Alfred Manessier, Les Cantiques Spirituels de St. Jean de la Croix (The Spiritual Canticles of St. John of the Cross), © 2017 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris
Now through July 8, 2018 the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art presents Alfred Manessier, an exhibition of paintings and prints by an artist who sought to create contemplative images where the natural and spiritual realms would converge, offering spaces for both respite and resistance. In addition to landscape-inspired paintings, the show includes Manessier’s illustrations for St. John of the Cross’ Spiritual Canticles, Eugène Guillevic’s Cymbalum, and the elephantine portfolio Presentation of the Beauce at Notre-Dame of Chartres.
Alfred Manessier did not describe his work as “abstract,” refusing that adjective as it implied a dislocation from the physical world. He would accept “nonfigurative,” but he preferred “intériorisation,” his neologism that can be literally translated as “interiorization” or “searching internally for ways to represent the external.” Manessier searched extensively, both through his travels and his art, which encompassed painting, printmaking, tapestries, and stained glass.
Born in 1911, Manessier moved to Paris in 1929 to study architecture at the École des Beaux Arts. He spent much of his time copying the Louvre’s Rembrandts and Tintorettos and finally made a decisive switch to painting in 1938. Initially he followed the Cubists, constructing latticed compositions that incorporated the ordered structure of architecture. His style changed, however, as Europe inched closer to war.
Seeking to represent the fear and tension rapidly spreading throughout the continent, Manessier moved towards Surrealism and his work became, in his words, “desperate and catastrophic, apocalyptic.” He remained politically active throughout the war, but he moved to Mortagne-au-Perche in Normandy, hoping to find a quieter space to work.
Manessier chose religious subjects because they seemed as elusive and vast as the natural world. Towards the end of his life, he reflected on his 40 years of painting spiritual themes, saying they “were at my fingertips and at the same time, infinite.”