Auguste Herbin (1882-1960)
‘What is important for human progress is precisely to make visible that which has almost always remained invisible. This is what the artist has to offer, who gives up on representing the object, and nothing will be able to distract the viewer any more from the effort required to understanding works of pure art.’ (Auguste Herbin).
The French painter Auguste Herbin was born April 29, 1882 in Quiévy, near the Belgian border, and spent his childhood at Cateau-Cambrésis, a town in northern France where Matisse grew up. The son of textile-workers, he assiduously followed the industrial drawing classes offered by the municipality, where he learned drawing technique and how to draw by free hand. A scholarship enabled him to study at the École des Beaux-Arts in Lille from 1898-1901 in the class of Pharaon de Winter. His first canvases demonstrate mastery of the techniques of the Post-Impressionists, as well as the meticulously rendered and coloured skies and waters of the Flemish Renaissance.
Herbin moved to Paris in late 1901, and right away he was interested in the avant-garde movements. Herbin developed a style worthy of Fauvism during his stay in Corsica in 1907, when he drew directly on the canvas with a brush loaded with flamboyant colours.
This same year saw a major retrospective of Cézanne at the Salon d’Automne: the landscapes painted at Cateau or nearby between 1908 and 1910 were considered to be examples of Cubist experimentation and exploration, but these works maintained a profound originality. Herbin’s forms are much more precise and geometric, the colours submitting to the contour lines. He retains the violence and audacity of bright colour, unlike his neighbours Bateau-Lavoir, Picasso, and Gris. The subject remains readable because Hebrin has not decomposed the forms – but he flattens, geometricises, and simplifies them.
His reputation became international. He exhibited twice in Berlin in 1912 and at the Armory Show in New York in 1913, alongside Braque and Gleizes. His work was bought by the collectors Wilhem Uhde, Chtchoukine and Morosov. In 1913 he spent a very long stay in Céret at the same time as Picasso, Max Jacob, and Juan Gris. There he painted major works constructed in a register of geometric forms in which the subject and depth tend to disappear. He applied the paint in strokes of contrasting colours, alternating hot and cold tones.
Herbin spent the war behind the front lines, tasked with painting airplanes camouflage. During this period he did not work on his oeuvre.
In 1917, he signed a contract with Léonce Rosenberg who organised solo exhibitions for Herbin in his gallery l’Effort Moderne in 1918, 1921, 1922, 1924, and included him in group exhibitions. Like all artists of his generation who experienced Cubism first-hand, Herbin sought to renew visual vocabulary but also to expand to an art in which ideological and social considerations resound, an art that can express the collective values of modernity and permit a new social utopia (he joined the Communist Party in 1920). Starting in 1917, he began a non-figurative geometric phase which did not stop developing (except for a brief return to figuration between 1922 and 1925).
In 1929, Auguste Herbin founded the ‘Salon des Surindépendants’, and two years later created the ‘Abstraction-Creation’ association of artists, with the support of Vantongerloo with whom he prepared the almanac of the group until 1937.
Influenced by 13th-century Italian art beginning in 1938, Herbin invented in the 1940s-1950s his ‘plastic alphabet’, presented in his manifesto ‘L’art non figuratif non objectif’ (1949), which endows a strong spiritual dimension to his pictorial approach, where imagination has no place. Like the divine word at the origin of Creation, one word is the point of departure for an image. The image is built according to a compositional method comprising a repertoire of 26 colours, each corresponding to a letter and a geometric form (triangle, circle, half-circle, quadrilateral), as well as to a sound. For example, the letter ‘I’ is associated with an orange circle and triangle and the musical note D.
This treatise on painting, based on a system of correspondence often invoked by the avant-gardes of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, became one of the major references in abstract painting of the period.
He suffered from hemiplegia in 1953 and therefore had to learn to paint with his left hand. In 1956 he made a gift of 45 works to the museum in Cateau-Cambrésis, established by Matisse himself in 1952. Though Herbin died in 1960, his reputation only continued to grow internationally, as evidenced in 2000 by the success of contemporary carpets made after his designs.
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