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!
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 “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.
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.
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.
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’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.