|Thomas F. O’Meara, O.P.is the William K. Warren Professor of Theology at the
University of Notre Dame. A recent publication is: “Thomas Aquinas
Theologian” (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1997).
A liberation from the immediate past, Couturier’s work rediscovered not only the greatness of the past but anticipated the dynamic issues of our own times.
TWENTY years after Vatican II, it becomes more and more evident that the
Council and the periods preceding and following it are simply a long conversation
between Roman Catholicism and modernity. By modernity we mean not simply the
ideology of the epochs after Kant, Marx and Freud but the thought-forms of a
culture centered in human subjectivity, freedom and historicity. The event of
Vatican II (which is much more than the four sessions in Rome) begins a long
retrieval, appropriation, critique and transcendence of modernity by Catholicism.
Because the Roman Catholic world projects itself in the visual — in the iconic and
liturgical — and because modern art is the sacrament of the twentieth century, the
horizons of art and sacrality in our century could not avoid each other, but would
inevitably have to speak, expressing this latest, complex dialogue between
Christianity and the West. (1)
Even at the end of the nineteenth century, with the work of Cézanne and Monet
scarcely absorbed, young artists pondered the sad , derivative state of religious art.
Joseph Pichard’s L’Art sacré moderne chronicles the new atmosphere which
emerged from 1890 to 1914, and which was then taken up again after World War
1, fostering the first attempts at a modern church architecture in Europe.(2)
Pichard himself helped to found conferences and then a periodical which was to
exercise particular influence. Within eighteen months of its inception, however, the
journal L’Art sacré was taken over by the publishing house of Cerf which confided
its direction to two Dominicans: P.-R. Régamey and M.-A. Couturier. Régamey’s
thought is well known through translations of Religious Art in the Twentieth
Century.(3) Now the vision and work of the other Dominicans influential in
furthering within Roman Catholicism a positive dialogue with modern art, Marie
Alain Couturier, can be glimpsed, for two books with selections from his writings
have recently appeared.
The first, entitled La Verité blessée, contains selections from journals and essays, sketches for articles and talks while the other, Art sacré, gives excerpts from his articles on the religious dimension in modern art. The Menil foundation in Paris has drawn together the material for this volume of selections from 1939 to 1953; from the Menil foundation in Houston comes the second volume of brief, powerful excerpts from issues of L’Art sacré elegantly illustrated with the original black and white photographs. In the pages of both books, we hear the voice of an original,
multifaceted thinker; a contemplative priest who converses with the great figures
of the French cultural world after Cézanne, Picasso and Braque.(4)
Dominique de Menil, in her introduction to the latter book, writes that “it is not a
question of re-introducing someone forgotten but of receiving his presence anew,”
the presence of someone who broke through into unexplored frontiers, someone
who when modern art was dismissed as secular, atheist or neurotic was the friend
of Braque, Lèger, Matisse, Rouault and Picasso. (5)
The excerpts from the journals and addresses are markings for learning about
Couturier’s life and work, while the pages reproduced from L’Art sacré speak of
the problematic of relating Christianity, seemingly so explicit in its religious
objects, to an art increasingly abstract and transcendental.
Born in the Loire on November 15, 1897, the young Couturier was mobilized for
the First World War and wounded on the front. By 1919 he was studying painting
in Paris with a group centered around Maurice Denis and then worked for the next
five years in various churches in the media of fresco and stained glass. During the
early 1920s he toured Italy, read Paul Claudel, discovered Matisse, Picasso and Le
Corbusier, met Jean Cocteau at the house of the Maritains, and worked for Action
française. His interior odyssey, however, moved within not only art but within
Christianity, drawing him to religious life, first as a Benedictine oblate and then as
a Dominican, receiving the habit in 1925. He speaks of “that day in 1925 when
freedom entered into my life, having the face of love.”(6) In the years immediately
before and after his ordination, Couturier’s superiors, far from discouraging his art,
offered some commissions: a novitiate chapel, the chapel of the Dominicans at
Oslo, frescoes for the private chapel in Santa Sabina (Rome) of the Master General
in 1932. Assigned to a priory in Paris, even while working on churches and
windows up through 1937, Couturier assumed a widening ministry of preaching
and spiritual direction. Simone Weil wrote her Letter to a Religious to the
Dominican at the suggestion of Maritain in 1942 when both Weil and Couturier
were in the United States. In 1938 he assumed the direction of L’Art sacré.
Early in 1940 the French Dominican arrived in New York to preach a series of
Lenten Conferences in French at St. Vincent de Paul, and then to visit Canada. The
war trapped him in North America: lecturing in Canada, meeting artists such as
Salvador Dali, painting a Way of the Cross for the Dominican Sisters of Elkins
Park, serving as chaplain to French pilots in Jacksonville, Florida.
Couturier returned to France in August 1945, a changed man, deepened by his
exile, filled with new perspectives for art and faith. His activity gave expression to
more striking ideas about how the church, in its decoration and liturgy, should
relate to modern painting, sculpture, design and architecture. In a revolutionary
move, Couturier attracted for the decoration of the new church of Assy in the
south of France Léger, Braque, Matisse, Chagal, Lipchitz and others. Assy was
consecrated in June, 1950. By then Couturier was corresponding with Matisse
over the chapel for the Dominican cloistered nuns at Vence. Conservative
reactions both in France and in Rome became increasingly vocal. In the years
which followed, Régamey and Couturier worked on a dual front, explaining and
further encouraging the breakthrough of twentieth century art in the decoration of
Assy, Vence and Audincourt and defending the very possibility of this new
incarnation to the intégristes and to Rome. After an operation, Couturier never
fully recovered his health and died in early 1954.
TWO NEW BOOKS ON COUTURIER
Marie-Alain Couturier published a few books during his lifetime; his creative spirit
found small, original and provocative pieces, not synthetic systems, congenial.(7)
Drawing on the provincial archives of the Paris Province of Dominicans, the M. A.
Couturier Archives created by the Mend Foundation in 1975, has been able to
assemble the texts in La Verité blessée (with a forward by the French, post-structuralist
philosopher of science and art Michel Serres). These texts are drawn
from journals, lectures, notes for future articles, dating from 1939 to 1953, and
range from a line to several pages, although most are brief.(8) Couturiers spiritual
life is glimpsed through observations or quotes from literary figures; a paragraph
depicts the conversation at meetings with figures from the arts; longer segments
recall the ever more profound description of art and the sacramental.
I believe in the continuity of the life of forms, in the homogeneity of their
evolution, and yet it is true that the appearance of a genius is unforeseeable, and
that such an appearance puts everything in question, reversing the course of life,
orienting everything to the new genius.
Matisse: “All my art is religious.”
Picasso: “Nothing can be done without solitude; I have created around myself,
without anyone suspecting it, a profound solitude.”
Normally the artistic life and the mystical life exclude each other; art truly alive
nourishes itself from everything, from the entire life of a person. Nor can we say
that each (of these lives) simply addresses itself to different realms of the soul —
that is only partially true. The truth is, on the contrary, that generally one must
choose one of them.(9)
This book — what readers will hope is only a first work from the Couturier
Archives — also contains a fine selection of photographs (Couturier as a novice;
looking at the plans for Assy or Vence; visiting with Chagall and Maritain) and
ends with a detailed chronology of his life and an index.
THE CONFLICT BETWEEN THE TRADITIONAL AND THE MODERN
To appreciate the agonizing problem which Couturier and Régamey faced, we
must call to mind the split between a traditional (but largely nineteenth-century)
church, and a modern France after Proust, Debussy, Monet. Catholicism in France
was marginalized, its isolationism furthered by a recent alienation from Germany
and England, and by what Couturier called the “Byzantinism” of Catholic Italy and
Spain. The long tradition of interplay between the sacred and the arts, quite
capable of sustaining the revolutions of the medieval, the renaissance and the
baroque, had collapsed. With the beginning of the nineteenth century, the church
turned to mediocre talents, to merchants and carpenters of an art and architecture
that is religious simply because it presents with emotional objectivity a Christian
figure. Lourdes, Fourvibre, Lisieux emerge from an art which is imitative,
mediocre, confused; stupendous but lacking depth. In the environs of Paris alone
120 churches had been built, but without the advice of a single significant
“What are the reasons for this?,” Couturier asked in L’Art sacré. The rapid
de-Christianization of Europe and the retreat of the church, marked by fear and
ignorance, from all areas of culture; a modern culture diverted away from the
ecclesiastical world; an ignorance of the mentality, goals and style of modern
artists linked to the influence of the older academic art; the rapid alteration after
1850 of the forms of art, both in terms of a withdrawal from beauty and pure
objectivity and a new resonance among a wider public. All of this, he concluded, is
summed up in the widespread criticism of turning in any way to modern artists:
“They are not believers.”
Couturier argued that the precise ideas and goals of ecclesiastical art should be
pondered and presented by the church, but then the church should step back and
let the free genius of the artist (which exists independent of Christian faith and yet
is not without its own mysterious lines to the transcendent and the mystical)
provide “the elaboration of forms, their birth which occurs in liberty, purity,
weakness aided by friendship, respect and prayer.”(11) This difficult introduction
of Christianity to the media and varieties of modern art (which is being faced in
this period in America by figures like Paul Tillich and Maurice Lavanoux)
Couturier describes as no less than “the rebirth of Christian art . . . , the reform of
ideas, the restoration of visual sensitivity.”(12)
Purification and liberation mark this process. Purification means a shift to formal purity, a move from justification through the object presented to the perduring variety and depth of beauty in form. As with the divine being, form diffuses beauty, and in a great work of art a harmony of lines and colors sets forth in formal accord
their overall impact. Such an unchained beauty lives free from academic imperialism, traditional ossification, bourgeois conformism, and theological immaturity. The striking black and white illustrations in L’Art sacré, where a romanesque church, a pagan temple, an American dam, an African village emerge with a striking formal dynamism and spiritual depth, are carefully assembled to display “the multiple and living beauty of being.” “To escape the danger of barriers and blinders, we publish images taken from natural realities and even from industry, recalling that admirable forms are born without any need of art but through the rigor of mathematics or by means of a healthy conception of function
As Pichard’s book showed, the conflict over modern art and liturgical service
began early in this century. Couturier had to go to the ultimate issue — beyond the
modern lines of architecture of the newness of Nolde, Rouault, or Chagal — to
abstract art. It was Couturier who, although he himself appreciated a greater
variety in contemporary art than merely the drive towards abstract expressionism,
saw that this ultimate form of modernity could not be set aside in contempt or
It was not through his own work as an artist that Couturier brought his
revolutionary ideas to realization but through his active friendships with the great
artists and cultural figures of his day. Régamey writes:
From the time of his training at the Ateliers d’Art Sacré under Denis and
Desvallières, Pere Couturier’s greatest ambition was to revive Christian art by
appealing to the independent masters of his time. He discussed the project many
times between 1932 and 1935 with the Abbé Devémy who was chaplain at the
sanatorium in Assy, opposite Mont Blanc. In 1936, his friend jean Hébert-Stevens,
who worked in glass spoke about the project to Bonnard, who was very interested;
at this time, however, no opportunity came to make the idea materialize. In 1938,
Hébert-Stevens suggested to Couturier that he speak to Braque about the idea.
In 1936 Abbe Devémy thought of commissioning artists who were not “third-rate”
for a church in an area near the Alps to serve sanatorium patients. In 1939
Couturier stopped to visit his friend and was asked to collaborate in planning “Our
Lady of All Graces.” The project began by acquiring a window designed by
Rouault.(15) The war years intervened, with meetings with Maurois, Focillon,
Dali, Stravinsky, and conversations with Léger and Chagall on the prospect of
collaboration at Assy.
By the time of his return to France, it was clear to Couturier that the resurrection
of religious art through an incarnation with modernity would never be
accomplished by lesser talents, a quasi-modern religious art, and the institutional
church. He had conceived the bold idea of involving the great figures of the
twentieth century in aspects of church decoration — even if they were fallen away
from, or indifferent to, the church. Three great churches were touched by the
Dominican’s statement that modern art can express the sacred in line and color: (1)
Matisse’s chapel for the Dominican sisters at Vence, (2) the windows and mosaic
by Léger and Bazaine at Audincourt, (3) and what we might call the religious art
gallery of Assy. What is the lesson of the Assy church where the tapestry backdrop
for the sanctuary was done by Lurcat, the facade mosaic by Léger, the tabernacle
door by Braque, windows by Rouault, stained glass and a ceramic mural by
Chagall? Couturier answered: for Christian art to exist at all, “each generation
must appeal to the masters of living art, and today those masters come first from
secular art … there are no dead masters in art.” It is not sensationalism which turns
the commissions away from the ateliers of the academy or of the hierarchy, but the
search for those individuals in whom, in our times (no others exist), art is living.
You must employ life where you find it. “Let the dead bury the dead,” Devémy,
the pastor of Assy observed. Assy is not a masterpiece — it lacks rigor in
organization — but as a cultural-theological statement it is of the greatest
Assy had attracted enormous attention; in the United States Life magazine featured
it. Reactionary Catholics, however, looked askance at this dialogue between art
and religion; attacks usually focused upon the lack of a religious object, the
strangeness of the forms, the manifestation of modern freedom and subjectivity,
and the lack of faith or ecclesial membership of the artists. The balanced tone of
Pius XII’s encyclical Mediator Dei (1947) and of his allocution in 1950 on sacred
art (“The purpose of all art is to break the narrow boundaries of the finite, and
open windows onto the infinite for the benefit of the human spirit, yearning in that
direction.”(17)) is replaced by an “Instruction” issued by the Vatican in June, 1952.
This document, listing the censures of Nicaea and Trent against distortion and
innovation in art, rightly emphasized the link between sacred art and liturgy,
deplored mediocre, mass-produced images and praised artists who are outstanding
for their technique, but its discouragement of “unusual images … not in conformity
with the approved usage of the church … [representing] false dogma . . . the
occasion of dangerous error to the unlearned” was interpreted as supporting those
who could conceive of religious art only as photographic and theologically
shallow.(18) By 1953 the controversy over sacred art was only a facet of a
spreading crisis. The worker-priests were ordered to take no new recruits;
contemporary theological directions had been summarily dismissed in 1950 by
Humani Generis; to save the Dominican Order from suppression, Suarez, the
Master General, removed from their positions the French provincials, prominent
theologians such as Congar, Chenu and Feret, as well as the director of the Cerf
publishing house (which was responsible for L’Art sacré). For the remaining years
of the 1950s, until John XXIII called Vatican II, the renewal of the Catholic
Church in the laboratory of France came largely to a halt. Couturier did not live to
see its utterly unexpected recommencement bearing within it a long and world-wide destiny.
Couturiers work was a liberation from the immediate past in order to rediscover
the greatness of the many pasts and of the many futures; his few, climactic years
after 1950 anticipated the issues of our own creative but troubled times. His
apostolate was for the future, and his perspective was universal.
To return to L’Art sacré, the Dominican observed in the journal’s pages that in the
regions which the church then designated “mission fields” the problem of art and
sacramentality was compounded, for the church understood neither contemporary
art, nor the “modernity” of the art of Africa or Asia. Next, Catholicism must adjust
itself everywhere to a new relationship between the profane and the sacred. This is
the same issue as that labored over by theologians in middle decades of this
century viewed as the previous compartmentalization and the new union of nature
and grace. Couturier quoted here in L’Art sacré André Malraux, with whom he
had much in common in breadth of vision and whom he often cited in his
notebooks: “Each day it appears more evident that modern civilization is incapable
of giving forms to spiritual values. The same thing happens in Rome. That
Christianity cannot give to its churches a style which permits Christ to be present
there, nor unite in the figures of the saints a communion with artistic quality — this
is worth reflecting upon.”(19)
Immanence, transcendence: the Noli me tangere of Easter counterpoised to the
baby’s birth at Christmas. To forget either side is to wound the church, not only in
its dogma but in its activity. Couturier does not claim to have solved the
innumerable problems of style in modern art within the ecclesial and Christian
world of space and time. Yet, clearly, he has altered the relationship, illuminating
the purity of modern media, liberating religion from past academic scholasticisms,
stating in practice the possibility and necessity of their conversation.
The word “living” occurs repeatedly in his writings. Only the living can flourish in
the now. If the church continues the cultural diaspora nurtured since Louis XVI
and Gregory XIV, the world of Catholics will be a ghetto, “and ultimately nothing
is more opposed to the Gospel than the mentality of the ghetto or sect.”(20)
Modern art and the sacred, modernity and sacramentality — far from being esoteric
hobbies, they mirrored the problem of how Catholicism, its theology and life,
would be expressed in epochs after 1900 and 1950. What the worker-priests
articulated in the factories, what the theologians wrote in their books on labor,
salvation-history and episcopacy, what the liturgists and musicians explored — this
conflict and potential Couturier perceived in art.
1 “Art is for modern artists the successor of the absolute. It is not a religion but it
is a faith. It is not a ritual but it is the negation of an impure world.” Andre
Malraux cited in Couturier’s notes (La Verité blessée, p. 158).
2 (Paris: Arthaud, 1953), pp. 21-43.
3 (Paris: Cerf, 1952); translation (New York: Herder, 1963).
4 La Verité blessée (Paris: Plon, 1984); Art sacré (Houston: Menil
5 Art sacré, p. 9.
6 Ibid., p. 14.
7 Art et Catholicisme (Montreal: Editions de l’Arbre, 1941); Chroniques
(Montreal, Editions de l’Arbre, 1947) brought together in the posthumous Art et
liberté spirituelle (Paris: Cerf, 1958); after Couturier’s death Régamey published
Discours de mariage, Se garder libre, L’Evangile est à l’extreme.
8 “Note de l’Editeur,” La Vérité blessée, p. 13.
9 Quotations from the year 1948 (pp. 147ff.).
10 M. A. Couturier, Art sacré, p. 34. “One baptizes only the living (although there
has been a practice among Christians to baptize the dead). These enormous “still-borns
— St. Patrick in New York, St. John the Divine, Sacre-Coeur in Paris. If I
think of what is being built everywhere in the United States and what I just saw in
Rome, it is with great emotion that I behold what is born at least once … at Assy.’
La Vérité blessée, p. 152. Cf. Pichard, “La Decadence,” L’Art sacré moderne, pp.
7ff.; W. Rubin, “Decadence and the Dominicans,” Modern Sacred Art and the
Church of Assy (New York: Columbia University Press, 1961).
11 Ibid., p. 36.
12 Ibid., p. 14.
13 Ibid., p. 17.
14 Religious Art in the Twentieth Century, p. 236.
15 For a history of the genesis of Assy and for a detailed study of its works of art,
cf. W. Rubin, Modern Sacred Art and the Church of Assy, pp. 31 ff. 77ff.; also the
recent corrective to the sometimes strange theoretical conclusions of Rubin; J.
Dillenberger, “Artists and Church Commissions: Rubin’s The Church at Assy
Revisited,” in Art, Creativity, and the Sacred (New York: Crossroad, 1983), pp.
16 M. A. Couturier, Art sacré, p. 52, 56.
17 “Address to the First International Congress of Catholic Artists,” Liturgical
Arts 19 (1950), 3f. Cf. Regamey, “The Laws of the Church,” “The Non-Christian
Artist in the Service of the Church,” Religious Art in the Twentieth Century, pp.
116ff., 177ff. (incorporating the material from his earlier articles in La Vie
intellectuelle 19 (1951).
18 “Instructio. . . ‘De Arte Sacra‘” (Suprema Sacra Congregatio S. Officii) Acta
Apostolicae Sedis, 44 (1952), pp. 542-545 ff; (English translation: “On Sacred
Art,” Catholic Mind 50 (1952), pp. 699ff.).
19 Art sacré, p. 140.
20 Ibid., p. 144.