Pierre Alechinsky, 1927-
By Aliza Wall
Born on October 19, 1927 in Brussels, Pierre Alechinsky defied convention from an early age. The son of two doctors, Alechinsky was expected to continue the family legacy. He was not, however, an academic in the traditional sense, as he stated, quipping: “I was not thrown out of school…but I was in the category called ‘non-readmitted.’” Alechinksy instead engaged in artistic practices such as graphic technique, folk art, and medieval book illustrations, which would later influence his style.
From 1944 to 1948 he studied illustration techniques, printing and photography at the École national supérieur d’architecture et des arts décoratifs in Brussels. Soon after, he joined artists Christian Dotremont, Karen Appel, Constant, Jan Nieuwenhuys and Asger Jorn to form the art group Cobra. The Cobra group (a name created by the combining the city names Copenhagen, Brussels and Amsterdam, the three cities from which the group originated), although containing a multitude of individual styles, was typified by flat, childlike forms, thick application of paint, and a feeling of general chaos. Although influenced by the works of Paul Klee and Joan Miró, Cobra strived to break from artistic tradition and create a style completely unique to the individual. The influence of Cobra on Alechinsky’s aesthetic can be seen in his 1968 piece, Cobra de Transmission. The piece exemplifies the Cobra style in its colourful and impassioned depiction of dreamlike snakes and female nudes.
In 1955 Alechinsky, along with his wife, Michèle “Micky” Dendal, left for Japan, where he would later produce a film called Japanese Calligraphy. This film which, unsurprisingly, documents the practice of Japanese calligraphy influenced Alechinsky to paint in the style of Japanese calligraphers, placing paper on the floor and using one’s entire body to create a work. This influence can perhaps be felt most overtly in his 1967 work, Gong, in which he depicts the titular gong using flowing, gestural lines of ink and swaths of monochromatic colour. Around this time, he also began to reference the bizarre imagery found in the works of Flemish masters Pieter Brueghel and Hieronymus Bosch, using bright colours to render odd creatures.
Since the 1960s, Alechinsky has worked primarily on paper; returning to his formative interest in medieval pictorial illustration. During this time period his international reputation grew in response to successful exhibitions in London, New York, and Venice. Despite his relative fame, Alechinksy remains to this day very discreet, never particularly marketing his work. He creates, not to exhibit but rather to, in his own words, “liberate monsters…they are the manifestation of all the doubts, searches, and groping for meaning and expression which all artists experience.” In a somewhat ironic turn, he has committed the majority of his later life to academia, teaching painting at the École national supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris and receiving an honorary doctorate from the Free University of Brussels. Although his style has changed over time, his body of work as a whole retains a strong sense of primitivism and abstraction as well as a feverish and impassioned use of line. Today Alechinsky continues to live and work in Paris.
“Gong.” The Metropolitan Museum. Accessed October 14, 2018. https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/481686.
“Pierre Alechinsky.” Artnet. Accessed October 14, 2018. http://www.artnet.com/artists/pierre-alechinsky/biography.
“Pierre Alechinsky.” Guggenheim. Accessed October 14, 2018. https://www.guggenheim.org/artwork/artist/pierre-alechinsky.
Ratcliff, Carter. "Snakes & ladders: The Cobra group, sons of the Surrealists.” Tate. April 1, 2003. https://www.tate.org.uk/context-comment/articles/snakes-and-ladders-the-cobra-group.
Russell, John. "Art View; Painting with Fanciful Strokes.” The New York Times (New York, New York).March 8, 1987.