GWENAEL KERLIDOU - Paintings
HERVE KERLIDOU
AND THE FIGURES OF LANDSCAPE

…and it is mainly the painters who bear responsibility for these figures from nature, which we call « landscapes » .

Hervé Kerlidou’s (1923-2007) work developed in the context of the immediate aftermath of World War II. When French painting was marked by the debate between geometric abstraction, often referred to as cold abstraction, and the heirs to a Parisian post-Cubist and Fauvist school, who also had a conflictual relationship with their Surrealist contemporaries. Defining itself mainly by what it rejected, this new trend would reluctantly, as so many other misnamed artistic movements did, accept its name of “Non-Figuration,” rejecting at the same time representational figuration, geometric abstraction, and what was then perceived as the literary excesses of Surrealism. The painter Jean Bazaine brilliantly articulated in his writings a need to anchor oneself in the “real,” shared by many other artists of the same generation. For these artists, the concept of “reality” represented the French cultural heritage of Cubism and Fauvism as well as a deeply rooted phenomenological approach to nature. It would be interesting to delve into these two tenets of non-figurative esthetics,”reality” on one side and “nature” on the other. But this is not the place. We will only suggest that if these artists insisted on such grounding in reality it was most often as a way of responding to critics from the right and from the left, who at the time accused abstraction of being too remote from daily experience. To better understand the limitations of nature’s role in their landscapes, we only need to point out the fact that urban landscapes were practically absent from these painters’ work.
Significantly, at first the movement’s categories were those of traditional figurative painting: portrait, still life, and landscape . As their vision progressively developed after World War II, the non-figurative painters would pay ever closer attention to landscape at the expense of the other two genres. Landscapes also predominate very early in Hervé Kerlidou’s work. This choice is a heavy burden for landscape to bear alone, requiring it to encompass the two remaining genres, figure and still-life, to be able to speak in the name of painting. A similar decision had incited Eugene Leroy, for example, to elect the figure as ultimate genre and to expect it to carry the full weight of painting. This is where an interesting genre crossing phenomenon appears in the two painters’ work, figures emerging from landscapes in Kerlidou’s work and dissolving in them in Leroy’s.

Continuity and rupture
From the mid-forties to the late sixties, the painted landscape, viewed through a Cubist-Fauvist lens, became a metaphor for a relation to the world affirming a humanist continuity that also served to reassure a public facing the rapid evolution of the new market values introduced by post-war reconstruction and the intense economic effort supported by the Marshall plan. This would prepare the ground for the emergence of the Nouveaux Réalistes in Paris and Pop Art in London and New York. In this context, the articulation of the Non-Figurative esthetic project around the figure of landscape becomes particularly significant.
The historical specifics of such an esthetic and especially the continuity of a tradition despite the epistemological rupture created by World War II in so many artistic practices need to be clarified. The artists grouped under the name “Young painters in the French tradition ” have sometimes been wrongly associated with the Vichy government. On the contrary, the first exhibition of these artists’ work aimed to reassert the foundations of a French cultural identity in painting after the fall of Paris to the Nazis. This was a defiant move against the Occupier and its degenerate art propaganda. It is first and foremost in the light of this desperate gesture that the exhibition’s motivations must be understood. The artists of the time were attempting to minimize the devastating cultural impact that the Occupation had on them by affirming continuity through their connections to Fauvism and Cubism.
Immediately after the War, the reactions of artists reconnecting with their work interrupted by circumstances would be quite different. Faced with the consequences and the scale of such a disaster, it would prove difficult then to consider continuity, even as an act of résistance, as an acceptable option. Artists would have to start again from scratch , emphasizing complete rupture, and ask themselves if there was even any point in starting over again.

The abstract landscape
The abstract landscape of the time was deeply rooted in a Catholic spiritual culture, best exemplified by Alfred Manessier’s work. Manessier openly displayed his religious faith in his work, as Rouault had done before him, and this would distinguish him from geometric abstraction, post-surrealism, miserabilist figuration, and the existentialism emerging at the time under the guise of the informal . This Catholic culture was itself rooted in the concept of incarnation as defined by Bazaine . The distilled abstract landscape as metaphor for spiritual incarnation in nature is at the heart of the esthetic adopted by most non-figurative painters, such as Estève, Le Moal, Ubac, Bertholles, Singier, and others. Bazaine does not portray religious faith literally in his work, but his discourse is still laden with terms and concepts associated with the Catholic humanist discourse found in Manessier’s work, and their pictorial program is often so close that only Manessier’s sometimes literal illustration of the signs of the liturgy separates them.
Landscape and the incarnation of nature’s spectacle in painting, the excavation of the world’s deep rhythms, are Bazaine’s declaration of faith. The slow rise of meaning from the depths of the inchoate as it finds its way to the surface inevitably brings to mind the Christian metaphors of the soul’s journey from darkness into light.
A third symbolic thread, parallel to the two aforementioned and echoing them, is that of Freudian metaphors, of meaning’s own path from the unconscious to the subconscious. This thread would abundantly feed the Surrealist esthetic of the time. The Non-Figurative painters’ perception of the Surrealists games as arbitrary, greatly contributed to their blindness to that side of their esthetics: the role of the unconscious in their own paintings.
Hervé Kerlidou’s work stands esthetically midway between those of Bazaine and Manessier. His artistic credo leans toward the hidden meaning in nature. The excavation of meaning in a landscape is the basis of a difficult and cathartic pictorial undertaking. On its success--the completed painting--depends the moral redemption of both the painter and the viewer.

Historical shortcut
The Greeks, we are told, had no need to represent nature visually as an all encompassing entity, and thus had no use for the idea of landscape . This idea only started to emerge in the Byzantine period, after the conditions for representation were established by the resolution of the bloody iconoclastic controversy. This in turn set the stage for the emergence of the Italian Renaissance. The full articulation of the idea of landscape only appears when the sacred figure--finally representable—finds itself in dire need of contextualization.
In the pre-Renaissance, landscape retained the secondary function of a scenic set, whose role was mostly to establish the figure as the main subject of the painting. These roles would progressively reverse until the 17th century, when landscape would finally assume the role of main subject. The figure was then relegated to a supporting role as a thematic accent, and eventually it disappeared altogether in the modern landscape.

Narratives and cultural identity
In order to understand the role of landscape in the modernist narrative for French non-figurative Catholic painters of the fifties, one has to look back to the emergence of the modern concept in the painted landscapes of Poussin, Lorrain, and their French, Italian, and Dutch contemporaries in mid-17th century Rome, and in the first ink washes executed from nature that helped them establish the backdrops of the philosophical fables of that time. Previously, the pastoral landscape, as it surfaced around 1415 in Flanders in the corner of a window, served to echo the perfection of Adam and Eve’s lost paradise. Following Poussin, its development takes us first through 19th century England where landscape, with Turner and Constable among others, paved the way to a pre-modernist discourse. We can then trace it through the oil sketches of the young Corot in Italy (1825-8), pointing the way to the school of Barbizon (1849), which in turn sets the scene for Impressionism (1860-1886), Cezanne (1839-1906) and Van Gogh (1853-1890) . In the Cubism that followed (1907-1914), landscape played a secondary role to still lives and portraits. Worshiped by the non-figurative painters, the aging Braque and Bonnard still divided their production almost equally among landscapes, still lives, and indoor scenes with figures. Landscape achieved its exclusive status for non-figurative painters progressively and it is only in the early fifties that they finally settled on that single genre.
If the above thread represents the “good,” Catholic version of the relationship between painting and landscape, another thread, this time “rebellious” and Protestant, develops simultaneously in Northern Europe, slowly investing landscape with a “pre-expressionist” psychological content, as with Dürer (1471-1528) who charged it with the feelings and emotions of both painter and viewer. Landscape then evolved from the pastoral to the romantic (1822-1843) as exemplified by Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840). Following this line, we eventually reach the Hudson River School (1820-1870) and, from there, the importance of the role of the sublime in painting near the end of World War II, as we will see later.
But this is where we end our shortcut for the moment. Until the mid-seventies, Non-Figurative painting still represented official art in France, and would embody for the New York art scene the worst of what Clement Greenberg called “relational painting,” which expressly needed to be rejected. Bernard Teyssèdre, art critic for the popular weekly “Le Nouvel Observateur,” summed up his frustration and that of the public in a review of Olivier Debré, ironically the most “American” of the French non-figurative painters . For Teyssèdre, Debré’s work was assuredly seductive but fatally limited to poetic representations of beautiful gardens, from which contemporary concerns and issues were absent, such as the emergence of ecological consciousness, worries about economic inflation, and questions about the ideological role of art in a society in the throes of a political mutation. If in the fifties, the school of Paris, of which Non-Figurative painting was one of the most visible examples, embodied what expressly needed to be rejected for the New York painters (for reasons that now seem to have as much to do with ideological debates as with financial or esthetic stakes ), in the late sixties it would symbolize for the French student protesters the very example of an art complicit with a despised government, by its remoteness from and silence about the social issues of the moment.
With Jackson Pollock , abstraction had become its own landscape of action. The reference to a visible world, still necessary to the Non-Figurative painters, had become useless to those who came after and whose zeitgeist pulled them away from it. At the same time, the study of (and fascination for) the mechanisms of cultural production, ushered in by the growing influence of Marxist and Freudian theories in society, signaled the end of the historical period in which the relationship of a cultured man to the “world” (later called the “real”) was filtered through the symbolization of his relation to nature.

The ideological function of landscape
In post-1945 war ravaged Europe, landscape, filtered through Fauvism and Cubism and immersed in a Catholic culture, would become a privileged vehicle for French cultural and artistic identity. This fixation on landscape recalls, in terms of artistic interest and cultural stakes, that of the Hudson River School in the mid-nineteenth century, where the spectacular romantic landscape first took on the moral value of a communion with nature as a means to get closer to the Creator. Different times, different places, but the investment in the topos of landscape remains the same, for some as medium between the spectator and the experience of the sublime, for others as an opening to the spiritual quest for the deep against the superficial.
In an effort to establish their cultural and artistic identity, Protestant painters in the United States naturally turned toward the romantic landscapes of northern Europe as a means to explore the sublime, rejecting the esthetic debates of the old Catholic Europe. The same sublime was re-enlisted a century later by Abstract Expressionist painters as agent of an artistic identity, once again to emphasize independence from European artistic currents.
It is hard to ignore the fact that these multi faceted metaphors, far from being created by or limited to a Parisian or French art scene, appear to be of as much interest to the New York painters, as Dutch born Willem De Kooning’s title for his 1950 painting ”Excavation” seems to attest. Robert Motherwell’s discourse on his own painting, arguably the most European sounding of the group , also turns out to be, in hindsight, surprisingly close to the humanism found in Bazaine’s writings of the same era.

Painting’s categories
At a recent talk about his career as an abstract painter in New York , Ronnie Landfield recalled a conversation he had in the early seventies with Kenneth Noland (an art world celebrity at the time.) “There are only three kinds of paintings” Noland declared to the very surprised young Landfield.
“Targets, diamonds and stripes?” suggested Landfield. Without missing a beat Noland replied:
“No, portraits, still lives, and landscapes.”
“What are your stripe paintings then?” asked a baffled Landfield.
“Landscapes,” Noland shot back.
“And your targets?”
“Portraits!”
“And your diamonds?”
“Still lives!”
This story is only worth mentioning because of its unexpected irony towards Color Field Painting, the self-proclaimed most advanced abstraction at the time. It was championed by critic Clement Greenberg, partly because of its alleged autonomy from external references such as those of a European figurative tradition. In their attempt to liberate the new American painting from its European heritage, the artists he was advocating were trying hard to discard such dependence.
In the same vein, there is a game that painters play among themselves and which entails taking extreme examples of abstract painting and associating them with one of the landscape-still life-portrait categories. For example:
- Barnett Newman’s “Vir Heroicus Sublimis”? How can one not see in it Giacometti-like figures (the zips) in a landscape?
-“1954,” by Clifford Still (in the Allbright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, NY). One of the best examples of his Grand Canyon manner, a direct descendant of Alfred Bierstadt’s views of Yosemite Valley.
- Malevich’s “White Square”? A portrait? A landscape in the snow? A still life with a white tablecloth?
-Mondrian’s “Broadway Boogie-Woogie”? A cityscape, obviously.
-Delaunay’s “Circular Rhythms”? A not so still still-life?
Etc…
These examples bring to light the ties of interdependence binding abstraction to figuration, even against their will, in any cultural context. The most rhetorical and the least representational abstraction, such as Frank Stella would have it, for example, cannot, in spite of all its efforts, escape the ghost of figuration hiding in its past. And figuration cannot ignore the ever-powerful impetus towards abstraction that lies at the core of representation. These mutual exclusions, historic by-products of the Cold War, are now giving way to a more nuanced approach that would rather consider both as different ways of articulating our strongly anthropological need for representation.

A personal itinerary
In 1947, at the age of 24, Hervé Kerlidou met Lucien Lautrec, 14 years his elder. After his studies at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts de Lille and to supplement his artistic education, Kerlidou then attended studio classes at the Atelier Populaire de Création Artistique, founded by Lautrec. That meeting turned out to be particularly significant in many respects and had a profound influence on Kerlidou’s painting. Style changes occurred rapidly as a result and soon Kerlidou adopted Lautrec’s angular touch, immediately questioning a statement from the master that painters from the South, immersed in harsh sunlight, do not have the gift of the fluid touch bestowed on painters from the North by their constantly changing light . Here then, was a painter from the North, who would move back and forth from the light of Flanders to that of Brittany his whole life, and who rejected the fluid touch that Lautrec, a man of the South, coveted in the work of painters from the North. It was, for Lautrec, the world upside down.
On first contact with Kerlidou’s work, one cannot help but notice its peculiar graphic intensity. Its dramatic qualities, in their relationship to light will be discussed later. But the dramatic play begins first with forms and shapes, with the intensity of a relentless attention to the possibilities of articulating touch as form; an attention that greatly contributes to maintaining a visual and psychological tension over the entire painted surface. Just as the canvas is first tightly stretched on its support, the painted surface covering it echoes this first physical tension by that of the tandem touch/gaze, the hand and the eye, articulating together graphically each square inch of the surface.“ Everything needs to be taut/tense (tendu),” the artist repeated time and again about the painted surface, referring to Matisse’s compositions as an example; a tension of the order of the at-tention to the act of painting, to the painted surface, to the relationships of pictorial components with each other, to the clarity of their articulation. The surface of the canvas is fully illuminated by this very attention, leaving the eye no reprieve, an intense attention that each painting returns to the viewer as a mirror reflects the light directed at it. In this instance, Painting calls for our intense attention to the tension required of our gaze.
Along with this graphic tension, one cannot help but mention the organization of signs according to rhythmic principles, as primary metaphors for the pulse of life; a rhythm that connects and organizes disparities. Earlier we evoked the role played by the painter’s touch. In Kerlidou’s work, speak of touch may seem somewhat paradoxical, as what we usually understand by it is so clearly absent. There even seems to be a concerted effort on his part to distance himself from the spontaneous, jubilant expressionist touch (although that very spontaneous touch is quite obvious in the preparatory watercolors). This can be attributed to a somewhat Jansenist distrust of the trappings of individual expression and to the humble submission of the painter’s will to the rules and demands of the painting; a stubborn refusal to let the ego lead the hand at the expense of a careful and unrelenting attention to the painting’s need. Subsequently the touch was sublimated in lines painted with a straight edge, and exclusively devoted to the service of rhythm as its unifying principle; rhythm only taking such a critical role because it carries the very essence of the world’s incarnation in a Non-Figurative painting.
Touch and tension converge to form what the artist used to call the graphic writing (écriture) of the painting. Graphic writing is in turn what breathes life into a painting; a continuous fabric, woven from the accumulated rhythmic touch-lines covering the canvas from end to end and unfurling the surface to the spirit’s wind like a sail. One cannot speak of tension and of how it makes someone hold his/her breath, without speaking of the space left open by this very withholding, to another kind of breath that breathes life and meaning into the painting, (this is of course a fundamentally Catholic esthetic). It is with the same restraint that the painter steps back from his canvas to let the spirit take hold of the painting, a necessary condition for the meaning of his whole undertaking.
The notion of held breath leads us, in turn, to that of suspense. Contrary to the mechanisms at work in literature, where the reader tacitly agrees to the author’s targeted manipulation in exchange for additional gratification, suspense here affects the painter-painting much more than it does the viewer. What the viewer perceives of it is often limited to a vague impression of painting as a scene of an enigmatic drama with little need for investigating the elusive clues that could help make sense of it. Suspense for the painter resides in the expectation of a miracle, and in the hope that, thanks to his own stepping back, thanks to his withdrawal from the forefront of his work, he might succeed in leaving enough time and space open for the spirit to come and fill the painting’s own space. (If we were using a more materialist terminology, we would call it “meaning” instead of spirit) This precious instant is that of drama, in the sense of an action happening in spite of the protagonist’s best laid plans. It is also, however, the moment of epiphany that every painter-painting is hoping for in front of his or her canvas.
Thanks to Lautrec, Hervé Kerlidou, in addition to his painter’s touch, also found his color palette; a simple comment from teacher to pupil oriented the latter towards subdued tonalities, tone on tone color relationships, earthy colors, in short towards harmonies characterized by some as those of a Protestant palette . There is no doubt that he recognized himself in Lautrec’s insightful remark, which reinforced latent qualities in his student’s work and helped define his future palette. The intellectual connection to Lautrec ran deep and covered many other aspects of the artist’s work, beyond the most obvious stylistic ones. They were also united by the amount of time both spent working on each painting, the slow emergence of the final painted image, the need to remain in the presence of the finished painting and continue with each one the dialog initiated during its making, the silent and solitary practice of painting considered as its own reward, all of the above mixed with a deep skepticism toward commercial success and the social recognition that usually comes with it.

The tree as a metaphorical figure
Beyond landscape, the presence of the tree as an ultimate figure appears to dominate the work’s inspiration, its theme and formal vocabulary. The relationship between the tree’s iconography and that of the human figure is one of the primary metaphors of Christianity. But far from the fairly obvious symbolism of the tree of life, here it is a question of that symbol’s opposite, of the cross, of a tragic metaphor for the crucifixion, of the tree as a symbol of suffering.
“Herbes-Calvaire,” a major painting from 1974, seems to confirm this. The tree theme is replaced by that of the Calvary, the branches of the three crosses helping to organize the composition. The following painting, “Arbres-Procession,” also confirms that intuition, relating as it does the trees’ silhouettes to those of walking penitents.
The tree’s figure replaces human representation, which disappears completely from Kerlidou’s work as early as 1949, even though the full transition to abstraction happens only eight years later, in 1957. In a relatively small production, more than half of the paintings are inspired by or derived from the tree motif. The tree is always a socialized figure, in relation with other natural elements as expressed by some of Kerlidou’s other titles (Movement-Trees, Trees-Clouds, Stroll- Tree, etc…), or the central figure of a more general theme (End of Winter-Light, Dry Branches, Wood-Air-Dry, etc…). Nonetheless, even as the central figure of a painting, the image of the tree never becomes its subject. It is approached as a formal leitmotiv or device more than an exhaustive exploration of a single theme, as it is in Alexander Hollan’s work, for example
As we examine this theme’s fortune, we have to return to the main compositional device of the Cubist system, which divides the surface into multiple planes separated by lines laid out in a flexible grid. There is an uncanny formal adequation between the non-figurative interpretation of the Cubist grid and the image of a structure suggested by the motif of tree branches. The essence of the non-figurative credo lies precisely in this perfect adequacy between means and ends, structure and image. Mondrian’s series of trees painted between 1909 and 1912, and his evolution from Fauvism to Abstraction by way of Cubism, is a perfect example of the happy coincidence between the original theme of the tree (an apple tree, of all things, a theme dear to Kerlidou) and an esthetic project that led him step by step towards a complete distillation of signs.

From pastoral to tragic
As we saw earlier, the transition from pastoral to tragic landscape is a slow historical process originating during the Reformation. Curiously, however, in Kerlidou’s work this transition is an ordinary event that occurs daily in the transfer of a motif from sketch to painting. The numerous watercolors he executed from nature, in the purest Cezannian tradition, bear witness to a primal jubilation in front of the world, but their transfer to the canvas, often with the help of a compositional grid following the rules of the golden section, demonstrate each time the metamorphosis of a pastoral pleasure into a tragic responsibility, a passage from Eros to Thanatos, as if, in the transition from drawing to painting, he instantly took on all the weight and responsibilities of pictorial traditions and that a change of tone was in order.
If Kerlidou partly owed his graphic writing and the discovery of his palette to Lucien Lautrec, he distanced himself from him on two significant accounts: texture and light. Kerlidou often worked with a palette knife and a straight edge, especially early in his career, and the accumulated pentimenti create a rough skin on the surface, not unlike some expressionist paint build-up. The painted light is the locus of his drama, a light that is often soft and dim, or sometimes a strongly contrasted pure black and white. It does not originate from a conveniently identifiable source; no cast shadow, no path of highlights or reflections to guide our gaze. It is a unified and diffuse light, as if the motif were at time seen against the light or immersed in a half-light that photographers would call underexposed. It is the territory of the inner light, of the spectacle of nature as a drama transcended through deep meditation. In that sense Kerlidou certainly belongs to the Northern European painting tradition, and despite the Catholic foundations of his esthetics, it is a romantic variation of the landscape, one with a somewhat Protestant leaning, that he applies to the non-figurative program.
His painting is marked from beginning to end by a dramatic tension carried by graphic writing, shapes, texture, color, and light, rooted in the landscapes and the changing atmosphere so particular to Brittany, which remained his primary subject of inspiration.
With the introduction of this dramatic sense, absent from Lautrec’s work, the student surpasses the master. There is no other example of this approach in that generation of painters. Here, two extremes are reconciled: on the one hand the drama of a landscape filtered through non-figuration, and on the other the rejection of expressionism and existentialism, agents of choice for the display, more than the expression, of inner drama. By remaining true to the esthetic choices of his youth, Kerlidou offers an opus of remarkable quality and coherence, from which overproduction and second rate works are absent. The thoroughness of his vision leads us to read his entire oeuvre as a statement emphasizing the importance of the artist’s ethical responsibility toward his work.

End of story
In our times of climate crisis and fast technological progress, the painted landscape, whether abstract or figurative, has ceased to be a privileged means to symbolize the relationship of man to his environment. Starting in the seventies, Land Art sculpture, from Robert Smithson to Richard Long, and its more recent developments (for example, in the ephemeral sculptures and photos of Andy Goldsworthy, or in Oliafur Eliasson’s installations, but also in video art and in virtual representations), have now taken in the contemporary mind the place that the painted landscape had managed to hold until the late sixties. It is in this sense that we might speak of the end of a history, that of the essential relation between painting and nature. This does not necessarily preclude future artists from re-actualizing their relationship to what is now called “environment”, in a two dimensional medium related to this old history. Re-readings, revisions, and constant re-interpretation of the recent past are indeed a privilege and a luxury of our era.


© Gwenaël Kerlidou, Brooklyn, 2009-10
Translated from the French by the author.


Hervé Kerlidou taught at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Lille from 1952 to 1971, at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Tourcoing from 1971 to 1981, and at the Arts Plastiques Department of Lille 3 University from 1977 to 1981.


My warmest thanks to Yves Brochard for his dedication and instrumental help at the onset of this project, to Evelyne Dorothée Allemand for her enthusiastic support during its development, and to Alyson Waters for her patient editing of both French and English texts.