Obituary: Adrien de Menasce
Tuesday 18 April 1995
A remarkable painter has died whom England chose to ignore.
Adrien de Menasce was born in Alexandria in 1925, from a Jewish upper- class background. His father was Baron Edmond de Menasce. But his milieu was more linked to cultural values than to riches or status. The lingua franca at home was French, but Adrien was completely bilingual in English. It was emblematic that he was a cousin of George Cattaui, who wrote a book about his friend Marcel Proust. The Menasce family knew Cavafy, a highly respected figure in Alexandria, and Lawrence Durrell.
Menasce was largely self-taught. In 1987 he wrote to me: "My main source of study has been the countless hours I have spent in museums, but in 1947, when I spent some time in Paris, I did study briefly in the studio of Andr Lhte (the theoretician of Cubism) and, both before and after that, with two of his pupils in Alexandria." In the Fifties he lived several years in Paris, where the work of Balthus made a lasting impression. At the time of the Suez crisis he moved to Zurich, where he underwent Jungian analysis with Jolande Jacobi. This experience allowed him to face more deeply his rich, very complex inner world. The resulting paintings show that he had started to enter his full maturity.
Jacobi introduced Menasce to Herbert Read, who recommended him to one of the leading galleries in Zurich. The catalogue for his exhibition in 1960 at the Charles Lienhard gallery had a long text by Hans Richter. In that same year, he settled in London and in 1966 opted for British nationality. He never returned to Alexandria.
Thereafter Menasce never wavered from the figurative mode, a mode that, in his work, always had strong links with Surrealism around the Ecole de Paris. But there was nothing automatic about him. He worked very slowly. His oils had as rich a matire as Fautrier. In a shimmering monochrome surface, an object would seem to hover: a hat, a suggestion of drapery. It is not surprising that he treated the Crucifixion - one of his favourite themes - with peculiarly troubling force.
He was, too, a master of collage. There was a particularly inventive series based on newspaper photographs of English footballers. They reflect the exuberance, the warmth, the mischievousness, the wit of the man.
Most of Adrien de Menasce's life - shared by a beloved companion, the English writer Samuel Lock - was plagued by real poverty. Painting for Menasce was a daily passion, a spiritual mission. One exhibition in 1972, at Fischer Fine Art, then one of the most prestigious galleries in London, was totally ignored by the critics. Nothing happened. I took Roland Penrose to Menasce's studio, where he lived with Lock, in an attic off the New King's Road. Penrose was then the guru of the ICA. He expressed great admiration - but nothing happened.
Whatever intractable sides Menasce's personality had - and, alas, they were many - it is lamentable that this powerful, very original artist, a late child of the Empire, was ignored in Britain, except by a few passionate collectors.
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