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In Praise of Jean-Émile Laboureur

I have some artistic enthusiasms that I’m not eager to discuss in public. It’s not that I’m embarrassed. But I am afraid I will not be able to explain them, much less justify them, even to my best friends. I put in this category my attachment to the engravings of Jean-Émile Laboureur, who recorded the parks, streets, shop windows, pleasure seekers, working people, and lovers of 1920s and 1930s France in an immaculate Art Deco style. I know that Laboureur’s work, with its easy-on-the-eyes Cubistic stylizations and languid Roaring Twenties protagonists, can be more than a little programmatic. And I realize that some people will wonder why they should spend time with these suave vignettes, when in the very same years Bonnard, Vuillard, and Dufy were bringing their infinitely greater gifts to similar subjects. I do not exactly have an answer for such criticisms, except to say that there’s a particular pungency about Laboureur’s admittedly narrow vision. Some will dismiss his engravings as mere period pieces. That view has its merits. I certainly wouldn’t bring up Laboureur, except that New York’s premier auction house for rare books, Swann Galleries, will be selling an immense collection of his work on March 8, preceded by four days when the public is invited to take a look. So Laboureur is having a moment in New York. He lived in the city for a few years, between 1903 and 1907, and documented Manhattan’s sights in some early, Impressionist etchings.  

What’s nifty about Laboureur’s work is the intensity he brings to his light, sometimes slapstick comic caprices. Nobody in twentieth-century France wielded the engraver’s essential tool, the burin, more gracefully than Laboureur. He found his mature style just before World War I, after moving from Nantes, where he had been born in 1877, to Paris and coming into contact with the new language of Cubism. The clean, succinct arcs and trajectories that he cuts into the copper plate, when inked and run through the press, are a visual equivalent of brilliant, staccato conversation. Laboureur’s execution is so dashing and assured that his images can exhilarate, even when his young lovers on a grassy bank look a little saccharine and his street corner encounters risk a sit-com obviousness. Whatever Laboureur does, his craftsmanship becomes the proof of his character as an artist. I find his work irresistible when he takes us into the shops and pleasure spots of Paris; his vignettes of booksellers, brasseries, and boudoirs are incisive salutes to the beguilements of urban life. Especially ravishing are some glimpses of barmen preparing cocktails; Laboureur’s line is perfect for the glinting glass and metal surfaces of a well-appointed restaurant, with its mirrors, polished wood, and zinc counters. Although he worked in color from time to time, his essential medium was the black line on the white paper, and when he uses that back-to-basics language to describe a street market or a woman selling oysters, ordinary sights take on a champagne lightness. There is hardly an aspect of the life well lived that Laboureur ignores, from the music hall to the crowded beach to the glimpse of a naked lover in a darkened room. Laboureur makes light comedy of Cubism, and perhaps that is not such an easy thing to do. The poet Max Jacob, in an appreciation of Laboureur written in 1916, commented that “Cézanne would be charmed to see his intelligence become wit. No less am I.”

Laboureur’s work has mostly been embraced by collectors of rare books and prints. They are specialists, who take it for granted that an art that is narrow can carry its own kind of depth charge. And indeed Laboureur is often at his grandest in the most limited of formats, where his artisanal refinements feel simultaneously circumscribed and magnified. Years ago, visiting a friend who sells rare books in Greenfield, Massachusetts, I found sitting on the mantelpiece a business card for a Parisian art gallery, Le Nouvel Essor, designed and engraved by Laboureur. It has hung in my kitchen for years. This is a fleeting vision, with two little figures standing on the rue des Saints-Pères in the rain, looking into the window of the gallery the card is designed to advertise. We do not see the faces of this man in a hat and this woman who holds up an umbrella to shield her from the rain, but we can almost feel the gentle shower, its staccato rhythms rendered in sharp straight strokes. Here is Laboureur at his best, his line telegraphic and decisive, as precise as a haiku, a modest yet in some surprising way formidable salute to life’s passing impressions.

Jed Perl is the art critic for The New Republic.