Felix Labisse

One of the most powerful portraits painted by Félix Labisse. This work combines Labisse life-long passion for theatre, and his unique artistic vision. While he was not a member of the Surrealist group that formed around André Breton, his work clearly occupies a place in the world of surrealism. Fantastical, disturbing and populated by hybrid creatures, it evokes the disquieting nature of existence or, simply, as explained by Eugène Ionesco, “shows us the world in a way that is different to how we are accustomed to seeing or understanding it”.

In 1947, Labisse painted this hypnotic portrait of Jean-Louis Barrault (1910-1994) playing the role of Joseph K. in The Trial by Franz Kafka (1925). The strange, nightmarish ambiance of The Trial is expressed in this painting. The monochromatic green palette, the lack of any human presence apart from the model, and the hallway that appears to beckon one to follow the path of death, as in the novel, are all elements used by the artist to illustrate the absurd, anguishing world facing the protagonist, who is unjustly accused of a crime whose very nature is unknown to him. Barrault’s pale skin, red lips, and almost sculptural features, looks like an automaton. Labisse’s talent is demonstrated here: while creating a powerful presence, he also expressed this strangeness of unlively portrait.

The work was inspired by his collaboration with Barrault when, that same year, he designed the costumes and sets for the adaptation of the novel by André Gide, played and directed by the actor and presented at Théâtre Marigny in Paris. This work is a testimony of the strong relationship between the two artists, such as these lines written by Barrault : “Creating a world, inducing a dream, experiencing blood and love, rejecting heaviness, working in magic formulas, translating metamorphoses ‒ these are what make Labisse an artist “allied” with the world of theatre. His paintings are an extension of theatre. It made sense that Labisse would become a man of the theatre. He is one of the painter-poets. He brings objects to life”.
Born in the French town of Marchiennes in 1905, Félix Labisse moved with his family to the Belgian coast when he was 17 years old. Escaping the family tradition of making a career as a sailor, the young Labisse devoted himself to painting. In Ostend, he and his sister Antoinette founded the Galerie d’Art Moderne, a painting gallery which they ran for two years. He took his first steps as a painter under the tutelage of James Ensor. In 1930s Paris, Labisse became friends with artists such as Robert Desnos, Antonin Artaud, Paul Éluard, Man Ray, Germaine Krull, Jean-Louis Barrault and the Prévert brothers. The painter also had a close bond with Christian Dotremont, who wrote a monograph on him in 1946. Alongside his pursuit of painting, he worked as a set designer for theatre, dance, and opera.
We thank Laura Neve for her study on this work.

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