The post-war years across Europe were a time of great rebuilding. It was a time of regrowth and rebirth, and it was no different for art. The horrors of the World War II were in the past and there was a new dawn in Europe, unencumbered by the woes of conflict and tyranny, art was a freeing open-ended form of communication that was typified by the pure expression of Art Informel and Tachisme.
Not a ‘school’, nor an artistic movement, but instead a limitless celebration of artistic diversity, Art Informel promoted the immediate personal expression of each artist. “Our interest is not in movements, but in something much rarer, authentic Individuals,” explained the French art critic, Michel Tapié, who first coined the term ‘Art Informel’ in 1952.
Sitting alongside Art Informel, Tachisme emerged between 1940 and ’50 as a French abstract painting style that’s often interpreted as a European equivalent of Abstract Expressionism. The two are closely related, but with subtle differences. Art Informel favored more intuitive expression, while Tachisme, which evolved as a branch of Art Informel, was a reaction to Cubism.
A second cousin of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Michel Tapié’s book, Un Art Autre (An Other Art) served as a manifesto and catalog for an exhibition, which featured a broad range of artists, including Jean Dubuffet, Jean Fautrier, Jean-Paul Riopelle, Georges Mathieu, Pierre Soulages, Ruth Francken, Wols, and Henri Michaux.
Free from the shackles of tyranny, this was a rich celebration of spontaneous art, created without predetermined forms. The Nazi occupation during World War II played its part too. Rebuffing early geometric abstractionists, it was established as a reaction to the then fashionable, Jeunes Peintres de Tradition Française (Young Painters of the French Tradition), who exhibited their retrograde, Fauvist and Cubist-inspired abstractions, at a time when anything deemed too abstract by the occupying Nazis was labelled as degenerate art and destroyed. Tapié celebrated artists who “left behind the forms of the past, they are artists who do not work against ideas of the past, but outside of them,” given the fact that, “life has become totally estranged from form, expressiveness is no longer compatible with it.”
This was pure authentic individualism on canvas. These works didn’t share a family resemblance, but did share nuanced idiosyncrasies that can be seen in both styles.
Around the same time of Art Informel’s emergence from the ashes of WWII, another art movement of great expression was also finding its feet. Often seen as the European equivalent to the Abstract Expressionism in America of artists like Jackson Pollock, the name derives from the French word ‘tache’, meaning a splash, or stain.
In the years following World War II the School of Paris often referred to Tachisme, which is virtually synonymous with Art Informel, but its originator isn’t as clear. Credited to the critic Pierre Guéguen in 1951, the term Tachisme was also used in 1889 to describe the Impressionist technique by critic Félix Fénéon, and then in 1909 by artist Maurice Denis referring to Fauvist painters.
The splashes, spots, and blotches of color in abstract painting defined this sub-style of Art Informel, along with scribbling that evoked calligraphy. Like the Fauvists before them, tachistes often employed pigment directly from the tube, as well as employing spontaneous gestural brushwork.
Wols (1913 – 1951)
Broadly unrecognized in his lifetime, Wols (Alfred Otto Wolfgang Schulze) was a pioneer of lyrical abstraction and one of the most influential Tachisme artists, whose 1947 exhibition included his It’s All Over The City (1946-47), which had a profound influence on Georges Mathieu and the American, Sam Francis.
Wols’ Untitled (1946-47) could be seen as the epitome of Tachisme and had much in common with American Abstract Expressionism. His informal, gestural painting was achieved through applying paint in layers by dripping it and scratching it into the surface of the canvas, as visible in Untitled (1946–47) and Yellow Composition (1946–7).
We say Tachisme
Georges Mathieu (1921 – 2012)
Considered one of the fathers of European Lyrical Abstraction (a trend of Informalism), with a moustache of equal significance, Georges Mathieu’s art possessed a striking authentic individualism, as expressed in his Camp de Carthage (1951). The frenetic yet controlled large painting documents the spontaneous movements of Mathieu’s body during its creation. The black arc shows the sweeping extension of his right arm, while the bright red elements have been directly applied to the canvas by squeezing tubes of paint with his hand.
As he entered the 1950s, his drips became more solid and blobs appeared in his painting, “because one needs a certain colored area at a certain place, and the most direct way is to lay the brush on the canvas with a varying degree of violence (inducing spatters) without having delimited the space to be so colored,” which can be seen in Homage au Maréchal de Turenne, Blanche de Turenne, and La Bataille de Bouvines.
We say Art Informel
Serge Poliakoff (1900 – 1969)
Alongside Jean Dubuffet, Hans Hartung, and Nicolas de Staël, Poliakoff was a member of the ‘new’ École de Paris (School of Paris). Avoiding overly geometric lines and forms, Poliakoff’s canvases embodied the asymmetrical and expressive qualities of Tachisme.
His move into pure abstraction came about after studying in London in the mid-1930s and from 1950 his paintings explored simple forms. Compositions of pure color floated harmoniously on the canvas, as shown in Composition: Gray and Red. He continued this color-focused exploration and would become known for ‘silent paintings’, in which colour was paramount to its language of abstraction.
We say Tachisme
Jean Dubuffet (1901 – 1985)
A pioneer in more ways than one, Jean Dubuffet was best known for founding Art Brut movement, but unlike his outsider art contemporaries, he enjoyed a prolific career in France and in America. As a painter and sculptor of the Ecole de Paris, Dubuffet was among the most celebrated artists of his era, while a Newsweek article dubbed Dubuffet the ‘darling of Parisian avant-garde circles.’
Among his most noted compositions was Soul of the Underground. Resembling a close-up of the earth, he mixed sand, dirt, and other materials into his paint to create a layered texture that he applied with palette knives to form a thickened impasto. He then scraped the surface with the handle of his paintbrush and even used crumpled up aluminum foil to build up layers and topographies. A relentless innovator, Dubuffet was a leading light of radical experimentation with form.
We say Tachisme
Hans Hartung (1904 – 1989)
For Hans Hartung, going against the artistic grain was more than a choice of style. Rejected by the Nazis as a degenerate because his painting was associated with Cubism and the School of Paris, the police tried to arrest him when he attempted to sell his paintings in 1935, before he fled with the help of his friend, Christian Zervos.
The German-French painter developed Tachisme in the years after WWII. In many of his works, such as T-50 Painting 8 (1950), his large areas of color were characterized by long rhythmical brushstrokes or scratches. In a life of drama, he joined the French Foreign legion, was interred by the Gestapo, and lost a leg in combat. His fortunes changed by the late 1950 when he achieved recognition for his gestural paintings and was awarded the International Grand Prix for painting at the Venice Biennale in 1960.
We say Art Informel