How the ghost of a dead sister turned a miner into a famous painter
How the ghost of a dead sister turned a miner into a famous painter

Perfectly symmetrical compositions, rows of ancient Egyptian and Zoroastrian symbols, hypnotizing rhythms - like a mirror broken into many fragments, reflecting the reality of another world … Huge canvases filled with the smallest details were not created by a professional artist. All this is the creation of one French miner and probably several dozen … ghosts.

Augustin Lesage at work

Augustin Lesage was born in 1876 in the small town of Saint-Pierre-le-Hochelle in northeastern France. For the first thirty-five years of his life, he did not even think about art. Lesage's only encounter with painting was a visit to the art museum in Lille. He was married. Since childhood - Lesage barely finished elementary school - he worked at the mine, like many of his compatriots. This is how his life should have passed - hard work deep underground, Sunday masses in church, rare weekends … This is how his father and grandfather lived, this is how everyone around him lived. But one day while working, he heard a voice. Looking around, Lesage saw no one - who had called him? On reflection, the miner realized that spirits had come into contact with him, and more specifically, the ghost of his sister, who died three years ago. Under the influence of these whispers, which, however, became louder and more insistent, Lesage began to do what he did not expect of himself - to paint.

Works by Augustin Lesage

The spirits explained to him where artists acquire materials and tools, what paints and brushes should be bought, how to stretch the canvas, primer, apply strokes … So yesterday's miner woke up as an artist. Now, after a long shift, he was in a hurry upstairs not to see his wife as soon as possible and to feel overhead not the heavy arches, but the infinitely distant sky. He dreamed of picking up a brush and mixing colors on a palette. Around 1912, Lesage began the first large and ambitious work - three by three meters, many elements … He worked on its completion for two years. They say that due to his low literacy, he simply bought a canvas more than he needed - but it was the large formats that later became his hallmark. At first, Lesage was frightened and confused. He had never before created pictorial images, and even more so did not even think about painting a picture of this size. But voices supported him along the way. “What should I draw? I've never done that! " he repeated with concern. And he received the answer: “Do not be afraid. We are close. One day you will become an artist. " Listening to this encouraging whisper, Lesage took up brushes and paints, and complex compositions full of unusual small details appeared on the canvas as if by themselves. Lesage did not make any preliminary sketches, no sketches, did not even mark the canvas. Everything seemed to happen by itself.

One of the first large-format works Lesage didn't need sketches to work with particularly large formats

During the First World War, Lesage was drafted into the army, but did not stop painting there either. He painted postcards with his psychedelic patterns. Then, in 1916, he returned to large-format painting, and in the twenties he finally left the mining industry. The former miner has gained a certain popularity among collectors of contemporary art, and among the eager for oddities of the Parisian public. The Dadaist artist Jean Dubuffet, one of the first researchers and collectors of the works of self-taught artists, could not help but be carried away by the works of Lesage.It was thanks to Dubuffet that a steadily growing interest in the work of "outsiders" - artists with mental disabilities who had not received a professional education - arose. Dubuffet saw in their awkward but expressive drawings something inspiring, something that could give art to the "gallery" a new vector of development.

Work with the signature of Lesage himself. Often he used the names of real or fictional artists as signatures

Ancient oriental ornaments, claustrophobic spaces and haunting rhythms of Lesage's works, coupled with his unusual life history, could not leave the Dadaist indifferent, and he bought several canvases for his extensive collection. Naturally, the work of Lesage also fell in love with fans of spiritualism, of whom there were many in Europe after the First World War. His first patron in these circles (and in a sense, a manager) was Jean Meyer, editor of a magazine about the paranormal. This is how Lesage began performing in sessions as a medium.

Lesage created such works right in front of the public

In spiritualistic societies were not only "city madmen" and grief-stricken relatives of those who perished in the hell of the First World War, but also famous and wealthy people. It was enough to have patrons from among them and to anticipate their thoughts and desires in order to live comfortably. Le Sage already aroused deep sympathy among the rich, charmed by the ghosts, and then he began to sign his works with the names of famous artists, claiming that their spirits were driving his hand …

Dubuffet called these canvases ancient Egyptian folk in the spirit of Foley-Bergère (alluding to the rhythms of reflections in the aforementioned work by Manet)

Sitting in front of a huge canvas, Le Sage was plunged into a trance - and he was watched by researchers and curious spectators, fascinated by his "spiritual art". In 1927, he underwent examination at the International Metapsychic Institute. Dr. Eugene Austi, a staunch opponent of spiritualism, was unhappy. He could not refute the influence of "spirits" and "voices" on Lesage - but he also found no reason to recognize him as a madman. At the same time, the medium met the famous French Egyptologist Alexander More. And now Lesage's canvases are filled with references to Ancient Egypt, recognizable ornaments, signs resembling hieroglyphs (along with Zoroastrian, Tibetan and Mesopotamian symbols) … He confidently declares himself the reincarnation of an ancient Egyptian artist and magician.

Works dedicated to the queens of antiquity

However, by the 1930s, the enthusiasm for spiritualism began to decline, many critical and revelatory texts appeared (for example, the famous magician Harry Houdini was actively involved in exposing charlatans), the career of many "mediums" was ruined, and their patrons were ridiculed. However, Lesage continued to paint until his death in 1954. Nowadays, there is a new round of interest in his work. The phenomenon of magical paintings by Augustin Lesage - and there are about eight hundred of them! - so it was not explained by anyone. Some believe that the artist suffered from schizophrenia, others see in his painting a metaphor of hard work deep underground, and still others … still know for sure: he was talented, and that's enough.

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