CHAPTER XIX

 

 

JEAN AND JACQUELINE LERAT: POST l945

 

 

      For Jean and Jacqueline Lerat the vistas opened up by the success of their work in Paris posed challenges not previously experienced when it had been sold exclusively in François Guillaume's shop in Bourges.  While the sale of some pieces in the exhibition of the Salon de la Société des Artistes Décorateurs had been a significant entry onto the national stage, of greater importance was the continuous exposure of their wares, in confrontation with those of the acknowledged masters of ceramic art of the period, in the windows of the Galerie Rouard. (l)  Though the character of their work had injected a new and different element into the world of ceramics, it was the artistic and intellectual vigour of the capital which served as stimulus to their already existing creative explorations, 'C'est ça que nous avons permis d'avoir un travail toujours en éveil.' (2)  Now that all their pieces were going to Paris, and selling immediately, (3) they had occasion to visit the city more frequently, familiarising themselves with all the immediate post-war innovations and tendencies to be experienced there: music, both that of the classical modernists like Varese and Maessien and Jazz musicians like Mezz Mezzrow; literature, made accessible through Jacqueline Lerat's brother who was studying in the city, and sculpture and painting, particularly as it was manifested in 'Le Grand Mouvement Abstrait.' (4)  Rather than suggest alternatives, such experiences were confirmation that their chosen medium, clay, had the same artistic validity as those used in other branches of the arts, (5) and that the problems encountered in these diverse fields of creative endeavour were similar to those they posed for themselves, 'Il fallait aussi se poser la question, 'Qu'est ce que c'était la forme dans l'espace? Qu'est ce qu'elle par rapport ... dans une maison?', (6) questions that would inevitably lead to the conclusion that it must be conceived and objectified for its own intrinsic values:

 

                       '... Peu à peu, on a pensé que ça devait être

                       nôtre écriture - la forme - et que, nous, on

                       a proposé une écriture pour une lecture, et

                       ce que nous importait, c'était, décrire quelque

                       chose face à nous, dans l'espace, pour une

                       confrontation, pour un face à face, pour un

                       dialogue ... pour donner à l'autre, 'On a

                       écrit ça, on propose ça' ... et, alors, notre

                       vie avançait, et on redit jamais la même chose

          ...          Notre travail était pareil ...' (7)

 

      A widening interest in their work inevitably led to a more constant contact with other artists, patrons and collectors, many of whom came to visit them in their studio in La Borne.  One such was Bernard Leach who visited the Lerats in the village and, it is thought, François Guillaume in Bourges in l947. (8)  Somewhat akin to the reaction of Anne Dangar, 'Leach était étonné qu'on faisait des pichets qui ne ressemblaient pas à des pichets traditionnels,' (9) but though surrounded by the local potteries where 'une belle répétition était necessaire,' (l0) the different formations which each had experienced, and their collective reappraisal of even such simple forms, ensured that the work of the Lerats never fell into arid repetitiveness:

 

                       '... aucune intention faire une oeuvre,

                       simplement l'intention de travailler et d'en

                       vivre ... et d'en vivre une certaine exigence

                       ... dans un rapport très sobre, très direct ...

                       Je pense que ça nous a marqués.  On a toujours

                       travaillé avec une pièce entraînait une autre

                       piece ... une autre pièce.  Donc, on travaillait

                       lentement ... sans se poser le problème forcement

                       si ça plairait ou si ça plairait pas, voyez ...

                       mais, les concessions pour faire plaisir à une

                       certaine vue des gens - ils ne l'auraient pas

                       fait ... le modèle était en arrière plan dans

                       notre travail, dans nos pensées. C'étaient quand-

                       même des gens qui avaient eu une exigence. ...

                       Donc, on n'avait pas mis sur une figure d'une

                       Vierge, un petit truc pour le clin d'oeil. No!

                       comme ça, le clin d'oeil, ça nous n'intéressait

                       pas! ...' (ll)

 

      As he had promised in l943, Henri Malvaux had strengthened his ties with La Borne, and with his professional relationship with Jean Lerat, he also contributed to spreading their growing importance in the world of ceramics.  As Conseiller Artistique et Pédogogique: Service Perfectionnement à l'Office 'Art et Creation' for the Ministry of Industrial Production, he had been able to initiate a number of activities in favour of schools of art in France (l2), and through this network he had contacted a number of tutors on the behalf of the Lerats, but more importantly, it was he who had been responsible for bringing François Mathey, Conservateur en Chef du Musée des Arts Décoratifs to La Borne to meet then and to view their work.  Inevitably in such a context, the character of their work and the nature of its subject matter brought them to the attention of what at the period was one of the most important movements for artistic renewal in France, that of 'L'Art Sacré.' (l3)  The contact was established when Père Pie-Raymond Régamey, arrived in La Borne in l947.  A Dominican priest, Régamey had been invited in l936, along with his colleague, Père Marie-Alain Couturier, to direct the new journal, 'L'Art Sacré', which first appeared in January l937. (l4)  Disrupted by the war, the programme of those who sought a renewal of church art had been revitalised as soon as Couturier had been able to return to his native land after his enforced war-time exile in the United States and Canada.  While there he had further developed, in discussion with other refugee painters and intellectuals, those theoretical positions which he had articulated, in conferences and texts, in the immediate pre-war years, all primarily concerned with closing the void that existed between Church and Art since Eugène Delacroix had painted the panels in the Chapel of the Angels in Saint-Sulpice:

 

                       '... Il est significatif, en effet, que le

                       moment du plus honteux abaissement de l'art

                       religieux ait précisément coïncidé avec l'une

                       des plus fécondes époques de renouvellement

                       qu'ait connues l'histoire de l'art...' (l5)

 

      Before entering the Dominican order in l925, he had enrolled in Les Ateliers d'Art Sacré to study painting with the founders Maurice Denis and Georges Devallières, just in the year, l9l9, when Paul Claudel had written to the artist Alexandre Cingria 'sur les causes de la décadence de l'art sacré.' (l6)  For Claudel, the causes could be reduced to one, 'c'est le divorce dont le siècle passé a vu la douleureuse consommation, entre les propositions de la foi et ces puissances d'imagination et de sensibilité qui sont éminemment celles de l'artiste.' (l7)  During his six years in Les Ateliers d'Art Sacré, Couturier had the opportunity of collaborating with the sculptor, Bourdelle, and Maurice Denis with whom he executed the windows, on Auguste Perret's revolutionary church, Notre-Dame de Raincy, 'le premier résultat des efforts et des doctrines que nous avons aimés et soutenus envers et contre tout l'hommage de l'art du XXe. siècle à Notre Seigneur et à Notre Dame, quelle belle joie.' (l8)

 

      In l936, in the text of a lecture entitled 'Le Dieu des artistes' and later published as 'La route royale de l'art', one can perceive him taking a direction which distinguishes him from any of his predecessors. Whereas Jacques Maritain had argued, 'L'oeuvre chrétienne veut l'artiste saint, en tant qu'homme', (l9) Couturier was beginning to speculate on the possibility of religious art being made by artists who themselves were non-believers.  The route of which he spoke was that which, through the mediation of Beauty, led to God, and on which artists were priviledged travellers, and he addressed himself to the problem the implications of this might have for the artists themselves:

 

                       '... Les plus grands artistes de notre temps

                       sont incapables de penser à autre chose qu'à

                       peindre ou à sculpter, incapables de faire

                       autre chose de leur esprit et de leur coeur ...

                       Je crois qu'il y a un Dieu pour les artistes

                       et qu'il les rattrape au bout de cette route

                       par où s'en vont les enfants prodigues, mais

                       qui ne ressemble guère aux routes royales par

                       l'on vient à Lui ...' (20)

 

      By l937, in 'Sur Picasso et les conditions actuelles de l'Art Chrétien', the logic of his earlier thinking was being brought to fruition.  Unlike his predecessors who had argued that it had been the artists who had estranged themselves from the Church, Couturier took the view that it had been 'Les milieux catholiques' who, though their disinterest, had isolated religious art from the living art of its times and condemned it to mediocrity:

 

 

                       '... En effet ne nous faisons pas d'illusions:

                       notre art religieux, en dépit de ses fins

                       propres, ne se donnera pas, ne s'inventera pas

                       une vie propre.  Car, si divers qu'il soit,

                       tout l'art d'une époque est comme un grand

                       corps vivant: tout ce qui s'isole, tout ce qui

                       se retranche de l'unité de la vie, comme un

                       membre malade, s'anémie, se dessèche, finit par

                       se décomposer ...' (2l)

 

      The only answer, argued Couturier, was 'la nécessité de faire appel à la vitalité de l'art profane si nous voulons ranimer l'art chrétien.` (22)  Though he himself was not yet to express his aspiration that one day he might enlist the aid of some of the greatest masters of modern art, (23) it was in the works of Matisse and Bonnard that he placed his hope, 'si jalousement, si passionnément limité à l'intuition immédiate de la beauté sensible, pourrait-il l'être davantage? Voilà pourtant nos maîtres.  Voilà l'essentiel et les plus hautes sources de l'art vivant ...' (24)  In l937 the prospects of working with such figures may have seemed unattainble, yet for Couturier a slim hope could be expressed:

 

                       '... C'est peut-être par de très humbles

                       réussites, sans souci exagéré de l'art, que

                       l'essentiel, dans les lieux plus ou moins

                       inconnus, sera sauvé.  Déjà, nous voyons, de-

                       ci de-là, des architectes, des peintres, des

                       sculpteurs retrouver le souci des choses

                       modestes qui seraient des choses très bien

                       faites, et, en elles, le souci des vrais

                       valeurs humaines qu'elles peuvent porter ...' (25)

 

      This recourse to unpretentiousness was to remain a constant with Couturier and was one which appeared to him to be an increasingly valid source for christian art, and a means whereby its renaissance could be assured. (26)  When, in the post-war years, he was assured of the willing co-operation of 'les plus hautes sources de l'art vivant' in Assy, Vence and Audincourt, it was the unpretensiousness of a new generation of artists and artisans, working with a wide range of materials, that Père Régamey, in 'L'Art Sacré', sought to draw to the attention of he or she, 'obligé de construire, d'aménager une église, de la décorer:' (27)

 

 

                       '... On est emerveillé des dons qui fusent

                       chez nombre de jeunes, de leur fréquente

                       ouverture, de leur sensibilité vive aux

                       valeurs qu'ont illustrées les maîtres (du

                       passé et aujourd'hui) Quand l'enseignement

                       est intelligent, il faut aboutir ces choses,

                       et bien des signes permettent d'espérer.

                       L'application modeste des dons aux taches

                       d'Eglise révèle des possibilités inattendues.

                       Il faut leur donner leurs chances ...' (28)

 

      Accompanying the article, 'Les "Miracles" des Grands et des petits "Génies"' was a dossier of photographs of work of young artists, including two by the Lerats showing the cross commissioned by the Comte de Vogüe (Fig. 242), and which he had erected in the grounds of the Château de la Vererrie to mark his sons entry into the Benedictine Monastery of Le Pierre qui Vire. (29)  The cross itself was in stone, while the figures of the recessed `ceramic panels derive their near-Medieval stylisation from the rigorous retention of the wheel-thrown form, from which neither the throwing rings nor accidents of the firing have been effaced. (Fig. 243)

 

      Preceding the Régamey visit to La Borne a 'Commission Diocesaine d'Art Sacré' had been established in Bourges in l946, and it had been on account of François Guillaume's 'gout affiné et sûr' (30) that 'Le chanoine de Laugardière l'avait choisi comme expert en matière d'objets artistiques que l'on consultait toujours avec efficacité.' (3l)  It would be improbable, in a region so traditionally linked to ceramic products, that such a body would not have wished to exploit the talents of those artists already residing in La Borne and, almost in anticipation, the village church had already benefited.  Though Alphonse Talbot had thrown the large ceramic bell which had been blessed and dedicated by Monsignor Lelong, the Vicar-General, on 8 August l928, (32) it was in l945 that the first modern work was introduced.  On 24 June 'jour de le Saint-Jean, fête des potiers et jour traditionnel de louée en Berry' (33) a head of the Baptist, executed in grès in La Borne by the locally born but Parisian based goldsmith, Lucien Chollet, was installed. (34) (Fig. 244)  This innovation was to be followed a year later when a baptismal font, made by André Rozay and fired in the 'four de la route', was likewise installed.  It was also Rozay who was commissioned to make the fifteen stations of the 'chemin de croix' (Fig. 245) which were erected and blessed by the archbishop of the diocese on 20 July l947. (35)  The following year, it was once more the feast day of the saint, 24 June l948, which witnessed 'la bénédiction et érection de la petite statue de St. Jean Baptiste de Monsieur Lerat.' (36) (Fig. 246)

 

      A reiterated admonition to the readers of 'L'Art Sacré', both in the time of Couturier and Régamey and later in l954, when the direction passed on to Père Capellades and Père A-M Cocagnac, had been conceived to deter patrons from purchasing the shoddy, slick and superficially pious products of industry, 'Voici, Monsieur, un article pratique, une sainte vierge en plastique indéformable, luminescente et lavable'. (37)  By contrast, it had been that 'modestie' of which Couturier had spoken that Régamey had observed in the range of pieces which he had seen in the atelier of the Lerats, respect for materials in all their simplicity, charm and force, 'voilà une des garanties les plus sûres d'une renouveau des arts sacrés.' (38)  Following his visit Régamey had written of Jean Lerat, in an article entitled 'Artistes et artisans de ce temps', published in 'L'Art Sacré' l948, and devoted to an evaluation of the work of Lerat, Paul Beyer and Pierre Roulot:

 

                       '... Lerat demande davantage en libre modelage.

                       Les oeuvres dont nous donnons les photos suffiront,

                       en leur variété, à montrer la richesse d'invention,

                       les charmes de sensibilité, la verve, le rigoureux

                       sens plastique de cet artiste.  Il est un des

                       meilleurs parmi ces céramistes excellents qui

                       aujourd'hui devraient être appelés aux diversés

                       tâches religieuses auxquelles eux-mêmes souhaitent

                       d'être employés ...' (39) (Fig. 247)

 

      Exhorting his readers to respond, as he himself had responded, to the honesty with which the Lerats had used their materials and processes, as well as their acceptance of the accidental effects conferred on the pieces by the wood-firing process, Régamey continued:

 

                       '... Quand on entre dans ces jeux, dont les

                       pièces portent les traces émouvantes, on ne

                       peut plus prendre pour affectation de naïvete

                       ou pour de la gaucherie le caractère rustique

                       et les disproportions qui s'allient, dans les

                        oeuvres de Lerat comme dans celles des potiers

                       d'autrefois, à tant d'habileté et à un sens du

                       mouvement si vif ...' (40)

 

      Throughout the succeeding years the Art Sacré movement was to play a crucial role for the artists of La Borne, and instrumental in obtaining a number of commissions was the Abbé Bonneval, himself a member of the Commission Dioscesaine d'Art Sacré, and at the time curé in Menetou-Ratel in the hills of Sancerrois, where a 'croix de carrefour' by Lerat was soon to be erected. (4l)  Like that of the château de la Vererrie, it is in stone, with the slender, tapering, members bearing superimposed ceramic devices, an abstract crucifix on one face and an image of Saint Vincent, the patron of Vignerons, with an arm raised in blessing, overlooking the vineyards of the district. (Fig. 248i,248ii)  Born in Vierzon, l'Abbé Bonneval had immersed himself in the history of his region, particularly that of the local potteries, and having become a regular visitor to La Borne, he befriended André Rozay, and Jean and Jacqueline Lerat.  His own collection of the work of these years in representative of the kinds of sculptural commissions which they executed for local and national locations. (Figs. 249i,249ii,249iii,249iv)  As the prestige of the Lerat grew, so also did the challenge to their skills, the 250 cm. high 'Christ d'un Calvaire', flanked by the figures of the Virgin and Saint John was destined to be set in the middle of a rectangle of grass, bordered by a range of salt-glazed bricks. (42)  Comprised of a number of thrown elements, it is evocative, in its structure, of the 'croix de carrefour' of Jacques Sébastien Talbot, and in its simplicity, of the work of Beyer. (Fig. 250)  Obviously deriving from the wheel were the figures for the crèche commissioned for the cathedral in Bourges, (Fig. 25l) made after the Lerats moved from La Borne to reside in the town:

 

                       '... Que l'on observe la beauté de

                       l'agenouillement d'un berger, que l'on

                       considère les diverses nuances de l'adoration

                       qui se lisent dans l'attitude des mages et

                       l'on comprendra pourquoi les Lerats méritent

                       une place d'honneur parmi les céramistes

                       chrétiens de notre temps ...'