BIOGRAPHY - Jean-Pierre Cassigneul (Born 1935)
The painter Jean-Pierre Cassigneul grew up in the unconventional–and glamourous– world of Parisian haute couture. His father was Jean Dessès (1904–1970), founder and primary designer of a leading fashion house. Dessès himself was born Jean Demètre in Alexandria, Egypt, to Greek parents; there, he received a classical education and was sent to Paris to study law in the early 1920s. Dessès’s interest soon turned to fashion, however, and he began working for Maison Jane in 1925. By 1937, he launched his own fashion house amid the chic environs of Avenue Georges V, featuring his line of classically inspired clothing. [i]
Born on July 13, 1935, Cassigneul was just two years old when his father opened his haute couture salon. The young boy grew up among designers and models, as well as the luxurious trappings of elegant fabrics. Not surprisingly, he began drawing at an early age, perhaps in emulation of his father. The advent of World War II, however, significantly disrupted family life and in early 1944, the nine-year-old Cassigneul was sent to Switzerland with his grandparents.
Returning to Paris after the end of the war, Cassigneul was sent to the prestigious Lycée Janson-de-Sailly in the 16th arrondissement, one of the wealthiest quarters in the city. The school was–and still is–recognized for its commitment to educational excellence and for its extraordinary roster of alumni, including two French presidents, numerous government ministers and at least two Nobel Prize winners. Perhaps more relevant at the time of Cassingeul’s attendance was the association of the school with several leaders of the French résistance, who exemplified the spirit that post-war France hoped to emulate. Although he excelled in his drawing classes, Cassigneul initially planned to study medicine, but like his father, he soon gravitated to the world of the visual arts. Needless to say, his family was easily persuaded that this was a reasonable course of action.
Cassigneul initially enrolled in the Académie Charpentier in Montparnasse, but found it more theoretical and formal than he liked. In spite of reservations about the curriculum, the young painter seems to have made a positive impression on his fellow artists in the neighborhood, including Lucy Krohg, the wife of painter Per Krohg, former mistress of Jules Pascin, and most relevant for Cassigneul, an important gallerist. Lucy Krohg opened the Galerie Lucy Krohg in 1932 with the paintings she inherited from Pascin. Twenty years later, the Galerie was well established among the School of Paris artists, making it especially gratifying when she offered Cassigneul a solo exhibition in 1952; he was then seventeen years old.
By 1954, Cassigneul came to the realization that he was not thriving at the Académie Charpentier. He switched to a small private school in the 16th arrondissement where he found a kindred spirit and mentor in Jean Souverbie, (1891-1981) who was also the head of the monumental painting studio at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. Souverbie broadened Cassigneul’s aesthetic horizons significantly, introducing him to the work of the Nabi painters and the cubists, many of whom were his personal friends. Souverbie had studied at the Académie Ranson in 1916, where he became friends with Edouard Vuillard, Pierre Bonnard, and Félix Vallotton, and by the 1920s, he was part of the avant-garde art scene in Montparnasse. With over thirty years of experience, Souverbie offered Cassigneul a perspective that reflected the diversity and complexity of modernism as it had developed against a backdrop of nearly constant war and conflict. Within a year, Cassigneul had applied to the École des Beaux-Arts and been accepted.
From 1956 to1960, Cassigneul worked in the studio of Roger Chapelain-Midy (1904-1992) at the École. In contrast to Souverbie, Chapelain-Midy focused on developing a career that included a number of public commissions and state-sponsored exhibitions. In addition, he participated in international exhibitions, ranging from Buenos Aires to Chicago to Pittsburgh, where he won the Carnegie Prize in 1938, as well as throughout the capitals of Europe. After the conclusion of World War II, he continued to exhibit his work internationally and expanded his repertoire by designing sets and costumes for the Paris Opera. Chapelain-Midy’s work also reflects the influence of the Nabis and Matisse, although he often incorporated a distinctly surrealistic element as well. Cassigneul’s paintings would eventually integrate many of these elements into figurative paintings, often hinting at melancholic moods or slightly otherworldly experiences.
In the middle of his years at the École, Cassigneul was faced with more turmoil in both the art world and in France. Political tensions that had been simmering since the end of World War II boiled up as the Fourth Republic fell under pressure from General Charles de Gaulle and his supporters. The Fifth Republic, established on October 4, 1958, replaced the parliamentary government with a republic based on separate roles for the prime minister (who was the head of the government) and the president (who was the head of state). In other words, the daily responsibility of governance was distinct from the more broadly defined responsibility of leading the nation; both leaders answered to the elected representatives in the National Assembly and the Senate. The Fifth Republic, which remains in place today, has proven to be both flexible and stable.
Simultaneously, the Paris art world was consumed by arguments about the relative merits of figural painting and abstraction. By the late 1950s, the international center of the art world had largely shifted to New York where abstract art was far more dominant than figural painting. Painters such as Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, and Jackson Pollock were celebrated as the daring new generation of American painters, while the neo-Dadaist/Pop Art generation was just emerging from art schools and heading to New York to make their own mark. In contrast, Paris was a quieter place, more concerned with literary and cinematic art forms than the visual arts. Most notably, it was a city that was profoundly aware of the fragility of life in the wake of World War II–with all the horrific, awkward and painful questions that experience raised.
As a promising young artist during the 1950s, Cassigneul was firmly committed to figure painting. His images of young women–often based on the models he saw at Jean Dessès’ fashion house–mirrored the styles of the time, but also captured the casual daily life of society. The fascination with intense color that had characterized his earliest work had evolved into more sophisticated compositions of single women against an ambiguous backdrop of the sea; the setting sometimes appears to be the Mediterranean and sometimes the English Channel, but it is rarely specifically identified. Although Cassigneul’s art shows a tendency toward simplification of form and large flat areas of color, he was never an abstract painter. In January 1959, his painting Au bois (In the Woods) was included in an exhibition at the Musée d’art moderne in Paris, an example of contemporary figural painting. Later that year, he would be appointed a member of the Salon d’Automne, thereby establishing his position as a valued member of the Paris art community.
Cassigneul’s art education barely concluded before he was called up for military service in 1960. He was stationed in Germany initially and then sent to Algeria where he first met Jean-François Josselin, the novelist/journalist who would become a good friend and occasionally a partner on future projects. Like Cassigneul, Josselin was just beginning to establish himself in his career when his military obligation interrupted his progress. [ii]
Two years later, Cassigneul returned to Paris with considerably more experience and presumably, a wider perspective on the world. In 1963, he began to exhibit at the Salon de la Jeune Peinture, an organization of painters dedicated to the search for an art that reflected universal humanity with an emphasis on representational depictions of ordinary life. This group of young men, many of them veterans of the war, strove to reassert the importance of the individual in western painting as expressed from the time of classical Greece to the present. They rejected the tendency toward abstraction that emerged in the 1920s and 30s in favor of a contemporary interpretation of the real world around them. [iii]
As the 1960s unfolded, Cassigneul’s career continued to expand. In particular, an exhibition at the Gallery Tivey-Faucon in 1964 brought fresh opportunities. With an introduction to the exhibition catalogue written by his mentor, Chapelain-Midy, the show attracted considerable attention, including that of a Japanese art dealer, Kiyoshi Tamenaga, who would become the artist’s representative in Japan. Noël Shumann from Éditions Lidis, also attended the exhibitions and subsequently offered Cassigneul a commission for 80 watercolor illustrations of a four-volume series by Joseph Kessel entitled Le Tour de Malheur. [iv] The show also seems to have been the impetus for the Galerie Bellechasse to begin conversations with Cassigneul about a contract for exclusive rights to his work. [v]
The following year, the Galerie Bellechasse encouraged him to explore lithography, perhaps because it provides a more marketable form of art for middle-class patrons. Cassigneul proved an eager student, learning the methods of lithography and producing enough work to fill three shows at the gallery. His prints were very popular and increasingly in demand.
Soon the international art market would welcome Cassigneul as well. In 1966, his work was included in the International Exhibition of Figurative Art in Tokyo and in 1969, the Mitsukoshi Gallery in Tokyo showed his lithographs. In 1970, the artist made his first of many trips to Japan, where he had numerous exhibitions over the years. Not to be outdone, the Wally Findlay Gallery from the United States presented an exhibition in Palm Beach, Florida (1970), with additional shows in Chicago (1972), New York (1973) and Paris (1974). Cassigneul’s relationship with these galleries would continue for many years. [vi]
Back at work in Paris, Cassigneul began collaborating with his friend Jean-François Josselin in 1974. Together, they created a portfolio of eight lithographs with an accompanying text called The Strollers. This was a singularly prestigious project because it was published by Alain C. Mazo of Mourlot Studios, a printing firm that had published fine art prints by everyone from Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec to Henri Matisse to Pablo Picasso and René Magritte. Cassigneul would work with Mazo again in 1976 when he published a book entitled Engraved Works as well as another portfolio of eight lithographs, this time simply called Parks. In fact, Cassigneul worked increasingly on lithographic projects throughout the 1970s, creating 30 illustrations for a new edition of Charles Baudelaire’s poems, Les Pièces condamnées for Editions Lidis in 1977, and preparing a retrospective exhibition of his own lithographs for Vision Nouvelle in 1978.
The decade of the 1980s was equally busy. Now well established as an international artist of note, Cassigneul continued to travel regularly to Japan and less frequently to the United States while maintaining a remarkable production of paintings and lithographs in his Paris studio. He also developed another portfolio with Éditions Mazo, this time with poems by Guillevic in 1982.
Cassigneul also tried his hand at other types of design, including a piece of Louis XIV-style furniture that was shown at the Pompidou Centre in 1977 and a tapestry design produced by Atelier 3 in 1980. Although neither of these media seem to have been pursued much further, the artist’s interest in all fields of design is indicative of his curiosity and willingness to explore a range of possibilities.
Throughout the 1990s and into the twenty-first century, Cassigneul has continued to paint. The lively young women he depicted in his early years have given way to portraits of solitary women, still elegantly dressed, but with a more somber and pensive mood. The images tend to be tightly cropped, leaving little room for the viewer to focus on anything other than the figure. As always, the artist offers his compositions for reflection. Each viewer brings an individual interpretation based on personal experience.
Janet Whitmore, Ph.D.
[i] For a short summary of Dessès’s fashion house as well as his designs, see the Palais Galliera, musée de la mode de la Ville de Paris at: http://www.palaisgalliera.paris.fr/en/work/evening-dress-jean-desses as well as the collection of the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris at: http://collections.lesartsdecoratifs.fr/mode-et-textile?f%5B0%5D=field_skfulltext%3AJean%20Dess%C3%A9sf.
See also the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Costume Institute, New York at: https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/159534
[ii] Jean-François Josselin’s first book Don Juan sous la pluie, was published in 1961 (Paris, Le Seuil).
[iii] For more information on this group and their exhibitions, see Francis Parent and Raymond Perrot, Le Salon de la Jeune Peinture, Une histoire 1950-1983 (Issy les Moulineaux: Éditions Patou, 2016). The most widely recognized painter of the group is Bernard Buffet.
[iv] Robert Bouillot, Cassigneul, peintures, 1950-1990 (Paris: Éditions Michèle Trinckvel, 1991) 88. See also Joseph Kessel, Le Tour du malheur (Paris: Editions Gallimard, 1950). This four-volume epic centers on a hero named Richard Dalleau who enlists in the army during World War I. The story follows him until 1925, a decade in which he makes a “tour of misfortune” encountering a plentiful share of pitfalls, vice and quandaries.
[v] Robert Bouillot, Cassigneul, peintures, 1950-1990 (Paris: Éditions Michèle Trinckvel, 1991) 88.
[vi] Ibid., 238.