BIOGRAPHY - Paul Aizpiri (1919 - 2016)
The painter Paul Aizpiri is often characterized as being part of the School of Paris, although he barely fits into the accepted dates of this movement, which was at its height in the 1920s and 1930s. Aizpiri was a student in the mid-to-late 1930s and did not begin his artistic career in earnest until after the end of the World War II in 1945. Because of this debatable categorization, Aizpiri’s work is overdue for fresh evaluation of how he fits into the School of Paris and how he does not.
Aizpiri was born in Paris in 1919. It was a momentous year, full of hope that World War I was indeed the last time such devastation would occur. As soon as the Treaty of Versailles was signed on June 28, 1919 Paris was flooded with artists, writers, musicians and dancers as well as political refugees fleeing from the oppression of racism, anti-Semitism and cultural philistinism from throughout the world. It was intoxicating, illuminating and modern. Aizpiri’s father, who was reportedly a sculptor, may well have been part of this arts community. Little is known about the painter’s childhood, but he was enrolled at the Ecole Boulle sometime around 1934; there he learned to design fine furniture and marquetry. [i] Two years later, at age seventeen, he abandoned this course of study when he was accepted at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts to study painting.
The only securely dated painting from this period is a 1935 scene of the port of Villefranche-sur-mer, a fishing village east of the city of Nice and just ten miles from the Italian border. Because this painting was completed when Aizpiri was just sixteen, it seems probable that Villefranche was a place with personal connections, perhaps with his Italian mother’s family. In later years, the artist would return to this part of France many times, eventually purchasing a home in St. Tropez. This early work demonstrates the young artist’s already sophisticated grasp of the fundamentals of composition, perspective and light.
By 1938, Aizpiri had established himself well enough to obtain a commission from the regional government in Paris. His name turns up in the meeting minutes of the Conseil Général de la Seine in April, 1938 where he is noted as having painted an unspecified work in suburban Meudon. More importantly, his address is listed as 91 rue de Vaugirard in Montparnasse. [ii] The nineteen-year-old painter was living in the liveliest arts community of his day with neighbors such as Marc Chagall, Chaim Soutine, Jules Pascin and Tsuguharu Foujita and Alberto Giacometti. American writers, jazz musicians and visual artists were everywhere. And the Surrealists often staged their demonstrations at the clubs and cafes of Montparnasse while everyone’s favorite model, Kiki, presided over it all. [iii] As fascism spread through Europe, however, more and more people left Paris for safer havens as the threat of yet another war began to seem inevitable.
Aizpiri’s career was abruptly halted on September 3, 1939 when France and Great Britain declared war on Nazi Germany for its invasion of the Sudetenland along the Czech border. At just twenty years old, the painter may well have become a soldier in the French military. When France fell to Germany in May 1940, the country was divided into the Nazi-occupied north and west regions with the collaborationist French Vichy government in the south. Whether Aizpiri remained in Paris or fled elsewhere is not known. One clue, however, is provided by two still-life paintings from 1944, both of which reference Brittany. Still Life in front of a Breton Landscape depicts a table abutting an open window that frames an autumnal landscape against a grey sky. Pears and apples–handled in Cézanne’s style–are placed randomly on the tabletop. A companion painting, Still Life with Fruits, employs an almost identical composition, but with arbitrarily bright reds, oranges and yellows in homage to the Post-Impressionist Breton painter Armand Séguin. Aizpiri’s familiarity with Séguin’s work indicates that he may well have been in Brittany where he could have seen his work. [iv]
Although information about Aizpiri’s life during the war years remains elusive, he emerged in 1946 with a well-defined aesthetic voice of his own. In a canvas like L’étal des pêcheurs, Marseille (Fish Market Stall, Marseille) he reveals a new attention to the figure and an increased simplicity of line. The academic perfection of his earliest work is no longer a concern, nor are the stylistic experiments based on post-Impressionist masters. What does remain consistent is the emphasis on daily life and working people.
Aizpiri’s aesthetic ideas found a warm welcome among other like-minded young artists, including Bernard Buffet, André Minaux, Michel Thompson, Paul Rebeyrolle and many others who hoped to reinvigorate the importance of the human being and nature as the center of art. As Pierre Basset points out in his seminal book on this group of young artists, “It was the cry of thousands of painters who returned to Paris at the end of the war to express their love of nature and humanity.” [v] At the same time, the Galerie Drouant-David in Paris coined the term “jeune peinture” (young painting) when it created the Prix de la Jeune Peinture beginning in 1946. Gradually, an independent salon emerged calling itself the Salon de la Jeune Peinture as well. Aizpiri was one of the founding members.
Paris in the late 1940s and 50s once again became home to an international array of artists. As the post-war world began to come to terms with the changes wrought by two world wars and the development of the atomic bomb, artists too began to grapple with defining their own values and ideals. Those associated with the Salon de la Jeune Peinture were clear that they wanted to “réhumaniser la peinture” (rehumanize painting). To accomplish this, they vowed to banish any gratuitous aesthetic as well as all intellectualization. The ultimate goal was to regenerate a type of painting that was both universal and human. [vi] Stylistically, they tended to prioritize drawing and to maintain a calming color palette, but there was great variation among such a large number of artists. Aizpiri increasingly painted still lifes of simple objects as in Pitcher and Fish from 1951 or Candlestick on a Red Table from 1952. They are deliberately messy with a slightly awkward delineation as if to underscore their commonplace existence while simultaneously directing the viewer to look carefully at the texture and beauty.
The year 1951 was particularly notable in Aizpiri’s career. He not only received the Prix National at the Salon de la Jeune Peinture, but he was also honored with a prize at the Venice Biennale. In addition, he exhibited in Genoa, Italy at the Prima Biennale Internazionale d’Arte Marinara. These awards brought the painter’s work to the attention of an international audience and reinforced his growing reputation. During the same year, Aizpiri also began exhibiting with the then well-respected Pétrides Gallery in Paris. Art dealer Paul Pétrides represented a number of School of Paris figures including Foujita, Maurice de Vlaminck and Maurice Utrillo. Although Pétrides’ reputation was compromised when he was convicted of selling fake Utrillo paintings in 1979, he nevertheless served Aizpiri’s interests well. It appears to have been Pétrides who first introduced the artist’s work to the Japanese market, where it proved to be very successful.
During the decade of the 1950s, Aizpiri came to be known for certain types of figural painting; his characteristic solitary clowns and figures from the commedia dell’arte. There are abundant images of Harlequin, Pierrot and Columbine. These familiar theatrical personages hark back to the early work of Georges Roualt and Pablo Picasso, but also to the eighteenth canvases by Jean-Antoine Watteau. In fact, it may have been Watteau who was the more significant influence on Aizpiri’s images of clowns; they are almost always solitary and often identifiable only by their circus make-up. The Blue Clown from 1950, for example, wears a shabby jacket and a newsboy’s checked cap, making it easy to mistake him for a downtrodden street urchin were it not for the lurid face paint. Without exception, the clown images reflect the sorrow of life, perhaps because of the war and its hideous lessons or perhaps because of some sadness in Aizpiri’s personal life.
Increasingly, Aizpiri takes up the subject of cityscapes. He paints the cathedral of Notre Dame as well as the Pont Neuf just downriver from the Ile de la Cité. And he paints in the south of France, returning again to the coast near Nice where he had worked as a teenager. In 1958, he traveled to Venice again, this time brightening his palette to capture the mesmerizing color and light of the city. Likewise, his cityscapes and Mediterranean scenes gradually become more colorful, occasionally veering into an expressionistic use of color.
With his reputation secure, and his bank balance comfortably stable, Aizpiri expanded his aesthetic horizons in two directions: ceramics and lithography. He collaborated with the artist and educator Henri Plisson on a series of terracotta dishes with polychrome designs. While little is known of this venture, it hints at a desire to explore a new medium and expand his skills.
Working in lithography was a more practical matter. It offered a consistent stream of income, less lucrative than painting, but more reliable. It isn’t clear when Aizpiri began to design lithographs, but by 1960, he was a well established, and much sought after, printmaker. The distinguished Société d'histoire littéraire de la France noted the artist’s design of a limited edition set of twenty-four color lithographs for a new edition of Pierre Corneille’s seventeenth century play, Le Cid, in the Revue d'histoire littéraire de la France. Corneille is one of the great masters of classical French literature–and Le Cid is one of his best plays. Such a commission was not only an honor, but a sign of high esteem for the artist. [vii] Aizpiri would continue to produce lithographs throughout his career, including a set of twenty-four for the publication of the French version of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew (Mégère apprivoisée in French).
Over the course of the 1960s, Aizpiri’s painting evolved in new directions as well. Still life images such as Basket of Fruits from 1962 reveal an interest in bright complementary colors, in this case greens and reds. Similarly, Still Life with a Game of Checkers from the same year is a study in blues and oranges, but also quite decorative and two-dimensional in composition. This trend continues into 1970 when the artist designed a large color lithograph that looks like it was inspired by a child’s box of crayons. A quirky bird with blue stripes and excessively large tail feathers poses in profile against a spotted blue background surrounded by giant yellow and pink flowers. At forty-nine years old, Aizpiri was still evolving and exploring fresh ways of creating.
The reception of his work expanded internationally during the 1950s and 1960s. He first exhibited in New York at Wildenstein Gallery in 1956, followed by a show at the Acosta Gallery in Los Angeles in 1959. In 1963 Aizpiri’s work was introduced to the Japanese market at the Second International Figure Arts Exhibition in Tokyo and Osaka, where he subsequently exhibited every year as a guest artist. The relationships he established in Japan, especially with Galerie Tamenaga, would become the foundation for a museum largely devoted to Aizpiri’s works in Onomichi, not too far from Hiroshima. The Nakata Museum of Art was established in 1969 and today holds over 200 works by Aizpiri. [viii]
In general, Aizpiri’s artworks become less sorrowful and more whimsical over the decades. His color palette brightens and his interest in pattern becomes more prominent. And like Georges Seurat or Picasso, he begins to develop a dialogue with his own past as well as art history. One of his late works, Le cheval de Meissonier (Meissonier’s Horse), offers a visual summary of the artist’s own works and his personal interests. Like Gustave Courbet’s The Painters Studio, A real allegory summing up seven years of my artistic and moral life (1855), Aizpiri’s gouache is a kind of puzzle for the viewer to piece together. And like Seurat’s Models (1886-88), it contains references to the painter’s own previous works as well as an homage to admired earlier artistic traditions. There is a well established trope in the nineteenth century of artists painting their own studios; many of them were intended to show the romantic, albeit usually chaotic, bohemian life. Aizpiri’s title is a reference to the academic painter Ernest Meissonier who was well known for his meticulous attention to every detail of a horse’s anatomy. It may also be a nod to Horace Vernet’s famous depiction of The Painter’s Studio, complete with sword-fighting artists, horses, dogs and a crowd of painters (both clothed and semi-nude) working at their easels.
At the center of Aizpiri’s image is Harlequin riding a white rearing horse on top of a black tilted table; whether or not this is a carousel horse is hard to determine. On the right sits a green-haired female clown, dressed in a polka dotted costume, smoking a pipe and Buddhist mudra with her left hand. Is she posing in the rush-seated chair from Vincent van Gogh’s house in Arles? Is that Picasso’s dead child from Guernica in the basket on the floor? To the left of the horse is a blue and white ceramic vignette with assorted fruits and flowers, perhaps a tribute to Japanese design; and on the easel to the far left is Aizpiri’s own lithograph of Bird and Bouquet on a Blue Background. The spirit of Marc Chagall seems to be invoked in the fantastical creatures and irrational juxtapositions of figures and objects. And like Chagall’s work, this is both whimsical and entirely serious. It also seems to be the artist’s own summary of his life.
Paul Aizpiri lived nearly a century, continuing to work and exhibit right up until his death on January 22, 2016 at age ninety-six. His funeral was held four days later at Notre Dame des Champs, his neighborhood church.
Janet Whitmore, Ph.D.
Ackland Art Museum, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
Centre Pompidou, Paris
Musée d'art moderne et contemporain, Strasbourg
Musée Denys-Puech, Rodez, France
Musée des Beaux-Arts, Marseille
Musée des Beaux-Arts, Rouen
Musée des Beaux-Arts, Valence, France
Musée Goya, Castres, France
Nakata Museum of Art, Onomichi, Japan
[i] The Ecole Boulle today is part of the Ecole Supérieure Lycée des Métiers d’Art, de l’Architecture Intérieure et du Design. It is still located in the twelfth arrondissement where the finest furniture designers in France have been based at least since the seventeenth century.
[ii] Conseil Général de la Seine, “Acquisitions diverses”, Délibérations du 7 avril 1938 (Paris, 1939) 26. A perusal of Google maps reveals that this is a “Point of Interest” because Aizpiri lived at this address.
[iii] For a comprehensive study of the artistic life in Montparnasse in the first part of the twentieth century, see Billy Kluver and Julie Martin, Kiki’s Paris, Artists and Lovers 1900-1930 (New York: Harry N. Abrahms, Inc., 2002).
[iv] Armand Séguin (1869-1903) was associated with the Pont-Aven school in the 1890s. He studied briefly with Paul Gauguin, and was befriended by Emile Bernard and Pierre-Auguste Renoir. He died from tuberculosis exacerbated by alcoholism in 1903.
[v] Pierre Basset, Les Insoumis de l’art moderne, La Jeune Peinture, Paris 1948-1958 (Flassans-sur-Isole, France: Un Certain Regard Editions et Pierre Basset, 2009).
[Original French text: C’est le cri de plus d’un millier de peintres qui se regroupent à Paris à la sortie de la guerre pour exprimer leur attachement à la nature et à l’homme.]
[vi] Ibid., 17.
[vii] Société d'histoire littéraire de la France, Revue d'histoire littéraire de la France, 61e année, (Juillet-Septembre) (Paris: Librairie Armand Colin in association with the Centre national de la Recherche Scientifique et de la Direction Générale des Arts et des Lettres) 479.
[viii] The museum’s website is largely in Japanese, but it provides a sense of the region and the scope of the organization. See: http://www.onomichiguide.com/123941236312383326543489939208---nakata-art-museum.html