The artist Martin Barré pursued a solitary course whose successive phases represent differing attempts to find a language of his own. His distinctive style of painting, which deliberately rejects Tachisme and Art informel on account of their underlying naturalist references, makes him one of the most unusual artists of his generation.
As an adolescent, he was a vocal admirer of Léger, Oscar Schlemmer and especially Le Corbusier and Adolf Loos. Barré's father was an architect, and he enrolled for the architecture course at Nantes School of Fine Art as a matter of course. However, he very soon joined Deltombe's painting class (1939-1943), which led him to see the works of Gauguin and Cézanne in a new light. In 1943, Barré walked to Paris in five days. He studied in art in private academies, travelling backwards and forwards between Paris and Nantes. In 1945, he made the acquaintance of Michel Ragon in Nantes. Ragon was to become the artist's friend and supporter, championing his painting for many years.
Barré worked as a stage designer for Nantes' experimental theatre in 1946-1947 and had an exhibition in Michel Colemb's gallery in 1946. At that time, he was influenced by post-Cubism and the works of Picasso and Miro.
From 1948 onwards, Barré was based in Paris, where he presented the results of his explorations of figurative art in his first exhibition at the Vert-Galant Gallery in 1949 - drawings of plants and animals in a simplified style, which stood out boldly against the white of the paper.
His transition to abstraction was seamless. He produced first geometrical collages, then lyrical abstract gouaches (in 1950-1951), but their formlessness left him unsatisfied. He was already experimenting widely with painting techniques, using non-traditional tools and materials and allowing form to be dictated by the equipment used. He produced gouaches using the handle of a paintbrush in 1951, painted in plaka, and used wooden backings in rounded shapes for a set of orange gouaches in 1952. He was to return to the problem of dimensions between 1958 and 1960, making his own frames to the size and shape he required. In 1953, he used bottles to throw paint in in a series that anticipated Tachisme before the term was invented. Many of his works were destroyed either deliberately or by necessity - he would strip down and re-use the canvases. In autumn 1953, Ragon let Barré have his room in the Rue des Saints-Pères, where he painted using a putty-knife.
Barré's work really began in 1954 - the year when it came to the notice of the public, with the two paintings he showed in the SaIon des Réalités Nouvelles.
In 1955, he had a first exhibition of abstract paintings in the La Roue Gallery, for which Ragon wrote a catalogue preface. All the characteristic features of his visual universe were now present. Its primary feature was its direct line of descent from Mondrian and above all Malevich. Barré himself proclaimed this lineage. He knew that since the first Black Square on a white ground, painted in 1913, figurative painting was a dead end. Given that this limited the means available to him, his concern was to integrate the "ground" of the picture with the shapes stuck onto it. His endeavours to achieve a high degree of intelligibility gave rise to static, asymmetric shapes with horizontals and verticals that gradually come to life, enacting their transformations on a totally white ground - for, since Malevich's Black Square, Barré was in no doubt: "All painting seems to me to lead to and set off from Malevich's black square on a white ground."
He began to use elongated shapes, then open triangles and rectangles that highlighted the importance of empty spaces in relation to solid shapes. He abandoned his former limited palette of red ochre, white and Prussian blue (which nonetheless enabled him to obtain greys, browns and blacks by mixing), instead using black and yellow ochre jaune for dark areas, contrasted with an increasingly intricate light ground, tinged with yellowish and greenish greys (1957).
These pictures were first shown in 1956 at the La Roue Gallery, again with a catalogue preface by Ragon.
In 1957, the Arnaud Gallery held a third solo exhibition of Barré's work. The pictures were painted with a knife and dominated by meticulously -worked whites ranging "from blinding to velvety" (Ragon). Mobile embedded shapes appeared, particularly as a result of the prominence given to the backing revealed by scratching the canvas with framing rods. Black played an important part in a palette based on sienna and subtle touches of Naples yellow. Following his visits to Holland, where he studied Rembrandt, Hals, Vermeer and Malevich with absorption, then Spain, where he became fascinated by Greco and Vélasquez, Barré's touch became more gestural.
He exhibited at the Arnaud Gallery again in 1959. In May, he showed meticulous gouaches with reserved areas that gave full weight to the white of the paper, and in November, white and black paintings. Barré said of these monochromatic paintings, which were criticised by some: "My white period (in 1959), which the first viewers probably saw as non-coloured, is in fact quite the reverse. In my work, it represents the advent of colour, because colour takes over from form and ground. Colour becomes space." (Interviews with Michel Ragon, cited in Vingt-cinq ans d'Art vivant, Galilée, 1986)
In 1960, he returned to oils, tracing lines by applying tubes of paint directly to the surface, which created the sensation that the space defined by this imprint extended beyond the frame. Michel Ragon published his monograph Martin Barré ou la poétique de l'espace, published by Arnaud.
The Arnaud Gallery held exhibitions of his work in 1960, 1962, 1964, 1967 and 1968. He then embarked on a more Baroque type of painting.
Barré never ceased to explore, constantly questioning his earlier achievements. As he saw it, his pictures "open directly onto the world we live in and it are best seen as reflecting the human milieu as it should be or ought to become."
Barré took part in many group exhibitions in France and abroad, including:
1955: "Dix-sept Peintres de la Génération nouvelle", Kléber Gallery, Paris.
"L'Aventure de l'Art abstrait", Arnaud Gallery, Paris and Festival de l'art d'avant-garde, Cité Radieuse (designed by Le Corbusier), Marseille
"Cinquante ans de peinture abstraite", Creuze Gallery, Paris
"Jeunes Peintres" (Barré, Guitet, G. Resse) and "Eloge du petit format II", La Roue Gallery.
1956-1957: "Pentagone", Arnaud Gallery.
"gouaches et collages", Le Gendre Gallery
Festival de l'art d'avant-garde, Cité Radieuse, Rezé-lès-Nantes
"Nouvelle Ecole de Paris", Bridgestone Gallery, Tokyo.
"Sixteen Painters of the École de Paris", Mexico City
"Nouvelle École de Paris", Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto and Nagoya
"Divergences 6", Arnaud Gallery
"Rencontre d'Octobre", Nantes Museum.
"La Escuela de Paris", Museo de Bellas Artes, Caracas
Artists shortlisted for the Lissone Award
"La Peinture actuelle", Arnaud Gallery.
1959-1960: "Divergences 7", Verviers.
"Expressions d'aujourd'hui", Château de Lunéville
"La Peinture française d'aujourd'hui", Tel Aviv Museum of Art.
"Les jeunes critiques avaient choisi", Arnaud Gallery.
Works in the 1954, 1956 and 1957 editions of Salon des Réalités Nouvelles, the 1961 Salon de Mai and the 1957, 1958 and 1959 Salon Comparaisons.
Invited to exhibit in the Charpentier Gallery for the École de Paris in 1961.
Exhibitions at the Gillespie-Laage-Salomon Gallery in Paris since 1981. (Catalogues)
1979 Works from 1960 to 1978, ARC, City of Paris Museum of Modern Art. (Catalogue)
1987 Works from 1954 to 1961, J. Barbier Gallery, FIAC (in Cimaise
1989 Barré retrospective. Nantes and Tourcoing Museums and Galerie des Ponchettes, Nice. (Catalogue)
1993 "Martin Barré - Les Années Quatre-Vingt", Galerie Nationale du Jeu de Paume, Paris
2019-2020 Martin Barré retrospective.
2020-2021 Martin Barré retrospective. Centre Pompidou Paris. Catalogue. Museums
- National Museum of Modern Art, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris
- Paris, Lille and Nantes Museums of Modern Art
- Guggenheim Foundation, New York
- Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (Texas)
- Museum of Modern Art, Rio de Janeiro
- Moderna Museet, Stockholm
- Nasjonalgalleriet, Oslo
- Sonja Henie-Niels Onstad Kunstsenter, Hövikodden, Oslo
Michel Ragon: « Seize Peintres de la Jeune Ecole de Paris ». Musée de Poche. Ed. G. Fall 1956
Excerpt from L’École de Paris 1945–1965: Dictionnaire des peintres
Ides et Calendes Editions, courtesy of Lydia Harambourg www.idesetcalendes.com