April 01, 2003


Art-historians have traced the origins of monochrome painting to the early part of the last century, specifically to Malevich’s 1918 canvas Black Square, acquired last year by the Hermitage museum in St. Petersburg. A whole generation before that, however, the unheralded French artist Alphonse Allais (1854-1905) had already created an entire monochromatic oeuvre

A dark-grey/black rectangle in a decorative frame.
Negroes Fighting in a Cave by Night.

In fact, it is arguable as to whether Malevich’s canvas, with its white border, is monochromatic at all. More problematic is the question as to whether a canvas not completely filled with a single colour is more or less minimalist than than one like Allais’…

A blue rectangle in a decorative frame.
The Stupor of Young Recruits, on Perceiving for the First Time your Azure, o Mediterrenean!

Certainly the pieces in Allais’ Album Primo-Avrilesque afford a simple purity scarcely matched in subsequent art-history. Perhaps only the work of Yves Klein has surpassed it in this regard, although Klein cannot match Allais in his versatile deployment of a whole spectrum of tints.

A green rectangle in a decorative frame.
Some Pimps, known as Green Backs, on their Bellies in the Grass, Drinking Absinthe.

Subsequent explorations of the monochromatic have seen almost every imaginable permutation of canvas-size and surface-texture. Many of Lucio Fontana’s pieces are monochrome, apart from the slashes that perforate them. And Robert Ryman, for example, has painted dozens of white, or nearly-white canvases: although in his case, the results can seem more polymicrochromatic than homogenously monochromatic.

A red rectangle in a decorative frame.
Tomato Harvest by Apoplectic Cardinals on the Shore of the Red Sea.

One can only hope that Allais is promoted from his relatively obscure position in art-history, and is given all due credit for his pioneering work. My source for these nicely-framed images of Allais’ work was this German page.

A paler grey rectangle in a decorative frame.
Band of Greyfriars in the Fog.

My apologies, by the way, for any mistranslations in the titles of these paintings: any corrections would be gratefully received.

Posted by misteraitch at April 1, 2003 09:40 AM | TrackBack

I was interested in seeing that you don't write so much at the moment.

I'm the chap who moves the boxes from one end of the room to the other for Cleophas; sometimes they can be really big heavy cartons full of heavyweight freshnjuicy editorial sheets and folders he's written.

My back's not what it woz you see... and I, I, I... woz wondering as a fellow Blog industry person whether you have any need for an experienced carton box carrier specialising in blogs? Preferably much smaller + lighter boxes travelling across smaller rooms.

I've just been told. It's April 1 !

Posted by: Jeff on April 1, 2003 12:41 PM

I really enjoyed this. Thanks.

Posted by: Sean on April 1, 2003 04:42 PM

You know, I think I own his "Polar Bears in a Snow Storm"....

Posted by: Alejandra on April 2, 2003 03:11 AM

For me, visiting your site is like Christmas morning! I love these regular posts of juicily colorful and intensely interesting visuals. I got a real kick of out of these monochrome paintings.

Posted by: Emily on April 2, 2003 05:18 AM

I have to say, your blog is truly wonderful. It's a mixture of the macabre and marvellous. You have an eye for the unusual. I was wondering if it is possible to get any of Allais' work in poster form? Perhaps the Louisiana museum in Denmark might hold an exhibition of the great man's work someday? Speaking of which, I hear the great Danish sculptor, Lars Arpin will soon be exhibiting his famous "Hole without stone" and "Stone without hole" paired works in Stockholm - have you heard about this?

Posted by: Daen de Leon on April 2, 2003 03:07 PM


Posted by: Rara Luna on April 2, 2003 10:41 PM

Are you sure about Allais' dates? I thought he died younger. English humourist Miles Kington translated a paperback-ful of Allais' articles, and very funny, with a cruel tinge, they are. Kington went to Dieppe I think it was to see if there was anything redolent of Allais. This was about 1973. He met a bloke who knew him. And this is what made me think you have the dates wrong, this bloke said "of course he died young. I knew his parents much better."
Allais and his friends, to prove that critics who said of I think the Fauves "this is bad art", put on an exhibition of real bad art.

Posted by: dave heasman on May 19, 2003 04:36 PM

I parrotted the dates from one or other of the web-pages cited above: so no, I’m not entirely sure about them, although the one relevant print source I have handy, Jos Pierre’s book L’univers symboliste also gives them as 1854-1905. Any corrections would be gratefully received.

Posted by: misteraitch on May 19, 2003 09:50 PM

I went to that website, and it looks so authentic the dates must be right. My copy of the Kington book is in the attic or I'd peer in there. It's worth looking for, if Allais' particular humour floats your boat at all; Kington remarked that at the time he translated the pieces they were all out of print.
The one tale that sticks in my mind is that of the intrepid seaman Captain Steelcock, caught by an earthquake in the bordello : - "Madame, fetch me another girl, this one is dead".
I guess it's an acquired taste, and I remember it because it's uncharacteristically cold.

Posted by: dave heasman on May 21, 2003 04:43 PM

Dear Giornale,

I have an update predating the work of Allais to that of Bilhaud. See here.

Posted by: Jan on July 11, 2007 01:33 PM
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