Auguste Herbin (1882-1960) Composition (Painted in 1928)

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Lot 31AR
Auguste Herbin
(French, 1882-1960)

Sold for £ 209,000 (US$ 294,699) inc. premium
Auguste Herbin (1882-1960)
signed 'Herbin' (lower left)
oil on canvas
162.5 x 114.6cm (64 x 45 1/8in).
Painted in 1928


  • The authenticity of this work has kindly been confirmed by Madame Geneviève Claisse.

    The present work was painted for the apartment of Léonce Rosenberg at 75 rue de Longchamp, Paris, and formed one of the panels of the original triptych.

    Léonce Rosenberg Collection, Paris (acquired directly from the artist).
    Private collection, France.
    Private collection, Paris (acquired from the above, 1975).

    Exh. cat., Herbin, Paris, 1994 (illustrated p. 69).

    The great visionary Auguste Herbin first explored Abstract art in 1917 when he proclaimed the architectural purpose of painting, and further asserting his theory, declared in 1919 in a letter to Albert Gleizes that 'L'art ne peut être que monumental' (A. Herbin quoted in G. Claisse, Herbin, catalogue raisonné de l'oeuvre peint, Lausanne, 1993, p. 85). He renounced his initial figurative and Cubist styles and produced a series of large scale works titled Objets monumentaux, the first of which was Danseuse-Silhouette sur 2 plans, an admirable composition sitting on the cusp of painting and sculpture. Painted in 1928, the present work, titled Composition, belongs to Herbin's second and major wave of Abstraction, which started in 1927 and would last until his death in 1960.

    Auguste Herbin came from humble and hardworking beginnings. Born in 1882 near the Belgian frontier, to parents who were workers at a textile factory, and the eldest of three, he spent the first ten or so years of his life helping to look after his young siblings whilst his parents worked fourteen hour shifts to provide for the family. Accustomed to hard work, the young Herbin left school at twelve and entered a bailiff's office where he worked as a script boy by day; by night he studied drawing at the cours municipal. Gifted with a remarkable aptitude for drawing, Herbin went on to secure a scholarship and attended the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Lille from 1900.

    Herbin's background was directly reflected in his methodical, rational technique. Soon after arriving in Paris, he joined the Impressionists and the Fauves, and after a few years working almost in isolation, moved to the Bateau Lavoir, the landmark of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, and quickly became one of the pivotal figures of Cubism and Synthetic-Cubism. Naturally drawn to structural forms, encouraged by Picasso and Juan Gris to explore a more abstracted means of pictorial imagery, and in keeping with Cézanne's vision to treat nature as 'the cone, the sphere and the cylinder', Herbin began reducing his subjects into a series of cylindrical shapes. Gradually ascertaining Constructivism, and later associated with the movements Orphism, Purism and New Objectivity, he proclaimed the emergence of geometric abstraction and became a pioneer of Abstract art. Resolutely abandoning Cubism, his focus turned to monumental, linear, almost mechanical compositions and to the use of bold colours using all the nuances of the spectrum of light. The innovative paintings earned him the utmost respect and recognition of the greatest collectors including Léonce Rosenberg, founder of the Galerie de l'Effort Moderne, who dedicated numerous solo exhibitions to Herbin from 1918. The present work, which originally formed one of the panels of a triptych, was painted specifically for Rosenberg's apartment at 75 rue de Longchamps, Paris.

    By 1927, Herbin's take on Abstraction takes a new turn and moving away from pure linear geometric depictions, he makes a transition reducing lines to curves. Totally abstract and uniformly titled Composition or Abstractions, Herbin executed a series of 19 paintings in 1928, of which the present work is a compelling example. Depicting cylinders evoking dynamism the work conveys a great sense of velocity. Herbin's ingenious use of colour unfolds a variety of large and small volumes in hues of dark blue, soft grey and purple, aptly juxtaposed with acid yellow and pistachio green, contrasted with black lines contouring the composition and guiding the viewer through a dynamic design. In his own words, Herbin explained that 'it is necessary to have a colour conceived strictly on the surface, linked to a shape conceived in two dimensions with means and technique without any rapport with the idea object' (A. Herbin quoted in Exh. cat, Herbin, The Plastic Alphabet, Paris, 1973, n. p.). Executed on a large canvas, the composition's scale is impressive, and the dark colour palette he has used lends an enigmatic mood.

    In his quest for the perfect abstract forms and colours, and inspired by Goethe's Zur Farbenlehre, Herbin published in 1946 L'art non-figuratif non-objectif, which established a schematic rhythm between musical notes, colours, forms and the letters of the alphabet. Herbin then went on to conceive a compositional structure called the 'alphabet plastique' which was based on the structure of letters and their correlation with colour, detailing how to transpose them into paintings as can be seen in the painting titled Blue. For example, the letter Y is violet, has the form of a rectangle and relates to the musical note 'si'. These concepts were the precursors of the wider experimentation in Op-art, concrete art and Hard-edge painting. Many of the artists leading the Parisian art scene in the 50s and 60s, such as Victor Vasarely or Günter Fruhtrunk, were influenced by Herbin's theories which formed the core of their artwork. In 1953, Herbin suffered serious paralysis which left him unable to use his right hand. But undeterred by the challenge he quickly learned to paint with his left hand and prolifically produced ever more precise, geometric figures. True to his passion Herbin continued painting relentlessly until the day he died in Paris, the final unfinished work he left, ironically titled Fin.
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