by Mark Van Proyen
Jacqueline Lamba was never interested in categorical pigeonholes. When her husband, Andre Breton, drew a distinction between Automatist Surrealism (ala Joan Miró) and Veristic Surrealism (ala Salvador Dalí), she responded by creating works that blended both stylistic orientations into a mystical and occasionally frightening singularity. Later, after she and Breton had visited her friend Frieda Kahlo in Mexico City, she was captured by the idea that Mexico was more surreal than Surrealism itself, prompting a series of still life and landscape paintings created throughout the 1950s that blended George Braque’s late post-Cubism with design motifs echoing Mexican folk art, with a little Art Brut tossed in for good measure. After 1960, her focus again switched to highly stylized landscapes that were so drenched in a misty atmospheric light that they appeared to be abstract, echoing the look and purposes of the then-current practices of Art Informal and Tachisme, two terms that bespoke the relatively fussy French stylization of Abstract Expressionism. She continued to work in that mode for the remaining three decades of her life, residing as a recluse in the small alpine village of Simiane-la-Rotonde (in southeastern France) until her passing in 1993 at the age of 83.
Here it’s worth remembering that last summer’s Venice Biennial focused on the work of women who painted in Surrealist and Magical Realist modes. The success of that event prompted the art world to give Lamba’s career a much-deserved second look. Her ten-year marriage to Breton also drove a renewed interest, even as it also created a problem. Lamba stopped being an upper-case Surrealist around 1950 (as did almost everyone else), even though the current art world insists on remembering her that way. The current exhibition provides a fuller picture of Lamba’s complex career. It consists of 46 works spanning the years 1927 to 1986. It also includes a 1940 pencil portrait of Lamba executed by her longtime friend Dora Maar, one of Pablo Picasso’s many romantic interests. One of Lamba’s larger works from 1956, La Grand Chaumiere, attests to Picasso’s momentary influence. It shows five faceless nude women posed in a bathhouse, all classically composed and reminiscent of the work that Picasso was doing at that time. Another piece from 1953, Nu Rouge, features a singular nude female figure, face also obscured, rendered in a bright Matissian orange-red.
The earliest work is a pastel on paper from 1927 titled L’Ange Heurtebise, depicting a female face in heavy make-up and lurid light ala Toulouse-Lautrec. It reminds us that Lamba was a cabaret dancer before marrying Breton, showing an upper body that is muscular enough to hint at gender dysphoria. Superb works from 1942 and 1943 reveal Lamba in peak Surrealist mode, with Behind the Sun standing out most prominently. Roberto Matta was said to have noted that Lamba’s works from this period resembled his own, causing Lamba to destroy many of them in a fit of pique, and while most of the pre-1948 paintings and drawings do resemble Matta’s work, they are also compelling in their own right: dark, moody and tumultuous in equal measure. One wishes there were more examples from this period, but the six included are a major treat.
Paintings executed during the 1950s are hard to pin down because they bespeak many different influences. At this point, Lamba was dialing up the impasto to reveal simple landscape and still-life subjects that seem more anti-modern than Modernist, capturing the hidden animation undergirding particularized arrangements of everyday scenes and objects. White Rose and Red Shadow from 1951 and Table de Travail from the same year veer in the direction of memento mori shrines devoted to commemorating the fleetingness of life.
There are quite a few examples from the latter, post-1960 period, all reflecting the Parisian trends of their times. Several examples are comparable to the paintings that Joan Mitchell was doing in France at that time (and Sam Francis a few years earlier); however, in Lamba’s case, the intimations of landscape are more explicit, slight in some cases, more obvious in others. For example, in Plaine de Simiane (1964), we see the subtle evocation of an alpine meadow evoking a springtime bloom of wildflowers, with snowcapped peaks gracefully indicated in the distance. Another mountain appears in Biot (1963/1966), a painting that features a memorializing cross set in the middle of the composition, finished the year Breton died. A few of Lamba’s works are cloudscapes, including Ciel (Heaven) (1969), manifesting as a turbulent shock of red, yellow and cerulean blue set in an undulating sediment of colored layers evoking flowing lava.
Works from the 1970s and 1980s are the most abstract, even though they still hint at landscapes (or townscapes) rendered from a misty vantage as if in a rain or snowstorm, sometimes flickering at a calm distance as can be seen in Sans Titre (Ville de Jour Pointiilliste) from 1980. Other landscapes, such as the black-on-white Paysage de Simiane (c.1970), capture the geological undulations of the land in a manner that echoes traditional Asian painting.
The most recent work in the exhibition is from 1986, Untitled, Source Verte, looking quintessentially French as a shameless bouquet of perfervid color. Much has been written about how French painting conveys the rich cuisine of elegant color, understood as a delicate mélange of subtle chromatic ingredients. American eyes accustomed to the visual meat and potatoes of a forthright and confrontational pragmatism often dismiss French painting because it seems drenched in a fussy je ne sais quoi that looks effete, artificial and buried in gratuitous nuance. Americans (and American art critics in particular) do not take enough time to enjoy life or savor the subtle and complex nuances of painterly delicacy, choosing instead to privilege optical power while feeling embarrassed about the epicurean virtues of refined visual pleasure.
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Jacqueline Lamba “Painter” @ Weinstein Gallery to April 22, 2023.
About the author: Mark Van Proyen’s visual work and written commentaries emphasize the tragic consequences of blind faith in economies of narcissistic reward. Since 2003, he has been a corresponding editor for Art in America. His recent publications include: Facing Innocence: The Art of Gottfried Helnwein (2011) and Cirian Logic and the Painting of Preconstruction (2010). To learn more about Mark Van Proyen, read Alex Mak’s interview on Broke-Ass Stuart’s website.