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A.M.CASSANDRE PAR HENRI MOURON Schirmer Mosel Production


"Painting is the art of creating illusions". Eugene DELACROIX.


Delacroix’s definition might well be applied to Cassandre’s stage designs. The first fifteen years of the period discussed in this chapter are distinguished foremost by Cassandre’s oeuvre as a theatre artist. At a time when the public attached a great deal of importance to scenic designs, his décors found favor with a broad spectrum of theatre-goers.

And yet, though Cassandre devoted much time and thought to the creation of his oeuvre, easel painting remained his chief vocation right up to his death. After he was demobilized in 1940, he devoted himself wholly to it. His paintings were exhibited at the Galerie René Drouin in Paris in December 1942. his large portrait of Mademoiselle Chanel was prominently displayed.

It was at the latter’s apartment that Cassandre met Pierre Reverdy, who had temporarily interrupted his retreat at the Abbaye de Solesme to come to Paris. Cassandre and the famous poet rapidly became close friends. There was an intense though short-lived friendship, in keeping with the warm and emotional nature of the two men. It inspired, over a span of two years after their first meeting, an abundant correspondence, which was interrupted from time to time when Reverdy left the silence of his monastery in the provinces to visit Cassandre and other Parisian friends.

The public reacted favorably to the 1942 exhibition-more so than the critics and dealers-and Cassandre received commissions to paint portraits of Reverdy, the Vicomtesse de Noailles, the Princesse de Polignac, and others. Yet Cassandre was to complain in 1945 that his painting was “stingy and hardly gave him anything”.

Nevertheless, it brought him moments of tranquillity in the country. These were brief occasions, which made them perhaps all the more light-hearted. He found that painting directly from nature, the humility in his relationship with nature inspired him to produce a gesture that was both authentic and spontaneous. In two series of landscapes painted at Quarré-les-Tombes in 1942 and Buis-les-Baronnies in 1943, he expressed his feelings of awe and wonder before nature.

Cassandre’s pictorial oeuvre, which tended to express a tragic perception of his own life, was conceived with passionate involvement, yet it grew slowly in a constant struggle against hesitations springing from the artist’s deep-seated anxiety and the torment of being perpetually dissatisfied with what he accomplished.

Fortunately, what was soon to turn into a veritable obsession with “theatrical ceremony” found an outlet in the grandiloquent fictions of the stage. What is more, the theatre offered Cassandre the excitement of collective work; it was an escape from his solitude as an artist.

The theatre was not altogether virgin territory. He had discovered it as early as 1933. It is interesting to note that, with remarkable foresight, Louis Jouvet discerned Cassandre’s as yet totally undeveloped gift for scenic design behind his talent for staging effects in the street. The well-known actor was indeed the first to commission maquettes for sets and costumes from Cassandre. The occasion was Jean Giraudoux’s play Amphitrion 38, which was revived with brio for the opening of the Théâtre de l’Athénée in 1933.

Blaise Cendrars wrote of this performance :

“I am especially grateful to Jouvet today for having had the acumen to break through the anonymity of one of the great masters of the street in Paris. I mean Cassandre, who is not only a painter but also one of the most vibrant masters of ceremonies of modern life ; a czar of tastes and fashions whose commands are written on posters ; a worker and a creator ; an inventor who has designed automobile bodies, a new alphabet, a thousand accessories for the printed page, an airplane, and whose signature is worn on the hip unbeknownst by every elegant woman who walks past”.

Cassandre conceived his first décors in a spirit which, at the opposite pole of the essentially pictorial creations that had contributed to the success of Diaghilev’s spectacular ballets, seems inspired by the Palladian theatrical tradition of Vicenza. The important point from our critical perspective is of course the sober elegance with which Giraudoux’s subtle ancient Greek setting is translated into a vital plastic language somewhat reminiscent of the poster’s graphic style. Its undeniable structural qualities and the refined poetry it expresses are worthy of note too. But what is most striking about the architectural character of Cassandre’s approach is its treatment of the scenic space as a volume enclosed within a perspective that is functional, to be sure, but is mainly designed to place the actor in a surreal environment. This intention is clearly discernable in the scenery for the first and third acts. As for the costumes, Cassandre, whose preliminary designs were unsatisfactory, relied on the advice of an experienced costume designer, Madame V. Karinska. It was she who suggested that he design “statues”.

In the wake of Amphitrion 38’s success, René Blum, the director of the Monte Carlo ballet company, commissioned Cassandre to design the scenery and costumes for Francis Poulenc’s ballet Aubade, which was performed the following year.

Cassandre’s experience with Amphitrion 38 taught him that the constructed décor has certain built-in limitations and suffers from a relative poverty of expression. Thus he began to feel his way toward a scenic concept that gave painting a much more  prominent figurative role. He used a painted architecture, onto which projectors were focused to produce sharp contrasts between brightly lit and shadowy zones, to define a central area, the primary purpose of which was to project the dancer on stage toward the audience through fictive means ; it also served to frame a practicable opening and a landscape in the distance. Its flatness made for a particularly eloquent expression of reality, in keeping with the poetic atmosphere sought by the painter. Furthermore, it allowed Cassandre to organize colors and to treat them as lyrical ingredients of his design rather than as mere picturesque touches.

Cassandre’s pre-war activities in the field of the theatre were limited to these two experiences. His next foray into stage work ended on July 2, 1941, with the opening performance of Serge Lifar’s ballet, Le Chevalier et la Damoiselle. Inspired by a medieval legend, this spectacle, the music for which had been composed by Philippe Gaubert, definitely established Cassandre, who had designed both the costumes and the scenery, as a scenic painter.

His design was at once decisive and transitional. It combined his most pictorial manner with a carefully worked-out architectural scheme designed to enhance the choreography, from the boldly graphic appearance of the single “variation” to the sweeping movements of groups of dancers which enabled the artist to deploy large colored masses. executed in a style that suggested tapestry work, the composition of the scenery for the ballet’s two acts was based on a diagonal arrangement in the first and on a perfectly symmetrical architectural design in the second. The requirements of the scenic fiction led Cassandre to use strongly contrasting light-and-shadow effects ; yet this did not deter him from transposing the pictorial researches he was carrying on at the time into scenic terms. He made no attempt to conceal his debt to Giotto and the French primitives of the late fourteenth century. The general effect was dazzling-clear proof that Cassandre was equipped to bring to the stage a truly sumptuous feeling for scenery.

As for the spectacle staged by Raymond Rouleau at the Comédie des Champs-Elysées in the spring of 1943, there is only one word to describe it adequately: it was brilliant. Le Survivant, as it was called, presented Cassandre with a new opportunity to reveal his gifts and his predilection for spectacular scenic effects. Creating with far simpler means than Le Chevalier et la Damoiselle, this spectacle was nevertheless remarkable for the beauty of its costumes. Designing them in a synthetic mode, Cassandre retained only the essential features of the period of Charles the Bold, which give them their sumptuous character; in a sense, he kept only the anatomy of their beauty. The splendor of the effect he achieved made a strong impression on the audience; on the evening of the dress-rehearsal, Cassandre’s friend Chanel was so impressed by the costumes that she asked the artist for the name of the talented costumière who had followed his designs.

But it was with his design for Les Mirages that Cassandre made his first authoritative statement as a scenic painter-and-architect. Henri Sauguet composed the music for this ballet ; the story was jointly written by Serge Lifar and Cassandre himself. Scheduled to open at the Paris Opéra in June 1944, it was cancelled owing to the Allies’ invasion of Normandy ; and it was the first performed only in December 1947. The décor, a dream palace designed by Cassandre, actually inspired the ballet’s theme disillusionment. It was painted by Oreste Allegri in the traditional manner of baroque scenery on three flats which framed a backdrop. The dancers made their entrance on stage through an opening the backdrop. Using linear perspective and monochrome modelling (to which spotlights added a mysterious aura), Cassandre was able to steep his fantasy architecture (a stylistic derivation, rather than a faithful reconstruction of baroque architecture) in an uncanny nocturnal atmosphere. In effect, the setting defined a poetically ambiguous space, one that was, in a sense, self-enclosed. The architecture itself was ambiguous and intangible ; its real opening were visually confused with the illusory perspective of fictive opening. Thus the allegories materializing through the impalpable walls assumed the mythic dimensions of Fate itself. At dawn the dream dissolved and the palace rose slowly above the stage to reveal a chalky, sun-scorched landscape ; the Young Man was forever reunited with his solitary companion-his Shadow-to a hammering of brass instruments.

To understand what was truly characteristic about Cassandre’s style as a scenic painter, there is no better guide than the following text written by Cassandre himself in 1957 for a handsome publication devoted to the Don Giovanni performance at Aix-en-Provence for which he designed the sets and costumes :

“At the time when the organizers of the International Music Festival at Aix-en-Provence asked me to design the settings for a performance of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Aix had no opera house ; all it has was a courtyard-the courtyard of the Archbishop’s palace. The acoustic could be built at one end, as the organizers were suggesting, with a stationary architectural setting using one of the palace’s inner façades as a backdrop. I pointed out that it seemed difficult to me, if not impossible, to stage Mozart’s opera, when the alternate succession of different, often contrasting dramatic locations seemed to play such an important role in its structure, on a platform of such restricted dimensions and with only a single setting-even if it was a “Palladian” setting. In my view, the opera, being self-enclosed, required a scenic space that would be equally self-enclosed, allowing one to maintain, through a succession of different locations, an indispensable spatial unity. The upshot was that the Festival organizers commissioned me to design, along with the settings for Don Giovanni, an open-air theatre in which the opera could be staged along the lines I had suggested. This in fact was the exact approach used in the first performances of the opera in the eighteenth century.

The theatre had to answer the dramatic contingencies of Mozart’s work ; it also had to take into account certain practical considerations which it was impossible to ignore. It had to be a temporary structure, easy to assemble and easy to dismantle, so that, once the Festival ended, the courtyard of the Archbishop’s palace could be restored to its normal urban function. The scenic surface had to be limited to a minimum, so as not to intrude on the space where the audience was to be seated. The relationship between the two space was determined by the shape of the courtyard and the location of the entrances and exist, which could not be modified. Furthermore, the architectural rhythms of the site had to be respected-its style, its proportions, its module and even its color. The solution to so many different problems created, in turn, a certain number of technical requirements which, along with the opera’s dramatic requirements, could only be satisfied by the stage design.

The courtyard, which was almost square, had a total surface of 1,045 square meters; the palace’s principal façade was 11 m high and 33,50 m wide. The theater’s measurements were as follows: the opening of the proscenium frame was 7,85 m high by 11 m wide, while the curtain, which was painted to resemble a harlequin’s cloak, limited the view to 6 m by 10,30 m. The flies were thus reduced to a mere 3,30m. On the other hand, the courtyard’s characteristics allowed us to design relatively deep wings-about 6m-which meant that we could use the old technique of wheeled scenery.

Consequently we built the stage in the traditional manner, as required by this technique : the space under it was reduced to a bare minimum –1,80m-and it was given a 4% slope; it was fitted with three slips, each having a false-slip and two cuts, over a total length of 6,90m, which reduced the practicable space to 6,10m. It should be noted, however, that the generous dimensions of the “auditorium” relative to the frame opening obviated the need for a deeper stage: beyond a distance of 6m the scenery and the actors were no longer visible to spectators at the sides.

Supported by a light metallic armature, the body of the construction consisted of prefabricated, easily dismantled wooden parts. All the decorative pieces-the pilasters, entablatures, ornamental moldings and vases-were balsa, an easily shaped wood that is as light as the cork. The façade, which was daubed with a golden paste, harmonized with the tones of the local buildings. The sun, the early morning dew, the dust and the mistral wind soon gave the setting a proper patina; the artifices of electrical lighting and the stars of the Provençal sky completed the effect.

The somewhat special conditions of this theatre naturally produced a precise perspective, which we had no choice but to respect. It called for a composition, it seemed to me, in which fictive space was suggested by graphic means rather than by constructed volumes and the partial use of trompe-l’oeil. Such volumes would only have revealed to the spectator the true dimensions of a space that was too restricted ; it would have wrecked our chance of creating an illusion. Consequently we opted quite naturally for the solution of an exaggerated linear perspective used primarily as a means of  composition rather than as a means of representation. By alternating the position of the vanishing points, as well as other points in the distance, by shifting the flats in the transitional scenes, we were able to suggest, using simple flat forms, very different, even contrasting, scenic spaces ; and yet, thanks to the fact that they were all based on the same linear rhythm, these spaces were interrelated. The lines of perspective heightened the normal artifice of illusion, thus intensifying its effect ; they acted as a sort of graphic counterpoint, which could be easily adapted to the drama giocoso’s mood alternating between seroso and buffo, arias and recitatives, the brightness of day and the deep shadows of night.

By using linear perspective exclusively as a means of evocative figuration (barring any instance of realistic trompe-l’oeil, any intrusion of the picturesque), we were able to enhance the actor’s stature. We reduced the proportions of certain figured elements to the utmost limit of what was acceptable as reality ; in this way, we made the stage act as a platform projecting the actor toward the audience, giving him the larger-than-life dimensions required by the drama, expanding his silhouette, as it were, to the level of the singing. Furthermore, by surrounding the actor with a fictive reality (a two-dimensional one, the third dimension being merely a graphic illusion), the perspective we designed gave an enhanced viewed view of the actor’s three-dimensional reality ; it bestowed on the actor (and on him alone) the transcendent presence which is surely one of the foremost requirements of the dramatic ceremony.

The virtual absence of flies obliged us to limit the scenery to simple lateral flats which could be pushed together and joined, when required, at the center of the stage ; it prevented us from using hanging flats or moveable borders. We were thus forced to use a stationary system that  enclosed the view both laterally and vertically. This system consisted of three principal flats and a backdrop. They defined a neutral space for the entire performance. Within this space, which had no discernible boundaries, the fictive spaces of the different tableaux were composed and reorganized into new spaces. In contrast to the practice usually followed with this type of panoramic setting, I opted for an overall warm grey-green tone, for I had come to the conclusion after a series of experiments that this color lent itself to being altered in a quite remarkable way under variously colored electric lighting. This proved to be particularly useful with the fixed borders and the upper portion of the curtain, which had to suggest in turn daytime and nighttime skies as well as ceilings. On the lower portion of the curtain a monochrome landscape was painted in the same tones. It appeared simply as a distant vista in the street and cemetery scenes ; concealed in the other scenes, it nevertheless served as an optical link in the scene changes. Far from being detrimental to the setting’s cohesiveness, this fictively enclosed space, which was common to all scenes, actually emphasized the unity of the performance as a whole ; thanks to it, the succession of locations, the succeeding figured distances, appeared as a series of interpenetrating spaces.

I do not feel that the unusual and particularly demanding conditions of our theatre (a kind of open-air “magic lantern”) hindered the creation of the setting in any way. The constraints, with their resulting economy of means, were established and accepted before we even began work on the décor; it could only facilitate a simple, self-evident solution. I felt that my task lay in finding that self-evident solution, and, accordingly, I avoided picturesque and surprising effects. What I wanted to capture was that vital quality that must be the goal of every stage setting-the ability to reveal itself and, in the same blink of the eye, to sink unobtrusively into the background”.

In a wonderfully convincing text published in the aforementioned book, the poet Pierre-Jean Jouve, a sensitive and discerning connoisseur of Mozart’s opera, commented on the exceptional degree of harmony between Cassandre’s design and the composer’s score.

Dramma per Musica, a ballet created by François Michel on the scores of Bach’s secular cantatas and choreographed by Serge Lifar, was first performed on May 2, 1946, by the Compagnies des Nouveaux Ballets de Monte-Carlo. The setting, which strove to “approximate the cardinal virtues of Bach’s music” by drawing on the sources of the baroque style, was a scenic equivalent of an architectural ensemble seen in perspective. Its design was reduced to a blueprint’s outlines and-except for the style of the draperies-any obvious reference to the architectural reality of the baroque period was avoided. The same principle governed the scenographic organization :

“My intention - not to say, my idea - was to take a blueprint drawn in linear perspective-in the event, one of Samuel Marolois’s drawings-and transpose it in an impersonal, classical manner to a completely unfamiliar scenic space. The space consisted, first, of a backdrop on which I had painted a rather abstract landscape in monochrome over a brown background ; second, a practicable opening treated in semi-trompe-l’oeil to provide a discrete transition between the concrete reality of the dancers and the décor’s graphic abstraction ; and, lastly, a large baroque drapery, arbitrarily painted black, grey and white gave unity to this composition of apparently heterogeneous elements.

I treated the setting in an extremely impersonal manner so as to approximate as nearly as possible the universal character which I felt to be one of the leading virtues of Bach’s music. The proscenium curtain and the costumes were designed in the same spirit of austerity and economy. The costumes were derived from Hogarth, Caravaggio and Nicolas Manuel”.

It is fascinating to follow the growth of Cassandre’s skill as a plastic artist in his theatre work and to watch his progress in mastering a compositional technique that he was never to cease improving. Those among us who were his assistants and who worked on the modular structure of the perspective plans he drew at the foot of his architectural settings can testify to his consummate skill in establishing vanishing points and distant points so as to obtain the kind of foreshortening in his spatial evocations that enhanced the scenic illusion. In the succeeding years, the two-dimensional façades that were aligned on those diagrams chalked on the stage seemed to owe less and less to the artifices of the picturesque. We admired Cassandre’s exceptional ability to come up spontaneously with the forms that showed the simplicity of his designs to best advantage.

The Décors for Monsieur de Pourceaugnac, the Aix-en-Provence performance of Don Giovanni and Le Coup de Feu are exemplary in this respect. They transport us to a delightful universal which owes as much to Palladio as to the seventeenth and eighteenth century French architects.

Nor were Cassandre’s stage settings always this solemn; his Biarritzian landscape in Melos, for example, was not lacking in humor.

The design for Weg zum Licht is a freer composition. The unfamiliar appearance of its various components, emphasized by a heightened perspective (produced by moving the distant point close together), creates a troubling effect as the spectator’s eye probes its different compartments-strange spaces which seems divided by their inherently contradictory situation, as if in a metaphysical reflection of the prevailing Surrealist climate.

The Décor for the spectacle De Fil en Etoile is a veritable feast of illusion expressing a phantasmagoric world where the fairyland ballet of the baroque tradition vies with the enchantments of folks imagery and the circus.

Two works in this series of stunning spectacles nevertheless failed to enchant either the public or the critics. The first-Othello-was performed in January 1950. following on the heels of the triumph of Don Giovanni at Aix, this failure was a particularly bitter experience for Cassandre who was criticized for staging Shakespeare’s tragedy in an extremely figurative, mobile Italian setting derived from the Venice of Carpaccio and Bellini rather than from the Elizabethan tradition. It was a curious faux-pas for Cassandre to make,  he who had understood so perfectly that Mozart’s opera demanded a transcription into the subtle, elegant vocabulary of the late eighteenth century rather than into the style of the Spanish Renaissance.

Cassandre’s second scenic failure was his décor for Racine’s tragedies commissioned by the Comédie Française. This too was a galling experience for him, for he had devoted all his moral and physical energies to this new venture. He had formed the concept of an “all-purpose palace” several years earlier. In the spring of 1954, he had drafted a project along these lines for Jean-Louis Barrault, who was then at the Théâtre Marigny. This project had already involved a two-dimensional architectural structure and a sort of dramatic “intersection” which anticipated the space in which the action of Racine’s tragedies was to be knit together and then unravelled. This design, however, was not used ; three years later, Cassandre went back to it and completely reworked its decoration, while retaining its architectural organization and composition. He threw himself into this new project with such enthusiasm that he actually painted most of the set himself.

It is not my intention to criticize the wisdom of attempting such an approach in the twentieth century; and as for the quality of the design, it seems to me beyond reproach. Can anyone honestly say whether Cassandre, in his endeavor to recapture the nobility of the forms traced by the architects, sculptors, and painters of the reign of Louis XIV, was able to avoid falling into the trap of latter-day “historical” design? It was a difficult project to bring off, and no doubt part of its appeal for Cassandre lay in the fact that it was such a challenge. At all events, the luke-warm critical reception of his décor - Cassandre’s last - prompted the artist to write a sort of defense. It is a beautiful text, penned in his most polished style, and it is once a goodbye to the theatre and a creed.

“If one were asked to picture a door to Racine’s tragedies, one would probably think of the design of Jules Hardouin-Mansard, the King’s First Architect.

Indeed, during the reign of Louis XIV, the arts-whether poetry, sculpture, painting, music, the theatre or the art of eloquence-appear to have been fecundated, organized and is if propelled forward by architecture, to such an extent that it seems difficult to dissociate the various aspects of these arts from the admirable work of the architects  who lived in that period. As early as the reign of Henri IV, a generation of architects, outgrowing a dubious Renaissance style which had been unable to liberate itself from the exuberance of flamboyant Gothic architecture-a generation enamored with the magic of the Five Orders and determined to respect the ancient Vitruvian rules reinterpreted by Vignola and Palladio-paved the way for a truly exceptional artistic flowering in France. What makes the great French baroque architects, from d’Androuet du Cerceau to Salomon de Brosse, from Pierre Le Muet to Jacques Le Mercier, so glorious is the fact that they were able to give a decisive impetus to a lucidly organized architecture, one that contained, with remarkable coherence, all the forms of what is called classical art. Classical, that is, in the ancient sense of the word; for, like this architecture, the art of his golden period rested on rules set down by the ancients; it addressed itself to an aristocracy, a class which was a thoroughly schooled in its culture as it was refined in its tastes. Yet it was able to avoid becoming an exclusive and esoteric art; it reached out to men of every class; it stamped its harmonious imprint on the humblest objects as well as on the greatest works of art.

If the architecture of the reign of Louis XIV appears to sum up the aesthetics of a whole period, it is because it allows measuring exactly the seventeenth century’s preoccupation with formal perfection - meaning, in the original sense of that word, completeness. It was above all this preoccupation which dwelt in and inspired that architecture, just as it dwelt in and inspired Racine’s language. For the artist living in those times, the heady wine of intense feeling was not enough; he wanted the wine bottle to have a beautiful shape as well. He wanted the contents to coincide so perfectly with the container-the spirit with the form-that the one could not be distinguished from the other.

It may be this overriding concern with formal perfection that causes the works of art of this period to be criticized at times for a certain lack of warmth. No doubt, the perfection of the imperatively required artistic gesture-its completeness, its avoidance of short cuts and abbreviations-seems antithetical to the superficial view of lyricism, inasmuch as the lyrical does not manifest itself in the gesture’s revealed impulse but only in the inevitable expression of its completion. It would be difficult to deny that the seventeenth century was utterly indifferent to the allure of the “first draft”, the rough design and the sketch. Presumably the French artists of that period heard Leonardo’s voice among the choir of the great Italian artists, declaring, “Impatience, folly’s sister, admires brevity…”

Thus the seventeenth century forms, which were conceived in a spirit of perfection as contents - and necessarily so - could be neither arbitrary nor empty. If the tragedians of the late eighteenth century and their successors were able to deal with such freedom with the formal framework of classical tragedy, it was primarily because they viewed it as a superficial decoration and were incapable of discerning the meaning-laden essence of its style.

For even in their ornamental function, the seventeenth-century forms were, in fact, the “written” figuration of a certain ritual, the extension of an attitude required by a rigorous ceremonial protocol, accepted unquestioningly by a society in which the manner of being was as important as being itself. The honnête homme - the gentleman - of the seventeenth century conformed to a life style which governed not only all his actions but also his words, his style of writing, his pleasures and even the care he took to conceal his real emotions ; for he too aspired toward that completeness which the aesthetic principle underlying the arts of that period proposed to his view as an example to follow.

It was this life style that allowed the honnête homme, in a gesture that had become thoroughly natural and self-evident, to draw a foliated scroll, an acanthus leaf, a volute’s spiral, to bow to the king or to bring a letter to a close with an elegant verbal ceremony :

“Without departing from the profound veneration with which I am, Madam, the humblest, most obedient and faithful servant of your Royal Highness…”

If one admits that the formal order governing the classical theatre is not an isolated phenomenon, but merely one of the aspects of an overall aesthetic and social edifice obeying the same rules, it becomes impossible to separate the verbal ceremony of Racine’s tragedies from their ceremonial gestures. To do so would seem as dangerous as isolating a text from its context. To dissociate the music of Racine’s verses from the inevitable physical setting meant to contain them, in the name of realism and color (two concerns which were altogether foreign to the artists of seventeenth century), would be at once a betrayal and a foolish mistake.

And yet, it has been precisely in the interest of a certain Realism that tragic actors have striven since the end of the eighteenth century to look Greek or Roman and to speak Racine’s lines…in prose-or almost! They have not seen that the “truth” they have been intent on bringing to their performances is the worst of falsehoods, the lie of a simulacrum ; and, blind to the fact that their realism is the very negation of an essentially allusive art-Racine’s, as well as Mansard’s-an art in which everything is signified and nothing is represented. “Were not the arts of those bygone days”, writes Pierre-Jean Jouve, “geared to capture the spirit of things rather than the things themselves, as our realism strives to do? It is this character of distance and mystery that makes them merit the name classic”.

It is curious to observe that the decline of classical tragedy has its source-accidentally, as it were-in a relatively short-lived fashion. As early as the mid-eighteenth century, the excavations at Herculaneum and Pompeii inspired a vogue for “Romanness” which swept all of Europe and, over a period lasting several decades, left its imprint on all the arts, from architecture to typography. After Piranesi and Canova, Louis David and Ledoux, Riesner, Bodoni and Didot, tragic actors succumbed to the vogue and allowed themselves to be swayed by Talma’s feverish example. Breaking with an established formal tradition, they strove to humanize Racine’s heroes by “Romanising” them. Now it must be agreed that these heroes, although born in antiquity, were more at home at Versailles than in Rome…

This Roman vogue would probably have been less lethal to classical tragedy if an infinitely more profound movement had not arisen around the same time-Romanticism, which drew its energies from the upheavals in the wake of the French Revolution, turned the classical edifice upside down. It totally transformed the artist’s attitude toward his work, man’s attitude toward life. Paving the way first for verism and then for realism, naturalism and other even more extreme schools, the cult of the bare fact inevitably dealt a mortal blow to an allusive art which had cast its light on the world for centuries.

And the result was that Racine’s heroes, already deprived of their mythical aura, began to bear a strange resemblance to the ordinary bourgeois under Louis-Philippe, though he was dressed as a Roman aristocrat or gladiator and walked about, no less strangely, in the vestibule of a thermal establishment.

The saddest thing is that the degradation of the classical tragedy was carried out and enshrined by very great tragic actors, the very people who should have opposed it, since it hastened the downfall of tragedy as a whole and of their own profession as well. It was their undeniable talent that brought on the demise of an entire tradition, paradoxically engendering the Only Tradition-a strange substitution of truths, one that, more curiously still, persists even today.

Despite the attempts of leading figures in the theatre of these last few years to extricate dramatic art from the rut of realism, tragedy alone, in defiance of all logic, seems to have remained stuck. Will their successors be able to restore seventeenth-century tragedy’s essential classical virtues? Will they succeed in laying to rest the ridiculous reputation justly merited by its latter-day forms and returning it to its fully deserved position of pre-eminence-a position it is in danger of losing for good?

When the Comédie Française, at the behest of Jean Meyer, asked me in 1958 to take part in this restoration attempt, neither they nor I tried to minimize the enormous difficulty of such an undertaking. None of us claimed to be able to reform, in a matter of a few months, habits which had become deeply engrained through two centuries of dramatic teaching and practice.

This, we realize, is an undertaking that requires patience and a great deal of time, if it is to respect the rules which it proposes to serve. But whatever the scope of the undertaking, it has to be attempted-and set in motion. It seemed to us that the place to start was the concrete form which must contain the verbal form and perhaps influence it through a sort of osmosis. If we felt obliged to limit ourselves to a single setting, as was the practice in the century of Louis XIV, it was because we felt that this type of décor involved certain crucial restrictions. It excluded the anecdotal and the picturesque, as well as any indication of local color-all of which are incompatible with the austerity and restraint of classical writing. It obeyed the rule of the Three Unities, which had been bent in more ways than one by the realistic staging of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Finally, it created a neutral dramatic locus (which was so completely indeterminate in the seventeenth century that, in the theatrical parlance of the time, it was termed a “Palais à volonté” - literally, a “palace at will” or ad lib ; in other words, a palatial setting that could be adapted to every requirement). Whose will governed this “palace”-the scene shifter’s, the actor’s, the spectator’s ? Actually, the answer is relatively immaterial ; what matters is that the single, impersonal and, in a sense, abstract dramatic location established by this setting could have only one function : that of containing, within a self-enclosed system, the dramatic conflict of passions and the verbal music which expresses it. And it could have only one criterion to satisfy : that of at once disclosing itself and sinking into the background. Now it could only accomplish this if it was completely self-evident. Once the principle of this function and criterion has been accepted, there is simply no reason any more for replacing an indeterminate space in one tragedy with an indeterminate space in another tragedy. In the classical theatre, in fact, the setting was the same for every play ; it never occurred to the dramatists of the time to alter it in any way, except to change very minor details-a prop here, a chair or torch there. Letting ourselves be guided by this example, we made allowances for slight variations within the framework of the basic setting, but we did not modify the latter’s structure in any way. We strove to respect the unity and restraint of a décor that served to signify rather than to represent a setting. However, this does not mean that we tried to reconstruct a classical décor-an archaeological undertaking and not a theatrical one. What we hoped to restore was a certain spirit, a certain ability to respect rules. We do not believe that the “ceremonial form” can be revived in a pastiche of outward ornamentation-that way lies the veneer of fake antique furniture. The true life of this form resides in its structure, in the secret rhythms of its proportions geometrically organized in the flourishes of a style ruled by an architectural syntax-the syntax of a Mansard or Bérain-coinciding exactly with Racine’s dramatic syntax.

If we felt obliged to stress the ambiguity of the two superposed spaces-the real space and the fictive space-by means of a strictly linear perspective excluding any treatment of volumes “in the round”, it was with the sole purpose of bringing out ( within a graphically signified system) the only plastic reality that really counted : that of the actor. We were able to enhance the actor’s stature with this device; we were able to give him the larger-than-life dimensions of a hero, a myth.

In Racine’s day, the actor’s costume was merely a courtier’s attire slightly glorified by the addition of mythological attributes adapted to the seventeenth-century canons. It varied as little as the setting and seems, in fact, to have been governed by the same rules of unity and non-specificness. We felt that the best course of action lay in putting together a sort of “cloakroom” where each costume could be assigned, not to a particular character, but to a type of character, a type that recurs regularly in Racine’s tragedies.

There is a danger that this statement will be interpreted as a declaration of principles-a procedure for which we feel no particular sympathy; we realize only too well that it is not with “intentions” that one reaches the audience, but with results, and that the final judges are the spectators themselves. It is our hope that the reader will understand that what we are outlining here is not a series of premature solutions, but an equation and-in the very terms in which this equation is set down-the reasons we might invoke for failing to solve it. Above all, we would like the reader to see this as a statement of hope.

Whatever its outcome, our attempt at a restoration can never, we realize, be the ressurection of a dramatic phenomenon that belongs irrevocably to the past. It would be insane for us to try and stage Racine’s tragedies as they were performed in the seventeenth century. That would require the actors and spectators to believe, first of all, in the “divine right” of kings ; they would have to be familiar, secondly, with the rites which governed the life style of an honnête homme; and lastly, in the audience limited to two hundred knowledgeable and highly-cultivated people, the place of honor would have been occupied by a king. Obviously, it is impossible to meet such conditions today-not to mention a host of other, much more subtle conditions!

But obviously, too, while we no longer celebrate mass the way the early Christians celebrated it in the catacombs-by participating totally in its rites-we nevertheless celebrate it with all the pomp of its liturgical ceremony ; and we are acquainted with atheist who do not take a part in the sacrifice of the Eucharist and are nevertheless deeply moved by the solemnity of the rites. Our undertaking is dedicated to the atheists who have ceased to believe in Tragedy’s sacred miracle. If the verbal and visual ceremony that we hope to restore to Racine’s work can succeed in shaking that unbeliever-whether he is an actor or a spectator-out of his impassive indifference, and cause a new curiosity for the tragic ceremony to emerge from his emotions, our enterprise will not have been entirely in vain.

It is on this that we pin our hopes today.”

Considerable though his work as a scenic artist was, Cassandre still found time to round off his graphic oeuvre, to design a number of posters and to devote several years to typographical work. In 1958 Olivetti commissioned him to design several typefaces for typewriters; these include Nuova Pica (an Old Style character) and the impressive Graphika 81. (One wonder whether the latter was not inspired by the Caroline capitals inscribed by Alcuin of York on a handsome Roman block of stone in the year 796?) Cassandre worked with Olivetti engineers at Ivrea to add the finishing touches to his designs, and he shared with them the satisfaction of bringing a creation that was at once artistic and artisanal to completion.

Ably seconded by his assistant Sylvie Joubert, Cassandre designed a striking series of harmonious, geometrically precise typographical compositions for record jackets (commissioned by Pathé Marconi). He developed a style of letter in which the hand, freed from the noble yet sprightly rhythms of a writing freely inspired by the enhancing proportions of the epigraphic Roman capital. The bold vertical strokes of these elegantly sloped letters, balanced by amply rounded curves and subtly modulated strokes, suggest the inspired touch of the hand that traced them; yet the strokes have an incisive quality too, which subtly emphasizes the rectilinear appearance of these letters and evokes a burin cutting into stone.

This was to be Cassandre’s last typographical style-the style of the Yves Saint-Laurent logo. The artist’s views around this time are summed up in an elegant text dedicated to the poet Pierre-Jean Jouve :

“Writing is one of man’s first GESTURE. Contemporary scientists concede that writing may have preceded speech.

The ideograms traced by early man were presumably representations of gestures and not thoughts.

Simultaneously with the development of speech, writing gradually began to represent first concepts, then words and finally sounds. But at no point was its connection with the gesture of the hand tracing it served.

It is a dangerous error to reduce the letter to a simple graphic architecture: that is to strip it of the very thing that makes it lives-movement. Of course, in the purity that printing has allowed it to attain, it is subject to certain elementary rules governing Form and Proportion; nevertheless, it remains static. Now the letter is letter is a dynamic architecture.

Actually, each letter is a rhythmic element (like an isolated gesture in choreography). It communicates this rhythm to the word, the phrase, the line as a whole and, lastly, the page.

It is through this rhythm and movement born from a gesture (whether it is a manual or mechanical gesture, from left to right in our culture) that writing-provided the gesture is true-can hope to espouse, to fuse with the very motion of thought (which is not static either).

The invention of printing introduced the risk of a grave confusion. Indeed, the letter traced in a rapid and natural gesture was to become a sign slowly and patiently engraved in the hard steel of a punch, just like the sign the Romans engraved on stone. The temptation to imitate Roman’s splendid monumental inscriptions and to give the page the severe, orderly appearance of architecture was great. It was a dangerous pitfall, for it threatened to deprive the line of its essential movement.

We have an unlimited admiration for the first printers who were wise enough to avoid this trap – and how skillfully!- and to differentiate, like the Romans themselves, between monumental writing and so-called “book” or cursive writing.

It is for this reason that, despite their antiquity, we still tend to prefer Old Style characters. They have succeeded in preserving the movement and the rhythm of the magnificent Roman and medieval cursives.

It was only under the influence of Piranesi’s “Roman” manner, at the end of the eighteenth century, that writing fell into this trap and its lines congealed into something monumental an static (Bodoni, Dodot). This “immobility” dictated by what was at the time nothing more than a fashion – one that was extraordinarily detrimental to the flow of the written word, though it was still the outward expression of a FORM, a human attitude – seems to have been a symptom of a generalized, perhaps deadly, paralysis...

For, unfortunately, it cannot be denied that man, who has been improving his means of communication for more than a century, and has in his home a fountain pen, a typewriter, a radio, a television set, a telephone and has access to monotype, linotype and lumitype presses, is limited, when it comes to giving a FORM to his thoughts, to archaic, obsolete signs; modern man no longer has his own style of writing... despite the fact that for millenniums his writing had been ths most faithful and moving formal testimony to his personality. (Is man’s personality liquefying, becoming fluid, a stream-lined, vulgar suppository?)

The arbitrary cutting-off of a line (like a sausage) when it reaches a certain point on the right side of the page, in order to justify it (as they say, because it is no doubt never justified...); its no less arbitrary spacing, which breaks its rhythm and color, so as to align it with the same justification; and the freakish hyphenations and other performances of our tinkering typographers are only some of the consequences of the confusion between the monumental letter and the cursive.

The manuscripts of the Middle Ages, those of the Romans and ... your own contain no such breaks. The more I look at your drafts, the more I come to feel that the Word traced, it almost seems, in space rather than on the page, soars beyond the line toward “the frontiers of the boundless and the future”, in a movement that is orderly, of course, yet free. In short, I see many analogies between it and the space-movement which you perceived in Mozart.

My father’s papers include a slender file containing several recipes for making egg-based paint. It was Giorgio de Chirico, whom my father knew in New York, who was the first to tell him about this medium. Struggling with the inherent problems of oil painting, its “ponderousness” when the canvas becomes so overcharged with uncertain touches and overpainting that it seems it has reached the limit of ‘fatigue”, Cassandre was casting around at the time for a paint that would have the consistency of gouache, a medium he had thoroughly mastered, without its poverty; the rich tactile qualities of oil paint without its drawbacks.

After carrying out a large number of experiments, he used tempera to paint what he considered his best work, I believe, between 1950 and 1963.

The first in this series of paintings was Le Baladin (The Mountebank), which was executed in a surge of enthusiasm within a fewdays in 1950 to illustrate Cassandre’s retrospective at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs. Based on the old theme of light vanquishing darkness, inspired in this case by the fictive world of the theater, it is a haunting allegorical work. Its poetic atmosphere, characterized by ambiguous relationship between scenic illusion and the emphatic presence of actual objects, imparts to the canvas the unsettling power of a familiar object in a unfamiliar setting – for example, the mask in the form of a crescent moon. This picture was succeeded, in 1959-1960, by a series of four paintings of  flowers. They expressed the views Cassandre held at the time on the need for a merely “decorative” painting (one, however, that was not lacking in poetry):

“There is a great difference between the attention-demanding presence of an art that is by definition exceptional and retiring, almost invisible, yet warm presence (like that of a tender person) of a familiar art attuned to man’s ordinary day-to-day experience. The former is always the expression of an overpowering emotion-hope or despair. The latter can only be a subtl reminder of a hope, as Goethe very rightly puts it. ( My constant ambition)”

With La Frontière (The Border), painted in 1962, Cassandre borrowed the architectural vocabulary of a stage décor resembling the set he had designed for Weg zum Licht, to suggest a lyrical dimension in which his own death angst was reflected. That same year he resumed work on the décor for Dramma per Musica, developing its architectural aspect and redesigning the drapery to increase the elegance of the setting as a whole.

In the spring of 1963, he let go his studio in Paris and moved to Burgundy, not far from his friend François Michel, who gave him the support of his caring friendship and the stimulation of his sweeping, vastly cultivated intelligence. Cassandre, who had briefly entertained the notion of founding an international art institute in Switzerland, spent two psychologically difficult years in the landscapes of Burgundy, to which he was deeply attached. He returned to Paris in the spring of 1965, forced ta face the fact that his means did not allow him to build the country house he had dreamt of – and actually designed.

Back in the capital, Cassandre enjoyed the warm support of a few devoted friends. He prepared his work for a series of retrospective exhibitions at the Galerie Motte in Geneva (1966), the Galerie Janine Hao in Paris (1966) and the Rijksakademie Van Beeldende Kunsten in Amsterdam (1967).

It was during these final years of his life that he designed his last typeface. It was only after his death that it was given the name Cassandre, a belated tribute to one of the most inventive of twentieth-century typographic designers. Such are the ironies of fate.

The Cassandre typeface was never published. The exact date of its completion is unknown, as is that for its epigraphic adaptation, Metop. Presumably, both designs were completed sometime during the last three years of Cassandre’s life – a period when he was also hard at work on his easel painting (and when the earnings from the latter were “stingier” than ever).

On June 17, 1967, he attempted to commit suicide.

One year later, to the very day, he succeeded in crossing “the great frontier”. A letter from a leading German type founder lay on his desk, informing him that, in view of the too revolutionary appearance of his new typeface, they had decided not to publish it.

It was with an implacable logic that Cassandre, who had decided to take this step years earlier, snuffed out the bright flame of his own life.

Morally worn out by years of struggle, unable to marshal his creative energies longer than a few brief moments each day, refusing to submit to the indignities of old age and physical decline, what was there left for Cassandre to expect from life – he who had loved it with a radiant eagerness and had responded to it generously with vivacity, wit, laughter... and devastating sarcasm? Who would ever have guessed, seeing him in the prime of life, that beneath his ebullience he was tormented by uncertainties?

“All my life, I have been solicited by two innate tendencies; a need for formal perfection, which had led me to pursue the work of a craftsman who knows where his duties and limits lie, and a burning thirst for a lyrical expression that aspires to free itself from all constraints. Contradictory impulses –  and difficult ones to reconcile in this day and age.

For the lyrical work of a contemporary artist aware of his own tragic destiny necessarily contains his pain, his anguish, his despair. Whereas an artisan’s work, which expresses essentially the joy of its own accomplishment, can only contain a faith in life and durability, an unambiguously optimistic affirmation.

But how is one to attain this joyful serenity when one’s heart is filled with grief?

My instinctive restraint and perhaps also my fear of indulging, almost reprehensibly, in narcissism have always prevented me from voicing my own despair lyrically. And yet lyricism, it now seems to me, is the only honest one.”


Henri Mouron, AM.CASANDRE.1984


Translated by Schirmer / Mosel Production 


Schirmer / Mosel Production © Mouron.Cassandre.All Rights Reserved.


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