Lyon and Modern Art from Bonnard to Signac 1920-1942

Villefranche-sur-Saône, Musée Paul Dini, from 14 October 2012 to 10 February 2013.

The Ziniars are "ignoramuses" - willingly assuming and claiming their status - who reject academic learning. This group of painters and sculptors was created in Lyon in 1920 with the aim of embodying modernity. Its members, Pierre Combet-Descombes, Emile Didier, Adrien Bas, Claude Dalbanne, Jacques Laplace, Etienne Morillon, Antonin Ponchon as well as the sculptor Marcel Gimond, exhibited their works at the Saint Pierre Gallery, alongside canvases by André Dérain and Fernand Léger the first year, then later Modigliani, Othon Friesz and finally, Matisse.

1. Antonin Ponchon (1885-1965)
The Saône at Saint Jean, Old Footbridge, c. 1928-1930
Oil on Canvas - 81 x 116 cm
Villefranche-sur-Saône, Musée Paul Dini
Photo : Musée Paul Dini

2. Albert Marquet (1875-1947)
The Seine at Grenelle, 1922
Oil on Canvas - 65 x 81 cm
Besançon, Musée
Photo : Musée Paul Dini

The dismantling of the group in 1924 then gave rise to the Union régionale des arts plastiques the following year with the mission of defending the interests of its members, supporters of modernity, though little inclined to abandon figurative painting. The URAP was itself behind the initial Salon du Sud-Est, with its first president being Charles Sénard then succeeded by Pierre Combet-Descombes, in opposition to the Salon d’Automne (Lyon).

3. Louis Carrand (1821-1899)
The Studio at the Château de Richoud, c. 1880-1892
Oil on Canvas - 54 x 65 cm
Villefranche-sur-Saône, Musée Paul Dini
Photo : Musée Paul Dini

These painters and sculptors were sponsored by various patrons, particularly Marius Mermillon and George Besson ; as we all know, alcohol and tabacco are often there to support art and these two men were respectively a wine dealer in Lyon and a pipe merchant in Paris ; above all, they were astute collectors and famous art critics, meeting thanks to the writer Henri Béraud, who wrote L’Ecole moderne de peinture lyonnaise (1912).

The donation from the Mermillon archives to the Musée Paul Dini impelled its curator, Sylvie Carlier, to organize an exhibition in order to study Lyon and modern art in the period between the two world wars. 280 works and documents recount this network of artists and art lovers, galleries and journals which participated in the city’s artistic life between 1920 and 1942, under its mayor Edouard Herriot (1905-1957). The exhibition thus underscores the talent of certain painters and sculptors tagged with the label "provincial", but who nevertheless hold their weight when compared to more prestigious masters. The catalogue published for the occasion does not reproduce all the works on display alas, due to lack of funds though they are pointed out at the end of the book ; nor does it present detailed entries, offering however biographical outlines presenting the major figures at that time, while an essay by Lucie Goujard analyzes the importance of photography and another one by Chantal Duverget looks at George Besson, a committed figure in the world of art, publishing and politics who, though he lived in Paris, played a significant role in Lyon’s cultural life.

4. Paul Signac (1863-1935)
Tugboat in the Port of Rotterdam, 1906
Oil on Canvas - 46 x 55 cm
Private Collection
Photo : Musée Paul Dini

Mermillon and Besson were active supporters of the Salon du Sud-Est, which presented artists from the region alongside their illustrious predecessors - Ravier, Carrand, Vernay - but also "Parisian" painters who traveled there thanks to George Besson. He invited Paul Signac, Pierre Bonnard, Henri Matisse, Albert Marquet and many others to come to Lyon for the Salon, from 1925 to 1938. The Musée Paul Dini evokes the confrontation of these two worlds by presenting Ponchon’s Saône and Marquet’s Seine (ill. 1 and 2). A few important loans of Bonnard canvases - admired by Carrand (ill. 3) -, paintings by Signac - Tugboat in the Port of Rotterdam was exhibited very little (ill. 4) - and even a lithograph by Matisse, evoke the active participation of these artists. The Salon du Sud-Est also proposed an Impressionist exhibition in 1926, one for Neo-Impressionism and Black art in 1927 ; Lyon was definitely in keeping with its times, abreast of modern and national art, while at the same time staging a retrospective of its local artists, Adrien Bas in 1928 and Charles Sénard in 1937.

Mermillon [1] also encouraged exchanges with the Salon de l’Effort in Grenoble : Combet-Descombes, Venance Curnier, Emile Didier, Jacques Laplace, Henriette Morel as well as Etienne Morillon, Antonin Ponchon and Georges Salendre exhibited their works near those of their counterparts from Grenoble who also participated in the Salon du Sud-Est, notably Marcel Sahut, Jules Flandrin and Henriette Gröll.

5. Suzanne Valadon (1865-1938)
The Duck, 1930
Oil on Canvas - 73 x 60 cm
Besançon, Musée des Beaux-Arts et d’Archéologie
Photo : Musée de Besançon

It was, however, the "Parisian" painters who provided a showcase for Lyon, as is still the case today in fact ; the title of the exhibition at the Musée Paul Dini does after all highlight the names of Bonnard and Signac. There were those who traveled to Lyon for the Salon and those who actually set up residence in the region, such as Suzanne Valadon, Maurice Utrillo and André Utter, purchasing the château of Saint Bernard in 1923, near Villefranche-sur-Saône, where they lived for ten years during which they welcomed Besson, Mermillon, Laplace, Combet-Descombes, Ponchon and so many others. The trio exhibited at the Salon du Sud-Est between 1926 and 1934, as well as at the Archers Gallery where Besson purchased The Duck (ill. 5).
Looking back, few Lyon artists "went north" to Paris and enjoyed resounding fame. Nevertheless, the museum devotes a room to artists from the Rhône-Alpes region who settled in the capital, such as Emilie Charmy, Jean Puy whose painting Ginette was purchased by Besson at the Archers gallery (ill. 6), the orientalist Jules Migonney also, the author of a beautiful Nude on Blue Background exhibited at the Sud-Est in 1930 (ill. 7) and of The Moorish Bath painted and engraved on wood, as well as Louis Touchagues, painter, illustrator and decorator. As for Albert André, he lived in Paris starting in 1890, attending the Académie Julian, meeting Renoir, charming Durand-Ruel at the Salon des Indépendants in 1894 and became friends with Besson [2].

The publishing world also had a role in this brimming cultural scene ; the period between the two wars saw the rise of several, some short lived, journals which the Musée Paul Dini presents here.
George Besson was notably at the head of Cahiers d’aujourd’hui, a bimonthly publication which appeared from 1912 to 1914, then from 1920 to 1924, offering texts with artistic and political commitment, signed and illustrated by famous figures : Léon Werth, Octave Mirbeau, Elie Faure, Emilie Verhaeren wrote articles accompanied by drawings submitted by Vuillard, Matisse, Marquet, Rodin. In January 1926, Mermillon founded the journal Les Arts à Lyon which reproduced works exhibited at the Salon du Sud-Est, but which disappeared after May 1927. Other society titles included Le Tout Lyon, La Vie Lyonnaise as well as Notre Carnet directed by Tancrède de Visan.

6. Jean Puy (1876-1960)
Ginette, the Model, 1928
Oil on Canvas - 73 x 50 cm
Besançon, Musée des Beaux-Arts et d’Archéologie
Photo : Musée de Besançon

7. Jules Migonney (1876-1929)
Nude Study or Nude on Blue Background, 1923
Oil on Canvas - 61 x 68 cm
Lyon, Musée des Beaux-Arts
Photo : Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon

Art galleries also participated in this adventure ; besides Durand-Ruel and Berheim-Jeune which sent works from Paris, the Lyon galleries reinforced the provincial salon’s manifestations ; among these, the Saint Pierre gallery, managed by Alfred Pet and the Archers gallery, created in 1927, was directed by the painter Antoine Ponchon who also illustrated the journal, Les Arts à Lyon. The Archers gallery lasted until 1932, exhibiting works by Renoir, Bonnard, Signac, Utrillo, Valadon, Marquais as well as Lyon artists, Laplace, Bas, Morillon, Didier, Pourchet and Brouillard.
Walking through the rooms in the Musée Paul Dini, the ties are established, sundered and reconnected as the artistic universe in Lyon was not very big and had no false pretentions. Thus we see the development of a modern art which remained figurative, in a direct continuation of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism.

8. Émile Didier (1890-1965)
Cubist Experiment, 1921
Oil on Canvas - 55 x 38 cm
Villefranche-sur-Saône, Musée Paul Dini
Photo : Musée Paul Dini

Marcel Michaud on the other hand advocated a break with previous schools and encouraged more radical aesthetic choices, chiding Mermillon for underestimating abstract art. He created the Folklore Gallery in Lyon in 1938, after founding the group Témoignage in 1936 (which disappeared with the advent of WWII), assembling artists influenced by Cubism and Surrealism. Illustrating this, we see Jean Le Moal’s Figure with Bird and Jean Bertholle’s Death of a Bird. Etienne Martin, Lucien Beyer, René-Maria Burlet, Louis Thomas are also present. These artists were commended by a friend of Michaud, Dr. Emile Malespine, the founder of the journal Manomètre. Another publication, Le Promenoir, revealed the influence of Dadaism and Surrealism. Amidst this effervescence, other less daring painters also tried out their hand at innovation, such as Emile Didier who carried out Cubist experiments (ill. 8) but then returned to more familiar landscape painting.

Painting was of course not separated from other forms of production. The exhibition quickly evokes architecture with the well-known Tony Garner, as well as looking at decorative arts : though Lyon is famous for its silk, the city also had talented cabinet makers such as Sornay and Francisque Chaleyssin (ill. 9) who associated himself with Mercier and participated in the Exposition des Arts Décoratifs of 1925 in Paris. In Lyon, the painter Ferdinand Fargeot and the printer Marius Audin founded the Salon de l’Art décoratif moderne, with Pierre Renaud acting as general curator, held at the Palais de Bondy between 1927 and 1929. Visitors could admire décors by Combet-Descombes, ceramics by Linossier (ill. 10) as well as furniture, silk fabrics and photography.

9. Francisque Chaleyssin (1872-1951)
Stool in black lacquer, c. 1930
Black lacquered wood and gold
42 x 67 x 37 cm
Private Collection
Photo : Musée Paul Dini

10. Claudius Linossier (1893-1953)
Ovoid vase with geometric décor, 1928
Copper inlaid with silver and alloys - 39 x 35.5 cm
Lyon, Musée des Beaux-Arts
Photo : Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon

The art of photography is highlighted in the catalogue and all through the exhibition, with such outstanding representatives as Blanc and Demilly : famous for their portraits, they also produced avant-garde art unique for the choice of centring, shading and light, as well as creating advertising designs. The exhibition establishes a dialogue between the photographs, wood engravings and paintings, all representing views of Lyon or else capturing movement by way of dance or the world of music hall entertainment (ill. 11).

11. Pierre Combet-Descombes (1885-1966)
Jazz or Music-Hall
Oil on Canvas - 50.2 x 124.7 cm
Lyon, Private Collection
Photo : Musée Paul Dini

The Parisian avant-garde of the first half of the 20th century thus infiltrated Lyon, but did not cause any tidal waves. Mermillon in fact expresses his complaints to Signac in 1934 concerning the inertia in Lyon in strong terms : "painters pass with low buttocks and dangling ears, Ponchon wears a bowler hat, Laplace plants lettuces, in short, we live in a weak-spirited atmosphere which dismays me. I am going to read your Preface to the painters, one evening at the Brasserie du Nord so as to lift their spirits. It will have the beneficial effect, I hope, of kicking their ass." [3]. Yet Signac lauded the independence of the movement in Lyon when he pronounced his inauguration speech at the second Salon du Sud-Est in 1926, encouraging the local artists, and we underline here with no intent at irony, in the following way : "Remain Lyonnais ; remain in Lyon" [4]. They evidently listened to his words.

Curators : Sylvie Carlier, Lucie Goujard

Under the supervision of Sylvie Carlier, Lyon et l’art moderne, de Bonnard à Signac 1920-1942, Musée Paul Duni 2012, 180 p., 30€. ISBN : 2-905048-21-2

Visitor information : Musée Paul Dini, 2 Place Faubert, 69400 Villefranche-sur-Saône. Tel : 04 74 68 33 70. Open Wednesday from 1:30 pm to 6 pm, Thursday and Friday from 10 am to 12:30 and 1:30 pm to 6 pm, Saturday and Sunday from 2:30 to 6 pm. Admission : 5€ (reduced : 3€).
Espace Grenette : Lyon et l’art moderne, de Bonnard à Signac 1920-1942.
Espace Cornil : focus Jacques Truphémus

Version française

Bénédicte Bonnet Saint-Georges, lundi 7 janvier 2013


[1] Mermillon published an essay on the landscapist Philippe Pourchet, A L’Œuvre nouvelle, 1911.

[2] George Besson bequeathed his art collection to the museums in Besançon and Bagnols-sur-Cèze ; the latter changed its name to Musée Albert André.

[3] Exhibition catalogue, p. 13. A letter by Marius Mermillon to Paul Signac, 23 January 1934. Paris archives Signac.

[4] Exhibition catalogue, p. 21. "Restez Lyonnais ; restez à Lyon". Draft of the speech pronounced by Paul Signac at the second Salon du Sud-Est in Lyon. Besançon, fonds Besson.

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