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KEES VAN DONGEN'S DRAWINGS FOR L'ASSIETTE AU BEURRE
In July 1987, when the Dutch born Van Dongen first arrived in the Ville Lumière, the Parisian art scene was extraordinarily lively and fecund. He was immediately seduced by the experiments of a new generation of artists, pushing their work beyond the boundaries of Impressionism and toying with the new pictorial vocabularies from which Fauvism and Cubism were soon to spring. Whilst the Impressionists, with the end of their group exhibitions at Durand-Ruel, had exhausted their initial virulence and revolutionary impact, new draughtsmen, illustrators and painters were reflecting upon the legacy of the refusés, thus transforming the core of its aesthetic values. Strengthened by their critical reading of the Impressionist revolution, the new 'trend setters' were freer to experiment, both on the technical and iconographical level. In just one decade, fin de siècle Paris witnessed the explosion of Symbolism and the Art Nouveau movement, the bloom of Pointillisme, the daring graphic proposals of the Nabis, and the radical Naturalism of Toulouse-Lautrec, Steinlen and the young Picasso.
Such a unique cultural laboratory forged the first steps of Kees van Dongen, who, after his first foray of 1897 into the capital as an unknown, penniless artist, returned for good in the autumn of 1899. As he declared in an interview to the writer Paul Guth in 1949, 'Paris attracted me like a lighthouse' ('Van Dongen', La revue de Paris, 56, vol. I, p. 134).
He immediately fell under the spell of the city: his early production is entirely devoted to Paris' iconic characters, whom he sketched in powerful drawings, with striking grey washes and rough chalk lines - expressionistic portrayals of difficult, heavy existences, inspired by the involved art of Millet, Pissarro and Van Gogh. Fired by his avant-garde tastes in art and his interest in politics, Van Dongen soon joined the most socially committed of his colleagues, namely the artists who were drawing and experimenting with new lithographic techniques for the most popular artistic magazines of the capital. At the end of the 19th century, most Parisian dailies would produce an illustrated supplement: the last years of the century were the golden age of the celebrated 'La Plume', 'La Revue Blanche', 'Les temps nouveaux', 'Le Gil Blas illustré' and 'L'Assiette au beurre', boasting the collaboration of the most sophisticated and caustic pens of Paris.
In the summer of 1901, Van Dongen was introduced (most probably by Steinlen) to S. Schwartz and Félix Fénéon, respectively the publisher of 'L'Assiette au beurre' and the editor in chief of 'La Revue Blanche'. Van Dongen was to produce for these journals a striking series of drawings, which established his reputation and definitively launched his career. In October 1901, Schwartz asked Van Dongen to illustrate an entire issue of 'L'Assiette au beurre', a satirical magazine that owed its popularity to its illustrations, and whose only text was the captions accompanying them. Its title, inspired by a French expression meaning 'an exceptional opportunity', was a clear reference to the magazine's biting tone and the power of its social critique. Unlike 'La Revue Blanche', which contained two or three drawings in vignette form, 'L'Assiette au beurre' was the only paper of its time that produced issues illustrated by only one artist and that printed the drawings full page.
Van Dongen was commissioned to illustrate the thirtieth edition of the paper, which came out on 26 October 1901 with the title 'Petite histoire pour petits et grands nenfants [sic]' ('Short Story for Young and Old Children'). While most often the preparatory drawings for the prints were kept by the editor and have not survived, in this exceptional case they were returned to the artist and subsequently auctioned at the Hôtel Rameau in Versailles. Imbued with a unique sense of energy, traced with fast, impressive brushstrokes, they are an exceptional example of Van Dongen's early artistic experiments, whilst permitting us a glimpse of the way he worked and carefully prepared for his prints. The series tells, with profound yet sober pathos, the tragic story of a mother and a daughter forced by their reduced circumstances into a life of prostitution. The tension of his social critique, fuelled by his belief that the task of the artist was to serve the community, finds an unprecedented expression in these large sheets, where the light hues are a sophisticated contrapposto to the confident strokes of black ink that define his sensual feminine figures.
Van Dongen's synthetic style in these drawings, combining an incisive sense of line with an instinctive feel for colour, anticipate his fauve liberation, whilst paying homage to one of his recurrent themes and his greatest artistic strength - that of the dazzling portrayal of women.
PROPERTY FROM A PRIVATE EUROPEAN COLLECTION