Under the windows of the Moly-Sabata residence, the Rhône occasionally leaves its bed. It covers the quays, pushes the doors of the houses and ventures as far as the fields, which it irrigates. Then it withdraws, leaving behind fertile soils and muddy remains, enduringly marking the area as the measurement scales attest, which can still be seen at the river’s edge. Inside, it is in echo of this phenomenon that the exhibition En crue [Swollen River] was held, from 16 September to 29 October 2017, celebrating 90 years of the oldest artists’ residency in activity in France. Twelve artists, having lived on site from 1927 to the present day, contributed to this commemoration. Since its foundation by Albert Gleizes and his wife Juliette Roche, successive generations have traced the contours of a creative space of encounters and learning, whose history has questioned the porosity of the boundaries separating the artistic from the utilitarian. Robert Pouyaud, Anne Dangar, and Lucie Deveyle took part in the first period of this history until the late fifties; Jean-Claude Libert, Geneviève de Cissey, Claude Famechon, and Gilka Beclu-Geoffray were involved in part two; and finally, Thomas Bayrle, Joséphine Halvorson, Caroline Achaintre, Charlotte Denamur, and Romain Vicari in the most recent episode, since the nineties.
In the current context marked by a multiplicity of visual arts residencies,1 there is something jubilatory about this anniversary, given that Moly-Sabata is exceptional for both its longevity and its singularity. We could possibly consider it a residency-implantation, since, as Sylvie Le Clech writes,2 the genius loci – the spirit of the place – is not only embodied in the premises but also in the people who work there, influencing the means of creation.
Nothing, however, portended a future for a community such as this. How can we account for it? From cubism to new works, from the severity of sedentary life to the multiplication of residences, or the years of neglect, or a serious fire in 1983, the exhibition builds a bridge through its 90 artworks between past and present. Far from espousing a didactic or exhaustive retrospective target, the curators Joel Riff and Patrice Béghain have sought inspiration from the life of the river to present the life of this place. Just this once, the exhibition thus prefers a narrative schema emerging from the surrounding topography drawing on the river metaphor to chronological stories. At Moly-Sabata, which Joel Riff reminds us is an imbibed entity right down to the roots of its name – the “Savates Mouillées” – a certain “events landscape” is outlined accurately and fluidly, a space-time in which ”past and future spring up in a single movement, with all the obviousness of their simultaneity. . . . circumscribing the cycle of history and its repetitions.”3
Each room explores a different dimension of the history of the venue. “The Flamboyant Moly-Sabata” opens the visit, followed by the Fertile, the Rustic, the Domestic, the Solemn, and the Serene. Nevertheless kept in the background of the scenography, none of these dimensions really involves a thematic, more accurately providing tonalities or atmospheres than any kind of unity of concerns. Better yet, they never stop crossing lines – insidiously flowing from one space to another.
Barely through the door, we are caught up in the immense Lunatique (2017) by Charlotte Denamur, a suspended canvas with the most vibrant colours, which fill the space and disrupt it. Her residency, last year, led her to use the architecture itself as the easel for her canvases, such as Fontaine (2017) further on, which masks an opening onto the Rhône, and outside the building, on the courtyard side with Flash (2017) obstructing the window of her studio, and on the Rhône side with Béguin (2017), a polyptych visible from miles around. Inside and out, on the façade, the ceiling and walls, her interventions overturn or reaffirm the interior/exterior/above/below distinctions, as if the river, coming and going from the residence, had taken with it a little of what it’d found there.
In this first room, a screen-print reproduction counters Charlotte Denamur’s colours. Thomas Bayrle, an important figure from the European pop art world was a resident there in 1999. Eheepar (1970) is a black-and-white work on the repetition and framework used even in the representation of sexual and love relationships. Nothing flamboyant either in the display case of blue-green, brown, and pink objects above a painting by Jean-Claude Libert. Designed by Romain Vicari, it presents the utilitarian pottery that Anne Dangar made on site, signed with the acronym MSD, Moly-Sabata Dangar.
Clay work plays a central role in the life of the place. On this agricultural plain, the land and pottery evoke fertility and rural life, not only through its material essence, but also through the curves that we perceive further on. What ties unite the genius loci with the earth? While the pictorial heritage of Albert Gleizes marked the first residents – Robert Pouyot reproduced his paintings with the aid of stencils – it is thanks to Anne Dangar, who lived there from 1929 until her death in 1951, that this connection with pottery arose. In what Albert Gleizes dreamed of as “a secular convent in which those disgusted by this moribund system can seek refuge”,4 the clay does not give rise to the first man but potteries of a new kind. Rustic5 cubism informs the colours and geometric systems of the avant-gardes down to the domestic utensils.
But let’s continue, because further on, the blazes seem overabundant, trapped in the resins of Romain Vicari. Invited to create presentation supports, he designed and produced structures in metal, resin, and sand, in reference to the sandy soils of the area, which are the “binder” of the entire exhibition. Moly-Sabata the Fertile thus deploys an imposing installation, at once artwork and scenography, at times going so far as to bog things down, by extensively colonising the space and imposing its scale.
Moly-Sabata the Rustic, a small room in grey, beige, and light ochre hues, escapes this. A dress by Lucie Deveyle is laid on a corner of the table, near Brutus (2016) by Caroline Achaintre. Lucie Deveyle arrived as a family employee in 1931. She discovered art, weaving, and cubism there, becoming a close friend of Anne Dangar’s. Further on, her woollen chasubles are three articles of clothing with geometric designs whose status oscillates. Deployed over structures by Romain Vicari in an alternation of geometric lines and shifting curves, the Dancing Days (2017), they reveal their simple beauty. While she was alive, they were shared between the village priest and the Salon d’Automne, as indicated by these words from Juliette Gleizes: “I am sorry, so sorry, not to be able to send chasubles, but the only one I have is the red one that, as you know is at the Salon d’Automne until 8 November. The green one is being used by the Priest at present, because it will be green until Advent, and the black one, he often needs too, since he only has one. It’s really very tiresome.”6 Encountering her work, now religious and showcased by structure-artworks, now thrown on a table corner as if the dress had just been taken off, questioning the measure of these oscillations.
Within our “events landscape” the artworks of Caroline Achaintre, 2017 resident, are one of the most prominent reliefs. Regarding this artist, the curators recall that her work was firmly rooted in the pleasures of practice and that she defines her position as an “Archaic avant-garde”. We delight in discovering the tapestry and the artworks in porcelain and sandstone in the exhibition’s main room, Moly-Sabata Domestic, and in the next room, Moly-Sabata Solemn, convokes nice watches, shapeless forms that play on various textures and materials. Juxtaposing Jean-Claude Libert’s dark pottery and Geneviève de Cissey’s vases, the aesthetic shifts separating them are accentuated. Mollon, Shelleybag or Susisue (2017) emerge as the very inversion of the concept of vase and the function of the container. The mouths become bases, while materials merge. The clay is cut into fringes like a sheet of paper, draped heavily and/or glistening like a snake’s shed skin.
The ensemble is placed on Juliette Roche-Gleizes’ furniture from when she was a young woman: chairs, armchairs, and coffee tables are cleverly assembled in the centre of the room as if to escape a slow rise in the fictive waters, which, after having left us the time to go find these items on the upper stories, also left us that of finding the best possible composition. To the walls at last, a large canvas by Gilka Beclu-Geoffray, and an interpretation of the Pape et l’Empereur by Albert Gleizes, belong to an ensemble created with the complicity of local villagers. Like the stencil reproductions by Robert Pouyot, this work insists on the importance of repetition in the process of integration, transmission, and transformation of an artistic heritage.
If there is a genius loci, the exhibition thus provides the occasion to imagine the artwork, to see it influence practices, withdraw, disappear, return, transform, or persist in a ghostly way, cultivating a decompartmentalising freedom as though to better accommodate new propositions, to the rhythm of the rising and falling waters. In 2017 Joséphine Halvorson also turned to the doors of Anne Dangar’s studio and the measurement scales of the Rhône so as to reproduce details in paint; Moly-Sabata the Serene presents these paintings, which are possibly in this respect the most representative of the exhibition’s message.
May the genius loci have many crues to come.
- 223 visual arts residencies in France, CNAP, Paris 2016.
- Sylvie Le Clech, “Un panorama des résidences d’artistes : le point de vue ministériel”, in La résidence d’artiste, dir. N. Denoit and C. Douzou (Tours: Presses Universitaires François-Rabelais, 2016), 22.
- Paul Virilio, Un paysage d’évènements (Paris: Galilée, 1996)
- A. Gleizes, letter to R. Pouyot, 1927, in Moly-Sabata, 90 ans, album created for the occasion of the En crue exhibition, Moly-Sabata, 2017.
- Adams Bruce, Rustic Cubism: Anne Dangar and the Art Colony at Moly-Sabata (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004).
- Letter from L. Deveyle to J. Roche-Gleizes, 14 October 1953, in Moly-Sabata, 90 ans, op. cit.