Born to a Catholic family in Hungary in 1922, Simon Hantaï studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Budapest, then fled Hungary for France at the age of twenty-seven to evade conscription as an emissary for Soviet socialist realist art. Settling in the eclectic artist community of Paris, the artist gained popular attention and critical acclaim for his early surrealist-leaning abstract paintings, in which he used scraps of metal to scrape away layers of paint and build highly textured gestural compositions. These paintings ultimately led to the dramatic reveal in 1960 of Hantaï’s Mariales series, the iconic multidimensional canvases for which the artist is best known. Consisting of only twenty-seven paintings divided into four groups (m.a., m.b., m.c., and m.d.), the Mariales paintings are exceedingly rare. Revered for a thrilling textural quality reminiscent of topographical impressions, the m.d. group, with just four paintings, is the final and arguably most important suite in the whole series. The present work is the ultimate accomplishment of the entire series, as Hantaï pursued different pictorial techniques after completing m.d.4, believing it was impossible to surpass what he had achieved in the culmination of the Mariales paintings. As Hantaï’s style continued to evolve in the ensuing decades, he became progressively dismayed by the superficiality of the art world. Just after representing France at the Venice Biennal in 1982, Hantaï withdrew from the art world through a veil of silence, intending to protest the endemic commercialization of his practice. While this fifteen-year period of reclusivity temporarily mystified the magnitude of Hantaï’s career, the Pompidou’s retrospective in 2013—in which M.D.4 (Mariale) reigned—was a substantial incendiary for reconstituting the grandeur of his legacy.
Unquestionably the most salient and celebrated cycle of works in Hantaï’s oeuvre, the Mariales paintings first introduced Hantaï’s pliage invention to the world. Upon viewing the Mariales works, Hantaï’s friend and fellow artist Daniel Buren described the series as “the most extraordinary paintings, resulting from a new way of painting that he had recently invented and developed, the pliage method...paving the way, in my view, for a tone that seemed incandescent with the creative fire that had kindled it.” (Daniel Buren, "Getting to Know Simon,” in Exh. Cat., Paris, Centre Pompidou, Simon Hantaï, 2013, p. 255) Considering Hantaï’s method to be the most radical expression in painting since Jackson Pollock, Buren described Hantaï’s painting style as “blindly” covering the entire surface of the canvas—a concept that bears specific personal significance to the artist. When Hantaï was eight years old, he went temporarily blind as a result of diphtheria, and consequently remarked how the experience of losing his sight played a pivotal role in his pliage technique, which denies the faculty of sight and the authority of aesthetic control. For Hantaï pliage was a technical solution to his increasing wariness and dissatisfaction for the privilege and authority ascribed to the artist’s hand. Manipulating the canvas, therefore, surrendered the final outcome of the painting to contingency and unconscious intention. By shifting away from the idea of canvas as a passive receiver of paint, Hantaï’s pliage technique represents an unprecedented activation of canvas as the principal catalyst for the final creation. The French filmmaker Jean-Michel Meurice, who compiled a documentary in 1977 on Hantaï’s work, wrote: “The tale of pliage is a tale of blindness and clairvoyance. And that was his true secret. Not seeing. Not knowing. Not calculating. A quiet, serene rule of behavior reduced to its simplest expression. Gestures that were not ritualized but simplified. Closing one’s eyes, forgetting everything, seeing nothing.” (Jean-Michel Meurice, “The Golden Years,” in Exh. Cat. Paris, Centre Pompidou, Simon Hantaï, 2013, p. 258)
Also referred to as the Manteaux de la Vierge (The Cloak of the Virgin) series, Hantaï’s Mariales paintings evoke a significant liturgical allusion to the Catholic tradition in which he was raised. Inspired by religious icons in the stained glass windows of the Chartres Cathedral, Hantaï chose the word Mariale, meaning Marian, to symbolize the Virgin of Mercy who opens her cloak to shelter all possible specimens of humanity—most importantly, the sinful and lowly. Speckled, irregular, and stained, Hantaï’s Mariales paintings metaphorically allude to the immaculate Virgin who harbors and protects the ‘maculate,’ such as the torn and vandalized character of Hantaï’s canvas. Further drawing upon religious imagery, the particular treatment of light and dark links Hantaï’s Mariales to the optical effect of stained glass, where uniquely-shaped prisms of color are brilliantly activated by light that shines through the glass. It is this precise luminosity which distinguishes M.D.4 (Mariale) as an exquisite finale of the series, possessing an unforeseen condition of conflagration and earthly decomposition. Emphasizing the poignancy of the present work, Dominique Fourcade wrote: “In this context, tearing itself away from the series and carrying everything away with it, there is nothing more alive and solemn, not a Sienna red, reddish, orange, more transparent and grave, more tragic or active cut-out than the most serial Mariale m.d.4.” (Dominique Fourcade, “The Mariales, pliage—adventure one,” in Exh. Cat., Paris, Centre Pompidou, Simon Hantaï, 2013, p. 97) Illuminated by a valiant, burning energy, M.D.4 (Mariale) consummates Hantaï’s most esteemed body of work and endures as a shimmering apotheosis of Hantaï’s creative genius.
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