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: La Fresnaye's La Vie Conjugale


Minneapolis Institute of Arts



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
Roger de la Fresnaye's La Vie Conjugale, one of the three works recently added to the Institute's growing collection of modern art, is a boldly revolutionary work yet has an independent beauty which transcends its formal idiom and seems to give it a special place in a longer tradition. It was painted in 1913, in the middle of the artist's short career and a mere three years after Picasso and Braque had reached the climax of their intense studies which led to the founding of cubism. Although it very clearly reflects the new approach to nature of the early cubist paintings, its interest even as a revolutionary work lies in the fact that it epitomizes a style which arrived at its cubist point of view as much on its own as through the influence of cubism's chief pioneers. For La Fresnaye began to take an interest in the work of the cubist circle of painters only a year before La Vie Conjugale was painted, and his interest, at least in the beginning, was limited and reserved.The foundations of La Fresnaye's cubist approach were developed by himself and grew directly out of his interest in the Post-Impressionists and, particularly Cézanne. There was no intermediate study of African negro sculpture which played so great a part in Picasso's first determined efforts to heighten the plastic reality of painted forms. Yet in L'Artillerie, a major canvas by La Fresnaye painted in 1911, a year before his first tentative samplings of cubist work, there is already a radical simplification and abbreviation of natural forms.The parallels between La Fresnaye's work of 1912-1914 and Picasso's and Braque's a few years earlier which establish La Fresnaye's position in the evolution of cubism are clearly seen in the splendid La vie Conjugale. In this canvas the painter presents himself and an imaginary wife in what has been called the artist's dream of ideal domestic surroundings. The motives chosen for the composition are simple domestic objects with geometrical attributes, almost exactly the kind Picasso and Braque had limited themselves to in their pioneer cubist still lifes: symmetrical tumblers, plates, and fruits, books, ash trays and tables. At the same time every effort is made to bring out the plastic qualities of the objects. The same is true for the figures, clothed, and unclothed, both of which found a place in the analytical canvasses of Picasso and Braque. Figures, objects and even minor individual features within each are conceived in terms of a free solid geometry to enhance awareness of their spatial properties as forms as well as to emphasize their place, again as forms, in the pictorial design.Although La Fresnaye did not systematically investigate new principles of representation, as did Braque and Picasso, he is related to the origins of the cubist movement by his admiration for the work of Cézanne, whose phrase, “You must see in nature the cylinder, the sphere, the cone,” influenced the pioneer work of Braque and Picasso. Cézanne's influence on La Fresnaye carries through the artist's work up to the beginning of the War and is perhaps best reflected in the fact that his forms are solid and conservative in spirit, and never too far from visual appearance. His work is also generally related to the main line of cubist development as established by Braque and Picasso in the character of his forms, derived from the quasi-geometric idiom of his two contemporaries, and, perhaps more important, in a graceful lyrical quality in the forms themselves and their relationships which was one of the main objectives of the leading artists of the movement during the “research” period between 1907 and 1910.The relationship of La Fresnaye's work to cubist methods is perhaps more apparent in the treatment of specific forms. These are simplified by use of rectangles, circles, arcs and straight lines, consistently used by Picasso in his “scaffold” studies of 1910. La Fresnaye uses this idiom, however, in a less radical manner, retaining the visual aspect of the figure and spreading his geometric lines over all parts of the canvas so that they act more as a supplement to the main forms of the composition than as an independent design scheme in themselves. Another device of early cubism was the use of passage, or the interruption of outlines so that the painting of the inner parts of the form could be carried into surrounding areas. This was one of Picasso's major discoveries, making it possible to gain plastic emphasis without forcing the outward aspect of his subject into abnormal distortions. La Fresnaye's application of it can be seen in the right arms of both figures. Simplification by flat overlapping planes was a further method of simplification for plastic emphasis developed by Picasso in his later analytical period and La Vie Conjugale shows the use of it in the face of the left figure and in the steeply sloping table top in the background.In spite of these close relationships with the work of Picasso and Braque, relationships which make La Vie Conjugale important in the evolution of the cubist point of view, La Fresnaye's special significance is that of a master composer of pictures rather than the pioneer analyst in search of a new method. His claim to this place lies in his achievement, of a lyrical quality and orderliness in the structure and relationships of plastic forms, qualities which convey a serene and ingratiating beauty of style that transcends as it assimilates the elements of a new idiom. He is, as Bernard Dorival has suggested in his introduction to the catalogue of the artist's 1950 Paris exhibition at the National Museum of Modern Art, a painter in the great French intellectual tradition of Poussin and Ingres, a tradition interrupted by the latter nineteenth-century painters of “temperament,” Courbet and Monet, and which he, with his cubist associates, with the help of Cézanne, renewed.
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Source: "La Fresnaye's La Vie Conjugale," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 42, no. 19 (May, 1953): 93-94.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009