André Devambez, master of artistic incoherence

The retrospective that the Petit Palais is devoting to the little-known André Devambez (1867-1944) starts badly, and ends even worse. It opens with his beginnings: religious subjects in a chiaroscuro that aims to be Remembranesque and is only conventional, subjects and style that earned him, in 1890, the Prix de Rome and five years at the Villa Medici. And the visit almost ends with a very large canvas from 1935, a collective portrait of the thirty-eight serious gentlemen who then populated the French Academy, which is thus celebrating its 300th anniversary. The main interest of this collection of heads is that we recognize very few of them today: some for intellectual reasons – Bergson, Valéry and Mauriac –, others for more fatal ones – Pétain, of whom Devambez painted , in 1932, a full-length portrait, which the exhibition refrains from showing.

If there was nothing else to see than these conventional exercises and family portraits as inert as its gallery of academicians, one would wonder by what aberration a respectable institution would have gone astray in a dubious attempt at rehabilitation. But, past the wall of the beginnings, is discovered a series of clear, light canvases, and on a much less expected subject than the Denial of Saint Peter (1890): planes, painted from above, like an airplane flying above them, with a dive effect and vertigo. And, leaving the overcrowded and dark room on the Quai Conti, one is attracted by a view no less overcrowded, but luminous and painted as from the top of a balloon: a vertical panorama of the Universal Exhibition of 1937, to which are missing neither the pavilion of the IIIe Reich nor that of the USSR.

Encrusted and experimental

So the question is: who is Devambez? The most encrusted of officials or an experimenter who sought to introduce into painting the view from an airplane and the lessons of photography and cinema? Both at the same time, not successively, but simultaneously. And a third still: an illustrator, sometimes in the whimsical and amusing genre, sometimes in a dark genre, for fantastic tales which predict, from the beginning of the XXe century, the appalling consequences of progress. Plus a fourth: a history painter who tries, in the first years of the XXe century, to represent contemporary social manifestations and, thirty years after it took place, the Paris Commune and its cobblestone barricades, then the First World War, in which he took part in the camouflage section and in which he was wounded in 1915.

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