Georges Mathieu’s Souvenir de la maison d’Austriche (Remembering the House of Austria) is a monumental painting that celebrates the exuberance of colour and form for which his work is so renowned. One of seven large-scale paintings completed in 1978 for a major retrospective organised by the Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais, Paris, the complex composition knits together chromatic ribbons with architectural elements to build an active and striking composition. Considered to be the founder of a movement known as Lyrical Abstraction, he was one of the first artists—along with Jackson Pollock—to apply paint to the surface of the canvas directly from the tube. Mathieu was also well-known for working at a frenetic pace, often completing large-scale paintings such as the present work in a single day. His paintings were admired by many of the American Abstract Expressionists, with the celebrated critic Clement Greenberg describing Mathieu as the transatlantic painter whose work he admired the most.
The present work belongs to a series that Mathieu began on January 27th 1978. The first painting (which he completed in just a few hours), comprises of an elaborate architecture of black and white forms on a grey ground. “First, I wanted to prove that my painting would hold itself up in just black and white,” Mathieu recalled, and satisfied with the result he then began work on the present painting. With Souvenir de la maison d’Austriche (Remembering the House of Austria), the artist unleashes a new kind of energy, with a profusion of colors blazing from powerful brushstrokes.
The composition is a well-balanced yin-yang, with a polychromatic ‘Big Bang’ style concentration of forms in the right half of the canvas. Here, Mathieu loosely delineates forms, unleashing ribbons of paint directly from the tube, spreading heavy impastos, drips and splashes against a dark ground. The surface vibrates, dances, and fizzes with a vitality that revels in the liberated gestures of the artist’s hand. Following his previous monochromatic canvas, in the present work Mathieu celebrates colour; “Each time I execute a painting, I force myself to use an opposite approach in the next, because in order to invent a new language, one must negate his previous one” (Georges Mathieu quoted in Demoriane H., 1978, ‘Mathieu au Grand Palais’, Le Point, 17 April). After six weeks, the artist had completed the remaining five remaining works of the series, one of which is today in the permanent collection of the Musee National d’Art Moderne, Centre Pompidou in Paris.
Family legend had it that Mathieu’s mother descended from the legendary French nobleman Godfrey of Bouillon, duke of Lower Lorraine and one of the leaders of the First Crusade in 1096. Such an extraordinary family tale shaped the young artist’s mind, making him a fervent monarchist and history aficionado. His illustrious descent would determine, among other things, his choice of titles referring to great battles and regal families. Souvenir de la Maison d’Autriche (Remembrance of the House of Austria) is undoubtedly a tribute to the House of Habsburg, one of the most influential and distinguished sovereign dynasties that rules Europe from the fifteenth to the early twentieth century.
His taste for grandeur is found not only in his paintings’ monumental formats but also in the execution of his spectacular and bold works. The same year as he completed the present example, Mathieu appeared live on national television to paint a three by ten meter canvas in just an hour and a half, immediately afterwards destroying the painting saying that he wanted no-one to possess it. Georges Mathieu was this kind of man: impulsive, theatrical, hypersensitive, all qualities reflected in his paintings. Exalted and exuberant, rebellious and turbulent, lyrical and cosmic, the performative and experimental aspects of his work was often associated with the Gutai artists, with whom he shares artistic affinities. Indeed, the Gutai Manifesto stated as early as 1956 that its members “highly regard the works of Pollock and Mathieu because their work seemed to embody cries uttered out of matter, pigment and enamel” (Yoshihara Jiro, ‘Gutai bijutsu sengen’ (The Gutai Manifesto), Geijutsu Shincho 7, no. 12, December 1956, pp. 202–04).
Souvenir de la Maison d’Autriche stands out as one of Georges Mathieu’s seminal works. Specially created for his retrospective at the Grand Palais in 1978, this museum-quality work encapsulates Mathieu’s immense energy, iconic style and unbridled freedom.