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Pastels in Lausanne

18 February 2018

COVERWhen I first became interested in pastel, one of the books that I bought had just recently (1984) been published: Geneviève Monnier’s Pastels. From the 16th to the 20th century, a Skira production which, although that’s a long time ago, still to me looks wonderfully attractive. (According to Abebooks, you can buy a second-hand copy for just £1.07; one in perfect condition isn’t that much more expensive.) Apart from the contents, it was properly sewn (so it opened flat), had a handsome cloth cover and beautiful dust wrapper with a detail from the great La Tour Mme de Pompadour. Inside the 98 colour reproductions on satin-textured uncoated paper brought out, to a far higher standard than many books today, the extraordinary luminous but matt effect shared by pastels of all eras. I hadn’t until this morning realised that the printing and binding had both been undertaken by firms in Lausanne. All the other pastel surveys that I read at the time, including Monnier’s own catalogue of the Louvre pastels, differed in one or two important respects: most concentrated on a single national school; but more glaringly still, they rarely continued after 1800. And indeed when I go back to Monnier, I find it was up to page 43 (where the 18th century ends), and after page 107 (where the technical section starts), that I read closely.

Since then there have been several similar attempts to survey pastels over long periods. Perhaps the largest pastel exhibition ever held (Mistrzowie pastelu: od Marteau do Witkacego) was in Warsaw in 2015. A small, and not terribly well produced (despite the eminence of its contributors), volume entitled L’Art du pastel (covering pastels from Coypel to Skira) appeared in 2008. A completely different, lavishly produced volume with exactly the same title appeared in 2014 (an English translation appeared the following year, at a more affordable price). Written by Thea Burns and Philippe Saunier, it too fell naturally into two halves, before and after 1800, each contributed by the different authors. It also, like most of these before/after surveys, had a strong materials content: the paper conservator cannot afford to neglect half their business. Indeed a technical section featured in the beautiful November 2017 Dossier de l’art devoted to pastel, issued to coincide with the Petit-Palais exhibition De Degas à Redon, but adding a series of separate articles on the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

That transition between the dix-huitième and dix-neuvième nevertheless seems somehow fundamental in so many ways. It’s more than just the change in sound that you get at the “crossover point” on a piano, where the strings switch from copper-coiled pairs lying in one direction to steel triples stretched underneath: generations of piano makers have laboured ingeniously to conceal the inevitable change in tonal colour. In the world of pastel, there has been no attempt at such concealment: by the nineteenth century artists no longer wanted to use pastel as it had been used in the ancien régime (if they wanted to use it at all). They didn’t even want to make portraits, certainly not exclusively. They didn’t want to use pastel to emulate oil painting, covering areas with smooth, blended colour. Peinture au pastel was dead, replaced – after a hesitant start, admittedly, particularly in those countries where traditional pastel had died the quickest death – by a return to graphic uses and an exploration of the vibrant tones of the medium in an almost abstract setting. (It is surprising to find one of the essays in the catalogue suggesting that the gap in interest in pastel at this “crossover point” was attributable to the fact that untrained amateurs could succeed in producing a decent result in pastel: the visible gap between the technical accomplishment of the best professional and “what ladies did for amusement”, in Reynolds’s famous phrase, was never higher than in the eighteenth century; and the factors leading to the medium’s demise after the French Revolution were far more complicated. For the pejorative attacks on pastel, see this previous post.)

So does it makes sense to consider pre- and post-1800 pastels together? Is the medium a sufficient binder to bring these disparate art forms together? Will the orthogonal objectives of artists in the two periods collide, or miss altogether? That is the question raised by the new show Pastels du 16e au 21e siècle at the Fondation de l’Hermitage in Lausanne, which runs until 21 May. Of course it isn’t a question to which there is a “right”, or even a single, answer; we each bring our different prejudices to it.

I can see that from many perspectives the breadth and range of the show is exemplary, and that it offers a remarkable demonstration of the range of the medium. I don’t normally review exhibitions I haven’t attended myself, but I wanted to draw your attention to it while there is still time for you to go, and I fear for various reasons I may not be able to get there until quite late. I have however seen almost all the eighteenth century pastels in the show, and I have before me the catalogue edited by Sylvie Wuhrmann and Aurélie Couvreur. Incidentally, production has now moved to Italy, the signatures are glued (so it doesn’t open flat), the paper is “demi-mat” (and has resulted in some reproduction problems of which the Liotard on p. 41 is the worst example). A more serious problem is the cover price: 52.68 Swiss francs (who ever doubted that the Swiss had an eye for detail?), which together with postage for those who can’t make it to Lausanne amounted to £67. This is hardly a level that will attract the casual reader, which is a shame since it seems to me that that is the audience most likely to be won over to the cause by this show.

There’s a useful Swiss television report on the exhibition here, and I’ve posted a few stills from it below to give you some idea of how the hang looks:

Is this a show that has something for everyone, or one that has an element that will grate with each visitor?

First the basics. Conscious of the dangers of transporting pastel, the organisers have confined themselves to what was available in Switzerland. There are 151 numbered exhibits, running from c.1561 to 2017; the catalogue has 224 pages. The “crossover point” is at cat. no. 31 on p. 61 (a sketch by Louis Aubert formerly in the Goncourt collection, related to a 1755 engraving by Duflos); on the other side of this page is an 1862 rural scene by Jean-François Millet which surely involves a change of every conceivable gear.

csm_PASTELS_Barocci_ld_96065d8f50There is a smaller divide earlier on: while the gorgeous Barocci (cat. 1; left) does use a significant quantity of manufactured pastel applied in a painterly fashion (it’s from the collection of Jean Bonna, who has generously lent five sheets to the show), and the Bassano study shows areas of light falling on drapery, the coloured chalk drawings by Ippolito Leoni and Giovanni Martinelli are not really pastels as narrowly defined in say my Dictionary. Of course in the context of a broad exhibition they help define the boundaries of the medium – as arguably do the two charcoal studies with touches of pastel by Lorenzo Tiepolo using a technique quite different from his Madrid series.

Perronneau Mme d'Arche copyThe effect of the laudable policy on borrowing has had unequal results. Of the 24 eighteenth century pastels, nine come from just one private collection: of these the star is the wonderful Perronneau girl (right), which I picked out in this blog when it was lent to Orléans. Geneva (musée d’Art et d’Histoire), which has one of the most important and extensive collections in the world, but also a prudent approach to lending pastel, nevertheless did lend two works – the Liotard Jeu de loto and their version of the La Tour autoportrait: curious choices for the 65 km journey. But the simple problem for the organisers was that, while seven of the 24 were by Liotard, there were no pastels by Nanteuil, Vivien, Coypel, Mengs, Mme Roslin, Labille-Guiard, Cotes or Russell etc. to fill the gaps needed if a comprehensive account were to be given of pastel in Europe in the eighteenth century.

Degas_DanseusesThat is perhaps less of a problem for the later periods (nos 32-151): there are stand-out works by Degas (the Hermitage’s own Danseuses, which the organizers explain inspired the show) and Manet (the cover girl), and for dix-neuviémistes and contemporary specialists, as well as paper conservators, the exhibition will have much to interest. I’m curious to know where the organizers positioned the La Tour self-portrait, and whether his finger is pointing at the series of goose pictures by Alfred Sisley or some similar incongruity. But although hardly the most recent work in the show (it dates from 1972), I can’t resist including Sam Szafran’s L’Atelier, rue de Crussol avec boîtes de pastels:


But it is the catalogue that I have before me. There are nearly 20 essays, of varying quality, but they seem mostly unconnected to the exhibits except that the latter are reproduced passim throughout the volume. There is in fact not really a catalogue as such, in terms that one would normally expect: nothing beyond a checklist repeating the captions, no biographies of the artists, and no information on provenance, literature or exhibition history. That of course explains why there is no discussion about attributions or identifications (four of which are due to me, but uncredited). Pastel research remains at an early stage: readers deserve to know when information is firm or based only on the opinion of one specialist. Just to take a few examples, the portraits of the Lemoyne sisters (nos. 24, 25), which are signed on the back “Peinte par St Aubin…”, were traditionally attributed to Gabriel de Saint-Aubin, but it was only in 2012 that I was shown the signature and was able to publish them in the Dictionary as by Claude Pougin de Saint-Aubin. Similarly the pastel (no. 9) given as by Celeste Tanfani had previously been attributed, by another expert, to Tempesti, but I recognised it in 2006 as a version of the only surviving signed pastel by this extremely obscure, later artist. Incidentally the charming anonyme little boy (no. 27) can I think (although I hadn’t until now noticed this) be attributed to Jacques-Samuel-Louis Piot, the local pastellist in Lausanne.

The strength of the exhibition undoubtedly lies in its exploration of the technical aspects of the medium. Of the essays those with the narrowest topics are the most rewarding, notably the study on Stoupan, the famous pastel maker from Lausanne (incidentally it is still not completely clear how Stoupan and François Michod, whose trade card is delightfully included in the show, were uncle and nephew: see my article). Since exhibitions on pastel now have to show visitors the materials, it is interesting to compare the relative success of various exhibitions in obtaining these extremely rare survivors. Of course in an exhibition of oil paintings one wouldn’t expect to be shown a palette, brushes and tubes of paint, and I look forward to the day when exhibition organizers are sufficiently comfortable to put on a pastel show that doesn’t require these heuristic supports; but I recognize that that day is in the future. The Liotard exhibition in London in 2015 included the V&A’s box that came from John Russell’s family, but it was simply a small wooden box with a few remnants he might have used before his death in the early nineteenth century. The important new item here is the 1772 box of pastels by Vernezobre (for more details see my Prolegomena).


I’m quite sure this exhibition will draw in many visitors and will open their eyes to the possibilities of the medium. Pastel has for too long, and from too many directions, received a negative press from those who regard it as an inferior medium, to be practised by amateurs and (like hair painting or wax modelling) excluded from professional consideration – attitudes this show should help refute. But a little more focus on each work for its own sake rather than simply because of its material might have helped make the case more effectively.

For those who want more information on the pre-1800 pastels, here is a concordance with the Dictionary entries (just Google the J numbers, in “ ”):

1 J.127.27
2 J.127.2701
3 J.13.126
4 omitted
5 omitted
6 box
7 J.716.124
8 J.716.1241
9 J.7042.105
10 J.21.0998
11 J.21.2713
12 J.46.3382
13 J.46.1007
14 J.46.1379
15 J.582.1022
16 J.285.819
17 J.49.1448
18 J.49.1809
19 J.49.16
20 J.49.2126
21 J.49.2125
22 J.49.2605
23 J.49.2641
24 J.6.153
25 J.6.154
26 J.377.13
27 J.594.115
28 J.665.1074
29 J.76.557
30 trade card
31 J.1142.159



From → Art history

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