Alfred Courmes is a revelation at Centre Niemeyer

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Hélène Courmes, the artist’s sister, 1921, Musée des Années 30, Boulogne Billancourt

I had never heard of painter Alfred Courmes, 1898-1993, and it’s only because a friend asked me to go with him to the Parti Communiste Français’s beautiful monument designed by Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer that I went. And it was a true adventure but a very successful one. Born in Bormes-les-Mimosas, the son of a naval officer, he studied in Monaco before coming to Paris. The unique student of Roger de la Fresnaye in 1925, (the year he died at 40), he decided to move to Ostende in 1927 after meeting a young Belgian, Henriette Van de Put in the Lavandou. They marrried and he started commuting between Paris and Belgium where he discovered Brueghel, Cranach and Rubens. He also met there two major surrealists the French Felix Labisse and the Flemish James Ensor.

St Anthony’s Temptation, 1934, collection Mony Vibescu

Although my favorite painting in the show is probably the very early portrait of his sister (1921), the Ostende period is extremely fruitful and contains already most of his themes, describing very fit young men and local sceneries. Fishermen, the harbor and children will be an endless source of inspiration which he will develop later on Canal Saint Martin in Paris when he moves back in 1931. There he concentrates mostly on young men, and older gentlemen, who obviously had very active sex lives on the street and around the “pissotières”.

“Du vélo … elle en veut”, 1929, private collection

Many of his perspectives are that of a voyeur peeping through a window, the skirt of the recurring little girl coming up to show her knickers, his numerous St Sebastians being most often seen from the back with harrows in their bottom. He is inspired by mythology and by historical landscapes and in a way, the modern decor by Oscar Niemeyer is perfect for this (once) communist artist.

St Sebastian from the back at the lock on Canal Saint Martin, 1933, private collection

I often thought of Jean-Paul Gaultier while watching his young sailors with their bérets and there is obviously a very gay feeling  to most of the canvases. Even when the characters are sexy women and conventional men. One painting describes a half naked girl on a beach holding a cigar in a very suggestive way. And the caption says “She will light it for you, you too, put your big cigar into her hands”. This reminds me of a friend who tells this very dirty story: “When someone once said I cannot think of anything more erotic than a woman smoking a cigar”, he replied, ” Yes, being the cigar”…

Detail of ” she will light it for you”, with medals of the prizes he received, 1972, Private collection

You see, Alfred Courmes was a very varied artist, with different styles but a constant quality of painting. His major work is an 80 square meter fresco ” La France Heureuse” commissioned in 1937 for the dining room at the  French Embassy in Ottawa. It is both incredibly daring and not something you really want to eat in front of …

Oscar Niemeyer, Building for the French Communist party, 1969-1980

You will probably hate some of the paintings and love others. But the visit will not leave you indifferent especially since you get to glimpse at the inside of the Niemeyer building which is superb. It can be rented all year round. The exhibition of Alfred Courmes  is organized by a private association and will last until June 4 at Espace Niemeyer on place du Colonel Fabien.

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