A retrospective dedicated to Alfred Courmes is on display at the Espace Niemeyer until 4 June. A complex and often overlooked figure from 20th century painting, he refused to be swept along by mainstream currents. This exhibition offers an opportunity to revisit his work with a new and contemporary perspective, free from the prejudices of his time.  

In the east of Paris, Place du Colonel Fabien is home to one of the capital’s most striking buildings: the French Communist Party headquarters, masterpiece of Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer and completed in 1971. It is within this building, in the Espace Niemeyer, that a retrospective dedicated to painter Alfred Courmes is running until 4 June. 

Having passed away 30 years ago, at the age of 95, his life spanned almost the entire 20th century. The man refused to be put in a box. In a century marked by loosely organised artistic trends and movements, all in competition with one another, Courmes was never defined by one. “Courmes was a unique and iconoclastic artist,” highlights Pierre-Emmanuel Taittinger. All his work demonstrates exceptional know-how.” This work has yet to be restored, which is one of the aims of the current exhibition.

“Just like his friend Clovis Trouille, Alfred Courmes came close to surrealism, but not all his painting fell into this bracket. He played with universal or more contemporary codes and hijacked not only mythological and religious representations, but also advertisements. In this way, we can consider him one of the forerunners of pop art – perhaps even the founder of this current – both unknowingly and unintentionally.” A great art connoisseur, the former Maison Taittinger President evokes a “refined painter, whose work references classic Flemish and Italian painting. His painting is flamboyant and opulent. It is a fusion of European painting, but completely French in its uniqueness because it is as free and irreverent as it is provocative.” With both a sense of humour and care, Courmes’ work had an unsettling effect on the viewer, such as when he chose the well-known girl from the Menier chocolate adverts as his subject for Saint Sébastien (45% de B.A., 1961), acquired by Coluche. Irony flows through this painting in the form of Camembert packaging. The painter affixed the logo of a “Syndicat de la bonne peinture réaliste” (“Union of the good realist painter”) onto this piece. In other works, we see baby Jesus depicted as Bebe Cadmum and archangel Gabriel as Michelin’s Bibendum Man. 

Non, non et non elle ne tolérera jamais qu’il fasse l’aéroplane, 1964. Collection particulière ©D.R.

Courmes tried his hand at everything, from neo-cubism to post-impressionism, without ever affiliating himself with a particular current. “I get the overwhelming sense that he was very independent,” continues Pierre-Emmanuel Taittinger. “His sense of humour permeates his work. You can picture Courmes as this warm and jovial artist, a fine and cultivated man who would respond to the major issues and dramas of his time by making light of it all.” 

Courmes was a painter of social history and was also involved with the organisation “Travail et Culture” (“Work and Culture”), alongside the likes of René Huyghe, Germain Bazin, Pablo Picasso and Fernand Léger. Some of his paintings offer an insight into the working-class world: bodies ravaged by work, wrinkled women, the aged and weary silhouettes of Ostend sailors… Together they depict a unique and multifaceted body of work, on which even now it is difficult to put a label. “I think his work remains very current. In the same way as all of us in modern times, Alfred Courmes clung fiercely to his independence. He rejected all forms of categorisation.”

On exhibition in the 700 m2 Espace Niemeyer, the retrospective consists not only of paintings from the painter’s long working life, but also of drawings and sketches – all artwork belonging to France’s leading cultural institutions (the Pompidou Centre – Musée national d’art moderne, the Paris Museum of Modern Art , La Piscine in Roubaix, etc.), among which many have never or rarely ever been

The retrospective was co-created by the City of Charleville-Mézières and will be on display in the carolomacerian city at the end of the year at the Musée de l’Ardenne and at the Maison des Ailleurs, from 7 October 2023 to 7 January 2024.

Alfred Courmes in his apartment on Rue des Écluses- Saint-Martin, photographed by Robert Doisneau in 1972 © Robert Doisneau / Gamma Rapho
Alfred Courmes, The Retrospective
at the Espace Niemeyer
2 place du Colonel Fabien
75019 Paris

Text : Cyrille Jouanno
Featured image: La Pneumatique Salutation angélique, le connaisseur et l’amateur voudront bien remarquer que l’Ange lui balance un lis, étudié et dessiné avec un soin particulier. Thank you. L’important c’est le lis, 1968. La Piscine – Musée d’art et d’industrie André Diligent de Roubaix (museum of art and industry in Roubaix). FNAC deposit. Inv. FR-1986-10-1 ©D.R.