Obituary: Alfred Courmes

Alfred Courmes, painter, born Bormes-les-Mimosas Var 21 May 1898, died Paris 8 January 1993.

AT THE TOP of the rue Vavin in Montparnasse there is a smart boutique sporting the eye-catching name of 'Blaspheme'. It opened at the start of the Salman Rushdie imbroglio. One day I entered the shop and asked the young lady in charge why such a name had been chosen. 'Because it's fashionable,' she said. 'And it does attract customers.'

I was reminded of this when I heard on the radio of the death of the Surrealist painter Alfred Courmes, whose provocative fantasies earned him the nickname of 'The Angel of Bad Taste'. He was a genius of religious subversion and a highly individualistic member of that large group of modern artists who displayed their irreverence with wit and panache in France, Italy and Spain, in paintings that were often curiously disturbing and deeply moving. I remember Francis Picabia's iconoclastic deliriums, Alfred Jarry's description of the road to Golgotha as a Tour de France bicycle race in La Passion consideree comme course de cote ('The Passion considered as a Hill Climb'), and the Ultraist Manifesto of Guillermo de Torre (1921) with its gravely worded 'Invitation to Blasphemy'.

The climax of this movement can be said to have been incarnated in the Surrealist painter Alfred Courmes who was born in 1898 in the evocatively named Bormes-les-Mimosas, near the naval base of Toulon, the son of a naval officer, a fact that had some influence on his later work.

As a youth his health was fragile and he was sent to recuperate at a sanatorium where he was fortunate to meet another painter, Roger de la Fresnaye, who after having dallied with Cubism (L'homme assis or 'Seated Man', 1913-14) was emerging as leader of a return to more formal art. La Fresnaye became Courmes' guiding light, a severe, yet sympathetic teacher. The pupil followed him to Paris, and absorbed his master's post-Cubist, neoclassic theories of light and composition, producing highly formalised works enlivened by touches of acid colour, among them portraits of his sister (1921) and of Peggy Guggenheim (1926). He began exhibiting regularly at the progressive Salon des Independants.

La Fresnaye's death in 1927 inspired Courmes to make a painterly tribute to his master; remembering L'homme assis, he produced L'homme blesse ('The Wounded Man', 1929), an updated free version of Mantegna's Dead Christ. It was the start of Courmes' fantastic second period, during which he painted works of supreme Surrealist absurdity and tender religious irony. In 1935 he exhibited at the Salon des Independants a satirical study of the martyrdom of St Sebastian in which the good-looking young martyr, standing in a shaft of moonlight, is clad only in a matelot red-pompommed cap, a sailor's brief blue-and- white-striped undervest and a pair of socks held up by prosaic suspenders. Nothing is left to the imagination in the realistic depiction of the youth's considerable sexual equipment, untouched (as always in classical portrayals of the saint) by even the smallest of arrows. Courmes distributes his dainty darts compassionately to avoid all major organs. The effect is pretty and touching rather than obscene, and the painting was greeted with great critical and popular acclaim. It won the Prix Paul-Guillaume (shared with Tal Coat) in 1936, and it now hangs in the Centre Pompidou, where a Courmes retrospective was held in 1989 after touring the provinces.

This prize led to various official commissions, including the allegory Toucher ('The Sense of Touch') for the Sevres porcelain factory's mural at the Paris Exposition Universelle in 1937, followed by La France joyeuse for Ottawa (1938-39).

Picasso had been painting religious themes, particularly crucifixions, for many years; and a selection of them can be seen in Paris at the Musee Picasso until 1 March and one can see the influence upon Courmes, though he is not represented here. Among the memorable pictures in the Courmes retrospective were a portrait of the Virgin and Child in which the divine infant is playing with a klaxon horn, and a Pneumatique salutation angelique (1968) in which the Virgin is visited, not by the Angel Gabriel, but by Michelin's Bibendum Man gaily presenting her with a lily.

Courmes took much of his later imagery from advertisements like that favourite of the Surrealists, Bebe Cadmum, and popular illustrations on Camembert boxes and household goods wittily associated with Christian iconography and Greco-Roman mythology as in the 1978 Oedipe et le Sphinx. Courmes' later fantasies, beautifully painted and amusingly inventive, sometimes shocked the bien-pensants but he was never censored, because his best work is really the result of profound religious feeling that could not find expression in conventional imagery, and whose striking individualism was a forerunner of Francis Bacon's Crucifixion studies, Antonio Saura's 1979 Crucifixion, De Kooning's The Jolly Crucifixion, of 1972, or the painting-installations Cristo spaventapasseri ('Christ Scarecrow') by Vincenzo De Simione, unforgettably displayed at the Bern Kunstmuseum in 1985.

'The Angel of Bad Taste' was one who to the very last was demonstrating how very good bad taste can be in the hands of a master of irony.

(Photograph omitted)

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