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Augustin Lesage

French, 19th-20th century.
Born 1876, France; died 1954.

In the annals of art brut, numerous artists claimed to have been moved to produce their paintings, drawings or other works by invisible spirits whose voices they heard or whose forces influenced the form or appearance of their artistic creations. Augustin Lesage was a coal miner in the far north of France who asserted that, at the age of 35, he had heard a voice tell him that he would become an artist. Up until that time, the only direct contact Lesage had had with the fine arts had been a visit to the art museum in Lille. Ultimately, the voice Lesage heard, which he believed was that of his younger sister, who had died at the age of three, instructed him about what subjects to paint and which materials to use to make his pictures. Lesage went on to make art and also to serve as a medium in spirit-summoning séances.

Guided by spirit voices, including that of his dead sister, Lesage made his first drawings. During the early 1910s, he set to work on a large canvas that took him two years to complete. Similarly, throughout his art-making career, large-format paintings featured prominently in his oeuvre. Recalling his first compulsion to make art, Lesage once said, “In January 1912, powerful spirits came and revealed themselves to me, ordering me to draw and paint, something which I had never done before. [...] ‘Do not worry about insignificant details,’ was their response. ‘We are the ones working through your hands.’” (1) Lesage claimed the voices he heard also had told him, “Don’t be afraid. We are next to you. One day you will be a painter.” (2)

Although his service in World War I interrupted his art-making, Lesage returned to painting in 1916. By the early 1920s, he was able to make a living from his activities as a spirit medium and artist. In a body of work that consisted of some 800 paintings, Lesage created intricate, colorful images that featured neatly laid-out, often symmetrical or architectonic compositions, with rows of detailed patterning or figures in profile, similar to (and in some cases unabashedly imitating) Egyptian hieroglyphics. Birds, human faces and what appear to be temple-guarding lions (frequent animal figures in ancient Egyptian art) often turn up in Lesage’s pictures, as do frame-like forms that surround and contain sections of certain compositions. Some observers have suggested that these forms allude to the narrow, confining tunnels of the coal mines in which Lesage had labored as a young man.

The French modern artist Jean Dubuffet, whose research about the unconventional work of self-taught art-makers led him to formulate a definitive description of art brut artists and the nature of their creations, acquired some of Lesage’s paintings for his collection. Dubuffet amassed “mediumistic” works by other artists, too, including paintings, drawings, written texts and embroidered textiles. In the late 1920s, in Paris, Lesage offered public demonstrations of his spirit-driven painting technique while being observed by scientific researchers who were interested in his kind of “spiritualistic art.” He continued making art right up until the end of his life.

- Edward M. Gómez

(1) Peiry, Lucienne, Art Brut: The Origins of Outsider Art. Paris: Flammarion, distributed in the U.S.A. by Rizzoli International Publications, Inc.; second English-language edition, 2006; originally published in French as L’Art Brut, Paris: Flammarion; 1997. Page 16.
(2) Website of American Folk Art Museum, New York. See web page: http://www.folkartmuseum.org/?p=folk&t=images&id=3469

Selected Exhibitions

2013, The Encyclopedic Palace, main exhibition of the 55th Venice Biennale, Venice

2010, The Museum of Everything, Pinacoteca Giovanni e Marella Agnelli, Turin

2008, Augustin Lesage, Elmar Trenkwalder: Les inspirés, La Maison Rouge/Fondation Antoine de Galbert, Paris

1979, Outsiders, Hayward Gallery, Southbank Centre, London

Selected Collections 

Collection abcd, Montreuil
Collection de l’Art Brut, Lausanne
Lille Métropole Musée d’Art Moderne, d’Art Contemporain et d’Art Brut, Lille

Selected Bibliography

The Museum of Everything, exhibition catalogue, Pinacoteca Giovanni e Marella Agnelli & Electa, Turin/Milan, 2010.

Roulin, Geneviève. “Raw Classics: Augustin Lesage.” Raw Vision, U.K., issue number 26, spring 1999.

Peiry, Lucienne, Art Brut: The Origins of Outsider Art. Paris: Flammarion, distributed in the U.S.A. by Rizzoli International Publications, Inc.; second English-language edition, 2006; originally published in French as L’Art Brut, Paris: Flammarion; 1997.

Deroeux, Didier, Annick Notter, Michel Thévoz et al., Augustin Lesage 1876-1954, Philippe Sers Éditeur/Vilo, Paris, 1988.

Thévoz, Michel, L’Art brut, Albert Skira, Geneva, 1975.

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