Paule Vézelay

Construction. Grey Lines on Pink Ground

1938

Medium
Oil paint on canvas
Dimensions
Support: 813 x 1159 mm
frame: 860 x 1220 x 57 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Purchased 1973
Reference
T01725

Summary

Construction. Grey Lines on Pink Ground is a large rectangular oil painting on canvas by the British artist Paule Vézelay. Nine geometric forms of varying shapes and sizes are arranged across the composition against a rose-pink background. Three of the objects resemble small flags, while the remaining six are spherical. Although each object is singularly placed, they are connected by a delicate structure of grey and white lines. Each object seems to sit or hang in an infinite pictorial space created by the background. This sense of suspension and depth is further enhanced by the delicate modelling of the blue forms and the white highlights on some of the grey lines, which gives an impression of light falling on three-dimensional forms. An illusion of depth is also created by the presence of very thin, wavy grey lines which extend out from the top right and bottom left of the main structure depicted. These lines seem to be captured in movement, fluttering in a non-existent breeze. The palette is muted and restricted to blue, pink, black, white and grey. The composition is balanced by the careful placement of objects and the repetition of colours which help lead the eye around the painting. The overall composition is reminiscent of a mobile suspended in space.

Vézelay painted Construction in 1938 in Paris, where she lived from 1926 and until the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939. The paint has been carefully applied and appears denser in the representation of the objects compared to the background, which is translucent in parts. The lines have been delicately painted with great precision.

Vézelay was trained in draughtsmanship at the Bristol Municipal School of Art (1909–12) and the London School of Art (1912–14). Through conversations with the artist, curator Ronald Alley traced the emergence of the abstract language seen in Vézelay’s mature work to 1928 and ‘a drawing which has since been lost’ (Alley 1983, p.10). He has noted that Vézelay’s work began ‘to show some influence of Cubism, combined with a tendency to introduce rhythmical curvilinear shapes which had a life of their own. Then one day she decided to create pictures by using lines, forms and colours alone. What happened next was that the subject matter seemed to dissolve away’ (Alley 1983, p.10). The lack of precise subject matter in Construction is evident; aside from the flag-like shapes, all other aspects of the composition are abstract. The title further highlights Vézelay’s focus on form rather than subject matter in this work.

In January 1964 Vézelay described her preoccupation with lines in space as a fundamental human creative pursuit: ‘we know that the language of the artist is based upon the two lines which served Primitive Man long before the formation of the first alphabet; they were, and still are, the Straight Line and the Curved Line’ (quoted in ‘Catalogue Entry: Paule Vézelay, Construction. Grey Lines on Pink Ground’, Tate Gallery, London 1975, http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/vezelay-construction-grey-lines-on-pink-ground-t01725/text-catalogue-entry, accessed 14 June 2016). Working with lines became instinctual for the artist: ‘after much study, practice and thought I began to hope that … my lines were “living lines” rather than painstaking marks. I was able to direct them, creating them how and where I wished with perfect exactitude so that they seemed to have fallen upon the surface beneath my hand; they answered my every demand’ (quoted in ‘Catalogue Entry: Paule Vézelay, Construction. Grey Lines on Pink Ground’ 1975, accessed 14 June 2016). This sense of instinctual form can be perceived in Construction, which shows a balanced elegance and gentle movement.

In a letter of February 1974 Vézelay wrote: ‘I think I must have exhibited the painting Construction perhaps at the Gallery Jeanne Bucher or at the Lefevre Gallery London, or at the Salon des Realites Nouvelles, or the Salon des Sur-Independants, but I am not sure and can find no trace of having done so’ (quoted in ‘Catalogue Entry: Paule Vézelay, Construction. Grey Lines on Pink Ground’ 1975, accessed 14 June 2016). This painting was exhibited in the Tate Gallery’s 1983 exhibition Paule Vézelay. Since then Vézelay’s work and her impact on abstract art, including her founding of Group Espace in London in 1953, have been reassessed. Art historian Alan Fowler has described her as a ‘pioneer of abstract art’ (Fowler 2007, p.179) and Alley has stated that she was ‘remarkable for her contribution to abstract art … and she was one of the first British artists to commit themselves totally and irrevocably to the abstract movement’ (Alley 1983, p.13).

Further reading
Ronald Alley, Paule Vézelay, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1983.
‘Women of Our Century: Paule Vezelay’, television programme, BBC, London, 27 July 1984, http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/p025lsfp/women-of-our-century-series-1-paule-vezelay, accessed 29 May 2016.
Alan Fowler, ‘A Forgotten British Constructivist Group: The London Branch of Group Espace’, Burlington Magazine, vol.149, no.1248, March 2007, pp.173–9.

Jo Kear
June 2016

Supported by Christie’s.

Display caption

Vézelay was one of the first British artists to commit herself to abstraction. Born Marjorie Watson-Williams, she settled in Paris in 1926. She adopted the name Paule Vézelay to declare her internationalism and hide the fact that she was a woman. This work is based on what she saw as the most basic artistic language: curved and straight lines. It shows how these simple forms can suggest both space and movement.

Gallery label, November 2015

Catalogue entry

PauleVézelay 1893-1984

T01725 Construction, Grey Lines on Pink Ground 1938

Inscribed ‘P. Vézelay 38’t.l., and on reverse ‘P. Vézelay 1938’and ‘1938’.
Canvas, 32 x 36 (81.2 x 116)·
Purchased from the artist (Grant-in-Aid) 1973.

Painted in Paris before the artist’s return to England at the outbreak of war in 1939.Describing her preoccupation with lines in space Paule Vézelay has written: ‘We know that the language of the artist is based upon the two lines which served Primitive Man long before the formation of the first alphabet; they were, and still are, the Straight Line and the Curved Line.’

‘After much study, practice and thought I began to hope that whether painted or drawn, my lines were “living lines” rather than painstaking marks. I was able to direct them, creating them how and where I wished with perfect exactitude so that they seemed to have fallen upon the surface beneath my hand; they answered my every demand, with all the flexibility I would allow them, and in my most optimistic moments I was content, feeling that these lines did indeed come from my hand and my Spirit... that they were inevitable.’ [Comment by PauleVézelay, January 1964]

In a letter to the compiler (18 January 1974) she added: ‘Lines have always interested me greatly, giving us an almost magic language, but in two dimensional art they are used on a flat surface to help create an illusion of space or of objects or of scenes, yet in space they exist as a reality.’

In a further letter (15 February 1974)the artist wrote: ‘I think I must have exhibited the painting “Construction, Grey Lines on a Pink Ground” perhaps at the Gallery Jeanne Bucher or at the Lefevre Gallery London, or at the Salon des Realites Nouvelles, or the Salon des Sur-Independants, but I am not sure and can find no trace of having done so.’

Published in The Tate Gallery Report 1972–1974, London 1975.

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