Georges Mathieu - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale London Tuesday, October 20, 2020 | Phillips
  • Overview


    With its hoisting, arcing and expanding black lines, as well as its timid passages of red and blue paint, Petite Torture infligée au Marquis de Coconat et à son complice la Molle forms part of a series of large paintings that the French artist Georges Mathieu conceived in 1960, on the occasion of his exhibition De quelques pompes et supplices sous l’ancienne France, taking place at the Galerie Internationale d’Art Contemporain, Paris, from May to June 1960. ‘The exhibition Pompes et Supplices sous l’ancienne France tackled the theme of The Feast, The Party’, writes Francois Mathey. ‘The Pumps [Pompes], which were both festive and funeral, were the occasion for the exaltation of life and death. The party, as paroxysm of life; torture, as paroxysm of physical suffering. Joy, sadness and moral or physical pain being the three major poles of human sensibilities, from Greco to Rembrandt, from Goya to Picasso’.i Translating the possibilities of joy, sadness, exaltation and suffering into an array of frenzied brushtrokes contained within the centre of a canvas, Petite Torture exemplifies the lyrical abstract style for which Mathieu became known, predominantly vested with the evocative power of calligraphy, and the emotional pontential residing in pictorial movement. Testament to Petite Torture’s importance within Mathieu’s revolutionary oeuvre, the work was included in some of the artist’s most significant exhibitions, notably his landmark retrospective at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, in 1963.


    Detail of the present work. 

    Living as an English teacher and interpreter in Northern France until 1944, Mathieu did not embark on his groundbreaking artistic practice until mid-decade, when he began reading Edward Cankshaw’s Conrad’s Craftsmanship. Discovering Cankshaw’s interpretation of Conrad’s literature as abstract, the artist began thinking that, analogically, painting did not need to be exact or realistic to exist compellingly. Mathieu thereafter decided to ‘break into non-figuration, not by formal paths, but by the spiritual path’, and in doing so, instigated the dawn of Lyrical Abstraction.ii Blending deeper sources of Eastern calligraphy and philosophy within his self-coined movement, the artist created a visual language like no other, characterised by free, emotive compositions, and a stark departure from objective reality. In Petite Torture, movement materialises in loose and precise forms, as the right side of the composition displays a large burst of black paint, and its dialectic counterpart boasts small, quick and decisive strokes. Though the overall image resembles no distinct, pre-existing form, it conveys a sense of motion and agitation that suggests both physicality and musicality – as if the composition were carried by the rhythmic cadence of Mathieu’s painterly movements. ‘These songs of pictural gestures’, René Héron de Villefosse wrote about Mathieu’s compositions.iii Displaying an array of poetic pictorial meanderings, Petite Torture indeed encapsulates the artist’s synaesthetic touch; able to enliven the viewer’s senses.

    'I note that “calligraphy,” the art of the sign par excellence, has managed to liberate itself from the literal content signifier of writing, and it is henceforth only the direct power of meaning, with writing itself outstripping its own fundamental value.' —Georges Mathieu

    Widely accepted as one of the founders of Lyrical Abstraction (a term taking after Jean José Marchand’s description of the artist’s work in 1947), Mathieu quickly distanced himself from Surrealism, Geometric Abstraction, and other movements that dominated the painterly realm of  the 1940s. ‘Finally, a calligrapher in the West!’, exclaimed André Malraux.iv Indeed, Mathieu was ‘certainly well aware of the principles of Chinese calligraphy’, and incorporated a number of stylistic elements that defined the Eastern craft within his own compositions, including ‘a simulation of life in the strokes and a dynamic equilibrium in design’.v Another important visual element distinguishing Mathieu’s work was the presence of amorphous lines, congregating like stains at the centre of his canvases. These betrayed Mathieu’s tendency to squeeze paint directly onto his painterly support, echoing the Tachiste painters who utilised a similar method to convey their sporadic pictorial formations.


    Hybridising a number of genres and techniques to conjure his own painterly universe, Mathieu received incredible praise throughout his career, notably from critics like Clement Greenberg, who deemed him the most powerful amongst his contemporary European painters. Notably, René Héron de Villefosse – chief curator of the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris when the artist’s 1963 retrospective took place there – declared that Mathieu was ‘the most important French painter since Picasso’.vi A sumptuous example from the artist’s oeuvre, executed in an excitingly active and technically prodigious moment of his career, Petite Torture boasts the Mathieu’s most revered idiosyncracies, on a wonderfully larger-than-life format.


    Cut From the Archives



    i François Mathey, Georges Mathieu, Paris, 1989, n.p.

    ii Georges Mathieu, quoted in ‘Georges Mathieu’, Dictionnaire de la peinture, Paris, 2003, reproduced online.

    iii René Héron de Villefosse, Mathieu, exh. cat., Le Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, 1963, n.p.

    iv André Malraux, quoted in Rene Heron de Villefosse, Mathieu, exh. Cat., Le Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, 1963, n.p.

    v Sir Herbert Read, quoted in Chiang Yee, Chinese Calligraphy: An Introduction to its Aesthetic and Technique, London, 1954, n.p.

    vi René Héron de Villefosse, Mathieu, exh. cat., Le Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, 1963, n.p.

    • Provenance

      Succession Georges Mathieu, Paris, no. 658
      Duhamel Fine Art, Paris
      Private Collection, Paris

    • Exhibited

      Paris, Galerie Internationale d’Art Contemporain, De quelques pompes et supplices sous l’ancienne France, May – June 1960, no. 7
      Pittsburgh, Carnegie Institute, The 1961 Pittsburg International Exhibition of Contemporary Painting and Sculpture, 27 October 1961 - 7 January 1962, no. 254, n.p.
      Paris, Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, Mathieu, 29 March – 20 May 1963, no. 74

    • Literature

      François Mathey, Georges Mathieu, Paris, 1969, no. 154, p. 45 (illustrated, n.p.)
      François Mathey, Georges Mathieu, Paris, 1989, no. 88 (illustrated, n.p.)


Petite Torture infligée au Marquis de Coconat et à son complice la Môle

signed 'Mathieu 60' lower right; further signed, titled and dated 'Petite Torture infligée au Marquis de Coconat et à son complice la Môle. Mathieu 1960' on the stretcher
oil on canvas
250 x 300 cm (98 3/8 x 118 1/8 in.)
Painted in May 1960.

This work will be included in the forthcoming catalogue raisonné, currently being prepared by Le Comité Georges Mathieu under no. GM60038, and is accompanied by a certificate of authenticity issued by Le Comité Georges Mathieu.

Full Cataloguing

£250,000 - 350,000 

Sold for £252,000

Contact Specialist

Kate Bryan
Specialist, Head of Evening Sale
+44 20 7318 4026

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

London Auction 20 October 2020