Alberto Giacometti, Walking Man 1 (L' Homme qui marche I), 1960. Maeght family Paris Photo © Galerie Maeght
Exhibition Review: Miró, Calder, Giacometti, Braque: Aimé Maeght and his artists runs until January 2 2009
The Royal Academy hosts an exhibition demonstrating the achievement of the famous art dealers, publishers and patrons, Aimé and his wife Marguerite Maeght.
In Gallery 1 there is an introductory section featuring works on their acknowledged mentors, Pierre Bonnard and Henri Matisse. Subsequent galleries focus on four artists on whose careers the couple played a vital creative role: George Braque, Joan Miró, Alexander Calder and Alberto Giacometti.
The show is as much about the personalities and history of the Maeght couple as their artists. Their history is documented carefully starting from when they ran a shop in Cannes selling radios, odds and ends along with printing posters (Aime was a trained lithographer). When Bonnard came in to ask about printing a poster, Marguerite persuaded him to let them sell his work, beginning their careers as art dealers.
It was Bonnard who persuaded them to open Gallerie Maeght in Paris in 1945, a creative and forward looking gallery which embodied an adventurous and vibrant spirit in post war Paris after the dark years of German occupation.
Alexander Calder, Two Spirals (Deux spirales), 1974. Maeght family Paris Photo © Galerie Maeght
In Gallery 1 attention is immediately drawn to the large canvas, Bonnard’s Summer (1909). This is an Arcadian pastoral in luscious greens and purples, representing La Joie de Vivre in the South of France with children playing in the foreground, oblivious to the world around them.
In the middle ground, in a golden wash of colour are two nudes, suggesting a Biblical Garden of Eden, and in the far ground a mysterious female figure, not immediately threatening but an indication of disruption nevertheless.
Alongside portraits of the Maeght children is Matisse’s affectionate portrait of Marguerite and films of the artists at work captured by Adrian, Maeght’s son. The Maeghts formed intense friendships with many of their artists, drawing them in to the fold of the family.
Other featured works by Matisse include Seated Nude (1944) and The Bush (1951). Here the simple inked lines of a tree in full leaf, perhaps the burning bush in the Old Testament, become a symbol of strength and devotion, a metaphor for a life lived in creation. Marguerite demanded the picture was with her when she underwent a pacemaker operation, incidentally making her the first woman in France to be fitted with a pacemaker.
Gallery 2 is devoted to the work of the Spanish artist Miró and the American artist, Calder. These two were united not only by a close personal friendship but by a love of colour and an exuberant and playful approach to the making of art.
Henri Matisse, Portrait of Marguerite Maeght, 1944. Maeght family Paris Photo © Archives Matisse
Although there may have been mutual influence this is difficult to prove because of the sheer individuality of each artist: while Miró’s bold pictorial compositions experiment with shapes and colour, Calder, who trained as a mechanical engineer, uses his expertise to create movement and structure.
Calder’s Airplane Tail sculpture and Sumac, the first ever mobile, are impressive. Sartre said of Calder’s mobiles, ‘They are absolute. They have no meaning.’ And although Calder would agree, the names impose something more; Sumac is named after the sumac tree and the effortless grace in both works bring forth natural imagery.
These works are normally on show outside at the Fondation Maeght, high up on a hill in the South of France. Miró’s Constellation (1972) also exhibited at the Royal Academy would also usually be on show at the Fondation.
Constellation (1972) is a large iron pitted disk on a thin stand. Off centre is a gauged iron ball and the circular behind is uneven and marked with what looks like large bullet holes. Perhaps it is a momentary glance back at war-ridden Europe, although its title suggests celestial activity.
In this gallery there are exhibits from the notorious ‘Surréalisme en 1947’ exhibition, organised by André Breton and Marcel Duchamp. Miró’s Superstition (1947) is a serpentine canvas with totemic and elemental designs featuring humanoid forms and ancient symbols of fertility. This celebrated the return of surrealist artists who had fled France during the war. Miró draped the work around himself for the opening party.
Georges Braque, Hesperus - Theogony (Hesperis - Theogonie), 1939. Maeght family Paris Photo © Galerie Maeght
In the central cabinet you can view Miró’s Cat Snake, a clever fusion of the cat’s graceful agility and the snake’s strength with two pieces of sheet metal. This was added to a set of circus animals made by Miró and given to Bernard, Maeght’s son when he was dying of leukemia. Matisse’s The Bush was also given to Bernard at this time.
Some of the featured avant-garde works for this exhibition criticized religion and God. The Maeghts were devout and Marguerite blessed the show with holy water, causing spectators to comment that this was the most surreal thing of all!
Gallery 3 brings together works by the two great twentieth-century masters Giacometti and Braque. As with Miró and Calder these two were great friends but their work uses a much sombre palette creating a grittier, introspective tone.
Sculptures by Giacometti range from his famous Surrealist piece, Spoon Woman (1926), a female nude of different shapes and legs that are based on a spoon used by the Don tribe in West Africa; to the great sculptures that he made in 1960, Standing Woman and Walking Man. Although these may seem quite different at first glance they share a common noble dignity.
Joan Miro, The Birth of Day III (Naissance du jour III), 1964. Fondation Marguerite et Aim © Maeght, Saint-Paul Photo © Galerie Maeght
It is this elegance that might refute the simplified claim that Giacometti’s sculptures echo the emancipated ‘fleshless martyrs’ of war, although it is true that the post war public found resonance in his post war work resulting in a surge of his popularity.
In the making of these sculptures, clay and plaster is gauged with fingers or a knife and this emotion on their surfaces is retained when cast.
The Dog, a sculpture in the same spindly style was said by Giacometti to represent his alter ego: lonely but autonomous. It is this solitary nature that made Giacometti the champion of the Existentialists.
The solemn mood of these figures finds an echo in Braque’s moving and majesticlate canvases and in his brooding landscapes.
It has been said that the theme here is mortality although Braque himself resisted giving any such definition, actively encouraging what he called ‘metaphoric confusion.’ The mysterious birds are another elusive motif and Braque tells us only that ‘they were born on canvas.’
The Studio (1949) is a monochromatic and fragmented study of the objects Braque found in his studio. This dense, angular and in flux painting is reminiscent of his earlier Cubist paintings, a movement he invented with Pablo Picasso.
Alexander Calder, Sumac V, 1953. Maeght family Paris Photo © Galerie Maeght
The final gallery is awash with colour; one wall is covered by a spectacular collage of the covers of Derrière le Miróir, the periodical that served as a catalogue for each of the Galerie Maeght’s exhibitions, illustrated by the artists’ original lithographs.
There are examples of the collaborations Maeght encouraged between poets and artists in artists’ books, as well as original prints, which range from large, vivid lithographs by Miró and Calder, to Braque’s subtle explorations of the medium and Giacometti’s lithographs with introspective, spectral figures.
Maeght’s special talent was to encourage their artists and friends to work in the styles that best suited them, but to also branch out and experiment with new ideas and forms. This show is evidence of his commitment to artistic freedom and of his integrity.