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1 Painting in Collection

Paule Vezelay


(1892 - 1984) England

Paule Vezelay was one of the first British artists to explore abstraction. At a time when British society was suspicious of modernism, Vezelay became familiar with the ideas of European modernists and forged a significant place for herself among early abstractionists. In addition to being an important painter and sculptor, Vezelay was an illustrator, writer and textile designer.

Born Marjorie Watson-Williams, Vezelay'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. Her early illustrations were praised for their wit and humor. In 1920 she went to Paris where she found the creative atmosphere highly stimulating. It was in Paris that Vezelay began to paint seriously.

In 1926 Vezelay moved to France 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. To celebrate her new home and her newly found direction, she changed her name to Paule Vezelay, in honor of the church at Vezelay.

In the early 1920s, Vezelay did a circus series of clowns and tightrope walkers that reveal both cubist and surrealist influences. Curvilinear lines and forms in space defined her first abstract works, begun in 1928. Between 1928 and 1930, real objects gave way to abstracted forms-shapes float, lines intertwine, arabesques dance in open space. Art historian Ronald Alley 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 Vezelay's place among the Parisian avant-garde.

From 1929 to 1937 she exhibited at the Salon des Surindependants where she met other women painters including Christine Boumeester, Sophie Tauber-Arp and Marquerite Duthuit, Matisse's daughter. In 1929 Vezelay fell in love with surrealist painter Andre Masson. She lived with Masson for four years, during which time she painted Personnages sur un Toit. This work with its rounded forms and dancing shapes illustrates Vezelay's growing interest in the organic biomorphs of Hans Arp, who had become a close friend. Personnages is a transition piece that recalls the realistic whimsy and animation of the circus series bur the simple shapes anticipate the forms explored in later, purely abstract pieces.

In the early thirties Vezelay began to simplify her work, eventually paring it down to a few clearly defined organic forms floating on contrasting planes of color. In 1934 Vezelay became a member of Abstraction-Creation, a group of international abstract painters which included Hans Arp and Alfred Gleizes. At this point, Vezelay began to experiment with sculpture, which resulted in an important body of sculpture entitled Lines in Space.

After the war broke out Vezelay returned home to Bristol, England to care for her parents. She never returned to Paris but her work continued to be exhibited in private galleries in London and Paris. In 1965 she was included in the London Group exhibition at the Tate Gallery; shortly thereafter the Grosvenor Gallery gave her a retrospective.

In 1980 Virginia Zabriskie Gallery held a retrospective exhibition in New York and Vezelay requested 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 Vezelay's work and the British Broadcasting Company devoted a program to her in Women of our Century. She died at age 92.

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