Executed in the aftermath of the First World War, Composition monumentale is a groundbreaking work in Auguste Herbin’s oeuvre and a masterpiece of Purism, the style that had replaced his pre-War experiments with Cubism. Purism, founded by Amédée Ozenfant and Le Corbusier around 1918, developed out of Cubism but placed an emphasis on the geometry and harmony of pure form while introducing a Machine Age aesthetic. The architect Le Corbusier extended the movement’s influence into the built environment.
The close connection between painting and architecture was also crucial to Herbin. As a Communist, he believed that the role of the artist was to make public art in harmony with architecture. He commented: ‘Je crois que nous n’aurons de vrai communisme que lorsque nous aurons un art monumental’ (‘I think we will not have true Communism until we have a monumental art’). He particularly approved of murals, which were freely on display for people to enjoy, and too fixed to be traded by Capitalist dealers.
The present Composition monumentale was made in September 1919, the same year that the manifesto of Constructivism was being formulated in Moscow and Malevich was making his Architectones. Herbin kept in touch with Russian ideas through his connections with the Bauhaus. Earlier in the year Herbin had created his Objets monumentaux, huge assemblages of abstract designs on canvases mounted on wood, which lie at the border of painting and sculpture. The present imposing work is one of a group of purely abstract upright compositions which explore architectural forms, in this case garlands, zigzags and ornamental borders. Despite its foundation in abstraction and political ideology, the effect of the painting is far from solemn. The interlocking of colours, such as flesh with grey and cream with chocolate brown, sets up a rhythm as jaunty as a pair of jazz dancers. The eye is constantly being teased between areas of flat colour and the trompe l’oeil swags and triangles which pulsate with the vivid urban life of Paris.
The picture was acquired from Herbin by Léonce Rosenberg of the Galerie de l’Effort Moderne, Paris, who was his dealer from 1919. Rosenberg was famous as a dealer in Cubism and Neo-Plasticism and founded the Galerie de l’Effort Moderne to promote Post-Cubist artists such as Georges Valmier and Jean Metzinger.
Report compiled with information kindly provided by Mme Geneviève Claisse.
Quiévy 1882 – 1960 Paris
Auguste Herbin was born on 29th April 1882 in Quiévy, a small village in northern France near the Belgian border. From 1898 to 1901 Herbin studied at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Lille. Influenced by the Impressionists and Fauve painters, he moved to Paris, working in relative isolation but exhibiting several paintings at the Salon des Indépendents in 1906. After 1909 Herbin’s work underwent a major stylistic change following his move to the Bateau Lavoir Studios, where he met Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque and Juan Gris and began his painterly investigation into Cubism. He exhibited again at the Salon des Indépendents in 1910, where his paintings were hung alongside the work of several other prominent Cubist painters, including Jean Metzinger, Albert Gleizes and Fernand Léger. In 1912 Herbin’s paintings were exhibited at the influential Salon d’Or and in the same year he held his first one-man show at the Galerie Clovis Sagot in Paris.
Through each of these alliances, Herbin gradually turned to Cubism, producing his first Cubist painting in 1913. However, by 1917 he had progressed beyond painting in this style in favour of creating works of an abstract nature using pure geometry. It was at this time that Herbin was adopted by the art dealer Léonce Rosenberg, who introduced him to the group of artists centred around his Galerie de l’Effort Moderne. Rosenberg exhibited Herbin’s work there on numerous occasions between 1918 and 1921.
In the years following, Herbin alternated between artistic styles, returning to a more figurative style of painting between 1922 and 1925. In 1926 he revisited abstraction, which he continued to develop up to (and beyond) 1931, when he co-founded the artists’ association Abstraction – Création. In 1949 Herbin published L’Art Non- Figuratif Non Objectif, in which he explained his ‘alphabet plastique’, a compositional system of painting abstract art founded on the structure of letters, of which the pure geometrical shapes and positive colours continued to have much influence over the following generation of artists.
In 1953 Herbin suffered a lateral paralysis, but continued to paint using his left hand alone. He died in Paris on 31st January 1960.