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Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Robert Antoine Pinchon

Abbey of Saint Ouen, Rouen, 1912, Robert Antoine Pinchon
For the painter, color is a dangerous element. Among the four other elements of design--line, shape, space, and texture--color is by far the most powerful to the point of easily overwhelming the others. Too much of it and the painting becomes garish and grotesque, even to the point of vulgar ugliness. Choose the wrong combination of colors and the painting simply decomposes. By the same token, if the artist chooses an exceedingly subtle use of color, the work often comes across as weak, bland, and lacking in impact. That is to say, if a painting lacks color, the other four elements had damn well better step up to fill in the gap. I like color, although I've never been an expert at using it. My paintings tend toward naturalistic color so color is seldom a critical element in my work.

La Bouille Under Snow, Robert Antoine Pinchon
The Staircase at Lescure, 1907-10,
Robert Antoine Pinchon
In general, the further an artist veers away from Realism, the more arbitrary all the elements of design become, and that goes especially for color. It's something amateur painters who embrace Abstract Expressionism often fail to realize. Color must be controlled far more than its companion elements. When we think of art and color, a frequent association has to do with the early 20th-century French painting movement called "le Fauves" (the wild beasts). As with the earlier term, "Impressionism," it was a tag attached by an art critic to denigrate the movement. The French practitioners of this color-driven style (right) loved the name, seeing it as an apt compliment. They adopted it as their own. One of those doing so was the French painter, Robert Antoine Pinchon.

Young Woman on the Balcony, Rouen Cathedral, Robert Antoine Pinchon
Robert Antoine Pinchon
As a general rule, I'm not particularly fond of Fauvism. I like color as well as the next artist, but Fauvism usually passes into the realm of "too much of a good thing." Having said that though, for the most part, I like Pinchon's work. His Abbey of Saint Ouen, Rouen (top), is one of my favorites. The color is intense, but controlled. For the same reason, Pinchon's Young Woman on the Balcony, Rouen Cathedral (above), is not a favorite. Though the two paintings are related, the color in the latter I find disturbingly inappropriate to the content. Although Fauvism, almost by definition, embraces the idea of "too much" color, most of Pinchon's country landscapes, gardens, snow scenes, harbors, bridges, rivers, and towns exhibit a willful restraint in the use of color. He should not be mistaken for an Impressionist, though. His looser brushwork and love of intense color would place him far beyond Impressionism. He was a Post-Impressionist, and one who chose to remain so, rather than embrace Cubism, Dada, Surrealism, and other art movements which followed until his death in 1943. He was a dedicated, consistent, yet restrained Fauvist.

The Bridge to the English, Sunset, 1905, Robert Antoine Pinchon
Rouen Cathedral, Robert Antoine Pinchon
Robert Antoine Pinchon was born in 1886. Earlier this year, on my way to Mont St. Michel on the Normandy coast, I passed through his birthplace of Rouen. Unfortunately, there was not time to see the cathedral he, along with his friend, Claude Monet, painted so often. One would never mistake one artist's work for the other, though. Monet was exploring natural light and color as effected by various environmental elements. Pinchon's Rouen Cathedral (right), is surprisingly devoid of color, its cold grays contrasting sharply with the warmth of the entry portals. Pinchon was of a different generation than Monet, so it's not surprising that their approach to color would differ greatly. Nonetheless, Monet said of his friend, "...a surprising touch in the service of a surprising eye" (whatever that means).

Robert Antoine Pinchon, 1898,
age twelve, painting The Path.
Pinchon grew up in an intellectual family, his father was a librarian, journalist, playwright, and drama critic. When his twelve-year-old son began exhibiting an interest and talent in painting, he bought the boy a set of oil paints. He took him on long walks, encouraging him to paint outdoors (left). Pinchon exhibited his first painting efforts at the age of fourteen. Pinchon went on to study at Lycée Pierre-Corneille in Rouen at the turn of the century where he met fellow students in his class, Marcel Duchamp and Pierre Dumont. They became lasting friends. In later years, Pinchon would seem to have led a "charmed" life, exhibiting with both those of his own generation as well as the older Impressionist artist. He embraced the style and color tendencies of the Fauvist and unlike many of them, won some degree of success with his work. In 1908, a movement called Le Cercle de l'Art Moderne (the Circle of Modern Art) was founded in Le Havre. Within that context, Pinchon became a member of a group calling themselves XXX (thirty), a collective of independent writers, painters, and sculptors from the vicinity of Rouen including fellow Fauves, Matisse, Derain, Dufy, and Vlaminck.

Winter Landscape, (the Road, Snow), 1905, Robert Antoine Pinchon
Le Jardin, Robert Antoine Pinchon
Everything was going fine for the budding young artist until July, 28, 1914. War came to Europe. Pinchon, who had joined the French infantry reserves some eight years earlier, was mobilized. Some two months later he was wounded in the leg by a German mortar explosion in the First Battle of the Marne. He quickly recovered and was sent back to the front lines where, in October of 1914, he was again wounded, this time in the arm. Then, two years later, Pinchon was once more sent into battle, only to be captured by the Germans. Somehow, after some two years as a POW, Pinchon managed to escape, passing through Switzerland, Italy, and much of France, arriving home in Rouen a few days before Christmas, 1918. Though physically and psychologically shattered by the war, Pinchon turned to his art, struggling to renew a career interrupted by the war. Fortunately, all during his absence, Pinchon's work had continued to be displayed in numerous exhibitions in northern France to the point that he had become better known (as a POW artist) than he had been before the conflict.

"Why Not," in the Port of Rouen, 1935, Robert Antoine Pinchon
In the years that followed, Pinchon married, and became a prominent figure in the French art world. He moved from Rouen to Paris around 1930. There his prodigious output of work found acceptance in museums, exhibitions, and sales in numerous galleries. Even the advent of a world-wide Great Depression had little impact on Pinchon's career. His work was recognized as "important," his reputation continued to grow. Then on June 5, 1940, the first bombardment of the city of Paris began, followed by a mass exodus. Three days later, on June 8th, at 10:00 p.m., the first German tanks rolled in on the Road to Neufchatel, near where Pinchon lived. Yet, despite the German occupation, which was to continue until August, 1944, Pinchon continued to display (and sell) his work in various wartime exhibitions. He died on January 9, 1943, at the age of fifty-seven, never having lived to see the country he fought for liberated from the Germans.

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