Paris to Villeneuve-sur-Lot: How the Southwest was won by a gallerist in Saint-Germain des Pres

bucher dubuffetJean Dubuffet, “Site domestique (au fusil espadon) avec tete d’Inca et petit fauteuil a droite,” 1966. Vinyl on canvas, 125 x 200 cm. Fascicule XXI des travaux de Jean Dubuffet, ill. 217. Copyright Dubuffet and courtesy Galerie Jaeger Bucher / Jeanne-Bucher, Paris.

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Text copyright 2014, 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak

First published on the Paris Tribune’s sister magazine Art Investment News on September 14, 2014. (Like what you’re reading? Please let us know by making a donation today. Just designate your payment through PayPal to paulbenitzak@gmail.com, or write us at that address to learn how to donate by check. No amount is too small. To translate this article into French or another language, please use the translation engine button at the right of this page.)

PARIS — Accessibility has become a dirty word, with its implication that to reach the masses, art must be dumbed down. But truncate the word to “access,” and you understand the collaboration that the municipality of Villeneuve-sur-Lot in Southwestern France — a region better known for the fertility of its grapevines than the fecundity of its modern art scene — and the legendary Saint-Germain des Pres gallerist Jean-Francois Jaeger of the Gallery Jeanne Bucher Jaeger have forged over the past 45 years, under which the anything but hic residents of this ‘provincial’ town have been able to experience the contemporary art revolution(s) of the ’50s, ’60s, and beyond contemporaneously with the putatively hip Parisian public. This complicity is being celebrated, through October 26, at the Musee de Gajac, a converted Villeneuve flour mill, in “A Passion for Art: Jean-Francois Jaeger and the Gallery Jeanne-Bucher  Jaeger,” with work selected by the 90-year-old honoree which, true to form, prizes mystery over mediocrity and discovery over dilettantism.

If the Gallery Jeanne-Bucher has fulfilled the central mission of a contemporary art gallery for nearly 90 years, as an avatar (or avant-garde for the avant-garde) for Cubism (exhibiting Braque, Picasso, Gris…), Abstraction (Kandinsky, Mondrian, Klee, Arp…), and Surrealism (De Chirico, Ernst, Giacometti, Masson, Miro, Tanguy, Picabia…), Jeanne Bucher was not looking to attract solely the Parisian and international cognizanti to her gallery on the rue de Cherche-Midi (later on the boulevard Montparnasse and eventually the rue de Seine) when she founded it in 1925, but to “diffuse the taste for art amongst all classes.” Jaeger, who took over direction of the gallery in 1947 (officially succeeded in 2003 by his daughter Veronique), has implemented that mission with aplomb by loaning or arranging the loans or gifts of contemporary art to the Gajac Museum and its predecessor institutions in Villeneuve and its environs, notably for two biennales and four major exhibitions since 1969, dedicated variously to Roger Bissiere and Friends (the friends including Andre Lhote and Georges Braque); Hans Reichel; artists of Algeria and the South; and Spanish artists persecuted by Franco, many of whom found refuge in Southwestern France. Bissiere, a native of the region, is accorded a central place in the oeuvres selected by Jaeger (given carte blanche by the museum, an indication of the trust he’s earned with the community) for this latest exhibition, accompanied by major examples from Jean Dubuffet, Vieira da Silva, Louise Nevelson, Fabienne Verdier, Hans Reichel, Mark Tobey, Nicholas de Stael, Fermin Aguayo, Yang Jiechang, Jean Amado, and Susumu Shingu, the ensemble promising “que d’aventuresoffered to our curiosity, to our search for a real initiation,” as Jaeger puts it. He goes on to praise the Gajac museum as “one of our best provincial museums.” When most Parisians use the term ‘provincial,’ they mean it as an insult, but Jaeger is speaking strictly geographically; there’s nothing provincial about the Gajac programming, which seems more interested in “initiating” its public in major 20th- and 21st-century artistic currents than providing fleeting encounters with random works or catering to existing tastes with sure box-office hits. By comparison, it’s the major exhibitions in Paris and New York this summer that have seemed provincial, with the Petite Palais re-visiting (encore?!) “Paris 1900,” the Pompidou the relationship between Breton and Picabia, the Orsay Van Gogh (albeit as analyzed by Artaud), and New York’s Museum of Modern Art the Paris of Toulouse-Lautrec.

bucher destael

Nicolas de Staël, “Jour de Fete,” 1949. Oil on canvas, 100 x 73 cm. No. 176 of Catalogue Raisonne. Private collection. Courtesy Galerie Jaeger Bucher / Jeanne-Bucher, Paris.

What unites most of the work on display in Villeneuve-sur-Lot is not just that it favors the abstract over the figurative, but that this is abstract art whose complexity invites the viewer to engage. This kind of engagement doesn’t happen overnight. Like the dark malbec-based Cahors wine in the county of the Lot which neighbors Villeneuve-sur-Lot, it’s the fruit of years of cultivation. And indeed, it was more than 50 years ago that the artistic brain trust of Villeneuve-sur-Lot started planting the seeds of artistic appreciation in its community. (The other factor that unites most of the artists in this exhibition, is that — with the exceptions of Dubuffet and de Stael, who can be seen as the elders of the epoch — most are part of a generation of artists who flowered from the late ’40s to late ’60s, a lost generation in the institutional memories of most big-city museums.)

In 1963, as Jacques Balmont, a printer by trade, recounts to Emmanuel Jaeger in the presse dossier for the exhibition, Balmont got together with Rene Verdier, local salon organizer Maurice Fabre, municipal art school founder and painter Pierre Raffi, and bookseller Robert Bonhomme to organize an annual exhibition open to both professionals and amateurs. After successive shows on provincial painters in 1964 and ’65, this informal committee increased the ante in 1966 with an exhibition devoted to the fauve (and Bordelaise) artist Albert Marquet — signaling that they understood something even schooled curators seem to forget, that a museum has a responsibility to rescue significant artists from the ‘oublie.’ (When I meet otherwise cultured young and not-so-young people — even artists — who don’t know who Suzanne Valadon, Berthe Morisot, Marie Laurencin, and Leonor Fini are, I assign their ignorance to the irresponsibility of the museum directors and curators whose sexism has excluded these major artists.) This interest by the local artistic brain trust in highlighting the ‘second tiere’ (not to be confused with ‘also ran’) of major mid-20th century movements continued in 1967 with a biennale featuring 48 works by another Bordeaux-born artist, Andre Lhote, culled principally from Lhote’s widow. But they didn’t stop there; the biennale also included work by Clave, Pignon, Chastel, Louttre-B and 150 provincial painters.

bucher bissiere

Roger Bissiere, “Vert et Ochre,” 1954. Oil on jute canvas, mounted on contreplaque. Courtesy Galerie Jaeger Bucher / Jeanne-Bucher, Paris.

For the next biennale in 1969, it was time for Balmont and associates to finally combine their fidelity to local talent with their curiosity about under-represented international-caliber artists, and for this one figure presented himself: the recently deceased Roger Bissiere, a master of post-War abstraction born in nearby Villereal. Enter Jean-Francois Jaeger.

When the Villeneauve team sought out Bissiere’s son, he told them that they absolutely needed to enroll Saint-Germain des Pres gallerist Jaeger and the Jeanne-Bucher Gallery, which had represented Bissiere since 1951. They would have been happy with enough tableaux for an exhibition focused solely on Bissiere, but Jaeger — in a pattern that would repeat itself over the next 45 years — was thinking bigger. He proposed instead to expand the event under the rubrique “Bissiere and Friends.” “And what friends!” recalls Balmont. In addition to 67 paintings, three tapestries, and 10 lithographs by Bissiere, the exhibition at the Theatre Georges-Leygues included work by Braque, Lhote, Vieira da Silva, and Hans Reichel. This in turn ‘enchaine’ed into a fourth biennale in 1971 consecrated principally to Reichel, a disciple of Bauhaus and compagnon de route of Paul Klee, Lawrence Durrell, Henry Miller, and Anais Nin. The nexus was once again Jaeger who, from the collection of the Jeanne-Bucher Gallery, Reichel’s companion, and private holdings secured 75 watercolors and paintings dating from 1921 to 1958. This grandeur of vision — augmented by a complementary exhibition of other artists — contrasted comically with the seat of the pants logistics, which saw Balmont and his colleagues transporting large-scale works by Hans Hartung, Serge Poliakoff, and others from Paris to the south with municipal trucks typically reserved for filling pot-holes.

The heart of any museum is its permanent collections, which serve both as a pedagogic reference and a potential treasure chest for future acquisitions. Perhaps impressed by the community’s seriousness in establishing an acquisition fund in 1976, Jaeger next convinced Louttre-B, Bissiere’s son, to make the Musee Rapin, Gajac’s predecessor museum, the depository for his 220 existing engravings and any to come.

Unfortunately, the downside of government investment in the arts is that it leaves the arts vulnerable to changes of personnel and policy (curators propose, politicians dispose….). (That the legendary French singer-songwriter Charles Trenet is its most famous export didn’t stop the new mayor of the Languedoc town of Narbonne from de-funding and effectively canceling this year’s edition of the prestigious Trenet festival. And while Villeneuve’s current mayor proudly proclaims the town’s policy of making culture “accessible to all,” Alain Juppe, mayor of the regional capital of Bordeaux, former prime minister, foreign minister, and presidential candidate, recently revealed himself as a small thinker when it comes to the arts by eliminating free access to the permanent collections of the municipal museums.) Thus it was that Jaeger’s subsequent enlistment of Francis Mathey, who as chief conservateur of the Museum of Decorative Arts in Paris had introduced Dubuffet, Balthus, Yves Klein, Pierre Soulages and a generation of young artists in France (“One of my mentors,” Jaeger says, “the first to open his museum to living artists never before exhibited in France”) in Villeneuve’s artistic future went for naught after a new government elected in 1977 lost interest in the project. It took 25 years and another change at city hall for a planned museum of art and history of the Valley of the Lot in a renovated ancient mill to be re-oriented into a museum of beaux-arts. Once again, indigenous resources and the global view of Jaeger combined in 2003 for the (re) inaugural exhibition, “Mere Algere, couleurs de Sud,” whose fount was several works donated by Maria Manton, part of the brain trust of previous exhibitions and a major Algerian-born artist. Next came “L’action pensive” in 2007, built around post-war giants of Abstraction like Nicholas de Stael, Poliakoff, Bissiere, Vieira da Silva, and Louis Nollard, followed in 2008 by “La representation pensive,” dedicated to figurative artists of the same epoch, with oeuvres lent by the Centre Georges Pompidou, the Museum of Modern Art of the city of Paris, and the Fondation Dubuffet. The ante was upped even further in 2010. Inspired by commemorations of the 80th anniversary of the Spanish Civil War, and cognizant of the region’s role in welcoming exiles of the Franco regime, Jaeger and crew programmed “Spain, the dark years,” convincing leading French and Spanish museums to loan work by Miro, Julio Gonzalez, Fermin Aguayo, and even Picasso’s tapisserie for “Guernica.”

In the press dossier for “A Passion for Art: Jean-Francois Jaeger and the Jeanne-Bucher Gallery,” Emmanuel Jaeger, noting the evident complicity between Balmont and Jaeger, asks the former whether there’s any single element linking Villeneuve and the gallery.

“It was after ‘Bissiere and his Friends’ and ‘Hans Reichel’ that a friendship was really born between us,” Balmont recounts. “Every time I go to Paris, my route takes me immediately to the rue de Seine, to see Jean-Francois. Our conversations have enriched me as privileged moments of discovery and knowledge…. Besides the links of friendship, of a cultural connivance, I think that Jean-Francois was drawn to our little provincial town which made the choice early on to expose its citizens to the art of its time. The will of the Gajac Museum to initiate, to democratize modern and contemporary art corroborate perfectly the fabulous trajectory of Jean-Francois and the Gallery Jaeger-Bucher/Jeanne-Bucher.” And for Jaeger, “Every return to the country of Bissiere procures for me an intense emotion and vivid sentiment of recognition for he who taught me everything when I was just beginning.” Not that the education ever stopped. “It’s in the contact with artists, and the example of their own permanent curiosity, that we have been able to refine our knowledge, not in the history of art but in its practice, in the service of those on whom destiny had conferred special gifts,” says Jaeger. “Those who make history do not constantly refer to the past, but listen to what a creator’s temperament can bring them to discover in themselves.”

Trolling the galleries around Saint-Germain des Pres on a late July afternoon, starting out on the rue de Seine, I wandered into a deserted courtyard at the base of which was an unobtrusive gallery. With no glitz and nary a mis-en-scene, the four walls sported treasures by Bissiere and Vieira da Silva, among others, which expressed not only their authors’ visions but the zeitgeist of a whole artistic era. A young woman dressed in black was occupied scribbling notes behind her desk. From a desk near hers, a dapper man dressed in a drab brown suit, tan slacks, and dark loafers murmured something before slowly rising to take the air outside the gallery. No glamour. No glad-handling. (And no other visitors in the gallery besides me.) And yet this was the man who, with no fanfare, has for nearly 70 years quietly created a home for contemporary artists typically ignored (until they’re dead anyway) by the major museums (Dubuffet was for years excluded by the Pompidou) not only in the heart of artistic Paris but, in a France perpetually obsessed with ‘decentralization’ (it even has its own ministry) in France profund. In a milieu more and more dominated by art dealers, Jean-Francois Jaeger is an art promulgator, ensuring that art doesn’t remain the province of the privileged but privileges the provinces.

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