Focus on Geneviève Asse

[2022年01月14日]

Geneviève Asse passed away last summer at the age of 98. Close to Samuel Beckett, Pierre Soulages and Nicolas de Staël, Geneviève Asse left us a meditative œuvre that largely explores the calming qualities of abstract paintings in a variety of shades of blue.

An eminent figure on the French artistic scene, Geneviève ASSE had a long career that began during the German Occupation of France. Developing a highly singular and personal style, she made a substantial contribution to French Abstraction à la française. Over time she developed a kind of fixation with the colour blue – sometimes sea, sometimes sky – in an oeuvre that leads the gaze into essential and yet mysterious places. Clearly directed at viewers who might relate to such meditative images, her work is indeed acquired by a small coterie of discerning collectors who have little interest in the constant rush from one fashion to another…

Life and work

Born and raised in Brittany, when Geneviève Asse arrived in Paris in 1932 she discovered Robert DELAUNAY at the French pavilion of the 1937 Universal Exhibition and visited the city’s museums. She subsequently studied at the School of Decorative Arts in Paris during the Occupation (1940). At 21, she interrupted her training to join the FFI (French Interior Forces) as a liaison officer. An ambulance driver in the first armored division, she participated in the liberation of French Jews from the Terezín camp where the poet Robert Desnos had just died. This earned her the honour of being decorated with the Croix de Guerre and, in 2014, the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honour, France’s highest distinction.

Geneviève Asse’s early paintings were influenced by Modern artists like Cézanne and Braque but also by 18th century artists like Jean Siméon Chardin whose landscapes and still lifes she particularly appreciated. However, after the war, identifiable objects began to retreat from her works. Little by little, Asse moved towards abstraction after a series of contacts with artists like Serge Poliakoff, Nicolas de Staël, Bram, Geer Van Velde and Serge Charchoune. In the 1960s, her painting evolved into atmospheric landscapes with flat areas of white, sand and gray… Then the colour blue began to take over until it became her pictorial signature. Become almost exclusive in her work after 1980, the shades of blues she used were sometimes referred to as “Asse blue”. Her subtle and yet vibrant blues act as a silent refuge, sometimes accompanied by few bands of white to open up the colour and give momentum to the gaze. What seems to have interested Geneviève Asse was the creation of spaces with lines extending from the ground to the sky. She used to say of these “lines”: the “interstices open the way for colour, and at the same time lead the gaze in one direction. It is not geometry. This is another thing. It’s another world.

In 2013, the George Pompidou Center hosted a retrospective of her work including a splendid selection of her large format paintings. The exhibition was built around eleven paintings donated by the artist to the museum and a selection of paintings already belonging to France’s national collections as well as to various private collectors. Following this important exposure, the secondary market accelerated somewhat with better than usual results in auction rooms. But her market and her prices remain relatively limited despite the perfection and distinction of her work.

An œuvre that expresses a certain reserve…

The apparent temperance and modesty in Asse’s work is also reflected in the sobriety of her market prices. The artist clearly attracts a certain number of discerning but discreet collectors, mainly in France and Switzerland with a few in Belgium, Italy and Germany.

Despite various exhibitions abroad and the real appetite for 20th century abstract painting in the United States, her work only sells in France. As a result, the prices of her works have remained affordable. Indeed the absence of an international market represents an opportunity for French and European collectors with her large canvases selling for between $20,000 and $30,000 on the auction market, and her small formats fetching around $8,000 to $10,000 (a price range usually reserved for young emerging artists). By comparison, a reasonable-sized work by Pierre SOULAGES a French abstract artist from the same generation, would fetch $1.5 to $3 million and their respective auction records are $69,000 for Asse’s Blue still life, (146 x 97 cm) (sold by Catherine Charbonneaux in Paris in 2012)… and over $20 million for Soulage’s Peinture, 4 août 1961 (sold at Sotheby’s New York on 16 November 2021). The gap between the two artists’ markets perfectly illustrates the difference between an œuvre that remains of interest to a national market and one that captures international demand.

The auction market was more dynamic in 2021, a record year for Geneviève Asse’s works in terms of turnover at auctions (graph above) but also according to the number of lots sold (24) (Copyright Artprice.com)

Nevertheless, Geneviève Asse’s French galleries enjoy sustained demand for her work, the oldest of which being the Claude Bernard gallery (since 1988) and the Catherine Putman gallery (since 1998). Her work is also supported by the Oniris gallery and the Antoine Laurentin gallery that has taken responsibility for compiling a catalog raisonné of her superb paintings.

Key dates

1954 – First solo exhibition, Michel Warren gallery in Paris

1963 – Group exhibition at the Krugier & Cie gallery in Geneva

1967 – group exhibition at the Kunsthalle, in Recklinghausen, Germany

1972-1976 – 12 dry points for a poem by Samuel Beckett and a series of engravings for a collection by Silvia Baron Supervielle

1977-1978 – Cabinet des Estampes de Genève then the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris present first retrospective of her engravings

1978 – First collaboration with the Manufacture Nationale de Sèvres

1980 – Participation in “Printed Art: a View of Two Decades” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York

1988 – Retrospective at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. Exhibition at the Claude Bernard gallery, Paris

1990 – “Polyptyques” exhibition at the Louvre, Paris

2001 – New acquisitions by the Graphic Art Cabinet of the Center Georges Pompidou

2002 – Engravings presented at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France.

2012 – Donation of several paintings to La Cohue Fine Arts Museum in Vannes (Morbihan), her birthplace.