Saturday, 19 March 2016

Tom Palin / Maurice Utrillo

Maurice Utrillo
Rue du Mont-Cenis
oil on cardboard
72 x 100 cm
Louvre, Paris

Much has been written about Maurice Utrillo, though as with Vincent van Gogh, the facts of his life have become difficult to distinguish from the myths that have sprung up around them. As such, it is not my intention to revisit this life, and for another reason also: knowledge of Utrillo’s life fails to account for what it is that makes his paintings what they are.

It is certainly a mistake to try to position Utrillo as social commentator, a responsibility bestowed retrospectively upon L. S. Lowry, to point out, for those requiring it, that it was indeed grim up north, or for John Bratby, for declaring that it could be grim down south too. The poorer areas of Paris in the first decades of the twentieth century were certainly places of inequality, sparseness and transition, captured memorably by Eugène Atget’s camera. Yet Utrillo’s paintings stand as testaments to something else.

I’ve chosen the French painter of Montmartre for the simple reason that I consider him to have been, between about 1909 and 1914, years referred to later as his manière blanche (white period), the most outstanding exponent of a rarefied form of landscape painting, examples of which can be found in the oeuvres of few artists before or since.

This form of painting, if it can be deemed such, has no name. Nor does it possess distinctive and unifying motifs or subject matter with which to comfortably separate it from approaches pursued by other painters within the landscape genre. For this and other reasons, the paintings of Utrillo are unique, standing as a body of works wherein no single painting exceeds another, risks the integrity of the grouping, or threatens the constitution of his world.

This is not to suggest that there is incompleteness in respect of individual paintings, merely that almost all of Utrillo’s works from this period are indicative of similar concerns, attesting to shared truths and demarcating interrelated ground. It is difficult to pick out a highlight from what amounts to many dozen canvases and boards, in so far as each instance of painting offers more of the same.

This sameness, however, is richly variegated, and of such distinction, subtlety and grace that his contemporaries, including many of the great moderns, admired its quality whilst being at a loss to fully explain it. For a period of less than six years Utrillo attained a remarkable level of consistency – more consistent in fact than during the latter part of his protected (by his mother, Suzanne Valadon, then wife, Lucie Valore) and protracted period of artistic decline, from the 1920s until his death at the age of 71 in 1955.

Utrillo’s gift comprised a fragile balance of interrelated elements, kept tightly in check. The relationship of drawing to painting is central in understanding his achievement. When later this bond began to weaken, and eventually dissolved, its significance became much clearer. The structure is always purposeful, serving to establish complex spatial relationships, redirecting the eye between and beyond buildings, preventing the viewer from getting close enough to anything to dispel the sense of longing. The shuttered windows face outwards.

Yet it is Utrillo’s sensitivity to the subtlest gradations of tone (the seeing of tonal variation in colour) alongside an ability to process, replicate and distil the physicality of these sensations through a virtuoso handling of oil paint that lifts these works above all comparable examples of urban landscape painting. Never in painting has a sense of aloneness, of simple goings-on, of leaden skies and light falling on cracking, peeling, piss-stained walls been so beautiful.

Tom Palin, December 2015 

Tom Palin
Flower Painting/The Wall
oil on oak
25 x 36 cm

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