Faces in the crowd: Painter Paul-Henri Bourguignon

Belgian artist and critic Paul-Henri Bourguignon (1906-1988) arrived in Haiti in 1947 under the auspices of the Belgian newspaper Le Phare, with the intention of staying for a only a brief time. More than a year later, Bourguignon was still there, enraptured by the people, culture, and natural beauty of the Caribbean nation. The war in Europe had ended, and with it the German occupation of Belgium that had prevented Bourguignon from indulging a passion for travel to exotic lands.


In Haiti, he was among a group of European and American artists and writers, including filmmaker and writer Maya Deren, Surrealist poet André Breton, and author Truman Capote, then on assignment for Harper’s Bazaar.According to his wife, anthropologist Erika Bourguignon, who met her husband in Haiti when she was engaged in ethnographic fieldwork there, the late 1940s was a peaceful time in the island nation. The arts were flourishing, thanks in part to efforts of American painter DeWitt Peters, who had founded the Centre D’Art in Port-au-Prince in 1944. Bourguignon was there to cover the art scene for Le Phare.


It would be some years before Bourguignon, an artist as well as a novelist, journalist, and photographer, who had studied art and art history in Belgium, would take up Haiti as a subject in paint. He had exhibited his paintings in Belgium, but he concentrated on writing and photographing in Haiti. In his photographs, he didn’t shy away from depicting the squalor of the ramshackle villages, the poverty of the Haitian people, and the deforested landscapes.


As for the nation’s art, Haiti was split in two by an artificial distinction: the so-called primitive art and folkways of the native population, and the introduced fine and plastic arts of the European traditions. “Bourguignon appreciated the work of the Haitian ‘primitive’ painters for the expression of their lived experience and their imaginal world,” writes Erika Bourguignon in her essay “Haiti and the Art of Paul-Henri Bourguignon.” “His own art drew on other sources, on his experience, and on the art traditions he knew.”


While there are no direct references to Haitian culture in Faces of 20th Century Modernism, an exhibition of Bourguignon’s portraits on view at Ventana Fine Art, it can be assumed that his interest in capturing the expressive and emotive qualities of his human subjects was cemented in his time there, drawn less from the art he encountered and more from the people he met and the places he visited. “It was part of the tapestry of what he experienced,” Jane Hoffelt, executor of Bourguignon’s estate, toldPasatiempo, “and many of these things are coming out in his brush 10, 20, 30, 40 years later.”


Technically, Bourguignon’s portraits are composite images drawn from memory, but in essence each is idiosyncratic, depicting individual personas. “He collected these faces in his mind like one would collect string or rubber bands and put them in their pocket and use them at different times,” Hoffelt said. “For example — as his wife Erika tells this story — they were walking on Ohio State University’s campus, and she remembers being embarrassed because he was staring at someone, whose eyes showed up in a portrait three days later. He might use a set of eyes from one person and a gesture from another, but he never did them from photographs.”


In 1950 Bourguignon moved to Columbus with Erika, who took a position teaching at Ohio State University, where she is now a professor emerita in the anthropology department. Bourguignon remained in Ohio with Erika until his death in 1988. “So here he is in Columbus, Ohio, where there’s not much of an art world,” Hoffelt said, “and he didn’t really feel like marketing his work. He said, My joy is to paint it. He had some exhibitions. He had a solo show at what was then the Columbus Gallery of Fine Arts in 1964, but he didn’t really show. That wasn’t his concern. After he died, Erika decided it was time for her to do something about this body of work that should be shared. I met with Erika once a week for 12 years. We started to get it cataloged and photographed to get it out there.” Now Bourguignon is represented by several galleries — in New York City, Sedona, and Santa Fe — and a retrospective of his work is planned for the Columbus Museum of Art in October.


Far from being realist portraits, the images in Faces of 20th Century Modernism are reductive forms, often imbued with a patchwork of layered textures and colors and with simply rendered lines of brushwork to indicate, with the barest possible detail, distinguishing characteristics such as eyes, lips, and other facial features. The apparent primitivism is reminiscent of work by contemporaries such as Pablo Picasso and of earlier images, such as the French Polynesian Post-Impressionist work of Paul Gauguin. But in Bourguignon’s portraits, what reads as primitivism may instead be simply a kind of pure expression that naturally lends itself to his unsentimental and uncomplicated vision. An aspect of some paintings is his manner of outlining features of his subjects using negative space rather than dark lines. The colors of the faces themselves recall the intensity of Fauvist imagery.


“He wanted to express a person’s personality in color,” Hoffelt said. “Even in the pieces that are dark — some of them are very dark — there’s always color that shines through. He tried to express a person the same way a Fauvist would try to express a landscape — in feelings. But it was never just about color. It was always about the human element. He tried to capture the soul.” 


▼ Paul-Henri Bourguignon: Faces of 20th Century Modernism

▼ Reception 5 p.m. Friday, Feb. 14; exhibit through March 5

▼ Ventana Fine Art, 400 Canyon Road, 505-983-8815

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