Pierre de Belay the whirl of colour

15th June to 30th September 2024

From Eugène Savigny to Pierre de Belay
Eugène Pierre Savigny, known today as Pierre de Belay, was born in Quimper in 1890. His family lived in the Cap-Horn neighbourhood at 13 bis Rue de Pont-l’Abbé. Raised in an atmosphere that encouraged artistic expression, at an early age he showed a brilliant aptitude for drawing. One of his sisters, Berthe, became a well-known ceramicist, and his brother Joseph committed himself to writing poetry. Savigny’s father Azéma was an amateur painter and introduced his son to plein-air painting. The earliest of his known canvases exude a sincere realism and are painted largely in muted tones. His early work was influenced by the landscapes of Corot and the Barbizon School, but these already dated references were swept aside when he became aware of the Paris avant-garde at its very beginnings in the early 20th century. The young artist began to shed his former identity, signing his works after 1910 with a new name, Pierre Savigny de Belay, and eventually settling on the name of a maternal ancestor: Pierre de Belay. The decade between 1910 and the early 1920s was fraught with difficulties and obstacles to painting. Not only was Pierre de Belay obliged to carry out his three-year military service, but he also faced the misery of WWI. In 1919, he was finally able to paint from life at the studios of Académie de la Grande Chaumière and continue his creative development. The death of his wife and two of his children from tuberculosis dealt him a severe blow in 1922. Fortunately, however, things improved for him in 1923 when he received a commission for a major decorative work in Bénodet and met his sister Madeleine's friend Hélène Dujardin, whom he married in 1926.

The bright lights of Paris
Max Jacob, a fellow Quimperois and friend of the family, held a privileged position in the life of Pierre de Belay. The many portraits de Belay painted of the congenial poet testify to the fruitful friendship that united the two, and to his fascination with the older man. It was Max Jacob who introduced him to the cultural maelstrom sweeping early 20th-century Paris. Jacob was intimate with the literary and artistic avant-garde based in Montmartre, and introduced the young artist to Picasso and Apollinaire. Pierre de Belay observed with interest the launch and enshrinement of Fauvism, Cubism and Surrealism while himself maintaining an absolute freedom of style. The buzz surrounding Montmartre later shifted to Montparnasse, where the artist also found many subjects for his work.  During the 1920s and ’30s, de Belay painted café scenes sometimes inspired by literary references (Verlaine or Paul Fort), virtuoso performances by the acrobats and clowns of Cirque Medrano, and frenzied dancing at venues such as the Bal Tabarin. Though the strains of Paris revelry echo in many of the joyous works he painted during the inter-war years, Pierre de Belay also perceived the more sombre side of life. Somewhere between caricature and raw realism, his portraits of tramps depict a meaner existence, that of outcasts and the needy whose condition reflected the hardships of the Great Depression of 1929.

Brittany: a source of endless inspiration
Brittany is a central theme in Pierre de Belay's artistic career. More than half of his known works portray Breton subjects, from his first major success with the décor of Ker Moor through to his development of the technique he dubbed treillisme in his later years. Beginning in the 1920s, the painter spent almost every summer in the Cornouaille area of western Brittany. He preferred lively places, and fishing ports were among his favourite haunts. The quays of Audierne, Concarneau and, to a lesser extent, Douarnenez appear frequently in both his large-scale and more modestly-sized works. He liked to set up his easel on quays teeming with hefty sailors, relishing the colourful jumble created by the hulls and sails of fishing boats. In their fisherman's smocks, berets and sometimes wearing wooden clogs, the sailors would gather in nearby bars and cafés. De Belay was also drawn to religious and folk celebrations in small towns throughout Cornouaille. Pardon ceremonies such as that of Sainte-Anne-la-Palud provided him with a close look at large gatherings which blended the sacred and the secular. His works depict a living Brittany where traditions were being untethered from the past and renewed to reflect a changing society.

Within the lines: engraving and treillisme
Driven by the wish to achieve more visibility for his art and offer affordably-priced works, Pierre de Belay turned his attention to engraving in the mid 1920s. He rapidly mastered all the techniques, preferring the tradition of working on copper plates. Each year, he created two or three new plates, often etchings that were sometimes enhanced with aquatint. He produced limited series of prints, never numbering more than a hundred, which were sold in specialist galleries such as Sagot-Le Garrec. Many of these prints were of Breton subjects, and de Belay made skilled use of engraving techniques in his depictions of interiors. He sometimes used the natural graphic qualities of the graver to illustrate a passing shower, such as in the print of Rue Kéréon in Quimper. Drawing on his mastery of engraving tools, de Belay invented a new painting technique which he called treillisme. This evocative name was the result of a completely original process which led him, in 1940, to begin painting in a style consisting of the repetition of a delicate network of hatching. Applied to the entire canvas, these coloured lines structure the compositions and create images of lyrical serenity.

Sketches and impressions of the Palais de Justice
From 1932 to 1939, Pierre de Belay took an avid interest in the world of the courtroom and the sometimes dramatic atmosphere of the major trials of the time. Through his journalist contacts, he obtained a press card that enabled him to attend the hearings of the Stavisky affair. The story of this embezzler and his brutal death led to a violent backlash which threatened to topple the government of the Third Republic. Attuned to the intensity of the arguments, Pierre de Belay sketched the rhetorical displays of the lawyers, whose vigorous movements fascinated him. In his attentiveness to the gestures of the actors in this modern tragedy, he echoed the spirit of the works of Honoré Daumier, a painter he greatly admired. The many portraits he drew captured a wide variety of poses, making it possible for him to later develop more ambitious compositions. In 1935, the Katia Granoff gallery held a successful exhibition of his paintings inspired by the Stavisky trial. The monochromatic palette de Belay employed in these works focuses attention on the figures in the courtroom. The palette of sepia tones used for the background serves to accentuate the flowing black robes and white jabots of the famous lawyers. De Belay's eye for detail enabled him to provide a faithful account of a troubled time, recording in images the major trials that took place in the courtrooms of the Palais de Justice.

Applied arts: mind over matter
Pierre de Belay had a great talent for drawing and demonstrated his creativity in the field of applied arts on many occasions.  He had long enjoyed illustrating texts, having been charged with this task by the friends of his youth in Quimper. Although he became interested in the idea of illustrating major literary works by authors such as Balzac, Maupassant or Proust in the 1920s, it was not until 1942 that he was able to throw himself into a commission for two works by Pierre Benoit, The Lady of Lebanon and The Leper King. Ever-respectful of the spirit of the books that he illustrated, he carried out extensive documentary research, as can be seen by the small tracing-paper sketches he made of Angkor Wat in Cambodia for the plates of The Leper King. He was a skilled décor designer and early on made a name for himself through his work in large Parisian cabarets such as the Bal Bullier. In 1939, he was approached by the director of Folkan, the most prominent music-hall theatre in Stockholm, Sweden. As the set and costume designer for a review entitled En Ces Temps Chevaleresques (In These Chivalrous Times), he let his imagination run wild, picturing elaborate productions. The approaching war sadly put an end to this promising collaboration. Always on the lookout for inspiring opportunities, after 1945 de Belay became interested in the renewal of the art of wallpaper design and created several wallpaper patterns on various themes such as hunting. Perfectly suited to woven works, these designs with their large areas of solid colour exude a joyous energy and confirm de Belay's talents in the field of the decorative arts.

Guided tour « Welcome to Brittany! »

Agrandir l'image jpg 397Ko (Voir légende ci-après) (fenêtre modale)

The museum shelters the most comprehensive collection on the history, legends, customs and landscapes of Brittany. From Pont-Aven to the tip of Finistère, the guide brings you to a wonderful journey through time and imposing shores of the region. A tour through the permanent rooms and the Pierre de Belay exhibition, the whirl of color!

Wednesdays 17, 24, 31 July, 7 et 14 August at 11 a.m
1 hour
8 / 5 €
Please, book now (25 places)

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