XII: Stained Glass

 

During the l950s Lahner exhibited on an irregular basis, claiming that it was "for those who come after us to judge our work."[91] Among the opportunities the public had of seeing his work were two well-received shows (1950 and 1953) at the prestigious Galerie Jeanne Castel.[92] The l950 exhibition, sponsored by Marcel Sauvage, contained not only oil paintings, but also drawings, watercolors, gouaches, and pastels. Sauvage also wrote the preface to the catalogue of the exhibition and remarked upon the naive quality of the painter's oeuvre, comparing it at times to "the art of fresco or stained glass" and at other times to sculpture.[93] One perspicacious critic detected a science in Lahner's method, that of "elimination by way of substitution," a kind of latent symbolism present in even his most realistic compositions.[94]

After several visits to Africa Lahner was asked in l955 by the Averseng family to design a chapel for the town of El Affroun, where the family owned property and Jack Averseng was mayor.[95] Lahner also made oil maquettes for the chapel's stained-glass windows, which were executed by Raphael Lardeur.[96] In this assignment Lahner took part in the near-mania for chapel construction and decoration in France during the l950s: Picasso at Vallauris; Matisse for the design and stained glass at the Dominican Chapelle du Rosaire at Vence; Jean Cocteau for the frescoes on the interior of the fishermen's chapel, Saint-Pierre, in Villefranche; Rouault for the church windows in Plateau d'Assy (Haute-Savoie); Léger for the windows in Sacre-Coeur, Audincourt (Doubs); and Chagall for stained glass in the cathedrals of Metz, Reims, and Rouen.[97] Benefiting from some of these prototypes, Lahner decided upon a small white-washed structure not unlike the Matisse chapel at Vence. In the El Affroun chapel there is, however, a clerestory of stained glass running along the upper portion of the walls rather than one large window as Matisse had devised for Vence. Whereas Matisse took advantage of a southern exposure to flood his chapel with light, Lahner seems to have purposely chosen to keep the illumination subdued. Other than the clerestory there are no windows in the building. In this respect, Lahner's chapel resembles a mosque more than a Christian church: with the light source from on high and sombre obscurity below, the effect is mystical and oriental.

There seems to be a certain Eastern mysticism in Lahner's stained-glass designs as well, although this may also derive from his natural talent for synthetic form and surface pattern. While all the windows illustrate Christian themes, they do so iconically and there is no narrative cycle. Similarly, the forms of the saints and holy beasts depicted are abstracted to the point that it is not always immediately clear what they represent.[98] This may be less true, however, for the windows, where the glass particles respond to the intensity of the light, than for the edition of hand-colored woodblock prints of the windows that Lahner issued after the chapel's completion.[99] In deference to the local Islamic culture with its abhorrence of idolatry, Lahner appears to have wanted to suggest Christian beliefs rather than spell them out.

The chapel is dedicated to Saint Martina (Sainte-Martienne), an obscure early Christian martyr who was miraculously spared by a lion.[100] The moment of her salvation is depicted in one of the chapel windows, her rigid but passive figure in a purple robe yielding to the more active mass of yellow representing the attacking lion. Neither the lion nor Sainte-Martienne possesses any individual character; it is through the contrast of active and passive forms, complemented by their respective light and dark tones, that Lahner tells his story. The lion appears in another window looking rather like the Babylonian relief Lahner probably intended it to, but Christianized by its representation in light-admitting glass. Rather unexpectedly, Saint-Louis also makes an appearance in another window, reminding us that in l955 Algeria was still a département of France.

Some of the other stained-glass scenes are immediately recognizable: Christ on the cross, the miraculous draught of fishes, the lamb of God, and a dove representing the Holy Spirit. Less easy to discern are the figure with a nimbus entitled Jésus enfant, symbole de départ de l'ère chrétien, and that of La Vièrge glorieuse, clothed in green and enthroned. Unfortunately, the chapel of Sainte-Martienne had a short life as a religious monument. After Algeria won its independence, the church was deconsecrated and now serves as a maison du peuple or community house for the people of El Affroun.[101]

The success of these religious designs encouraged Lahner to make explicit reference to the organizing principles of stained-glass composition in his oil paintings. A few of these paintings follow closely the forms and subject matter of the El Affroun windows, but the best of them are new variations on that theme, incorporating Lahner's long-held practices of organizing space in paintings with a sort of double-entendre symbolism. Sainte-Marthe is a nude form stylized to conform to the stained-glass aesthetic. The figure of the saint appears surrounded by several zones of yellow light, creating an aureole around her head and torso as with the figure of Jesus enfant from El Affroun. The black lines, thinner in the painting than in the window designs -- and therefore more like Lahner's oils -- run diagonally and at right angles. There are also quite a few curvaceous lines in the human and animal forms which soften the geometry and make a distinction between animate and inanimate form. This distinction is reiterated in the use of flesh tones for the saint's body and a gray/brown fur color for the dog, opposed to the more brilliant tones of the colored blocks resembling glass. Despite her sanctity, Saint Martha is portrayed as an exalted but still decidedly human being. Some of the spaces defined by the lines contain one solid color, but many others contain two or more colors bleeding into one another. The palette is composed mostly of lighter colors as if the sun were radiating from below the picture surface. Painted in l956 and thus immediately after the installation of the windows in the chapel, Sainte-Marthe is an amalgam of religious imagery and stained-glass design. It also serves as an example of the somewhat more conventional methods of pictorial construction that Lahner had been practicing since the l930s.

This conflation of old and new styles and imagery is even more apparent in Jeanne d'Arc , also known as La Bergère, from about the same period as Sainte-Marthe. The background is divided into three principal zones of color, the primaries red, blue, and green, against which a figure, virtually identical with Lahner's many images of peasant women, stands with arms outstretched. The viewer is immediately aware -- provided that he knows both titles of the painting -- that Lahner is characterizing Joan in terms of her peasant origins and that he is representing her with her arm raised upward at the moment of her enlightenment. Again, Lahner uses yellow (here a sort of mustard tone) to draw attention to the central figure, yellow being the lightest color in the spectrum and therefore the one that admits the most light. The combination of red, green, and blue pointedly summons the memory of countless stained-glass windows in the churches and cathedrals of northern France.

In La Colombe, Lahner makes the same analogy between physical form and spiritual symbolism. The white dove may be taken for what it appears to be or as an emblem of the Holy Spirit. Similarly, one can take the picture either as a flat surface of lines and colors or as a stained-glass design. This dichotomy is equally apparent in the painter's Self-Portrait from about the same period where the artist appears, palette in hand, against a stained-glass-inspired background divided into zones of red and yellow. We have seen touches of ambiguity in some of Lahner's previous work, but mostly in a rather playful sense. With the addition of religious iconography to his repertoire of images, Lahner discovered a means of giving his subjects two-fold significance in a sharper, polarized way. The viewer is given the option of taking these paintings on either the physical or the spiritual level of meaning, or as an artist might, in terms of reality and illusion. As in most of his work Lahner continues to withhold his thoughts on the subject, merely proposing alternatives.



Footnotes

(91) 91 E. Lahner, in Barotte 1950.

(92) Bouret 115.

(93) M. Sauvage, in Emile Lahner. Oeuvres anciennes et récentes , 1950.

(94) Barotte 1950.

(95) See J. Trichet and P. MacOrlan, Projets de vitraux d'Emile Lahner , Paris 1955.

(96) Ibid.

(97) In most instances, the new chapels and their decorations were commissioned as war memorials, or in the case of Chagall's stained glass for the cathedrals, as replacements for art work destroyed in the war.

(98) A. de Faigairolle, "L'Église d'El Affroun va inaugurer les vitraux d'Emile Lahner," L'Afrique Républicaine , January 1956. A similar process can be seen in Lahner's landscape paintings of the same period in which a few forms and their spatial organization are used to indicate the subject in a summary fashion.

(99) Trichet and MacOrlan 1955.

(100) One of the many ordeals Saint Martina endured was the mauling by a lion in a Roman amphitheater. At the last moment, rather than devour her, the lion simply lay down at her feet. See L. Réau, Iconographie de l'art chrétien , Paris 1958, III, 918-919.

(101) Conversation with Jérôme Treuttel, 1 November 1987.