for whom he made a weekly visit to the Hotel Drouot.[86] While Lahner made purchases for the count, he also made acquisitions for himself and seems rarely to have come home empty-handed. Accordingly, his studio on the rue des Périchaux was littered not only with canvases in various states of completion, but also with bits of folk art, pieces of African sculpture, strange rocks, and other assorted curios.[87] This interest in primitive objects, whether natural or man-made, reveals the artist's fascination with man's origins and evolution. Visits to the caves of Dordogne helped spur his enthusiasm for this line of inquiry, and he sometimes took the opportunity of stirring up controversy in his conversations with friends with the assertion that "man did not descend from the ape."[88] In the l950s he attempted to give his ideas visual expression in a number of paintings and works on paper which, if not of great philosophical or paleontological interest, are expository of his working methods.

Among Lahner's cave painting works are a few prints and a gouache which give an indication of the variety of primitive forms with which Lahner was experimenting. In the gouache, he combines stick figures with animal forms, wavy lines, and grids of intersecting lines, etched against a background that fades from yellow to gray to dark gray -- like a cave illuminated from the left. Lahner was evidently dissatisfied with the insubstantiality of the figures; in other works they are more solid and clearly defined. In one print, 25Tauromachie, Lahner places the white forms of four human figures and one animal against a black ground, rather like pieces of a puzzle. The primitive origins of the bullfight here make for a compelling design. In other prints, Lahner seems to have begun with a recognizable subject and worked backward attempting to give it a severely abstract configuration like that of a hieroglyph: for example, a bird, or a head in profile and circumscribed, with other mysterious shapes around it. These strange works do not add up to a coherent body of work, but show the artist probing for methods of inscribing an idea in a symbol.

His large paintings on the subject, hampered as they are by a fundamentally inflexible concept of what a cave painting should look like, do not measure up to Lahner's use of symbolism elsewhere. In Préhistoire, the painter depicts men, women, and horses in a patchwork design of color zones that overlap one another, covering parts of the human and animal forms. The horses are shown running and the men are portrayed in similarly active positions. By contrast, the women lie about or flex their rounded torsos. Despite the superficial profundity of its theme, Préhistoire has little to say about primitive man or about the relationship between primitive and modern art. Lahner must have recognized the overall weakness of this design, for in later attempts he tried to vary the idea behind it and introduce a note of levity that Préhistoireostensibily lacks. Carnaval fantastique goes this one additional step; the human and animal forms take on either a fantastic appearance or dissolve into abstract shapes. As a painting, it is a bolder artistic statement than Préhistoire, but there is still something fairly literal-minded in its set-up. It is perhaps for this reason that Lahner did not pursue these primitivizing subjects any farther.


Footnotes

(86) Conversations with Odette Herissé, October 1986; with Georgette Trichet, October 1986.

(87) Ibid.

(88) Quotation taken from the tape-recording made by André Tranié in the 1970s. Exactly what caves Lahner may have visited is not known. The cave of Lascaux was discovered in 1940, however, sparking greater public interest in the cave paintings of the region.