Roger de la Fresnaye (1885-1925) painted strikingly personal, luminous, figure compositions between 1912 and his entry into the French army in 1914. They are among the grandest works of the generation of Picasso and Braque.
During the 1940s, Duncan Phillips called him a “legendary knight.” Neglected might have been the more accurate adjective, but the noun was apt. La Fresnaye fought on two fronts: in the trenches of World War I, and in the aesthetic battles preceding the war. By all personal accounts, he was a gentle man—a “verray parfit gentle knight.” And a stunning painter. Exhibiting with the Section d’Or, a showcase for that branch of the Cubist movement that valued the grand tradition, he never abandoned legibility, or the dance of color that linked him to Robert Delaunay’s Orphic variety of Cubism. His greatest work held true to visual as well as to tactile reality.
His Conquest of the Air, painted little more than a decade after the Wright brothers’ triumph at Kitty Hawk, is a glorious, mural-sized expression of exhilaration over the glistening new age of aviation. The figures at table are as buoyant as the air around them. What appears in this tiny reproduction as a yellow ball in the sky is a hot air balloon, reference to the first manned balloon flight launched over France by the Montgolfier brothers in 1783, a milestone in aviation history. Viva le tricolor !
The painting’s narrative—or literary—impulse has undeniable historic interest. But the splendor of it has nothing at all to do with subject matter that might constitute an essay. The splendor is all in the paint. Conquest of the Air is an astonishing act of painting. When it was on permanent view at the Modern, painters of all stripes stopped in to “make a visit,” as Catholics used to do when passing a church.
La Fresnaye’s too-short painting career ended sadly and in suffering. Just two months before the Armistice, he suffered lung hemorrage while still in the trenches. The first was followed by a second so severe that he had to be evacuated to a temporary base hospital. Germaine Seligman remarked:
Though his death did not occur until 1925, the war cost him his life as surely as though he had fallen on the battlefield.
By 1922, La Fresnaye no longer had the stamina to work in oils. Standing at the easel for long periods was no longer possible; the sustained exertion required by large canvases had become too much. Works from the last three years of his life were smaller in size, created on paper with crayon, watercolor, or gouache. He was only forty when he died.
Four years at the front, followed by their legacy of lung infections, circumscribed his productivity. This, together with few earlier sales and the lack of any known patron of standing, hampered recognition. Not until 1950, a quarter century after his death, did France pay homage to one of its major painters with an extensive exhibition at the Musée d’Art Moderne, Paris. Appreciation of his work was in its infancy when Seligman’s catalogue raisonné, published by the New York Graphic Society appeared in 1969. Beloved among painters, his work still waits to receive its due in public.
The Conjugal Life is a delightful performance. Disengaging from the laws of perspective, La Fresnaye views the figures straight on, essentially at eye level. But everything behind them—the table tops, the books, the fruit plate—are viewed from above. The diagonals of the out-of-perspective table frame the figures, locking them together in a pictorial analogy to the doublet that is marriage. It is a marvelous, rhythmic performance that keeps the eye returning to the figures. The couple, tilted toward each other, never lose their intelligibility to Cubist planar structures. In compositional technique, the painting is clearly modern; its humanity and reticence are classical. (Evident in the clothed male together with the nude female viewed from her right side, and accompanied by the emblematic fruit platter, is an amiable, quotidian—that newspaper!— nod to Manet’s Luncheon on the Grass. )
Below, La Fresnaye’s vibrant rehearsal for the backdrop to The Conjugal Life . Curving, undulating forms relieve the austerity of hard-edged angles and straight lines. It is just this kind of linear call-and-response that makes a painting a composition rather than a snapshot in servitude to representation. Here, the tonal perfection and resonance of even subdued color lends drama to ordinary things. The spatial color—its suggestion of advance and retreat—is a grammar in itself. La Fresnaye had a genius for it.
My love of La Fresnaye is long-standing. I wanted to share it—share him—with you. Hard to explain just why. Perhaps simply to counter the poignance of discovering [those grim emails!] that, even now, there are Catholics who are proud to dismiss all of modern art not as a freeing gift but as bosh . And on no greater evidence than the words of a character in fiction.