XVII: Success and Acclaim


Once settled into a daily routine, Lahner might well have approached old age in relative comfort and continued professional obscurity. The l959-l96l period seems, however, to have been a critical point in his career for three different reasons. The first of these was a request by Jean Mercure to lend some twenty of his paintings for a production of Shaw's The Doctor's Dilemna , given under the title Le Cas Dobedatt , at the Théâtre des Bouffes-Parisiens.[113] The play calls for a stage setting in a painter's studio, lined with canvases. A portrait of a woman in a red dress is the only Lahner painting known to have taken part in the production. There were, however, enough works in the play in order to hold a separate exhibition. The opening, held on 20 October 1959 on the stage of the Bouffes-Parisiens, was a "first" for this sort of affair according to Paris-Jour .[114]

That same year Lahner had acted as a Hungarian-speaking guide for an out-of-town art dealer, Laszlo Laky, who was looking for new European painters to show in his gallery in Carmel, California.[115] After several days of combing the galleries on both sides of the Seine, Laky expressed frustration at the absence of truly distinctive works and Lahner for the first time let on that he was a painter. Laky asked if he could see some of his work and was amazed at the quality and quantity of objects on hand at Lahner's studio in the rue Alfred-Stevens. He immediately arranged to act as Lahner's sole representative in America and headed back to Carmel with a selection of some of the best canvases in Lahner's studio. In subsequent years, Laky provided Lahner with annual exhibitions and continued to take the painter's choice work regularly. This is the one instance where Lahner's relationship with a gallery owner seems to have been wholly beneficial. Not only did the painter receive attention by buyers in a foreign market, but with the success of the Carmel exhibitions, Lahner was able to live out the rest of his life in relative affluence.

Finally, in the spring of l96l in what was probably the most important exhibition of his career, Lahner found himself once again at the Galerie Jeanne Castel on the rue du Cirque, this time showing his work under the patronage of his old friend, Léopold Sédar Senghor, a poet and the former president of Senegal.[116] The modest title of the exhibition, "Quelques essais," covered an array of oils, pastels, watercolors, and drawings, forming a retrospective of Lahner's post-war career. In reading the reviews in the press of this exhibition, one senses that many of the critics were unfamiliar with Lahner's work, so surprised were they at the breadth of technique and styles he brought to his subjects. His breton landscapes were noted for their synthesis of Cubistic formulae with Impressionist color; and his stained-glass-inspired paintings were singled out for their abstract decorativeness.[117] Despite the stylistic variety, most seemed to agree that his work was distinguished by a certain overall unity grounded in "luminous lyricism, the charm of a delicately orchestrated palette and elegance of design."[118]

The critical success of "Quelques essais" and of exhibitions at the Laky Gallery in Carmel encouraged Lahner to show his work elsewhere. During the course of the 1960s he exhibited at the Galerie Gaubert (1961), Galerie Bonaparte (1963), Galerie Famar (1964), and Galerie de Messine (1967) in Paris; the Galerie Manfred Stake (196l) and Galerie Ina Fuchs (1962) in Dusseldorf; and at the annual Salon du Dessin et de la Peinture, held at the Musée National d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris.[119] The exhibition at the Galerie Famar, entitled "Formes et couleurs," was once again sponsored by Léopold Sédar Senghor. In a preface to the catalogue, Senghor states that Lahner, "ce sauvage solitaire," was irresistibly drawn to abstraction by necessity: "It alone expresses our present situation, the tragedy of our fate as men and its resolution in poetry."[120] He compares Lahner's special brand of poetry to jazz, "with its syncopated rhythms and its swing," animated by significant form and bursts of color.[121]

Jazz, with its air of improvisation and rhythmic variation, would appear to be the ideal metaphor for Lahner's abstract paintings from the l960s and early 1970s.[122] Carrefour ("Crossroads") has the appeal of a chance encounter with its intersection of overlapping forms. The earth tones of the background act as a foil for the bright primaries at center, mostly circumscribed by a thin black line, which in addition to their éclat suggest intricate spatial relationships. Despite the tonal and formal diversity in Carrefour, there is a sense of unity as well, like that of a flower unfolding its petals. The crossroads referred to in the title, therefore, denote not only a confluence of relationships of shapes and colors, but the point at which form and meaning intersect.

Lahner's gift for ambiguity comes into its own in Formes dans l'espace and in La Serrure secrète. The central motif in Formes is the red figure, rather like an inverted question mark, that leaps out from the neighboring black area and surrounding fields in cool shades of blue, green, and yellow. The black field appears at once to penetrate and to embrace the red one while paradoxically indicating a hollow of space beneath. A tilted blue form is suspended in the upper half of the painting, and it is unclear whether it rests on the black form, against the red one, or has another invisible means of support. On one hand, Formes dans l'espace is a fanciful arrangement of forms in a space that refuses to conform our ideas of two and three dimensionality. But in toying with our perceptions Lahner also hints at erotic underpinnings, further capitalizing on the formal mystery of the composition.

What is merely allusive in Formes dans l'espace presents itself as tantalizingly explicit in La Serrure secrète . The keyhole form at the center of the painting is broken up into three distinct zones of color and is also parceled up by the lines that meet at angles, suggesting folds as in a piece of paper. The viewer is accordingly given the option of seeing the shapes and colors as existing in different planes, or on a single level. In the latter case, the keyhole furnishes an additional dimension with the suggestion of space boring into the surface of the picture plane. The same form may also be read, however, as a bust of the human figure, thus denoting volume instead of depth. Finally, there is the keyhole motif which can also be taken as a sexual metaphor. It would be futile to attempt to pin Lahner down to any single interpretation of this or any other abstract painting. What counts is the dialogue that occurs between artist and viewer, carefully cultivated in La Serrure secrète to a highly sophisticated level of sophisticated ambiguity.

In a series of four paintings of about 1973 representing the seasons (for which he later made lithographs), Lahner takes his elusive symbolism to an extreme of simplification. Each painting radiates from a central square of brilliant color, the heart of an amorphous form which in turn stands out against a more neutral ground. The figure repeated in each resembles a rooster -- the national symbol found atop nearly every weather vane in France. In Printemps, the figure is a vibrant shade of green with a yellow core, aptly conveying the idea of new life. Unlike the other three paintings, it is also encased by a surrounding zone of sky blue, further underscoring the notion of embryonic form. Été, like Printemps , appears against a mustard-colored background. The figure here, while still green, is of a deeper, more mature shade, and the central core, more of an octagon than a square, is blue. In Automne, the figure is gold, and in Hiver gray. Both have fiery red-orange cores and black backgrounds, although the black in Automne is the richer shade and that of Hiver more muted. Individually, each of the four seasons imparts the mood and colors appropriate to the time of year. Taken as a unit, however, they function interdependently.


(113) "Vernissage. Toiles d'Emile Lahner illustrant le Dilemne du Docteur de G.B.Shaw, et exposées," Invitation to the exhibition, Théâtre des Bouffes-Parisiens, Paris, 20 October 1959.

(114) "Les Arts," Paris-Jour , 20 October 1959.

(115) Interview with L. Laky, 27 August 1986.

(116) Among the many reviews of this exhibition, see "Un Président pour Emile Lahner," Paris-Jour, 28 April 1961; J. Bouret, "Les Essais d'Emile Lahner," Les Lettres Françaises, April 1961.

(117) "In his luminously lyrical landscapes of Brittany, he offers a synthesis of Impressionism and Cubism; his linear compositions are instead abstract." in "Emile Lahner," Agence Quotidienne d'Informations Économiques et Financières , 4 May 1961. The critic for Arts ("M. C.") considered the manner in which Lahner executed these paintings "un style de vitrail." M.C., "Lahner," Arts , 24-30 May 1961.

(118) "Emile Lahner," Liberation , 27 April 1961, 7.

(119) Bouret 116.

(120) L.-S. Senghor, "À Mon ami Lahner," Formes et couleurs , ex. cat., Galerie Famar, Paris, 26 February 1964.

(121) Ibid.

(122) If Lahner consciously made the analogy between music and painting, he may also have been thinking of Matisse whose Jazz series of papiers découpés was published in book form in 1947. See Henri Matisse. Paper Cut-Outs , 101-114. Lahner also painted a work called Jazz in 1968, of which there may be several versions. See L.-S. Senghor, Introduction to E. Lahner. Exposition rétrospective , ex. cat., Paris 1985.