Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Mathurin Méheut: an artist at war

The opening of a new exhibition is as good a reason as any to mention a favourite artist, Mathurin Méheut.

Méheut was born in Lamballe (Côtes d'Armor) in 1882. His early career was spent as an illustrator, first for the magazine Art et Décoration, and then for the marine research establishment at Roscoff, illustrating marine flora and fauna. In 1913, he won a travelling scholarship from the Albert Kahn Foundation, to paint in Japan. The trip was interrupted by the outbreak of war.

He was recalled into the 136th Infantry, and served with them as a sergeant and sous-lieutenant in Artois and the Argonne. Between 1916 and 1917, promoted to lieutenant, he served with the Army's Topographical Section, responsible for the Army's mapping, firstly at Sainte-Ménéhould with 10th Corps, and then with 1st Army at Bergues, in Flanders. He continued to draw and paint whilst in the trenches. But his work would not consist of heroic battle scenes, like those made famous by the likes of Edouard Detaille or Alphonse de Neuville, rather it concentrated on intimate scenes of soldiers and daily life in the trenches. He wrote as many as five letters a day to his wife throughout the war, all full of marginal sketches and illustrations, in addition to more formal studies. 'I have to justify myself as an artist as much as a soldier', he wrote. For him, art was 'the best way I can show friendship and admiration for my brave men', and he would be so happy 'if these poor scraps, which I've drawn as and when I could, could survive.'

 Mark Levitch, in his Panthéon de la Guerre: reconfiguring a panorama of the Great War (Columbia, University of Missouri, 2006) has suggested that an absence of individual portraiture amongst the work of Méheut (and other soldier-artists like Jean-Louis Lefort) served to stress the dehumanization of the war, by depriving soldiers of their individual identity. Yet Méheut himself did not appear to feel dehumanized by any means. 'While the battle was raging off to our left,' he wrote to his wife in May 1915, 'I found a beautiful beetle in the trench, and picked it up. But in sheltering from the shells, I crushed it in my pocket. I was heart-broken.'

A news item from French regional television on his wartime paintings is here.

After demobilisation, he devoted much of his time to illustration, taking much of his inspiration from his native Brittany. He was made an Official Painter to the French Navy in 1921, and also assisted with the internal decoration of nine ocean liners, including the Normandie

His output was prolific throughout his life, working largely in watercolour, but also including pottery and book illustration, houses and public buildings (the Villa Miramar in Cap-Martin for Albert Kahn, and the hall of Heinz Building in Pittsburgh). He died in 1958.

His home town of Lamballe includes a museum devoted to Méheut. A major retrospective of his work opened on 27th February 2013 at the Musée de la Marine in Paris, and will run until 30th June. Denis-Michel Boëll, the curator of the exhibition, gives a video presentation here. The last major retrospective on the artist was in 1982; a video presentation is here. There is also another presentation of some of his works, concentrating on his Breton material, here.

Pictures (top to bottom): A sentry, Bois de la Gruerie, September 1915; Letter in the trenches, November 1914; Grande Place, Arras; An execution; the artist as a young man; the exhibition poster from current exhibition at the Musée de la Marine; one of his Breton pictures - Le pardon de Penhors.