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Monday, 4 August 2014

Sabbatical art pilgrimage: Notre-Dame du Bon Conseil Lourtier

A chapel set on a mountainous site, ‘with a campanile that is slim, tall,rounded in plan and rendered, distinct from the main body of the church’; it has been suggested that this could be a description of Notre Dame du Haut in Ronchamp, the chapel famously built by Le Corbusier in 1954. Instead, this is a description of Notre-Dame du Bon Conseil at Lourtier in Switzerland built by the Italian architect Alberto Sartoris in 1932.

Dennis Sharp writes: ‘Born in Turin, Sartoris trained as an architect in Switzerland and became one of the leading theorists and writers of the Modern Movement. Sartoris was the man who put the word “functionalist” into the architectural vocabulary …

"Our” movement in this context means the modern tendency started by the group of architects under Le Corbusier. The Functionalist Group was officially founded at La Sarraz in 1928 and called CIAM (Congrés Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne) …

Alberto Sartoris was Le Corbusier’s choice as the Italian representative to CIAM.’

Prior to Maurice Novarina’s Church of Notre-Dame de Toute Grâce du Plateau d'Assy and more radical in design, this was the first modern church in an Alpine setting. As a young architect, Sartoris agreed to rebuild, for a modest sum, the original church which had been destroyed by fire. He had the support of the villagers and the clergy but, once consecrated, his design was attacked in the Gazette de Lausanne under the title of ‘The scandal Lourtier’.

This attack on Sartoris’ design would have been because of the factors which Thomas Muirhead has identified as characterizing his work: ‘Sartoris believed that modernist architecture must be based on a renunciation of useless and superfluous elements, a respect for true tradition, an harmonious distribution of line and colour, a rhythmical mastery of contrast and assonance, and the investigation of a specific style.’ Accordingly Sartoris’ design for Notre-Dame du Bon Conseil is clean, spare and minimalist. Internally, the church is a simple white rectangle with a sleek arched wooden roof. Both the ceiling’s planks and the grey-painted wooden pews draw the eye to the sanctuary wall containing two large stained glass windows by Albert Gaeng.

The Futurist painter Fillia wrote that Sartoris’ plans for a Cathedral in Fribourg showed the direction that modern sacred architecture should take. His description of these plans as ‘a play of volumes that define an absolutely original rhythm and achieve a result of constructive severity that is of the greatest significance’ could equally apply to Sartoris’ achievement at Lourtier. Fillia and Sartoris collaborated on publications to do with futurism and architecture. In one such article, published in November 1932, Fillia gave notice that Sartoris had selected one of his ‘religious works to decorate a new Rationalist church he has constructed’. This was a mural based on Fillia’s painting Nativity-Mystical-Motherhood of 1932 which was originally in the sanctuary recess between Gaeng’s two windows. The mural has since been painted over and replaced by a small sculpture.

Between 1928 and 1930 the futurist artist Fillia spent time in Paris with Gino Severini. During this time he also saw Severini's work in the Swiss churches of Semsales and La Roche. The end of 1930 then saw a decisive reorientation of Fillia's work towards sacred art which culminated in 1931 with the publication of the 'Manifesto of Futurist Sacred Art' on the occasion of the International Exhibition of Modern Christian Sacred Art in Padua, which had a Futurist section of twenty two works by thirteen artists.
By these means the anti-clerical art of the Futurists inspired a flowering of religious painting that constitutes one of the most unexpected episodes in the history of that movement. Futurism eulogised the beauty of speed and the energies and machines that produced it. Futurists saw themselves as “immersed in the chaos of an old, crumbling era” but “partaking of the vibrations of a new epoch in the process of formation.” They embraced continual progress and viewed Catholic priests as fatally associated with old order hating “the fleeting, the momentary, speed, energy and passion.” Not fertile ground for a flowering of religious art, one would have thought.

Yet Marinetti, the great theorist of Futurism, maintained a significant distinction between Christ and the Catholic Church that led to the explosion of Futurist religious art which appeared in the 1930s. The “precious essence of Christ’s morals,” he argued, “accorded every right, every pardon and every sympathy to the impassioned fervour, to the fickle flame of the heart.”

Marinetti’s ‘Manifesto of Futurist Sacred Art’ appeared in 1931 and further exacerbated the movement’s conflict with the Catholic Church by stating that “only Futurist artists … are able to express clearly … the simultaneous dogmas of the Catholic faith, such as the Holy Trinity, the Immaculate Conception and Christ’s Calvary.” Pope Pius XI responded in a speech of 1932 by saying that ”Our hope, Our ardent wish, Our will can only be … that such art will never be admitted into our churches …”

Marinetti had argued that only Futurists could express the simultaneous dogmas of the Catholic faith because only they had “addressed the complex matter of simultaneity” in their art. 

Accordingly, a key feature of Futurist sacred art is the bringing together within the same picture frame of key events from the life of Christ. The convoluted titles of many of these works, such as Fillia’s 'Madonna and Child / Nativity / Nativity-Death-Eternity', indicate clearly the telescoping of events that can be found in these works. This work sets an semi-abstract/cubist Madonna and Child in front of a sky-filled cross in front of a mountain in front of a rock in front of a globe ringed by the outlines of churches as seen through the ages. Marinetti described this work as “an impressive amalgamation of the concrete and the abstract; a synthesis of the long development of Catholicism through the centuries.”

It is, when set alongside other works by Fillia, an example of a set of identikit symbols – saint, cross, globe, mountain, churches – that several Futurists juggle in works that sit uncomfortably between the later cubism of Gleizes and the surrealism of Giorgio de Chirico. Not all Futurist sacred art is of the poster book style and imagery of Fillia however. Giuseppe Preziosi, for example, also used simultaneity in his Annunciation-Nativity-Death but here the subtler harmonies of his colours combine with the interpenetrating planes of his subjects to integrate Christ’s birth and death within the work.

Gerardo Dottori, known as the ‘mystic’ Futurist, made use of similar techniques to create in his 'Crucifixion' of 1928 one of the genuine masterpieces of Futurist sacred art. His crucified Christ is picked out in a heavenly spotlight which also surrounds the two Mary’s grieving at his feet. Light also emanates from the upper half of Christ’s body and outstretched arms illuminating the darkened sky that has thrown the landscape of Calvary into turmoil. Dottori’s stylistic use of light symbolises both Christ’s obedience to God’s will and the light of salvation that his death brings into a world darkened by sin.

Dottori also makes use of a second key theme in Futurist sacred art; that of flight as a symbol of transcendence. His Annunciation in an Aerial Temple sees Mary literally caught up in her spirit by the news that Gabriel brings (an anticipation of her own Assumption, perhaps) and gives us an angelic perspective on the event. Aeropainting was a major strand of Futurist art and this interest in flight became a symbol firstly of physical liberation from the earth and then of spiritual ascent. The Trinity, the Madonna, as well as the expected Angels, all appear winged and in flight within these works.

One of the most striking of all the flight images is Nino Vatali’s Ascension where Christ ascends on the cross in stop-frame images that build a Jacob’s ladder ascending to the heavens. Whether the imagery of the cross as a ladder from earth to heaven was consciously in Vitali’s mind as he painted or whether he was simply transposing a Futurist technique with a sacred theme, the image and imagery remain powerful.

Only Futurist aeropainters, Marinetti argued, “are able to express in plastic terms the abyssal charm and heavenly transparencies of infinity.” Again, his rhetoric tends to exceed the resulting works but, for all that, their Futurist sacred art forms a fascinating subject that extends our understanding of the influence of sacred themes and imagery in early twentieth century European art even where artists and the Church were conflicted.

Gaeng, by contrast with these artists, was part of the St Luc Group which had been founded by Alexandre Cingria. Sartoris knew Cingria but said in one interview that, when he saw Cingria’s work at St-Martin de Lutry-Paudex, he felt no religious feeling, making the choice of Gaeng, for Lourtier, a surprising one. After completing at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Geneva he went to Paris to study at the Atelier de l’Art Sacré set up by Maurice Denis and Georges Desvalliéres. After meeting Antoine Bourdelle and Gino Severini, he assisted Severini with the decoration of St Nicholas Semsales. The St Luc Group also contributed to the decoration of Semsales. From 1926 to 1936 Gaeng was almost entirely devoted to the decoration of churches (stained glass, mosaics and frescos) in the cantons of Vaud, Valais, Fribourg and Jura.

Gaeng’s sanctuary windows, which depict St George on the left and St John the Evangelist before the Porta Latina on the right, are dark, dramatic and dense in detail. Coloured lines of force and movement cross rectangles constructed without significant use of lead lines. His later windows from 1956 which depict the Litany of the Blessed Virgin Mary are, by contrast, lighter, brighter and with a futurist energy and aspect. Gaeng then supplements the figurative windows with purely abstract designs that draw on the coloured grids of Mondrian.

Lourtier is to be found among the imposing alpine architecture of snow-capped peaks in the Val de Bagnes, one of Switzerland's largest nature reserves. Opposite Notre-Dame du Bon Conseil is a viewing area with panoramic views looking down the valley, the river falling steeply away under the bridge connecting two halves of the village. Erratic roofs straddle narrow switchback roads surrounded by kush terraced pastures; old traditions and untamed nature living side by side.

I arrived at the end of the afternoon to find the mountain sunshine flooding the empty church; then drove further on and further up to find a hotel so I could return for Mass on Sunday morning. Here, the simplicity of the Mass which impressed itself on me. The liturgy spoke for itself; no incense, no choir, just a priest speaking conversationally to his people and responses from the 70 strong congregation. There is no scandal of Lourtier; instead the triumph of Lourtier is an influential design coupled with a dramatically beautiful building that is well suited to the liturgy and well used by its people.


Bill Fay - This World.

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