Alfred Manessier (1911-1993)
Alfred Manessier was born in Saint-Ouen, Somme, France in 1911. His father was trained in drawing at the École des Beaux-Arts, then worked as an accountant for the Abbeville gas plant. When his father left for the war, Alfred Manessier was amazed to discover the natural beauty of Picardy with his grandfather. He joined the Lycée in Amiens in 1921, spending his holidays at the Bay of Somme where he painted his first watercolours at the age of 13. Upon seeing them, local painter Albert Matignon encouraged Manessier to enrol in the École des Beaux-Arts in Amiens in 1924.
Manessier was admitted to study architecture at the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris in 1930. He simultaneously nurtured an interest in the masters’ paintings at the Louvre, making copies of their works. He was especially fascinated by Rembrandt’s colour, chiaroscuro, and ‘total and interior light’, which he compared to van Gogh. He also frequented various free academies in Montparnasse and exhibited at the Salon des Indépendants in 1934. After his military service, under the direction of the Delaunay couple, he participated in the exterior decorations of the Pavilion of Railways at the International Exposition of Art and Technology in Paris in 1937.
Having definitively chosen the career of a painter, Manessier became Parisian. He married Thérèse Simonet in 1938, to whom he would always remain very close, and the couple settled in a house at 203 rue de Vaugirard in 1939 where they would live for 33 years. When he was demobilised in 1940 he joined Thérèse in refuge in Lot with Roger Bissière, who had been his art professor at Académie Ranson in 1935. Hoping to resume his artistic activity, Manessier returned to Paris when Bazaine asked him to participate in the Young France exhibition organised by the Vichy government. In May 1941 he exhibited at the Braun Gallery alongside ‘twenty young French-style painters’ (Jeune France) who wanted to brave the Nazi ban on ‘degenerate’ art. The dissolution of Jeune France in March 1942 and a life insurance left by his father enabled him to acquire a modest house in Orne.
His paintings are marked by Cubist (Braque) and Surrealist (Giorgio de Chirico and Max Ernst) aesthetics from 1935, as seen in Sea Gods (which he considers to be his founding work), and which appear fully in The Last Horse (1938). Having befriended Camille Bourniquel, Manessier accompanied his friend on a spiritual retreat to a Trappist monastery in Soligny. This experience awakened his own faith, which would prove to be decisive in the development of his art to come: ‘I entered the Church to be free’. In the years of the Occupation and struggle for Liberation, Manessier searched for his inner freedom. In his Parisian cellar he hid the printing of a network of the Resistance. His inner freedom is realised in the near complete abandonment of figuration for a fundamentally spiritual abstraction, which through its harmony of colourful chords, expresses his hope in victory over the forces of evil.
Following minor and discreet beginnings in the mid-1930s, Manessier, though still little-known, revived a sacred art practice through his abstract style thanks to a commission from the diocese of Besançon for two stained-glass windows at the church of Sainte-Agathe des Bréseux: Blue Landscape and Golden Landscape, installed in 1948. Stained-glass would occupy an important place in the artist’s oeuvre. He employed both the modern ‘glass-slab’ technique (Chapel of Sainte Thérèse, of the Christ Child, and the Holy Face, Hem, Nord, 1957) as well as the traditional glass and lead technique (All Saints Church in Basel and Saint Peter of Trinquetaille church in Arles, 1952). So committed to the art of stained glass, along with other major art figures, in 1976 he founded the Association for the Defence of France’s Stained Glass. After numerous creations for religious buildings in Germany, Switzerland, and France, Manessier achieved his greatest work in the medium with the windows of the church of the Holy Sepulchre of Abbeville, inaugurated in 1993, the year of his death.
Beyond stained glass windows, he received a tapestry commission from the Dominican oratory of Saulchoir (Christ at the Column, today in the Dominican convent in Lille). In collaboration with the weavers Plasse le Casine, he produced monumental works until 1984.
As early as 1944, we see in Pilgrims of Emmaus that the artist reconciled his Christian faith with avant-garde art, at first employing stylised figuration and later manifested solely in the form of symbols such as crosses, thorns, and circles (The Crown of Thorns, 1950).
In the 1950s his work was dominated by religious themes, notably in the large-format series of the Passions, a title which he later applied to paintings depicting contemporary tragic events such as the Algerian War.
After the Hungarian Uprising in November 1956, fuelled by politics and his Christian faith, Manessier produced numerous works which denounce violent acts around the world. Following Requiems he continued painting series of large-scale works with dominant diagonals and vibrant colours evoking drama, such as: Homage to Martin Luther King (1968), Vietnam Vietnam (1972), For the Mother of One Sentenced to Death (1975, which evokes the execution of the anarchist Puig Antich by the Franco regime in 1974). He denounced the injustice and misery of the world in a series of six works of the same size, Favellas (1979-1983), the second of which is also an homage to Dom Hélder Camara, nicknamed ‘Bishop of the Slums’ in Brazil.
This series also demonstrates Manessier’s taste for the travels he enjoyed throughout his life, always in search of horizons, whether familiar or new. Nature and light do not cease to inspire his landscape paintings, in which one can appreciate his mysticism: ‘I do not believe in religious painting. It is the man who must be religious. I create a distinction between the subject and the object. In a Corot, there is a Christian light, which for me is far more valuable than all the paintings that feature religious themes but lack the Christian light of Corot.’ (1951.)
Ever since his childhood Manessier loved the landscapes of the North. He painted several series dedicated to the Bay of Somme (1949, 1954) (ex.: Crotoy Port at Dawn), to Flanders (1949-1951), to the Channel coast and the North Sea (Neap, 1954), to Holland (1955, 1956), in a clear and cheerful style that even evokes that of Paul Klee (Festival in Zeeland, 1956).
His discovery of the luminosity and aridity of the South in both Provence and Spain in 1959 and 1963 inspired a new style, whereby he freed himself from the Cubist framework, using diagonals to open the composition. Though he travelled as far as Canada in 1967, he would never forget his native region, which he celebrated with major works until 1979 (Little Gardens in Spring) and in 1983 (Winter Night in the Picardy Marshes).
Over time, the mesh fabric of thick dark rings in his paintings expands in a diagonal movement, ultimately giving way to a fragmented space resembling stained glass.
From the beginning, Manessier’s painting combines chiaroscuro with highly nuanced colour: an internalised vision of nature, but also a reflection of man’s spiritual struggle and the mysteries of life.
Inventor of a new abstract pictorial language in the School of Paris after the war, Manessier enjoyed success from the 1960s onwards. He was awarded several international prizes, including the Grand Prize for Painting at the Venice Biennale in 1962, and is now well represented in French museums (notably, the Centre Pompidou in Paris, the Musée Unterlinden in Colmar, and the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Dijon), and abroad (Berlin, Hamburg, Cologne, Bremen, Essen, Düsseldorf), as well as in private collections.
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Art works from Alfred Manessier
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