Paule Vézelay

White Shapes in Movement


Paule Vézelay 1892–1984
Oil paint on canvas
Unconfirmed: 380 × 460 mm
Lent from a private collection 2016
On long term loan


White Shapes in Movement 1930 is a small painting in oil on canvas that depicts white, brown, black and pink biomorphic forms and black curving lines floating against a dappled brown background. The central large white form is unmodelled and flat but casts a dark shadow, while the dark upper edge of the light grey form behind it suggests a solid three-dimensional object. This ambiguity about whether the forms exist in two or three dimensions and their relationship to space is heightened by the brown background which shades from dark to light suggesting receding space. Its effect is similar to the impression of a cloudy sky against which abstract shapes float seen in the grey background of contemporaneous works such as Curves and Circles 1930 (Tate T03954), but White Shapes in Movement uses a more organic palette of pinks and browns and the suggestion of movement of the forms in space is more pronounced, as emphasised by the work’s title.

Vézelay first began to make abstract works in 1928, and White Shapes in Movement was painted in a period when her work was in transition, many of her abstract shapes having a relationship to the natural world in their biomorphic forms. Between 1929 and 1933 Vézelay lived with the surrealist artist André Masson (1896–1987) and the calligraphic lines in her works of the early 1930s are similar to forms in Masson’s work of the period. Although Vézelay’s work was aligned with surrealism by some commentators and curators at this period, and her work was included in the surrealist group show De Onafhankelijen at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam in 1930, her own inclinations were towards abstraction and the work of artists associated with the group Abstraction-Création (set up in Paris in 1931 and which she joined in 1934). The central white biomorphic form is close to those that appear in the work of Jean Arp (1886–1966) in works such as Overturned Blue Shoe with Two Heels Under a Black Vault c.1925 (Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice) and Edward Wadsworth’s (1889–1949) Dux et Comes 1 1932 (Tate T01124); it also reappears in later work by Vézelay, noticeably in the sculptural work Garden 1935 (Tate L03888).

Around the time she made these works, Vézelay 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. Humphrey Jennings’ introduction to the catalogue for Vézelay’s exhibition at the St George’s Gallery, London in 1949 noted:

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
Ronald Alley, Paule Vézelay, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1983, p.12.
Sarah Wilson, Paule Vézelay/Hans Arp: The Enchantments of Purity, exhibition catalogue, Henry Moore Institute, Leeds 1995.
Paule Vézelay Retrospective Exhibition, exhibition catalogue, England and Co., London 2004.

Emma Chambers
June 2016

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