Paule Vézelay

Strange Landscape


Not on display

Paule Vézelay 1892–1984
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 650 × 809 mm
Lent from a private collection 2016
On long term loan


Strange Landscape 1933 is a painting in oil on canvas that depicts brightly-coloured biomorphic and curved conical forms against a red background. Although the essentially abstract forms appear to float in space, the ‘landscape’ of the title is evoked by the division of the red background into darker and lighter tones, suggesting a horizon line. Apart from a curved peak to the left of the composition, the background is painted in flat unmodulated colour, while the floating shapes are modelled to suggest three-dimensional forms, their juxtaposition constituting an exploration of harmony and balance in space. Yet, despite their abstract nature, the forms in Strange Landscape retain a suggestion of figurative sources.

Although Vézelay’s title suggests what have been described as ‘organic forms inhabiting an environment’ (Pitts-Rembert 1980, p.101), she herself wrote about abstraction as a language which produced new forms from the imagination:

Of my own work I must say that I hope to give intense pleasure to the eye of the beholder, enticing his regard to remain on colours and forms more pleasing than can easily be found in actuality, or seen by his own unaided imagination. I hope this pleasure will prove a kind of music for the eyes, and may hold his regard long enough to convey what I am telling with this mysterious language of paint; since it is something that can only be painted.
(Paule Vézelay, Paris 1933, unpublished text, Tate Archive TGA 9027/1/2/1.)

In 1975 she reiterated that her abstract forms had no relationship to real objects writing, ‘I am sure the forms in my non-figurative works are invented forms and do not have their “genesis in natural forms”’ (correspondence with the Tate Gallery, 17 May 1975), but contemporary commentators considered the traces of material objects in her abstract forms to be one of the strengths of her work. Strange Landscape was exhibited in two key solo shows where many of the new developments in Vézelay’s work were seen for the first time, at Galerie Jean Bucher, Paris in March 1934 and at Alex, Reid and Lefevre, London in February 1936. A review of Vézelay’s Paris show in Cahiers d’Art praised her work for its continued relationship to the world of objects and the pleasure that the memory of objects in her abstract forms gave to the viewer (‘Les Expositions à Paris et ailleurs’, Cahiers d’Art, vol.9, 1934, p.124). Humphrey Jennings’ introduction to her exhibition at the St George’s Gallery, London in 1949 noted the same tendency:

She chooses and arranges shapes and harmonies as she lays a table or arranges the mantelpiece: with care and affection. That is why her pictures aren’t really abstract – the affection is for real objects. You can’t see the objects ‘in the picture itself’? No. She learnt in Paris not to make the old mistake of confusing the origin of her feelings with the final expression of it.
(In Paule Vézelay: Moving and Static Forms, exhibition catalogue, St. George’s Gallery, London 1949, [p.2].)

Further reading
Virginia Pitts-Rembert, ‘Paule Vézelay’s Lines in Space and Other Works’, Arts, vol.55, no.3, November 1980, p.101, illustrated fig.3.
Ronald Alley, Paule Vézelay, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1983, p.12.
Paule Vézelay Retrospective Exhibition, exhibition catalogue, England and Co., London 2004.

Emma Chambers
June 2016

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