Louis Cattiaux and the Surreal 1

A new blog on the fascinating painter Louis Cattiaux, founder of the ‘Transhylisme’ (Beyond Matter) movement in the early 1930s.

The Ritman Library is grateful to have received a donation of Mrs. Jeanne Lohest-Hooghvorst of Beya Publications, Belgium. Joanne has given the following five works by or about the French painter and poet Louis Cattieux to the library: (1) Physics and Metaphysics of Painting, (2) The Collected Letters of Louis Cattiaux, (3) The Message Rediscovered, (4) Art et Hermétisme Oeuvres Complètes including; Le Message Retrouvé, Physique et Methaphysique de la Peinture, Oeuvre Poètique, and (5) Die Wiedergefundene Botschaft.

Louis Cattiaux was born in Valenciennes, France on August 17th 1904 and died on July 16th 1953. Together with his wife Henriette Péré, he founded in Paris the art gallery ‘Gravitations’, a name that was inspired by a collection of poems by Jules Supervielle. Cattiaux had a passion for Hermetic philosophy: it transpires in his artistic works, which are bursting with life. He might be considered a pure artist as well as a natural philosopher, someone with a richly personal nature who was also endowed with remarkable sense of humor. He wrote:

One must work a long time on the same work, but without effort, without boredom, without working as it were…

Louis Cattiaux books, a donation of Jeanne Lohest-Hooghvorst of Beya Publications, Belgium.

Louis Cattiaux, his paintings and his times

[From the chapter: ‘The Pictorial Art of Louis Cattiaux’ in Physics and Metaphysics of Painting, Beya Publications, 1991].

“On analyzing the biography of Louis Cattiaux written by Bernard Dorival on the occasion of the first exhibition of his complete works, we find an interesting reference: “1936”. A period of searching begins for him: his concerns over technique are combined with an orientation towards Alchemy and the Quest for the Absolute, which will renew his subjects. From that point on, his paintings directly reflect this concern; he leaves behind his formative and experimental period, the most important events of which were the creation, in 1933, of an avant-garde art gallery, called Gravitations, and the foundation, together with a small group of painters and poets, of an ephemeral artistic movement that they dubbed Transhylisme: attempts to play a part in the frantic quest for the art of the century. But from 1936 onwards, his painting becomes more personal, and it is difficult to include it fully in any of the contemporary tendencies of pictorial art. Some critics included it in surrealism, and indeed, we must not forget that Cattiaux lived and worked in the physical and temporal epicentre of the movement led by André Breton.

Pantáculos by Louis Cattiaux

The paintings of Louis Cattiaux certainly have something of the surrealistic about them. Within his canvases there lives a strange, magic world, different from what our eyes see in the everyday world. Something similar to what the surrealists sought on investigating little-known areas of the human spirit, remote from logic and reason. In his Second Manifesto of Surrealism, Breton wrote:

Everything leads us to believe that there is a certain point of the spirit at which life and death, the real and the imaginary, the past and the future, the communicable and the incommunicable, the high and the low, cease to be perceived in contradictory terms. Thus, it is futile to seek in surrealist activity any other motive but the hope of determining that point.

Surrealism opened the door of art towards the darker areas of the human spirit, but, undoubtedly, once that threshold had been crossed, the majority of the artists of the time managed only to extract personal styles; aesthetically interesting as these were, very few succeeded in distinguishing the light of the spirit that germinates in the midst of the regions of dusk and darkness. As though once outside the rational world, at the “point of the spirit at which life and death” meet, the quest would dissolve into an inevitable twilight, into illusions of ideas and feelings. With regard to the surrealist painters, Cattiaux wrote:

They have used trompe-l’oeil and seem to take their inspiration from the scenes of madness of the underground chamber of the Great Pyramid.

Maria Paritura by Louis Cattiaux, Paris, 1956.

Here, he was undoubtedly alluding to the problem expressed by the Sybil to the pious Aeneas, when the latter wanted to go down to Hades: “the descent to the Averno is easy. The gate of sombre Pluto is wide open day and night, but to retrace your steps and emerge once more in the sweet air of life, that’s the hard part, there’s the risk. A small few […] managed it”.

In Cattiaux’s work, the images deriving from the world removed from consciousness are not oneiric, automatic, paranoiac or naive images, nor aggravated feelings; nor do they permit an expressiveness of suggestive and exotic beauty; rather, they are symbols of the world of light that is engendered in darkness, that “springs from the darkness of the hidden being“.

Analyzing the subjects of Louis Cattiaux’s paintings from the above-mentioned change in 1936, we notice that, together with the dissolution of apparent reality – as we find it also in the surrealists –, there emerges a world of symbols that reflect the legacy of Western sacred art. This characteristic clearly distinguishes his painting from the surrealist tendencies, and Cattiaux himself finds it necessary to clarify the matter in a letter”:

Art enthusiasts classify my work as surrealism, which for them is a catch-all term for everything they are unable to understand.


The contents of this blog expresses the author’s own ideas and opinions. If you would also like to post a blog with content relevant to the BPH please contact us at bph@ritmanlibrary.nl. The Ritman Library reserves the right not to post blogs that have no bearing on any of the library’s collecting areas.

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