Have you ever noticed that once you are introduced to a new person or place you begin to run into references to your new discovery everywhere you turn? That’s what happened to me this summer. I learned about Misia Sert at the musée d’Orsay exhibit and then saw that there was an exhibit about her husband, José Maria Sert, at the Petit Palais: Le Titan à l’oeuvre (luh teatahn a luvruh) or “The Titan of the art.” It’s open for just a few more days (August 5, 2012).
Sert was born in Barcelona in 1874 and moved to Paris just before the dawn of the 20th century in order to pursue his goal of becoming a decorative painter. The exhibit showed the various steps in the huge panels Sert created to cover the walls of churches, public buildings, and palatial private residences.
He was one of the early adopters of photography as a way of reducing the time models would have to hold impossible-looking, cramp-inducing poses. Sert also traveled extensively and he would photograph landscapes for later use in his compositions. He would then rule off the photographs in squares, the better to reproduce the images on a grand scale.
Another way he prepared his huge paintings was with santons he purchased in the hundreds from nativity scenes. He would position the figurines and photograph them for his compositions.
His third figural aide was articulated artist’s models that he would pose, often fully costumed, to simulate the layout he wanted for a scene. It was fascinating to see the progression from photograph, to sketch, to smaller-scale painting, to maquette (scale model of an interior), to the final product. I particularly loved the maquettes; they were like fantasy doll-houses, some so large that you could walk inside them.
Sert’s clientele ranged from churches to his wife Misia’s friends, the Beautiful People of the Jazz Age. For Coco Chanel, Sert made an enormous hinged screen with 12 panels, and for her lover, Arthur (Boy) Capel, he made huge mural panels, but Capel died before they were completed, so they were acquired by a Rothschild. Sert’s subsequent marriage to Roussadana Mdivani (Roussy) opened the nobility of the New World to Sert – Hollywood as well as the new money of industrialists such as Rockefeller.
Sert’s final years were marked by tragedy. Roussy died, the Spanish Civil War led to the assassination of several of his friends as well as the destruction of some of his work in Spain. The Second World War exposed Sert to charges of collaboration, although he was able to use his privileged position to save Jews in difficulty. When he died in 1945, his friend Paul Claudel wrote in Le Figaro “Art has lost the last representative of great painting.”
- De la musique avant toute chose (onequalitythefinest.com)