Major Exhibiton of french abstract painting (1948-49)
This touring exhibition was shown in seven German cities between November 1948 and July 1949. Soulages was the youngest participant to be exhibited alongside established artists such as Bott, Del Marle, Domela, Hartung, Herbin, Kupka, Piaubert, Schneider and Villeri. The exhibition was mounted at the initiative of the art lover and neurologist Dr. Ottomar Domnick, long before official cultural exchange programmes between countries even existed. It was shown in Stuttgart, Munich, Dusseldorf, Hanover, Frankfurt, Kassel and Wuppertal. It included five paintings on canvas, eight works on paper and seven walnut-stain paintings dating from 1946-48 by Soulages. The visibility of this young painter was heightened by the fact that the design of the exhibition poster featured one of his walnut-stain paintings, dated 1947. This was a very striking poster with a high print-run and was put up in the respective German cities, some of which were still ruins. There were two versions of the poster: a positive, black on white, and a negative, white on black. The touring exhibition both provided important momentum for abstraction’s new beginning in post-war Germany and was decisive in triggering Pierre Soulages’ international career as an artist.
An aesthetic credo (1948)
In a letter to the organiser in October 1948, Pierre Soulages, aged 28, wrote down two basic ideas related to the exhibition tour in Germany. He pointed out that his paintings had no titles, but only data on the material used, the size and the date of their genesis. Pierre Soulages also wrote that, for him, a painting “… (was) an organised unit, an ensemble of links between forms (lines, painted surfaces…) on top of which were laid interpretations that might be lent to it or removed from it.” This formulation later became a kind of “aesthetic credo” and seems to anticipate the ideas which the Italian literary critic Umberto Eco published in 1962 in his book The Open Work. In that theoretical publication the linguist attributes almost infinite interpretations to every work of art, despite a clearly defined appearance. These progressive thoughts on the reception of art and on a new significance for the viewer are already contained in the statement made by Soulages in autumn 1948.
Media response (1948/49)
The touring exhibition “French Abstract Painting” was one of the first exhibitions of abstract art to be shown in an occupied country still largely in ruins after the Second World War. As the Nazi dictatorship had proscribed, banned and prohibited independent and non-figurative art over the course of twelve years, it was not at all self-evident to be showing abstract paintings in a number of German cities in 1948. This gave rise to a lively debate in the press, and numerous media published positive reviews. Pierre Soulages, the youngest participant in that touring exhibition, was often referred to explicitly. In her review in Weltkunst the journalist Marietta Schmidt described Soulages as the most promising artist in the show and praised the serious, sublime, indeed religious aura of his paintings. She claimed the only other thing capable of evoking a comparable response in her would be a largo by Bach. An article in the Rhein-Echo pointed “… with gratitude … to the … elementary pictorial world” of the young Pierre Soulages. The French artist’s works were described in the Abendpost Hannover as being “… dreamlike recollections of the colour tones of sacred liturgical celebrations …” The Rhein-Ruhr Zeitung pointed out that the event would undoubtedly provide new inspiration for German art.
DOCUMENTA (1955, 1959, 1964)
Pierre Soulages took part in the first three editions of documenta in Kassel: 1955, 1959 and 1964. The international aura made manifest in those exhibitions (?!) was intended to enable German viewers to reconcile themselves again with the modern and contemporary art from different countries that had been prohibited for too long by the Nazi regime.
Soulages, who had been unable to travel to Germany in 1948 on the occasion of the touring exhibition, took the opportunity to visit the 1st documenta in Kassel in 1955. What he remembered most about it was the rudimentary setting and the city itself, which was still partly devastated by the war.
The art historian Werner Schmalenbach recalled the 2nd documenta: “No one visiting the documenta in Kassel in summer 1959 could fail to notice the paintings by Pierre Soulages, which hung in the large main hall opposite the entrance.”
Soulages’ first museum exhibition in Germany (1960)
Werner Schmalenbach, who was also an advisory member of the second documenta, organised Soulages’ first museum exhibition in 1960. He also opened the survey exhibition, held at the Kestner Gesellschaft in Hanover, of which he was director at the time. The retrospective exhibition was also shown at the Folkwang Museum in Essen, the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague and the Kunsthaus Zurich. It was another seven years before Soulages had his first museum exhibition in France, featuring about half the number of works shown in Germany. Forty paintings dating from 1946-49 were shown in Hanover, six walnut-stain paintings from 1947-48 and one gouache dated 1951. Schmalenbach described his interest in Soulages’ art as follows: “… I was struck by the lapidary idiom, the combination of deep black and light. I found that very exciting. But also the not really “informel” structure of the painting: not constructive, but still very tectonic.” In a letter to the artist, Schmalenbach praised the extraordinary success of the “very, very beautiful and impressive” exhibition at the Kestner Gesellschaft. He also underscored the German press’s positive and comprehensive response to the museum survey of the 40-year-old artist’s work.
Texte: Marie-Amélie zu Salm-Salm