XIII: Abstract Painting

 

At this point we have come very close to Lahner's rationale for his non-figurative compositions -- which are abstract only to the extent that they represent other realities. Most of them can be characterized as landscapes, although there are paintings in which allusions to the human form are made. Still others have specific concepts attached to them, as indicated by their titles. Throughout his career we have seen the artist avoiding topical or contemporary subject matter that could conceivably be read in political terms; likewise he seldom confined himself to the production of simply picturesque subjects. Many of his landscapes and figurative works, while they express a range of emotions or testify to a keen eye with an ability to synthesize, remain highly controlled performances that tend to leave the painter's true personality obscured in shadow. It would be impossible to reconstruct Lahner's biography from his paintings, as has been done with Picasso, for example, and we must assume that the painter wanted it this way. In the post-war period Lahner quietly began to discard the painterly pretense of objectivity, sweetened by a certain idealism, that he had thus far maintained in his work. The reorientation toward non-objectivity or abstract works of art gave him access to freer self-expression than he had ever before allowed himself. If the idea of abstract equivalencies for recognizable subjects proved an intellectually stimulating game, it also prevented Lahner's true personality from emerging to the fore. We cannot always see the individual in these paintings, but we do catch a glimpse of his vision to the extent that he is willing to share it with us.

Lahner gives landscape geometric lucidity in two canvases of about l960 entitled Atmosphère équilibrée sur la mer calme and Composition géometrique. Lahner's fundamental idea of spatial organization remains little changed from previous landscape paintings; that is, he uses color blotches to convey a sense of texture and form aided by lines that sometimes imitate perspectival orthogonals. What is different here is the scale and greater clarity of the forms. The colored zones are magnified and simplified, many abutting one another at sharp angles and conforming to the space defined by the lines. Other colored forms are blurred at the edges as they might be in nature, and offer a counter-notion of infinite rather than finite space. The contrasting tones give an approximation of the effects of light and shadow, but as before there is no specific source of illumination. In Atmosphère équilibrée the dominant greens and blues suggest a landscape with the sea on the distant horizon, a format Lahner used repeatedly in his paintings of Provence. The subtle contrast of tones and of shapes does indeed fulfill the idea of a balanced atmosphere as denoted in the painting's title.

Paysage abstraite, which bears a date of l956, reveals the extent of Lahner's debt to the study of stained-glass techniques. The subject is the well-worn motif of the sky or the sea as seen from a leafy hollow, but the orchestration of the space is rather more centrifugal than perspectival. The color areas are smaller and less perfectly formed than in Atmosphère équilibrée , although they are also sometimes defined by contour lines. There are no lines guiding the eye to a vanishing point, but the blue area at the upper center creates an opening suggestive of spatial depth. The various color zones are arranged around this blue space (actually in several modulated shades of blue) so that the picture can be read as a flat pattern radiating from the central blue, as well as an exercise in spatial construction. The interior illumination gives the composition a transparency like that of a multi-colored window vivified by the passage of light.

In 1960 Lahner painted a canvas showing how stained-glass illumination works. In La Lumière the focal point at the upper center of the composition is a yellow disc representing the sun.[102]The black radiating contour lines sharply define space as in a leaded window and the few colors diminish in intensity in relation to their proximity to or distance from the sun. At the same time, however, despite the sun's visible presence, Lahner allows light to shine from underneath the surface of his color areas, reinforcing the sense of pattern. La Lumière , while in itself not a landscape, is a key transitional work for Lahner the landscape painter because it shows the artist grappling with the vestiges of illusionism while pushing toward a fully non-representational art. In subsequent versions of La Lumière and in compositions based on them Lahner rid himself of the organizing lines, composing his "landscapes" solely in rapturously translucent forms. As we shall see, however, most of these landscapes continue to rely on a central clou to give them balance and context.



Footnotes

(102) There is also an oil sketch for this composition which in its smaller format bears a close kinship with Lahner's stained-glass lithograph designs.