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Music for the Eyes - Paule Vézelay
[ Artist in Focus )
Our Head of Collections, Sarah Norris, explores the life of artist Paule Vézelay in celebration of our new acquisition by the artist, Grey and Yellow (1953).
In 1933 Paule Vézelay said of her own work
“I hope to give intense pleasure to the eye of the beholder, enticing his regard to remain on colours and forms more pleasing than can easily be found in actuality, or seen by his own unaided imagination. I hope this pleasure will prove a kind of music for the eyes, and may hold his regard long enough to convey what I am telling with this mysterious language of paint, since it is something that can only be painted.”
Born Marjorie Watson-Williams in Clifton, Bristol in 1892, Vézelay studied painting and etching at Bristol School of Art before enrolling at the Slade in 1912. Disliking the style of teaching there, she moved almost immediately to the London School of Art 1912 – 14. She also attended evening classes in lithography at Chelsea Polytechnic. On leaving, she first established herself as a book illustrator and printmaker working in lithography and wood engraving.
Her mature work as a painter dates almost entirely from after her first visit to Paris in 1920, which proved a turning point in her artistic development. She returned almost immediately and began to paint seriously. She was influenced by Degas and Bonnard and later the Belgian painter Gustave de Smet. Her style developed from impressionistic to a bolder, more simplified approach.
In 1926 she decided to settle in Paris and adopted the name Paule Vézelay. Curator and Art historian Ronald Alley described this as “an act of identification with the School of Paris”, writing that her work “became increasingly Parisian and began to show some influence of Cubism, combined with a tendency to introduce rhythmical curvilinear shapes, which had a life of their own.”
In France, Vézelay lived for several years with the Surrealist artist André Masson and mixed with many of the most significant artists of pre-war Paris. These included Wassily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian, Joan Miró, Alberto Magnelli, and her close friends, Jean Arp and his wife Sophie Tauber-Arp.
In 1934, she was invited to join the group Abstraction-Création, an association of artists formed in Paris in 1931 to advocate abstract art and promote formal purity and non-objectivity. Founded by artists Auguste Herbin, Jean Hélion, Theo van Doesburg and Georges Vantongerloo the group brought together leading artists who were working in non-figurative styles. This included Naum Gabo, Kandinsky, Mondrian, Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson and the group rapidly acquired a membership of around four hundred. At this time Vézelay began to simplify her work, eliminating any suggestions of Surrealism and using flat planes of often contrasting colour and clear cut forms that appeared to float in space.
Vézelay lived in France until forced by the war to return to England in 1939. Whilst never being made an official war artist she was granted a permit by the War Artists Advisory Committee to make drawings and photographs of bomb damage and a barrage balloon centre in Bristol.
Although deciding to remain in London after the war, she continued to exhibit regularly in France and in 1953 joined Le Groupe Espace. This was an association of geometric abstract artists and architects founded in Paris in October 1951, with a manifesto issued in 1953. The artists of Le Groupe Espace were concerned with space in art and were influenced by the pre-war movements of Constructivism and Neo-Plasticism. Vézelay exhibited with them and became president of a British branch of Le Groupe Espace, although struggled to become part of the London art scene in the way she had done in Paris.
Grey and Yellow has been donated in Memory of Khaled Al Bahar (2022). Painted in 1953, it is a calm and subtle work clearly showing the influence of Neo-plasticism embraced by Le Groupe Espace. This is clear from its use of geometric form to create an asymmetrical but balanced composition informed by the relationship between line and colour that can be seen in so much of Vézelay’s work.
Although continuing to work up to the end of her life it wasn’t until the retrospective exhibition at Tate Gallery in 1983 that interest in her work brought her back into public view. She died in London in 1984, aged 92.
Vézelay turned to abstract art in the late 1920s at a time when it was completely out of favour in Britain and when artists such as Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth were still working in figurative styles. She would be one of the first British artists to commit fully to abstraction. Her contribution to the modern movement was noted as early as 1936 by Paul Nash in the catalogue for Paule Vézelay: Paintings and Sculptures, Alex. Reid & Lefevre Ltd. (The Lefevre Galleries), London who writes of her ‘unmistakably genuine talent’.
Acquisition of this work enables Pallant House Gallery to recognise the contribution made by Vézelay and further explore the role women played in the development of abstract art. We are grateful to Jane England of England & Co. Gallery for assisting the realisation of this generous gift.
 Paule Vézelay 1933 Quoted in England, Jane, Paule Vézelay Retrospective, (England & Co 2000) p.1
 Alley, Ronald, Paule Vézelay, (Tate Gallery 1983) p.10
Grey and Yellow is currently on display in Room 5.