I visited Ventana Fine Art’s retrospective for Paul-Henri Bourguignon (1906-1988) last Thursday morning, a few hours before President Donald Trump’s announcement that the United States was leaving the Paris Agreement. News of the decision had already spilled from his sieve-like administration, but I was still nervously checking my phone for updates as I entered the gallery. Trump’s rage-filled, disturbingly kinetic populism—slowed for a time by incompetence and scandal—was churning again, and our nation would soon take another dangerous lurch towards isolationism.
There was perhaps no better place to be than an art show by an American immigrant who'd witnessed great human suffering, and emerged as a champion of compassion. Bourguignon's quintessentially modernist brushstrokes capture the essence of a bolder, more generous American spirit.
Bourguignon was born in Belgium in 1906, and studied painting at the Brussels Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts. One of his teachers, the post-impressionist painter Alfred Bastien, had fought in the Belgian Army during World War I and worked as a war artist. For Bourguignon, Bastien's swirling, dusky depictions of soldiers on the battlefield would find their echo in the devastation of World War II.
In the years before the conflict, Bourguignon had mounted successful shows, completed a second degree in art history and traveled the world. When Germany occupied Belgium in 1940, he found himself trapped in a war zone. He would take a job at an agency that provided ration stamps to foreign travelers, and burned the midnight oil writing a play.
From the rubble of WWII rose a generation of modernist artists who were keenly aware of humanity's dark side, but also harbored a resilient optimism. Bourguignon became an art critic for the Belgian publications Le Phare and Le Phare Dimanche. In 1947, he eagerly accepted an assignment to report on Haiti's burgeoning art movement. During his 15-month stay, he took up photography and told stories of Haiti's vibrant culture and devastating struggles with poverty.
Bourguignon met his wife, the anthropologist Erika Eichhorn, while he was in Haiti. After an adventure through Peru, he moved to Columbus, Ohio, where Eichhorn had taken a teaching position at Ohio State University.
This is technically the start of the Ventana exhibition's timeline. Only one piece in the show is from before 1950, when Bourguignon moved to the United States, but all of the works bear marks of the artist's remarkable path to get there. In acrylic, gouache and pastel, Bourguignon conjured visions of the places he'd been and the people he befriended. Numerous landscapes and cityscapes are on view, showing France, Spain, Belgium and Haiti in a loose, energetic style. The real standouts, however, are the portraits, which Bourguignon painted from memory, often abstracting features to emphasize heightened emotional states.
Above Ventana's wooden fireplace, an acrylic painting called "The Glance" shows a mournful face with enormous, dark eyes embedded in a field of grey. In "Dark Hair," a woman glares from her frame with potent restlessness. The artist employs choppy brushstrokes for a group portrait titled "Five Haitian Men," which shows its subjects laughing and telling stories.
Bourguignon's profound empathy for his subjects shone through in each portrait, imbuing the work with a magnetism that held me in its power for long, poignant moments. Even paintings that communicated pain and sorrow possessed a serenity that came with the power of human connection. This is what is gained by opening up to the wider world, and seeking understanding instead of fearing the unknown.
When I left Ventana, I realized with surprise that I hadn't checked the news once in my time there. As the realities of the world came rushing back in, Bourguignon stayed with me.
A Retrospective - 50 years a modernist: Paul-Henri Bourguignon
Reception for ARTsmart's Edible Art Tour: 5 pm Saturday June 10. $35.
Ventana Fine Art,
400 Canyon Road,
Editor’s note: Jordan Eddy is leaving SFR for full-time gallery work. We’ll miss his keen eye and accomplished writing, and we wish him well.