IN THE 1950s, Alfred Manessier was one of the most prominent painters of the School of Paris, a doyen of both 'lyrical abstraction' and the renewal of sacred art in France after the war. In the words of Werner Schmalenbach he was 'after Georges Rouault the only great painter of Christian art in our age'. Manessier exhibited internationally after 1949, winning the First Prize for painting at the Sao Paulo Biennale in 1952, the International Grand Prix for painting at the Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh, in 1953 and the Grand Prix for painting at the Venice Biennale in 1962.
The London-based art historian JP Hodin wrote an important monograph on the artist in 1972, when Manessier's star was all but eclipsed. Yet the Grand Palais, in Paris, honoured Manessier last autumn with an extensive retrospective, supplemented by a retrospective of his stained-glass work in Chartres. These exhibitions demonstrated the scope of his achievement and his determination to pursue his own path in depth, following the models of Renoir, Degas and Bonnard who, despite the emergence of new avant-garde styles, had painted masterpieces at the very end of their lives.
Born in the town of Saint-Ouen in Picardy, in 1911, Manessier spent his childhood in Abbeville, inspired by the light and seascapes of the Somme basin. His parents were of humble origin, his grandfather a stonemason. He studied in Amiens and then at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, where he at first pursued a career in architecture, while copying at the Louvre - Rembrandt and Tintoretto were his favourites. He also frequented the Montparnasse ateliers and the Association of Revolutionary Writers and Artists.
In 1935, at the Academie Ranson, Roger Bissiere introduced Manessier to fresco technique and a love of the French romanesque. The young artist first worked on mural scale as part of the teams of Robert Delaunay and Felix Aublet for the Railway Pavilion at the Paris World Fair of 1937. Manessier's earliest exhibited paintings show the impact of Picasso's Guernica seen in the Spanish Pavilion; they were small-scale, strange amalgams of Picasso and Surrealism. The Lunatics (1938), in this mode, was shown in the clandestine, semi-abstract exhibition 'Twenty Young Painters of the French Tradition', held in defiance of the Nazis at the Galerie Braun in May 1941. It took place under the auspices of Jeune France, a liberal branch of an organisation finally dissolved by the Vichy government in March 1942.
Jean Bazaine, who organised the 'Young Painters' exhibition, was closely connected with the 'personalist' philosopher Emmanuel Mounier and his review Esprit which had been at the forefront of the debates between Catholicism, Marxism and a nascent existentialism before the Second World War.
The 'Young Painters' combined the Cubist grid and Fauvist colour, the inheritance of Picasso and Bonnard, with semi-abstract, often religious themes; Charles Lapicque had pioneered the style with his Christ Crowned with Thorns as early as 1939. It was not until 1943, however, on a three-day retreat with the writer Camille Bourniquel that Manessier, then aged 32, experienced his profound religious conversion at the abbey of Notre Dame de la Trappe de Soligny (Orne).
The rigour of the Cistercian Trappist regime and the link between its services and the rhythms of days, night and the seasons were keenly felt by the increasingly ascetic artist. The monks' chant inspired perhaps his greatest early painting, Salve Regina, a work constructed with vertical slabs of singing reds, oranges and blues.
Manessier's works such as The St Matthew Passion (1948) continued to bring not only religious but liturgical and musical elements into purely abstract colour compositions. Titles invited readings of predominantly abstract works: in Barabbas] (1952) a menacing purple circle approaches the sign for Christ - a crown of thorns - with explicit metaphorical intent. Both Manessier and Bazaine were influenced by a renascent Bergsonism: images of flux with diagonal axes in their work evoke floods of light and water, and are distinct from contemporary 'all-over' experiments in France and the United States.
In 1947, Manessier received a visit from Georges Rouault, who advised him to take up stained-glass design: from 1948 to 1950 Manessier worked on six windows for Saint Agathe des Breseaux, Doubs. While Manessier knew the art of Paul Klee before the war through his friend Hans Reichel, and saw paintings hidden in gallery stores during the Occupation, he would undoubtedly also have visited the Klee retrospective at the Musee National d'Art Moderne in 1948. The impact of Klee became clear in a more 'notational' structuring of Manessier's landscapes such as Morning Space (Pompidou Centre) or Flood Tide in the Somme Bay, both created on his return to the Le Crotoy of his childhood the following year in 1949.
Unlike the artists at present exhibited in the Tate Gallery's 'Paris Post War' exhibition, it was Manessier and his fellow artists from the Galerie de France - Bazaine, Edouard Pignon, Pierre Tal Coat - who were seen to represent the new School of Paris in Europe at the time. The scandal of 1950-51 over the modernist art of the Church of Assy and Henri Matisse's successful Chapel of the Dominicans at Vence, 1951, made modern sacred art a prominent focus of debate. Certainly the Catholic element in the works of Manessier would have interested and reassured more conservative areas of the market in France and abroad. Indeed in 1960 Manessier, Pignon, Alberto Giacometti and the critics Bernard Dorival and Raymond Cogniat were received by Pope John XXIII, whom they advised with regard to the creation of the Vatican Museum. A spectrum of School of Paris religious works was thus acquired at a time when Lucio Fontana and Piero Manzoni's art was in fact eloquently expressing the troubled heritage of Catholicism within the Italian avant-garde.
In 1962, Manessier's series of 14 paintings on the theme of the Passion and Resurrection won the international Grand Prix at the 31st Venice Biennale. An important retrospective at the Phillips Collection, Washington, in 1964, devoted to the theme of Easter, was influenced by Manessier's recent trip to Spain and included a Homage to Goya and a Garden of Olives: homage to El Greco.
Yet as early as 1956 Manessier's work began to embrace political themes. At the moment when Communist painters, including those promoted by Jean-Paul Sartre after his turn to the Party in 1952, were embroiled in the crisis of de-Stalinisation, Manessier responded to Suez and the invasion of Hungary with a series of Requiems. Indeed, having seen the powerful 'Sables' series and landscape drawings at the Galerie de France in the 1980s, the surprise of the Grand Palais retrospective was to see the strength and impact of the large- scale political works with their sombre tonalities - all discussion of which had been excluded from Hodin's 1972 monograph.
Manessier's Homage to Martin Luther King was painted in April 1968. 'After Pope John XXIII and the (Second Vatican) Council, May '68 showed me how Christianity could be revolutionary for our era.' The Burgos Trials were painted in homage to the Basque separatists in 1971; Vietnam, Vietnam, in 1973; the death of Salvador Allende was commemorated with September 11th, 1973. For Puig Antich, a Catalan resistant condemned by Franco, Manessier joined Joan Miro and Robert Motherwell with an important protest work, For the mother of a man condemned to death (1975); this was both specific and universal in its evocation of the suffering of the Virgin Mary. The slums of north-east Brazil were the subject of a reworking of the theme of the Passion of Christ in the Favellas series, 1979-83.
These political works were predominantly painted with the reds and blacks of blood and despair, contrasting with Manessier's more atmospheric landscape palettes. Manessier compared these trials and injustices with the trial of Christ, 'because all these battles in Burgos, in Vietnam, in Chile are framed with hope: even in the depths of despair, when men confront torture and death.'
As Manessier's career became more international, so he travelled more extensively, in search not of experiences but truth and light: the Nordic light of Holland, the aridity and brilliance of Spain, the Canadian winterscapes, the colours of Provence. The diffusion of landscape into surfaces of light and colour, deriving initially from late Monet, remained a constant in his work - hence the 'lyrical abstractionist' label.
French critics writing on Manessier last autumn were unable to refrain from uneasy references to post-war American painting; however, a sustained comparison of Manessier's large-scale religious works with Barnett Newman's 14 Stations of the Cross: Lama Sabachtani (1958-66) or Mark Rothko's 14 paintings on the theme of Christ's passion for the chapel at the Dumesnil foundation in Houston, Texas (1964-77) would indeed be an appropriate project through which to explore the proximities and cultural differences between the Paris and New York Schools.
Following the success of Manessier's Grand Palais retrospective, the French Minister of the Arts, Jack Lang, gave the 81-year-old Manessier the Legion d'Honneur de l'Ordre national du merite, and made him Commandeur des arts et des lettres in January.
Manessier has left his mark in stained glass in many beautiful churches in France and beyond, such as Saint-Pierre de Trinquetaille in Arles (1953), Notre-Dame de la Paix (Le Pouldu, Brittany, 1958), the Saint- Die cathedral (Vosges), and the convent of the Sisters of the Assumption, Rue Violet, Paris (1968-69), together with commissions in Basle, Fribourg, Essen, Cologne, Bremen and elsewhere. Manessier's final project was for stained-glass windows for the Saint-Sepulcre church at Abbeville in the Somme basin where he spent his childhood. From 1947 onwards, Manessier undertook many tapestry commissions. Liturgical robes, a ciborium, a crucifix, work in enamels and mosaics all testify to the broad range of an artist for whom the artisanal aspects of creation were as much a part of his oeuvre as his religious inspiration: 'a sort of transfiguration of the real which nourishes painting with a breath of the spirit. It's the passages between things which interest me. Something circulates amongst all forms of human experience ensuring a profound unity. I try to force myself to make that unity appear.'