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Watercolours from the cloister

The monastic life according to mère Geneviève

Marcelle Gallois was born in Paris in 1888 into a family of limited religious sympathy. After having attended the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Montpellier, and later in Paris, she was discovered by the French illustrator and caricaturist Adolphe Willette, who encourages her to experiment with satirical drawing, isolating with a touch of irony, but not relocated, passers-by and street scenes. Following a deep existential crisis in September 1917, Marcelle enters the Benedictine monastery of Saint Louis du Temple in Paris, taking the name of mère Genevieve. For several years, within the cloister, her creativity is greatly limited: the young nun, faithful to the vow of obedience, is destined for other activities.

In 1931, some of her sketches drawn for a benefit sale fall into the hands of Paul Alexandre, friend and talent scout of  Modigliani, who is struck by the emotivity and freshness of the drawings. To him belongs the merit of having understood and appreciated her great artistic potential, supporting and encouraging her difficult journey as an artist within the monastic cloister.

A prolific artist, mère Genevieve expresses herself through different mediums, moving from oil painting to embroidery, to engraving, and the creation of stained glass. Her most original contribution is surely made up of her numerous watercolour paintings with which she catches - thanks to an original style and a unique spontaneity- the unchanging character of daily monastic life.

Even before her death in 1967, thanks to Paul Alexandre, the work of mère Geneviève already aroused the interest of contemporary critics such as André Malraux. Adolphe Willette compares her style to Toulouse-Lautrec in her capacity to capture, with a quick stroke, the grotesque outline and sometimes caricature of her subjects. In 1951 thanks to François Mauriac, a great debate begins on the modernity and meaning of sacred art, and the work of mère Geneviève is compared to Georges Rouault in his role in the renewal of sacred art.

During the last few years of her life, beginning from 1950, mère Geneviève dedicates herself to the realization of two large series of engravings, having as their theme the Passion of Christ and La vie du petit saint Placide , based on an explanation of Luke’s Gospel. Finally, the cycle of stained glass windows for the abbey of Limon-Vauhallan and for the church of Petit-Appeville , to which she dedicated herself from 1955 to 1962, the year of her death.

Despite the fact that her monastic life prevented her from direct contact with contemporary artists, mère Genevieve was always in step with emerging artistic trends, and even though she dealt with different themes, her style adhered fully to the birth of what would soon to be known as graphic design. The use of primary colours, abrupt strokes, geometric partition of the workspace, the reduction of anatomy to a pure symbol of gesture and the use of sans serif typography, these are the great innovations that the artist brings to her work.

But in the context of the time we see the same style taken on by Scandinavian expressionists, by “De stile”, by Bauhaus and the artistic production of artists belonging to the Vienna Secession.

At the centre of mère Genevieve’s attention there is the monastic life in all of its aspects, presented in approximately 150 watercolours, which make up the substantial and most characteristic part of her artistic production.  This is where the artist lets her gaze linger on the unfolding of time in order to freeze, from matins to compline, all the moments of monastic life. Later her gaze shifts from the spaces of the religious dimension to focus on les bisognes basses et abjectes of the kitchen, the laundry, and on to each single humble and manual activity.

On simple sheets (usually 213 x 278 mm) prepared with glue and plaster, the artist works with an incisive and strong stroke, without a second thought. A few strokes to outline, with psychological acuity, her fellow sisters, using a well-monitored range of tones, from browns to intense blue. If the scene occupies an important part of the sheet it is the text that accompanies it, which clarifies the more intimate meaning, taking inspiration  from the Psalms and the works of Paul Claudel or Charles Péguy  with an extremely innovative and graphically modern relationship between image and writing. .

A sense of colour and artistic gesture, humour and a profound religious spirit emanate from these works, to which several exhibitions have already been dedicated, including, most recently, the exhibitions held at the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Rouen (May 14 - August 23, 2004) and the Musée National de Port Royal des Champs (April 10 to July 7, 2008).

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