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ADRIEN DE MENASCE

  1925 - 1995

Adrien de Menasce's signature

Biography

Adrien de Menasce was born in Egypt – in Alexandria – and it was there that his early work was exhibited. This consisted mainly of still life paintings and portraits: a particularly good example being the artist’s portrait of his mother.

Menasce's MotherIn the mid 1950s, and shortly before the Suez Crisis, Menasce moved to Paris, where he studied in the studio of Andre L’Hote, one of the founders of cubism; and it was there, under the influence of painters such as Wols and Henri Michaux, that he decided to abandon his reliance upon an outer model and to create images that were totally abstract in character, and that were drawn from an inner source. These he named his ‘Ecritures’ – his ‘Writings’.

Coming from a well-to-do Jewish family that had lived in Egypt for years (there is still a Menasce school in Alexandria, and a hospital too), the upheaval of the Suez Crisis was the cause of great emotional disturbance and, in spite of it meaning the loss of his Egyptian possessions (which were considerable), Menasce (who by that time had moved from Paris to Switzerland) decided to surrender his Egyptian passport and so became stateless.

BlessureNo doubt it was the anger aroused in him by this that provoked Menasce to then create a series of ‘Blessures’, as he called them (wounds). These were thick blocks of watercolour paper into which he ripped and tore with a knife – and then, once the action was complete, the torn and damaged surfaces were painted over with deep reds, pinks, oranges, and some black.

A very successful exhibition of these ‘Blessures’ was held in Zurich at the Galerie Lienhard, Menasce having been introduced to the Swiss art dealer, Charles Lienhard, by the English poet and art critic, Sir Herbert Read, who, through his occasional visits to Switzerland, had by that time become an admirer of Menasce’s work. During this period Menasce also met the Swiss artist Sonja Sekula, and they remained close friends, regularly corresponding with illustrated letters, until her untimely death in 1963.

Other exhibitions at the Galerie Lienhard followed, the catalogue introduction to one of them being written by Hans Richter. These were of paintings in oils (many of them large and still somewhat in the style of his ‘Ecritures’), that reached a climax in a painting named ‘Mon Jardin’, dated 1959, that is now in a private collection in England.

Mon JardinFrom when he was young, and partly through the influence of Penguin’s ‘Modern British Painters’,  Menasce had been drawn to the world of British art -  and during his stay in Switzerland, Charles Leinhard had introduced him to several British painters that he admired; such as Ben Nicholson and William Scott.

This combined with the fact that Menasce’s mother had fled from Egypt to London because of the Suez crisis, encouraged Menasce to attempt to move to London as well.

Grey FigureIt was in the summer of 1960, and travelling on a Swiss visitor’s visa, that Menasce made the move to London. In that same year, he met the English author, Samuel Lock, whose close friend he became; and in a spacious Chelsea studio, they quickly settled down into a partnership that was to last for thirty-five years.

At this point in his career Menasce’s work began to change quite dramatically, when he began what he called his ‘voyage towards the flesh’ (‘vers la chair’ was how he spoke of it). For as early as 1961, hints of fragments of the human body began to appear in his work, seemingly trapped or caught in the web of his calligraphy.

‘First Figures’, painted in 1961, is an important example of this change, and other similar images followed, such as ‘Grey Figure’ (dated 1961) and ‘Pink Figure’ (also 1961), now in a private collection in Paris.

These first representations of a figurative element then began to solidify into heavier, more distinct forms; and these can be seen in highly charged, often quite expressionistic images, such as ‘The Passions of The Intellect’ (dated 1961), ‘The Island’ (dated 1963), and ‘Heaven is Green Too’ (dated 1965). And an important climax to this period of work is a large painting called ‘The Hours of The Sun’ (dated 1965), that achieves an almost mythic power and grandeur.

Hours of the Sun 1965

It was during this period of his development that Menasce became friendly with the English painter, Wilfred Avery, and for a while their influence on each other is noticeable – particularly in their figure paintings and collages, as they explored a new style of representation. But Menasce was soon to move on yet again towards a much more formal, almost classical style, still using fragments of the human body, accompanied at times by a hat (as a symbol, hats fascinated him) – or by a fragment of drapery.

The Long VoyageThe painting that acts as a bridge to this new style is a canvas called ‘The Long Voyage’, that Menasce worked on from 1967 to 1972; and the character and proportions of its imagery are ones that he maintained until the end of his life:  examples of it being ‘Amfortas’ (1974 to 1988), ‘Crucifix’ (1984 to 1988), ‘The Spanish Hat’ (1977 to 1980 & 1986 to 1988), and ‘To and Fro goes the Way’ (1974 to 1986).

Menasce’s work was represented in Switzerland by the Galerie Lienhard, and for a while in London by Fischer Fine Art. But his main support came from a band of devoted collectors who appreciated the honesty and unerring accuracy of his work; and in 1996, a year after Menasce’s death, an exhibition of his late paintings (which was seen as a kind of memorial exhibition) was held at the Mayor Gallery in Cork Street, London.

It was of this exhibition that the critic, John McEwen, wrote that the paintings were “classical works, in that they impose order on chaos; unlike so much contemporary art, which goes with the instinctual flow, throwing history to the winds”. He also wrote, “It is unique in my experience to come across a show of museum standard by an unknown artist, though Menasce is perhaps better described as forgotten”. And another critic, Andrew Lambirth, wrote that “strikingly original though it is, Menasce’s work is little known. But its quality proclaims that here is an artist who should certainly be represented in the Tate.”

The Present and the Past 1974-1975

Menasce died in London in 1995, after a long and difficult illness, and an obituary that appeared in The Independent, written by Alberto de Lacerda, declared that “a remarkable painter” had died that “England chose to ignore”. The latter is only partly true, however, because, in the later years of his life, Menasce exhibited very little. This was mainly on account of the slowness with which he worked as he grew older, coaxing his images only gradually into being after innumerable layers and washes of paint.

The Spanish Hat

Adrien de Menasce devoted his entire life to the art of painting and of oil painting in particular – and, in that sense, his work could be said to be an extension of the European tradition. He had a deep respect for the art of the past (two of his favourite painters were Vermeer and Piero della Francesca), and an unusual feature of his creativity was a series of small collages that he made in the 1960s, using fragments cut from newspapers of footballers and cricketers. These he called his ‘Secret Museum’. And it was these small, but dynamic images (none of which have been exhibited) that served as a source of inspiration for the figurative work that followed, and that grew gradually out of the early abstractions. Some (there are forty-four of them) are highly erotic and all might be said to represent some kind of nut or nucleus of psychic energy – or, as Menasce himself might see them, as stars or stations of the spirit.

 


This website has been created to give some kind of
quick glimpse of this artist’s work, and visitors
whose interest is aroused by it are encouraged to contact
the representative of the ‘Adrien de Menasce’ Estate through this address.

All images © Estate of Adrien de Menasce, unless otherwise captioned.


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