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Jacques Villon (Gaston Duchamp)

French, 1875 - 1963

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French artist Jacques Villon (born Gaston Duchamp, 1875 - 1963), the master of Cubist printmaking, was the elder brother of artists Raymond Duchamp-Villon (1876 - 1918) and Marcel Duchamp (1887 - 1968). The most reserved personality of the three, Villon had a spare and gentle demeanor, accompanied by a devotion to precise analysis and a meticulous attention to process and craftsmanship. A printmaker throughout his career, he also began painting seriously in about 1910 and continued as a painter until his death.

A characteristic aspect of Villon's work is his repetition of subjects. Not only would he repeat a subject in different mediums, but he would also return to it long after its first appearance. He usually portrayed familiar things: friends and family or objects he knew well, such as his brother Raymond's sculptures. Villon closely analyzed his subjects, fragmenting them into Cubist facets, dividing them into stacked planes viewed from above, or infusing them with what he called an inner line of movement. While he had an unsurpassed ability to suggest volume and tone with the black-and-white lines of an etching, he demonstrated an equally acute and subtle sense of color in his paintings that revealed an unexpected baroque aspect of his artistic personality.

The step-by-step process of printmaking and the precision inherent in constructing a Cubist composition were perfectly matched to Villon's sensibilities, for they required a methodical mind. Villon said, "I must have problems to solve," and his gradual development of a graphic language for Cubism provided him with many. For answers he drew from an array of sources, including his study of Leonardo da Vinci's theories of optics and proportion, techniques he learned as a camouflage artist during World War I, conversations with his artist brothers and their avant-garde circle of friends, as well as what he called "solitary work on a private road."

Printmaking and the Duchamp Family

Jacques Villon learned the methods of intaglio printmaking from his maternal grandfather Émile Nicolle (1830 - 1894), who specialized in depictions of Gothic and Renaissance buildings as well as scenes from local life in Rouen, France. The young artist portrayed his grandfather in one of his first etchings in 1891.

Villon moved to Paris to study law in 1894, and he soon began submitting drawings to illustrated newspapers such as Le Courrier français and L'Assiette au Beurre. He simultaneously started producing superb color aquatints in the sophisticated manner of the Belle Époque, many of which were inspired by French artists Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Paul Helleu. In 1904, Villon's brother Marcel came to live with him on the rue Caulaincourt in the Montmartre section of Paris. During that year, the seventeen-year-old Marcel made a group of etchings, including a portrait of their sister Suzanne Duchamp which illustrates the influence of Jacques Villon's elegant style of that period. A few years later, the brothers collaborated on a printed menu for a first communion where they signed their names together on the plate. While Marcel would soon abandon printmaking, Jacques Villon continued to make etchings, aquatints, drypoints, and lithographs for the rest of his life, and his principal reputation as a printmaker, rather than as a painter, persists to this day.

Toward Cubism (1909-12)

"My passage from one form of art to another, from expressive drawing to analytical Cubism took place a little before 1910."

Around 1907, Villon began to make black-and-white etchings and drypoints almost exclusively, abandoning the color aquatints he had previously preferred. Soon he eliminated detail and simplified the forms in his compositions, shifting radically away from the elegant Belle Époque manner. The spare Young Girl at the Piano is among the earliest examples of Villon's new style, foreshadowing his 1911 drypoint portraits of Renée-the daughter of one of his cousins. In his treatment of the dancers in the Ball at the Moulin Rouge and in Musicians at the Bistrot, he continued to portray the cabaret subjects typical of his earlier work. However, rather than describing the figures in detail, he began reducing their forms to simplified patches of parallel strokes--a method that prefigures the segmented, faceted planes in which he rendered the characters in his Cubist prints. In the portraits of Renée, he concentrated on a single massive figure, blocking out large planes that he covered with a network of crossing lines, some of which run through the contours of the figure, integrating it into the surrounding space.

Cubist Prints (1913)

In 1910, Leonardo da Vinci's Treatise on Painting was issued in a French translation, which included a commentary stating that Leonardo practiced the ancient Greek theory of divine proportion, known as the golden section. Leonardo's treatise profoundly influenced Villon's development of a Cubist style, as it did artists such as Fernand Léger, Jean Metzinger, Juan Gris, and Villon's brothers Raymond and Marcel, all of whom regularly met at Villon's studio in Puteaux, outside Paris. Villon gave the name "Section d'Or" (Golden Section) to a 1912 exhibition organized by the Puteaux group.

Leonardo's system for dividing objects into pyramids became the basis for Villon's Cubist compositional structures. According to this system, the viewer perceives an object as divided into the four sides of a pyramid, with the tip originating in the viewer's eye and the object as its base: one side of the pyramid is in shadow, another in light, and the other two are mid-tones. Villon applied Leonardo's theory in his prints of 1913, beginning with the three monumental portraits of his sister Yvonne. In these works, he translated Cubism into the linear techniques of printmaking--filling the broken, segmented planes in his compositions with hatched lines of different spacing, density, and direction. Planes in the deepest shadow were most densely covered with hatchings, while those in bright light were either left vacant or only lightly hatched. Villon developed his Cubist prints in a highly unusual way, making a painting of the composition before he engraved the copper plate. When the plate was printed, the image as it appeared both on the plate and in the painting was reversed.

Villon and Abstraction

"Total abstraction is not for me. I am too fond of life and of semblance."

Villon declared that his work never was completely abstract because the starting point for all of his images was in nature. Nevertheless, in the 1913 drypoint The Tightrope Walker he moved closer to abstraction than ever before, concentrating on expressing the figure's fragile balance on a horizontal plane at the base of the composition and focusing on the light falling on him, rather than describing his physical form.

As his grand "classic" Cubist period drew to a close, Villon returned to an earlier interest in the representation of motion occurring throughout a composition, a concern that emerges more forcefully in his smaller, more dynamic etching The Little Tightrope Walker. There, the figure's point of balance is on a tilted diagonal rather than on a horizontal plane. Villon covered the entire surface with closely spaced, vertical lines and swirling curves that trace the figure's movement. A dark, angular silhouette pointing downward describes his plunge, surrounded by multiple arcs, curves, and arabesques. A similar etching, The Little Machine Shop, portrays mechanical rather than human dynamism. It is the last print Villon made until 1920, after he returned from military service in World War I.

Constructive Decomposition

"Towards the end of the war I treated objects by successive plans. I proceeded by disposing the object in superimposed layers, and that enabled me to confer greater expression to the volume. Each colour-layer being graded, a new object was born, which was finding in itself its own source of lighting."

Villon introduced "constructive decomposition"--his system of dividing objects into stacked planes over which light and shadow are distributed--in the works he created after his service in the camouflage unit of the French army during World War I. Villon was inspired by geographical relief maps, which he had probably encountered during his army service, where superimposed layers of paper are used to indicate the areas of greatest relief. One of the cardinal principles instilled in camouflage artists was the importance of continual awareness of a view from above, a viewpoint that is evident in the etchings of The Chessboard, Bird, and Nobility. While Villon varied the colors of each stacked plane in the paintings where he used constructive decomposition, in his etchings he infinitely modified the density of lines or, as in Nobility, used a roulette to change the textures of the planes.

A Note on Jacques Villon's Name and Its Pronunciation

Jacques Villon was born Gaston Duchamp, a name that he changed in the mid-1890s when he moved from Rouen to Paris and took up a career as an artist. He took the last name "Villon" from the medieval poet François Villon. According to a friend, "Out of delicacy, [Villon] always pronounced the name giving the two l's a pure 'l' sound, and not the French 'y' sound customarily used in pronouncing the name of the poet. 'It seemed more respectful not to take over his name entirely,' he once said." "Jacques" came from Alphonse Daudet's novel, Jack, which appeared in Paris in 1876, and whose hero--a boy shattered by the harshness of the industrialized world--Villon found a sympathetic character.

Jacques Villon, Poet of Precision: A New Acquisition in Context, 2001

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