Summary

Paule Vézelay was a British-born artist who lived and worked in Paris from 1926 until 1939. There she changed her name from Marjorie Watson-Williams in order to obscure both her nationality and gender. Made in the artist's adopted city, Lines in Space No.3¸1936, consists of red, black and white threads stretched between the four sides of a glazed picture frame and against a white-painted canvas; the artist may have added the balsa veneer that covers most of the frame at a later date. The cotton threads cross the internal space of the frame from side to side, top to bottom, and front to back. At several points two threads are hooked around each other, so that each is held in tension.

In 1964 Paule Vézelay recalled the genesis of such constructions:

when lines are drawn by a skilled and sensitive artist they are sometimes imbued with an almost celestial quality which miraculously endows them with "Life". … I knew that any untrained hand guided by borrowed knowledge could, with a minimum of practice, make lines upon a two-dimensional surface in such a way that they create an illusion of three-dimensional space, but was there any reason why artists should continue to confine Living Lines to a two-dimensional surface while ordinary lines outside the Realm of Art enjoyed freedom in Space? ('Comments on Lines in Space', unpublished essay sent to Tate Gallery Jan. 1964).

The threads are, then, the 'Living Lines' enjoying the 'freedom' of actual space. The earliest of these constructions, made in 1935, included collaged elements - leaves, stones, sand and fishing flies - on the backboard, in front of which nylon thread crossed the frame. In 1936 these were refined to produce the group of constructions to which the present work belongs. There was some variety within the group. In Lines in Space No.4 white threads crossed in front of a black-painted board on which the biomorphic shapes of Vézelay's paintings reappeared. This contrast of straight lines and curves persisted and, from the early 1940s, the artist combined threads with wire twisted into curves and spirals.

The articulation and definition of space was a common concern among many of the artists of Abstraction-Création, the international avant-garde group to which Vézelay belonged. While such artists as César Domela, Jean Gorin and Ben Nicholson extended painting's illusionistic space into the third dimension of the relief, others such as Alexander Calder, Naum Gabo and Katarzyna Kobro made sculptures in which actual space was an integral element. For them, an abstract art characterised by space and purity was an essential part of the new society for which they hoped and worked. Vézelay was not the only one among them who related the abstract qualities of her work to a spiritual level of reality. This was an art for a new society and a new consciousness.

As they do not appear in the catalogue, the Lines in Space constructions were probably made after Vézelay's exhibition at London's Alex. Reid and Lefevre Gallery in February 1936. They were shown, however, at Galerie Jeanne Bucher, Paris, in March of the following year under the label 'Recherches en trois dimensions: Tableaux de fils et ficelles tendus' (Investigation into Three Dimensions: Pictures of stretched threads and strings). Such works gained some prominence: one was reproduced in the periodical Plastique in summer 1937, while Lines in Space No.3, itself, was included in the Societé international de l'art non-figuratif exhibition at the Gemeente Museum, Amsterdam, the following year. Looking back, Marcel Brion wrote that with these works, Vézelay 'realised a completely original and independent conception for the expression of form in space, by means of a most delicate, most supple and difficult technique. The nobility and purity, the intensity of expression, which must command our admiration, constitute her mastery of this art' (Art Abstrait, Paris 1956, quoted in Paule Vézelay: retrospective, exhibition catalogue, Grosvenor Gallery, London 1968, unpaginated).

Further Reading:
Ronald Alley, Paule Vézelay, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1983, pp.10-11, 26

Chris Stephens
November 2000