III: Between Montparnasse and Montmartre 1924-1931

 

Much ink has been spilled in attempting to re-create the heady atmosphere of the jazz age in Paris, a lot of this having to do with fast cars and cocktails at the Ritz. Needless to say, such things seldom figured in the daily lives of artists like Lahner, who after a day's work commonly sought out the local rendezvous on the boulevards not only for the warmth of companionship but as a refuge from substandard housing. During the 1920s many of the artists populating the cafés and seventh-story garrets of Montparnasse and Montmartre -- men like Kisling, Pascin, Lipschitz, Zadkine, Soutine, and Chagall -- were of Eastern European origin. Most were committed to the idea of an autonomous art and to somewhat unconventional living arrangements. They also held in common their alienation from their home countries and a sense of displacement as immigrant members of a fringe community within French society. Often lacking in training and in connections with the local dealers, it was this immigrant community that made up the majority of artists in the Ecole de Paris or School of Paris.[19]

Many of the Ecole de Paris artists chose to convey their distress in their work, and Lahner made at least one attempt to follow their example. The painting generally known as Les Immigrants shows a pair of men stumbling about, one with a bottle in hand, in an undefined setting. The men's expressions and working class attire explain their social situation rather to the point of caricature, but the muddy brown tonalities of the picture counteract the element of humor. Lahner, who first took a room on the rue de Sommerard in the Latin Quarter upon his arrival in Paris, did not have to go far to find the kind of subject matter depicted in Les Immigrants. [20] What is remarkable about this and subsequent periods in the artist's career is that there are no other pictures like this one. Instead, Lahner's work consists mainly of still lifes, landscape, and female subjects, either as nudes or as disembodied heads with an air faintly reminiscent of classical sculpture. Lahner's disinclination for the depiction of social realities in his work can in one sense be regarded as an artist's preference for the good things in life synonymous with beauty. His paintings are also an eloquent testimony to the artist's own retreat from a problematic external world to a more private one, free from pain and responsibility, and thoroughly infused with a cultivated naïveté.

During his first years in Paris Lahner frequented the Académie de la Grande Chaumière and the Académie Colarossi, two ateliers libres where artists could practice their drawing and sketching from a model for a modest fee and with a minimum of supervision.[21] He also studied in the studio of Antoine Bourdelle, a sculptor whose works conflate modern heroics with a spirit of the antique, a trait that may explain the neo-classicizing flavor of Lahner's treatment of the human form.[22] Among the many works in which this neo-classical element is present is Loge de théâtre, a painting in which the loge and the ambience of the theater are conspicuous by their absence. Instead, Lahner portrays the bust-length figures of five women seated on two levels, their heads poised in attitudes of concentration at the unseen spectacle before them. There is a certain lack of logic in the varying directions of their gazes, clear evidence that Lahner's main preoccupation was a formal rather than a narrative one. The women themselves are shown in a web of red lines that circumscribe their figures but that also organize the space and give a vague interpretation of the setting. The areas between the lines are loosely filled with color, most notably with primary colors like blue, yellow, and green, but also with a number of tonal variations that lend the painting greater subtlety than may be at first apparent. The prominent place Lahner accords the colors of red, blue, yellow, and green may owe something to a familiarity with the work of Leger.[23] Lahner also made use of understated modulations of the main color scheme which, like variations on a musical theme, became a distinctive feature of his entire oeuvre .

Lahner is overtly neo-classical in another painting entitled La Joie de vivre . The title pays homage to Matisse's painting of the same name of l905, but the picture itself looks as if it were inspired by Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon of 1907.[24] As in Loge de théâtre Lahner portrays five women on two separate levels in a matrix of lines and color. Here the figures are shown at three quarter-length with an emphasis on curvilinear forms and large breasts. Like Picasso's Demoiselles Lahner's women are anonymous, voluptuous, and available.

Despite the vaguely antique air of these subjects Lahner had no specific interest in the classical themes that preoccupied some of his contemporaries. One of his few treatments of a mythological subject is in fact a farcical one. Poésie represents a strangely androgynous individual suspended in mid-air above a bird proffering a blank scroll. The figure, with its cloak draped in such a way as to give the appearance of wings, may be a misguided muse out of control. Lahner may also be making reference to the mythological character of Ganymede, who was unwillingly spirited off to the heavens to become the cup-bearer to Jupiter, and a notoriously difficult topos to portray convincingly in paint. The pale colors and free brushwork, at variance with so much of Lahner's other work, have the decorative simplicity of fresco painting. Whatever its true meaning, Poésie takes a not so respectful view of the mythology of creative inspiration and the conventional forms that are used to represent it.

After a year in the Latin Quarter Lahner moved to the Avenue Junot in Montmartre, a neighborhood in which he made the acquaintance of such avant-garde luminaries as the Romanian poet Tristan Tzara, the Brazilian painter and poet Roger Monteiro, and the decorators Jacques and Jean Adnet.[25] By l927, however, he had returned to the Left Bank to take up residence in the Villa Seurat.[26] Designed by the architects Auguste Perret and Andre Lurçat, the Villa was actually an experiment in urban planning comprising a number of houses, including simple studios for artists. It was a complex particularly favored by American expatriates, among them Henry Miller and Adeline Kent, as well as a Miss Hacket of Hacket Gallery, New York.[27] The same year Lahner sent a selection of works to Budapest for a well-received exhibition at the Ernst Museum, for which he was awarded the Ernst Prize.[28]

Through his friendships with the Hacket family and Roger Monteiro, Lahner began to cultivate a modestly successful international career. He exhibited in l928 and l929 at the Hacket Gallery in New York, and in l930 was represented in a show of École de Paris painters that traveled to Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paolo.[29] He is said to have shown in Boston in l928 and by l930 was represented in the modern collection of the Roerich Museum in New York.[30] The exhibition of l928 in New York brought in large sums of money to which Lahner was unaccustomed, and in the boom-or-bust spirit that seems to have characterized all his actions he celebrated by spending several months at Sanary-sur-Mer on the Mediterranean.[31]

The Wall Street crash of l929 found many of his best paintings stranded -- and unpaid for -- in America, and his financial situation suddenly altered.[32] At the same time, however, he began to take part in group exhibitions in Paris galleries and submitted works to the annual Salon des Artistes Indépendants.[33] A female portrait of Lahner's was reproduced in an issue of the Gazette de Paris in l929, and in l930 his works were singled out by a critic of Montparnasse as remarkable "for the finesse of the color and of the forms."[34]

Lahner's rising star in the Paris art world was due in no small amount to an ebullient personality and a generous nature that made him good company and more than once a friend-in-need. Although his command of the French language improved over time, he would never speak it with total ease. In such circumstances, it is hardly surprising that he maintained close ties with the Hungarian community in Paris, where he could more freely expound in his native tongue. He was particularly close to the left-wing journalists Georges Bolonyi and Imre Gyomay. He also became a life-long friend of Gyomay's mistress, an Egyptian named Daria Gamsaregen.[35] A sculptress, Gamsaregen was also the model for a number of Lahner's paintings.

One of Lahner's most enduring friendships was with Geo-Charles, a poet and the author of Jeux olympiques.[36] Guyot was a founder and writer for Montparnasse who was responsible for "launching" Lahner around l930, and once again after the war. It seems probable that he was involved with Les Amis des Sports, an organization that sponsored an exhibition of sport-related paintings in which Lahner participated at the Galerie La Salle in l930.[37] Although there is no record of what Lahner sent to the exhibition, one possibility is the Jeux de polo, a small gem of a canvas and one of an extensive group of pictures representing men and horses.




Footnotes

(19) The standard work on the School of Paris generation is Raymond Nacenta's École de Paris . Son histoire, son époque, Neuchâtel n.d.

(20) Bouret 15.

(21) Malingue 23. Malingue is responsible for the erroneous claim that Lahner studied under Puvis de Chavannes and Bastien-Lepage at the Grande-Chaumière. In 1924, both these artists were dead.

(22) Although a pupil of Rodin, Antoine Bourdelle (1861-1929) threw off his master's influence when he began to incorporate the stylized forms of Gothic and archaic Greek sculpture into his own work. Many of his sculptures are severely classical, and are of colossal proportions.

(23) Fernand Léger (1881-1955), initially a follower of Picasso and Braque, painted many pictures with automata-like figures, using a restricted palette of bold, primary colors. The faux-näif element of these works aligns him closely to Lahner, and like Lahner, he later designed stained-glass windows (for the Church of Sacré-Coeur, Audincourt).

(24) Henri Matisse, La Joie de vivre (a.k.a. Bonheur de vivre), Merion, Barnes Foundations, 1906; Pablo Picasso, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, New York, Museum of Modern Art, 1907. Picasso's great painting was not seen publicly until 1937 at the Exposition Universelle in Paris. Lahner may well have seen other works by the master, however, or have visited Picasso in his studio where Les Demoiselles was prominently displayed.

(25)Conversation with Pierre Treuttel, October 1986; see also Bouret 16.

(26) Malingue 26; Bouret 16-17. For the Villa Seurat, see H. H. Richardson, Architecture: Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries , Harmondsworth 1968, 372.

(27) Ibid.

(28) Bouret 17; also "Lahner" file, Musée Georges Pompidou.

(29) Bouret 18; "Lahner" file, Musée Georges Pompidou.

(30) Bouret 18. An article in Montparnasse of January 1930 states that Lahner had paintings in the "Roerich Museum of New York, in the Museum of Budapest and in a number of collections."

(31) Bouret 18.

(32) Conversation with Pierre Treuttel, October 1986.

(33) Bouret 113-114; see also "Le Vernissage du Salon des Indépendants français," Paris-Soir , 9 February 1929.

(34) From Gazette de Paris, 17 February 1929; Montparnasse, January 1930.

(35) Interview with Emeri Garai, 27 October 1986.

(36) Jean-Marie Dunoyer, critic for Le Monde, kindly provided me with background information on Geo-Charles.

(37) One reviewer observed that like another participant in the exhibition (the painter, Don), "Lahner also possesses some of the same gentle quality in his paintings, although his talent is of a totally different order, with a tendency to synthesize his impressions into a few characteristic traits and colors." "Galerie La Salle," Semaine de Paris, 7 February 1930.