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1 Painting in Collection

Paule Vezelay

Vézelay, PAULE

(1892 - 1984) England

Works in Select Public Collections

Tate Gallery, London, England; The British Museum, London, England; National Portrait Gallery, London, England; Victoria and Albert Museum, London, England; Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, England; Kunst Museum, Basel, Switzerland; Australian National Gallery, Canberra; Foundation Berando, Museum of Modern Art, Sintra, Portugal; Centre for the Study of Sculpture, Henry Moore Institute, Leeds, England; Art Institute of Chicago, IL 

Select Recent Exhibitions

Paule Vézelay, 1892-1984: Retrospective, England & Co, London, England, 2004

Women Artists in the Modernist Tradition, Boise Art Museum, ID, 2002

Personnages Sur un Toit Included 

Uncovered and Recovered: Women Artists in the Modernist Tradition, Sun Valley Museum of Art, Ketchum, ID, 1999

 Personnages Sur un Toit Included

Paule Vézelay: Early Work 1909-1939, Michael Parkin Fine Art, London, England, 1988

Included Personnages Sur un Toit

Paule Vézelay, Retrospective, Tate Gallery, London, England, 1983

Geometric Abstraction: 1926-1942, Dallas Museum of Fine Arts, TX, 1972


Paule Vézelay, 1892-1984: Retrospective, England & Co, London, England, 2004

Paule Vézelay by Ronald Alley, exhibition catalogue, The Tate Gallery, London, 1983

Other Resources

Women of Our Century, PBS Interview with Germaine Greer, 1984:

Born 1892 Clifton, Bristol, England
Died 1984 Mortlake, London, England

Paule Vézelay was one of the first British artists to commit to abstraction. During her lifetime she contributed numerous innovations to abstract forms, developing a visual language of non-representational shapes that were born out of a desire to activate the imagination. At a time when British society was suspicious of modernism, Vézelay aligned herself with France’s modernists and forged a significant place for herself among early abstractionists. In addition to being an important painter and sculptor, Vézelay was an illustrator, writer and textile designer.

Born Marjorie Watson-Williams, Vézelay's early study involved three years of life drawing and painting classes in Bristol. In 1912 she moved to London and enrolled in the London School of Art and took printmaking classes at night at Chelsea Polytechnic. Her early illustrations were praised for their wit and humor. She became known for these illustrations as well as for her lithographs and woodcuts.

In 1920 she made a life changing excursion to Paris where she found the creative atmosphere highly stimulating. It was in Paris that Vézelay began to paint seriously. Her early works were figurative and impressionistic and then became simpler and further reduced. In 1921 her first one person exhibition at Dorien Leigh Galleries in London included paintings, drawings and woodcuts. In 1922 she became a member of the London Group and exhibited often with them until 1933. In 1923-24 she went behind the scenes to make paintings and prints of the Cirque Medrano in Paris. The resulting series of clowns and tightrope walkers reveal both cubist and surrealist influences.

In 1926 Vézelay settled in Paris and became part of a circle of international artists that constituted the School of Paris. She met many of the leading modernists including Picasso, Matisse, Kandinsky and Gris and soon became an established member of artistic and intellectual circles. She developed a lifelong friendship with Hans Arp and Sophie Taeuber-Arp. To celebrate her new home and her newly found direction, she changed her name to Paule Vézelay, in honor of the church in Vézelay, France.

Vézelay began her abstract works in 1928 where curvilinear lines and forms in space make up lively compositions, some containing vaguely figurative imagery. Between 1928 and 1930, real objects gave way to purely abstracted forms—shapes float, lines intertwine, arabesques dance in open space. Ronald Alley, curator of her 1983 retrospective, comments that these pictures, in which a delicate poetic sensibility is allied with a gift for pictorial organization, are among the most remarkable of all her works. The paintings received high praise and helped secure Vézelay's place among the Parisian avant-garde.

In 1929 Vézelay and surrealist painter Andre Masson are introduced and immediately fall in love. The couple live and work together for four years. Their engagement is eventually broken off by Vézelay because of Masson’s violent mood swings.

Personnages sur un Toit was painted at the beginning of Masson and Vézelay’s relationship and reflects a playfulness and freedom that is uncharacteristic of surrealism. This work with its rounded forms and dancing shapes illustrates Vézelay's growing interest in organic, biomorphic forms. Hans Arp and Vézelay are clearly looking at one another’s work and responding with similar abstract shapes. While historical texts indicate that Vézelay was influenced by Arp, it may have been the other way around. We know Arp frequented her studio and spent time with her art.

The roman arcades in Personnages are similar in form to another surrealist’s work. Giorgio de Chirico and Vézelay could have easily met and shared ideas as they were active in the same circles in Paris in the 1920s. Vézelay did not fully embrace the surrealist’s iconography or metaphysical approach to image making. For Vézelay, Personnage is a transition piece that recalls the realistic whimsy and animation of the earlier circus series but contains the simple, flat shapes that she explores in later, purely abstract pieces.

From 1929 to 1937 she exhibited at the Salon des Surindépendants where she met and befriended other women painters including Christine Boumeester, Sophie Tauber-Arp and Marquerite Duthuit, Matisse's daughter. In the early thirties, Vézelay simplifies her work further, eventually paring it down to a few clearly defined organic forms floating on contrasting planes of color. In 1934 she joined Abstraction-Creation, a group of international abstract painters which included Hans Arp, Piet Mondrian, Barbara Hepworth and Alfred Gleizes. The group, which eventually grew to 400 members, advocated for abstraction, formal purity and non-objectivity.

Around 1935-36, Vézelay began to experiment with sculpture, which resulted in an important body of abstract constructions made from wire and thread, entitled Lines in Space. They were recognized as a breakthrough and she exhibited them at Galerie Jeanne Bucher in 1937 and in 1938 in a major survey of abstract art at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. In 1956 critic Marcel Brion wrote in Art Abstrait that with these works, Vézelay “realised a completely original and independent conception for the expression of form in space, by means of a most delicate, most supple and difficult technique. The nobility and purity, the intensity of expression, which must command our admiration, constitute her mastery of this art” Unfortunately, the outbreak of the war came at just the moment when Vézelay’s reputation was growing and international attention was coming her way.

With the onset of WWII Vézelay returned home to Bristol, England to care for her parents. Isolated from her fellow artists she made little work during her three years there. After the war she returned to Paris but could not find an affordable studio so instead she took an apartment in London. While her work continued to be exhibited in galleries in both London and Paris she never fully found her place in London’s art scene. She became more involved in designing printed textiles, which she had been doing on and off for some time. In 1949 she became a member of the Society of Industrial Designers and Artists. For ten years Heal Fabrics Ltd of London produced her textile designs and entered them into international competitions.

In 1980 Virginia Zabriskie Gallery held a retrospective exhibition of Paule Vézelay’s art in New York. Vézelay wrote the dealer a letter requesting that I am not presented as a very old female artist of 87... My own work has always been judged on its merit and quality. I am the first English abstract artist (not the first female artist) to have made an international reputation. In 1983 the Tate Gallery in London presented a retrospective of Vézelay's work which was to be part of a 90th birthday celebration. The following year the British Broadcasting Company devoted a program to her in Women of our Century.

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