« My painting is the painting of energy, of fever, excitement of life” – Georges Mathieu (1921-2012)
Whether you’re a neophyte or an expert art lover, you absolutely cannot miss the opportunity to visit Calligraphy Rhapsody – Retrospective Exhibition of Georges Mathieu held at K11 Musea until 4 July.
Co-presented by K11 Art Foundation and the Consulate General of France in Hong Kong & Macau, the exhibition presents the major pictorial evolutions of French painter Georges Mathieu with significant oil paintings spanning the 1950s to 1990s. An exceptional achievement, this retrospective exhibition marks the artist’s centenary in 2021 and showcases fourteen major paintings, as well as three large scale paintings of 6-metre-wide canvases that were specially created for his major retrospective at the Grand Palais, Paris, in 1978.
Curated by Catherine Kwai, Founder of the reputable Kwai Fung Hin Art Gallery, constantly committed to bridge the cultural exchange between China and the West, the aim of the retrospective is to introduce the French pioneer of free abstraction to a new audience and to give a chance to discover the various periods of his practice. While a lack of knowledge about Georges Mathieu and the Abstract art movement will not preclude anyone from enjoying, being moved or impressed by his gigantic paintings, some insights might be helpful to discover and put the artist into perspective.
Essentially, Georges Mathieu is considered as the father of Lyrical Abstraction (Abstraction Lyrique in French), a post-war newfound freewheeling aesthetic, highlighting artists’ intuition, spontaneity and explosiveness, liberating art and artists from the traditions. As outlined by Mathieu himself in several manifestoes, Lyrical Abstraction has four major characteristics: “primacy of speed of execution”: speed prevails to avoid the interference of consciousness of the artist; “no preexisting shapes”: the painter must not rely on any reference at all; “no premeditated moves from the artist”: painting is not a cognitive process; “ecstatic state of mind of the artist”: isolation and concentration of the artist help release.
Born to a family of bankers in 1921 in France, George Mathieu studied Greek, Russian, Spanish, English literature and law. A self-taught painter, he began his artistic career in 1942, making mostly landscapes and portraits. Apart from being an artist, he taught English, served as interpreter for the U.S. Army and worked as professor of French at the Université Américaine, Biarritz, France.
In 1945, Mathieu made his first abstract painting using his drip techniques, two years before American painter Jackson Pollock introduced his drip painting. Mathieu also began to curate in the late 1940s and early 1950s major exhibitions, promoting Lyrical Abstraction and building a bridge between the new School of Paris artists in post-war France and the Abstract expressionists in New York.
The 1950s were Mathieu’s paramount years where he developed further his spontaneous, energetic and calligraphic painting technique and style. He got rid of the paintbrush as intermediary tool and started to paint directly with the paint tube in his hand.
After his first solo exhibition in Paris in 1950, he began to exhibit internationally, in Japan, U.S., Brazil, Argentina and Middle East. At this time, Mathieu also started to introduce the performative dimension to his paintings, executing gigantic canvases in front of thousand people while dressed up in costume. A pioneer in public performances, he anticipated the art happenings of the 1960s, years before French painter Yves Klein would use female models covered with his eponym blue color painting as “living brushes”. Mathieu once said: “The most important moments are clearly when I paint in public. (…) It is the joy of communion with the other”.
Between the 1950s and 1960s, Mathieu became a very fashionable and talked-about European artist, especially in the U.S and Japan. André Malraux, renowned French novelist, art theorist and later Minister of Cultural Affairs, described him as “the first Western calligrapher”. As a pioneer, Mathieu was not always unanimously welcomed and his methods could also divide the critics. In 1956, he painted one of his largest canvases, a sizeable 12×4 meters, at the Sarah Bernhardt Theatre in Paris. Because it was completed in just twenty minutes, the painter faced some criticism. A year later, in 1957 in Japan, he famously created twenty one paintings in only three days, which was also met with scepticism by some art critics. But, for the artist, speed, efficiency and intuition were of the essence. The first shot had to be the right one.
Later, in the 1960s and 1970s, Mathieu managed to shift his influence further from the elite to the public by designing or decorating several objects in France. He collaborated with the Manufacture Nationale des Gobelins to create tapestries. He created a series of plates with the Manufacture de Sèvres, a 10 francs coin with the Monnaie de Paris, and a series of posters for the French airline company Air France. Those collaborative projects are also part of Calligraphy Rhapsody – Retrospective Exhibition of Georges Mathieu.
Georges Mathieu passed away in 2012, in France, at the age of 91. He had held over hundred and seventy solo exhibitions and major retrospective exhibitions in France and the rest of the world. His artworks are collected by more than ninety major museums around the world, such as the Museum of Modern Art and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York; The Art Institute of Chicago; the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC; the Centre Pompidou, Paris; the Musée National d’Art Moderne, Paris; the Kunstmuseum, Basel; the Tate, London; and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo.
Recently, we have witnessed a kind of awakening for Georges Mathieu, especially in Asia where galleries and auction houses are proposing his pieces more frequently. As said, Mathieu’s paintings were already well collected in many private collections as well as public institutions, but Asia, except Japan, seemed to have collected his artworks at a slower pace – or maybe just more quiet, with a desire to keep their treasures private…
Thus, Calligraphy Rhapsody – Retrospective Exhibition of Georges Mathieu is a major opportunity to discover these treasures and to enjoy so many masterpieces from the late artist in an ideal location.