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Friday, 11 July 2014

Sabbatical art pilgrimage: Chapelle Sainte-Thérèse-de-l'Enfant-Jésus et de la Sainte-Face, Hem

I began the European leg of my sabbatical art pilgrimage with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. Excitement because, as Edward Knippers said of my plans, this is the start of a wonderful adventure. Trepidation because I am unsure as to whether my itinerary and the practical arrangements which I need to make as I travel will work out.

My journey does not have an auspicious start as, on the approach to Lille, I become part of one of the longest tailbacks it has been my misfortune to encounter. We are, however, mostly moving throughout many kilometres, albeit at a snail’s pace, and eventually reach the cause of the delay – a convoy of tractors filling the lanes and accompanied by the emergency and highways services. Why it was necessary for such a large group of tractors to be moving together I have no idea but the delay certainly increased my initial anxieties about the possible difficulties of keeping to my planned itinerary.

Eventually I arrive at Hem for my first visit not knowing for sure whether this first church, or those that I planned to visit subsequently, would be open. As the Chapelle Sainte-Thérèse-de-l'Enfant-Jésus et de la Sainte-Face has external sculptures and a mosaic over its entrance, I reasoned that the journey would not be completely wasted were the church to be locked. It is not and, as I travel on, it is only when I return to Calais that I find churches which are not regularly open.

The Chapelle Sainte-Thérèse-de-l'Enfant-Jésus et de la Sainte-Face was built in 1956 - 1958 with mosaics and windows by Alfred Manessier, sculptures by Eugène Dodeigne and Jean Roulland, and a tapestry of the Sainte-Face based on a painting by Georges Rouault which was made by the Plasse Le Caisne workshop. The architect was Hermann Bauer and the church has been described as “a fine example of art sacré after World War II.”

I had come to see the work by Manessier and did not realise prior to arrival that I would also see an image by Rouault, who is a favourite artist of mine. To enter the evocative space of this chapel and see not only Manessier’s amazing walls of stained glass but also the Rouault image was confirmation that, despite my anxieties about the unknowns in this great adventure, I was on the right path.

The combination of Rouault and Manessier is particularly appropriate as Manessier has been described, by Werner Schmalenbach, as 'after Georges Rouault the only great painter of Christian art in our age.' In 1947, Manessier received a visit from Rouault who advised him to take up stained-glass design. From 1948 to 1950 he worked on six windows for Sainte-Agathe des Bréseux (which I would see later on my pilgrimage) before promoting "the modern concept of stained glass architecture,” as found here, “rather than isolated stained glass windows."

Despite this the differences between them exceed the similarities. Rouault was a figurative expressionist who loved to paint circus players, prostitutes and judicial figures, as well as the iconic sainte face (holy face) of Christ. These were painted “as penetrating types of the misery of human existence” but with grace also seen as “divine meaning is given to human life by the continuing passion of Jesus Christ.” He summed up his vision in several studies entitled (quoting Virgil's Aeneid), ‘Sunt Lacrymae Rerum’ – ‘There are tears (of grief) at the very heart of things.’ The image of the Holy Face used for the tapestry, taken from a painting of 1946 which is now in the Vatican Museum, "focuses on the conquest of death by giving the face a serene expressionwith wide open eyes and by using calm harmonious colours."

Rouault was apprenticed to a stained glass maker and, as here, often used thick black outlines in his work, which were regularly compared to the lead lines in stained glass, yet he was only commissioned for stained glass in old age while Manessier, after taking Rouault’s advice, went on to create in excess of 70 windows.

Manessier, by contrast with Rouault, was a lyrical abstractionist who thought of stained glass less as a design than as “the simultaneous creation of a light-filled architectural unit, thought-out and created by the painter at one go.” Similarly concerned with suffering as was Rouault, he aimed to saturate his works with human feelings. For this to occur no resort to figuration was permitted, his goal being not to “portray a man in his state of suffering, but suffering itself”; “an attempt to translate this through the use of equivalent signs and colours.” “I start painting,” he stated, “when I feel a very close coincidence between the scene that I have before my eyes and my inner state. That relationship releases a creative joy which I long for and need to express.” As a result he sought “a new pictorial language” that would “fortify expression”. He wished to incarnate inner experience in visible form. As he put it, “More and more I want to express man’s inner prayer.” Abstraction was, for him, the means to achieve this desire; “The further I penetrated into non-figuration,” he said, “the more I approached the inwardness of things.” (Manessier, J. P. Hodin)

These approaches to his art developed from his experience while on retreat with the poet Camille Bourniquel at the Trappist monastery of Soligny in 1943. During the Salve Regina on the first evening he “felt profoundly the cosmic link between that sacred chanting and the world of nature all around, which thrust itself into the silence of the twilight.” It was the moment, he said, “when nature was appeased.” He saw in his mind songs rising and falling and thought that, if he “could succeed in grasping this inner light, this rhythm, this meaning,” he “could do more than render a visible image of it,” he “could give its essence.”

The concept of stained glass architecture - of a light-filled architectural unit – that we find at Hem is an attempt to recreate that experience for all who enter the space. Stained glass here is not windows, but walls. There is no narrative, instead a loose cubist concrete grid holds a great chromatic richness. The play of light and colour created in the space is redolent of the Carmelite spirituality of Thérèse of Lisieux, which was the inspiration for Manessier’s design. Stained glass here creates spiritual space, a sense of prayer and a glimpse of heaven.

Reflections on human suffering constitute the predominant theme of Jean Roulland’s work. In 1956 his discovery of Germaine Richier's works in the Dujardin Gallery in Roubaix was decisive in his definitive turn to sculpture which has led to his becoming chiefly known for his tormented lost-wax cast (cire perdu) bronzes. His expressive work shows no concession to the decorative aspects of sculpture in its relentless focus on the contorted anguish of human misery. Although I didn’t know it at this stage, I would see examples of these works when I returned to Calais at the end of the European leg of my pilgrimage. Roulland is a featured artist in Calais, at home and away, a series of exhibition spaces at the Musée des Beaux-arts de Calais which serve as an introduction to Calais, its artists and landscapes.

Roulland was collected by Philippe Leclercq, the wealthy manufacturer who had the Chapel at Hem built, and was commissioned to create a bust of Jean XIII and a processional cross (Christ de Procession). The processional cross shows the influence of Richier in that, as with Richier’s crucifix at Assy, Christ is made one with the cross and reduced to the most minimal representation possible. As with Richier’s work this has the effect of emphasising the sub-human state to which torture, torment and suffering reduce all who truly experience their pain and anguish. These works, as with the Sainte Face and Passion images of Rouault and the Crown of Thorns paintings of Manessier, are part of a strand of twentieth century art which equates the sufferings of the crucified Christ with that of the numberless victims found in a century characterised by persecution, torture and war.

Roulland and Eugène Dodeigne were close friends and fellow members of the Groupe de Roubaix, a group of friends who were artists characterized by their northern origins. Dodeigne has said that he views sculpture as a struggle against the material. His struggle may be sensed in the stressed and patterned surfaces of the Soignies blue limestone which he has sculpted since moving to Bondues in northern France in 1949. By contrast, his smaller Soignies forms, as here with his sculpture of St Thérèse, are highly polished. His work, in both monumental and modest scale conveys a mastery of the balance of volumes and lines of force.

For all that the works by Dodeigne, Rouault and Roulland make their distinctive contributions here in Hem, it is Manessier’s glass which sets the tone and creates the spirituality which informs this marvellous space. Rightly, when reviewing Manessier’s exhibition at the Venice Biennale in 1962 - for which he was awarded the international prize for painting (to date, the last occasion that a French artist has been awarded this prize) - Jacques Lassaigne wrote of Manessier’s “majestic orchestration of vibrant tonalities and pure rhythms.” Lassaigne also suggested that at various points in Manessier’s very rich career “a kind of pause of meditation and inner transformation” had “enabled him to transform the powerful impressions which he had received … into new means of evoking and glorifying secret presences. Reflecting now on my visit to Hem, those words seem to be an accurate description of the experience that I enjoyed there at this the first stop on my sabbatical art pilgrimage.


The Frames - Star, Star.

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