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In Montmartre, the seven lives of Auguste Herbin

At Cateau-Cambrésis, the Nord department is finalizing the museum extension project.

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In Montmartre, the seven lives of Auguste Herbin

At Cateau-Cambrésis, the Nord department is finalizing the museum extension project. Henri Matisse, a child of this small town, is king there, and the part of his collection kept there is very rich. No less than 785 works, or almost half of the collection. The other painter and local child (he was also born into a family of weavers, in 1882, in Quiévy, nearby), Auguste Herbin, is also presented there. But it should be even better once the rooms are rearranged. It will be at the end of September.

In the meantime, it is in Paris, at the Montmartre Museum, just overlooking the vineyard on Rue Cortot, that the memory of this pioneer of French abstraction is revived. For what? Because in 1909 Herbin succeeded Picasso in his legendary Bateau-Lavoir workshop, just a stone's throw away. And he stayed there for eighteen years. On two floors, the rows of small rooms devoted to temporary exhibitions are not too much to retrace a career changing and shining like a disco ball. In general, today it is neglected. However, it exerted a major influence on post-war international art, as we see more and more clearly throughout the course.

Each space corresponds to a chapter, a chronological sequence. So much the better, because, as summarized by the two curators, art historians Céline Berchiche and Mario Choueiry, “Herbin embraced all the “isms” of the 20th century. And he made the race of modern art always in the lead.” We first discover a late impressionist, who squints towards the pointillists (Toits de Paris sous la neige, private collection). Then here is a wild beast from 1907 (superb Portrait of a Young Girl from the Wuppertal Museum, a sort of younger sister of Matisse's Woman in a Hat).

The following year, our man was one of the first Cubists (Landscape near Cateau-Cambrésis, on loan from the Museum of Modern Art of the City of Paris). And, ten years later, his work opened up to abstraction (Composition circular, coll. part.). From before the First World War, the notoriety was international. Major German collectors (Wilhelm Uhde, Henry Simms) and Russian collectors (Sergueï Shchukine, Ivan Morozov) have driven up the price. Exhibitions then followed one another throughout Europe. Building on this success, Herbin began creating objects. We see them grouped together, these very architectural mirrors or panels, slightly influenced by African arts and which seem the counterpart of the German Bauhaus. They were bought by a Kandinsky and admired by a Le Corbusier. However, it was a failure...

From 1922 to 1925, after the general devastation and amid the trauma, return to the figurative, flirting with magical realism (Les Joueurs de boules, Center Pompidou). Then, again, abstraction imposes itself. From then on, a number of oils of circles, volutes, squares and brightly colored points will multiply. Their creator austerely gives them the title of Composition, followed by a number or a precision so that they can be distinguished in inventories. The poster for the International Exhibition of Arts and Techniques, that of 1937 in Paris, where Picasso's Guernica was born, will again be Herbin.

This character speaks little but thinks a lot, as a theoretician. In 1931, he founded the Abstraction-Création movement with Jean Hélion and Georges Vantongerloo. From then on, its definitive vocabulary was established. It remained in use until the end, in 1960. In the 1940s, this adventurous spirit explored the relationship between simple form and bold color. Inventing his own geometric abstraction, defined in an essay from 1946. Non-figurative, non-objective art was read after the war by many proponents of abstraction, such as the master of kinetic art Victor Vasarely. It consists of a plastic alphabet in the wake of Goethe's treatise on colors. A game of correspondences, in short, as in Rimbaud with his Voyelles sonnet: “A black, E white, I red, U green, O blue”… Here, Herbin, in this art as combinatory as that of the fugue in music, culminates, establishing himself as a mentor for a large section of the young generation, on both sides of the Atlantic.

These flat mosaics in intense colors are rigorously juxtaposed with patterns of simple geometric shapes. With such work, the 1970s are already here. Synchrony in Yellow dates from 1940, Father and Mother from 1943 or even Man and Woman from 1944. There is also yin and yang, cold and hot, masculine and feminine, soft or sharp. in these other paintings in private hands which are, among others, La Maison II from 1947, Lune from 1945 or the ambitious and very successful Dieu from 1957. That is to say seven periods, therefore, in total, like seven lives of a creator. Herbin would be like those cats on the roofs of Paris who are said to be reborn if they fall from a gutter. In any case, this is how his posterity goes, with its ups and downs.

“Auguste Herbin, 1882-1960. The Master Revealed”, at the Musée de Montmartre (Paris 18th), until September 15. El Viso catalog, 191 p., €32. Tel.: 01 49 25 89 39. www.museedemontmartre.fr

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