Augustin Lesage (French, 1876-1954)

Last week I was pointed in the direction of some paintings by French Spiritualist artist Augustin Lesage (1876-1954).  Lesage is one of the most fascinating figures associated with Art Brut, yet I can’t find an English bio for him anywhere on the web.  The one on Wikipédia Français is fanciful, but it sure makes me want to believe every word!

Augustin Lesage. A Symbolic Composition of the Spiritual World. 1923

Augustin Lesage. A Symbolic Composition of the Spiritual World. 1923

According to Wikipédia Français, Lesage was born in Saint-Pierre-lez-Auchel in northern France, and spent his early life as a laborer in the coal mines.  Then one evening in 1911, when he was thirty-five years old, he heard a voice underground that told him “Un jour, tu seras peintre” (One day, you will be a painter).

A year later, partly through his involvement in Spiritualist circles, Lesage began communicating via automatic writing with “spirits,” including one he believed to be his sister Mary who had died in childhood.  The spirits told him,

The voices you heard were real.  You will be a painter.  Fear not, and heed our advice.  You will find it ridiculous in the beginning, but we are the ones tracing through your hand. Do not try to understand.

The voices proceeded to tell him which colors and brushes to buy, and where to order a canvas.  Lesage ordered a small canvas, but when it arrived, it measured three meters square.  He wanted to cut it into smaller pieces, but the voices stopped him.

Augustin Lesage in the studio.

Augustin Lesage in the studio.

For the next two years, he came home from the mines every night and went to work, letting the spirits guide his hand.  He began in the upper right corner and gradually filled the entire canvas (which is now in Jean Dubuffet’s Collection de l’Art Brut in Lausanne).  The composition was built by filling in small areas at a time.  The spirits did not let him evaluate the work in its entirety:  part of the canvas remained rolled as they guided his hand.  “It was like working without working,” the artist recalled.

Augustin Lesage. Oil on canvas, 1926-1954.

Augustin Lesage. Oil on canvas, 1926-1954.

In July of 1913, Lesage interrupted his work in the mines to do some faith healing; a move that got him in hot water with French authorities who charged him with illegally practicing medicine.  The testimony of his dozens of successful clients helped acquit him in 1914 and later that year he was deployed for WWI, where he continued to make drawings on postcards.

In the years following the war, Augustin Lesage was visited by Jean Meyer, director of the Spiritualist journal La Revue Spirite.  Meyer became his patron, and in 1923 Lesage was able to quit working in the mines and devote himself to painting.

Augustin Lesage. Title not known.

Augustin Lesage. Title not known.

Like the paintings themselves, Lesage’s position within art history is peculiar.  Though held in high esteem by the Surrealists, Lesage’s legacy is strong but obscure: of the 800 canvases he left behind, most have seldom been exhibited abroad.  English-speaking audiences are hard pressed to find any information on the artist.  (I just ordered a French exhibition catalogue from a 1988 retrospective.)

Lesage’s patterns are unmistakable.  After noting the symmetry of the first large canvas, he began organizing his compositions along a central axis, building complex geometric structures in horizontal layers from the center outward.  An article by Christian Delacampagne quoted on Lesage’s Wikipédia article states (my translation):

The first large painting of Augustin Lesage is one of the most daring in modern art.  Although not, strictly speaking, non-figurative (figures both architectural and anthropomorphic abound), it explores almost all possibilities of abstraction—lyrical as well as geometric—at a time when the latter, among professional artists, was still in its infancy.  They are no less ornamental and decorative than the works of Kandinsky, Lesage’s spiritual contemporary.  Indeed, is the distance so great between the the Theosophy dear to the Russian artist and the Spiritualism embraced by the French?  The former hearkens to Rudolf Steiner, the latter to Léon Denis.

Augustin Lesage. Symbolic Composition of the Spiritual World, 1925.

Augustin Lesage. Symbolic Composition of the Spiritual World, 1925.

Augustin Lesage’s “classical period” is the period between 1916 and 1927, when he painted his most representative works.  A growing fascination with Egypt, natural forms, and the ornamental traditions of various cultures gave Lesage a newfound source of conscious influence, diluting the purity of his earlier compositions and creating images that appear more self-conscious and perhaps less directly inspired.  Lesage continued painting until failing eyesight and health forced him to resign in 1952, less than two years before his death.

Augustin Lesage. The Mysteries of Ancient Egypt.

Augustin Lesage. The Mysteries of Ancient Egypt.

All images via Shawna-bo-bonna’s Flickr photostream.  Thanks to Shaun Kardinal for sending me the images, via butdoesitfloat.com.

~ by emilypothast on June 23, 2009.

20 Responses to “Augustin Lesage (French, 1876-1954)”

  1. Raw Vision might be a good source for learning more about Lesage, as well as seeing examples (in a high quality magazine) of his work. RV does a good job with more global coverage, and European self-taught / new invention artists are generally well represented.

  2. Thanks for commenting. You’re right, Raw Vision is an excellent resource, although to my knowledge, they haven’t run a full article on Lesage (A-Z index of artists and subjects from their back issues here).

    I did poke around a bit at your suggestion and found an essay about Art Brut and Psychiatry from RV#15, asserting that Lesage seems to have been suffering from schizophrenia (link here). The schizophrenia angle is very interesting to me, and crossed my mind as well. My family history contains both schizophrenics and shrinks (chicken or the egg?!?) and I majored in psychology as an undergrad before I switched to art. Just like many other artists associated with Art Brut, the visions and voices that instructed Lesage are no doubt hosted within his own nervous system (which to me just underscores what an miraculous and mysterious thing the mind is!)

    This also carries strong therapeutic implications for the creative act. Lesage’s mental illness, if you want to call it that, did not seem to impair his ability to function so long as he was creating the art he was supposed to create (at least there is no major “breakdown” chronicled in the French Wikipedia article). This is speculation based on intuition, but as a creative type whose activity often borders on manic, I think the difference between “artist” and “crazy person” is, in some cases, more a matter of degree than category. =)

    My dad was a cognitive behavioral therapist in Texas and so I absorbed many of the ins and outs of mental health funding (and the lack thereof) over the past couple decades. It’s a pipe dream in this economy, but I can’t help but imagine how different our society—not to mention the lives of people diagnosed with Axis I disorders—would be if we collectively valued things like public mental health funding, and encouraged research and practice in the direction of art and music therapy.

  3. Also there is a little bit about him in John Maizel 1996, ‘Raw Creation’, Hiadon Press, London, p56. Not enough to warrant buying the book, although it is an excellent book.

    2 others you will probably already know about but worth a mention as they fall into similar camps while making incredibly intricate work: Adolf Wolfli and Raphael Lonne.

    Just figured I would come out of the lurkness on this blog.

  4. Wow, this is fascinating. What an amazing person/artist/story. I would LOVE to see these paintings in person!

    Interesting, too, how some artists have been marginalized within art history. Are people fine with standard variations on “Crazy” (e.g. van Gogh, Munch, Degas), but scared away by Spiritual Crazy? Or maybe Lesage’s work was considered too decorative or unfashionable? Of course there is not necessarily a reason why some great artists are marginalized, but in the case of Lesage, you have to wonder.

    I’m enjoying seeing his influence on your work. Also, “The Mysteries of Ancient Egypt” makes me think of CocoRosie.

    Thanks for writing this, Emily!

  5. I’m enjoying seeing his influence on your work.

    Oddly enough, I only discovered Lesage a couple weeks ago! So there is no influence on my work…YET.

    Also, thanks for the John Maizels tip. I actually HAVE that book and haven’t cracked it for a long time…will do.

  6. I should have articulated it as more of a common ground than an influence. The connections are interesting!

    did I give you a John Maizels tip?

  7. well duh I just read the comment up there with the John Maizels tip.

  8. I had to approve that comment because it was from a new user, so it wasn’t there when you posted. Sorry…I should have been more clear! =)

  9. [...] Hattler The Animation Workshop Augustin Lesage (Wikipedia) Article about Augustin Lesage (including artwork) on Translinguistic Other [...]

  10. [...] By oli Über den schicken Visual-Loop von Max Hattler bin ich heute zu Augustin Lesage (1876-1954) und zur Art Brut [...]

  11. [...] inspiration for 1923: a symbolic composition of the spiritual world by augustin lesage [...]

  12. thanks for this great post! i linked to it on my blog.

    http://cellindex.wordpress.com/2010/02/22/max-hattler/

  13. [...] “A symbolic Composition of the Spiritual World 1925″も近日公開とのことでこちらも楽しみ。Augustin Lesage ”A symbolic Composition of the Spiritual World 1923″のオリジナルはこんな感じ(from: translinguistic other)です。 [...]

  14. [...] Hattler The Animation Workshop Augustin Lesage (Wikipedia) Article about Augustin Lesage (including artwork) on Translinguistic Other [...]

  15. [...] са вдъхновени от противоречивата личност на Огюстен Лесаж (Augustin Lesage, 1876-1954), французин, родом от някой френски [...]

  16. [...] imponujące animacje autorstwa Maxa Hattlera, inspirowane obrazami Augustina Lesage z serii “A symbolic Composition of the Spiritual World”. [...]

  17. Hello,

    Here is a new french “Augustin Lesage”.
    Have a look to her “art” : http://www.lumieredesmondes.org/fr/don/
    Viviane is still creating …

  18. amazing stuff. a friend linked me to the animations. google brought me here. thanks for the info !

  19. [...] seen in a particular group of self taught artists (art brut), with a tradition that might include Augustin Lesage, the much lauded Jean Dubuffet as well as contemporary (European) “outsider” artists [...]

  20. Last august 2014 i was in Lille (France) in the museum of modern Art (Musée de l’art moderne: LaM) and saw for the first time the beautifull collection of L’Art Brut. I didn’t know anything about it. The first painting was breathtaking. Beautifull and impressive. And not one, more then 10 masterpieces of Augustin Lesage. Two other painters, Victor Simon and Fleury Créton, also made a deep impression on me. And i had never seen it or heard about. It made my day, really! So now i started surfing on the web to learn more about them. Thanks for this website. Very interesting. And i like to read English more than French.
    greetings Egon Vernimmen, Netherlands

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