A painter can have many countries. But to have half a dozen of them
risks impoverishment as well as enrichment. Françoise André was born in Vendée
and later studied in Paris. Her
family was Franco-Belgian and she was educated in Brussels. She became Dutch by marriage, and, after emigrating te, the West Coast in 1951, she adopted the Canadian
nationality. She lived in Vancouver for twelve years and taught at the Banff School of Fine Arts for
nineteen summers. She has lived in the United States since 1963, that is, until she returned to Brussels in 1975, but keeping a foot in both worlds by
retaining a studio in Philadelphia, where she returns each year to work.
I do not mean that her art has not
been enriched by these displacements. Rather they have given an edge to her
work, which is highstrung and far from calm. She finds herself, as in Graham
Greene's phrase, "on the dangerous edge of things."
A full retrospective which took place last October 1984 at the
International Cultural Centrum in Antwerp, and which will be shown in Bruges in early 1985, shows the odyssey of a displaced
person. It reveals her as a major artist. There is a constant search - but for
what? The exhibition is labeled "A Quest for an Image of Contemporary Man Across the Atlantic." She may really be searching for
what she has lost, for what we have all lost, for a promise of certainty and
stability in a dynamically deranged world. There lies behind the adventure of
her art a sense of tragedy and desperation. She is not treating humanity
lightly. There is at times almost a sense of hysteria, so strong is the
obsession or the feeling of possession when she undertakes a work.
There are in her career three significant stages. The first began after
she arrived in Vancouver. It was through a chance encounter with the Seattle painter Morris Graves that she came to the West
Coast. Her early work revealed already the makings of a painter. If we feel an
aura in her new work of the mythic, the mystic and the surreal, it came as much
from the exoticism of the newly discovered natural world as from influences
from Graves and Mark Tobey. It was born out of a fusion of
regional content with Abstract Expressionist manner. Her contribution was
truly personal. Unlike most of the others, she never abandoned the figure.
These figures have a hieratic and monolithic quality and a subterranean look,
seeming to partake of the density of rock or to be emerging from primordial
matter. An undercurrent of subdued passion sets her work off from the mandarin
refinement of Graves or the virtuosity of Tobey.
When Françoise André moved to Chicago in 1963 there were new messages in the air. Pop Art
had exploded current orthodoxies. This artistic movement and the evolution of
her art drove her to search out essentials. Her odyssey now took sharp and
contradictory turns. It is impossible not to feel uncomfortable with some of
these pieces. A formal fragmentation was taking place. The paintings seemed to
be assembled by a process of montage. There is a mixture of languages and a
defiance of limitations.
Françoise André had always had an ambition to create monumentally, and
this becomes clearer as her third period takes shape in the seventies. Her
major pieces, like Portrait of an Eye Surgeon are marvels of complexity and
research. We see now that she is a product of European sensitivity and North
Drawing was always the basis of her art, but what distinguishes her
third period is a heightened intensity and sumptuousness of colour. Françoise
André revives a conception of art that has been a long time in eclipse, the
ideal of creating a masterpiece. Twentieth Century artists tend to work as if
to exorcise a demon within them - witness Picasso, Bacon or deKooning. The idea
of a painting being a controlled projection of all that the artist has
mastered, the culmination of a lifetime of learning and experience, has become
strange to us, but it is a view that André demonstrates, and she has taken
risks to do so. In that sense alone her work is heroic. It goes against the
grain of contemporary mental attitudes. Her links with the ideals of the
Symbolists at the end of the 19th Century may explain a certain unease with
which we, blasé in front of ideals or even strong emotions, view work which
seems to be attempting too much, to be too profound. We like to keep cool and
not to hum. Françoise André's work, despite the high polish of a technique that
recalls early Flemish masters, is, like theirs, anything but cool. If the loftiness of her quest upsets us, so much the better.
The anti-heroic stance of our age makes us frightened to gamble with great
themes. The stakes are high and André's work with maturity comes closer to
finding the object of her quest.
Joseph Plaskett, Paris. 1 February 1985