Obituary: Edouard Pignon
Wednesday 02 June 1993
EDOUARD PIGNON was one of France's foremost painters, and followed the classic path of the French autodidact intellectual.
Born in 1905, the son of a militant miner in Bully-les-Mines, near Lens, his humble origins stood him in good stead at the height of the French Communist Party's prestige in the 1950s. He left his village for Paris in 1927, and worked in the Renault and Citroen car factories, attending evening classes at the Universite Ouvriere in painting and sculpture. In 1931, when the effects of the Wall Street Crash were taking their toll on the French art market and depression loomed, he joined the Association des Ecrivains et des Artistes Revolutionnaires. Here, in the politicised climate of the Popular Front, which inspired Pignon's 1936 Portrait of Robespierre, young autodidacts such he and his friend Boris Taslitzky rubbed shoulders with the leading intellectuals of the day, Louis Aragon, Andre Malraux, Walter Benjamin.
By this time Pignon earned his living as a lithographer and layout artist. He met Picasso in 1936 and was deeply impressed by Guernica in the Spanish Pavilion at the Paris World Fair. He himself was commissioned to paint a five-metre panel for the entry of the Pavilion des Anciens Combattants et Mutiles de Guerre. During the Occupation, he was active in the Front National des Arts, and figured as one of the so-called 'young painters of the French tradition' at the exhibition in May 1941 at the Galerie Braun, which signalled a new way forward for French art during the war.
This generation of post-Cubists, under the aegis of Georges Braque, Pierre Bonnard and Jacques Villon, formed the core of the future School of Paris. Pignon's delicate series of marines from Ostend was exhibited in 1949 with paintings of miners from the north, one of which was ultimately purchased by the Tate Gallery.
His position after 1947 and the call for Communist painters to adopt Socialist Realism became increasingly ambiguous. While his friend of Resistance days Andre Fougeron adopted a sombre, revoultionary realist style influenced by David, Pignon chose the Picassoid option.
Picasso had joined the French Communist Party under some pressure in 1944. His membership was both the Party's greatest coup, crucial for Peace Movement mobilisation, and its insurance policy for artistic survival after 1953. Louis Aragon became the chief promoter of an extraordinarily divided agenda for the arts: Socialist Realist exhibitions in proletarian venues such as the Maison de Metallurgie, champagne Communist receptions at the Maison de la Pensee Francaise, off the Champs-Elysees, where Picasso, Leger, Matisse and Edouard Pignon himself held their prestigious vernissages.
In 1952 he submitted a major history painting, The Dead Worker, to the Salon de Mai. It was a second version, the first provoked in 1936 by a mining accident he witnessed at first hand. In many ways the huge canvas of 1952, three metres in length, was his Guernica: with death and maternity in juxtaposition, a tragic and grandiose scope, a monochrome tonality flecked with blues and browns, and a sharp zig-zag of light and dark at the top of the composition.
During this post-war period, Pignon worked for Jean Vilar and Theatre National Populaire, designing costumes and sets for Brecht's Mother Courage, Moliere's Malade Imaginaire and Gerard Philippe's last showpiece: On ne badine pas avec l'amour.
With de-Stalinisation, the realism debate in France subsided. Pignon turned to rural themes, but these were inevitably linked to a heroic vision of labour: from the Landscapes, Peasants with Nudes with Olive Trees painted in Vallauris (1953) and Sanary (1958), the Harvesters series painted in Filacciano, Italy, which became a veritable battle with the elements, to Battles themselves (1963-64), or the late series of men perched in the air on telegraph poles (1981-82). Series such as the Cockfights (1959-61) and in particular the Red Nudes of the 1970s revealed Pignon as a superb colourist with a dynamic sense of composition. By this time he was a national institution of sorts. Yet despite retrospectives in France in 1966 and 1970, and in Romania, Hungary and Poland in the 1970s, his art never acquired an international stature. The proximity with Picasso, so deliberately cultivated by Pignon in the 1950s when they painted and made pots together in Vallauris, a situation devoutly chronicled by his wife, Helene Parmelin, was both a help and a hindrance. While initially crucial for a certain market, this proximity resurfaced consciously in Pignon's Homage to Picasso series of 1982-83, when his work appeared increasingly relevant, approaching the deliberate pastiches of Louis Cane.
Pignon and Parmelin, his Russian- born wife (who had served both as art critic under the pseudonym Leon Degand, and as a powerful and opinionated writer for the Communist press), chose not to leave the Communist bosom until 1980. It was during the Afghanistan crisis that they finally denounced the Party's 'chauvinism and xenophobia'. Thus it was that Pignon's retrospective of 1985 at the Grand Palais, comprising 216 works, with giant ceramic sculpture commissions at Argenteuil, Lille and Marseilles projected in a slide 'diasporama', took place while France was still optimistic, if no longer euphoric, over President Mitterrand's election to power. The vast three-storey show and the catalogue prefaced by Jack Lang acquired an almost Popular Front resonance with its celebration of the nobility of the worker.
Sadly, during his very last years Pignon lost his sight, the greatest of tragedies for an artist. A particular chapter of the history of French painting closes with his death.
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