Belgian-French Abstract artist Joseph Lacasse is one of the most individual abstract painters of the École de Paris (School of Paris). Lacasse was born in 1894 into a poor working-class family in the quarry town of Tournai, Belgium. Lacasse's experience of his years as a child labourer (1905-1910) shaped not only his future as a staunch socialist and a defender of the proletarian cause, but also his career as an artist, The young Lacasse would take home small off-cuts from the quarry slabs and depict them in chalk on black paper - the only paper he could afford, being readily available at the quarries. He drew impressions of the stone as it appeared whilst the light of the sun was refracted into a prism by an embedded mineral or by the rain or water running over it during the cutting process. Lacasse drew the stones from close up, using his chalks to recreate the light glowing from within. With these so-called ‘Cailloux’ works dating from 1909-1914, Lacasse unwittingly positioned himself within the history of Abstraction. In 1912, Lacasse entered the École des Beaux-Arts of Tournai, where he explored several different styles, including his own brand of Cubism that he called "constructive." However, these proto-Cubist works were criticised by his professors and ridiculed by his fellow students who lacked knowledge of the avant-garde. And so, in a bid to conform, Lacasse turned to the then reigning movement of Social Realist Figuration. However, light and colour would remain central to his unique artistic style.
During World War I, Lacasse was made a German prisoner of war. Eventually escaping from the camp, he spent time convalescing in the civil hospital in Tournai until the end of the Great War. Provoked by the atrocities, injustices and horrors visited upon his fellow man in the German camps and the aftermath of such treatment, Lacasse turned to full Expressionist Figuration in order depict the conditions of pain, loss and poverty he knew so well. These works display his use of a Caravaggesque chiaroscuro to employ light for dramatic purpose. The figures, painted close-up and against backgrounds void of superfluous objects, communicate a sense of monumentality. These works not only bear testimony to Lacasse’s attachment to the proletarian cause, but also to his special communication of light. Alongside these Social Realist paintings, Lacasse also painted a series of Mystico-Realist and Cubist works. After the end of the First World War, in 1921 Lacasse travelled to Italy where, alongside his Social Realist paintings focusing on religious works and workers, he experimented with lyrical and geometric abstraction, returning to his early fascination with and research into evoking pure light in his painting. These abstract works have clear overtones of Orphism, and it is more than plausible that Lacasse had encountered the work of Robert Delaunay in 1919 during his first trip to Paris, France.
Lacasse would eventually settle in Paris in 1925 where he would work for several months under French Nabis and Symbolist painter Maurice Denis whose theories contributed to the foundations of Cubist, Fauvist, and Abstract art. Following his marriage to Stéphanie Lupsin in 1927, Lacasse occupied his own studio at 11 Impasse Ronsin in Montparnasse in 1928. The first to have settled in these rambling studios and to transform them into a creative haven was Constantin Brancusi in 1916 with whom Lacasse became life-long friends. Regular visitors to the Impasse Ronsin included Erik Satie, Francis Picabia, Sonia Delaunay, Marcel Duchamp, Jean Arp, Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson and Peggy Guggenheim. During the 1950s, Max Ernst, Jean Tinguely and Niki de Sain-Phalle would also set up studios and work there. Arguably Lacasse’s most important and enduring friendship was with Robert and Sonia Delaunay whom he met in 1927-28. Their relationship would prove key to Lacasse’s artistic development, Robert’s influence on his colour-palette being profound.
Whilst practicing Abstraction, Lacasse came to find the words ‘abstraction’ or ‘abstract’ limiting. In his journal, he described his metaphysical journey in creating an abstract work as follows: “I do not know why I find the word ‘abstract’ inapt, for I regard the finished (abstract) painting as something that comes to live, a living object in itself, and is therefore the opposite of abstract.” For Lacasse, when: “[…] the (abstract) painting is born, the painting speaks and acts, the painting has its own life, mysterious and sacred.” This preoccupation with the “mysterious and sacred” potentials of art had long been an essential aspect of Lacasse’s stylistic development. In around 1925, Lacasse converted to Catholicism and was introduced to the ‘Beatitudes’ of the 13th Century Dominican theologian Saint Thomas Aquinas. The ‘Beatitudes’ proved to be a revelation to the young Lacasse, for they verbalised his deep-rooted need for justice, purity, and light. Their emphasis on the achievement of ultimate spiritual fulfilment in the search for a theoretical knowledge of God’s essence, a knowledge transcending natural human intellectual powers, greatly appealed to Lacasse who for so long had intuitively felt that painting was the clearest route to achieving this ultimate sense of fulfilment.
Fuelled by his research and experiments into various artistic styles and the desire to facilitate the sharing of ideas and developments in the field of Abstraction, Lacasse and his friend the writer Henry Poulaille founded ‘l’Equipe’, a platform for the independent artist, in 1934. Later, in 1937, proper exhibition premises on Boulevard Montparnasse were inaugurated with a show of works by Delaunay, Gleizes, Lipchitz, Kisling, Lurçat, Löwenstein, Picabia, Van Tongerloo, and Lacasse. Notably, by 1938 Serge Poliakoff had made frequent visits to ‘l’Equipe’ and Lacasse’s studio where he would see Lacasse’s abstract compositions, learning much from his contemporary and basing his research into Abstraction on the work of Lacasse.
By the end of the 1930s, Lacasse had significantly developed the Orphist style he had favoured in the 1920s and his more Tachist style of the mid-1930s. His research into Abstraction, best demonstrated in his famous books filled with his sketches, studies, research, artistic musings, and experiments called the ‘Carnets de l’Equipe’ (1934-1940), began to reach its maturity. The works from the early 1940s onwards best embody Lacasse’s disciplined dedication to his life-long aim of how best to express light and turn it into matter made visible. However, Lacasse’s absence from Paris during the Second World War did not do him any favours. He had left for England in 1940, and on his return to Paris in 1946, he was dismayed to find that in his absence he had been relegated to the status of follower, rather than precursor, of Poliakoff. In response, Lacasse would produce his so-called ‘Balancement’ series. Highly advanced in composition and richly textured, these sophisticated and poetic paintings are testament to Lacasse’s superior understanding and analysis of Abstraction – outstanding results of decades of research and practice.
Lacasse was a pioneer in many ways, leaving behind a complex and challenging body of work. Throughout his entire career, from Figuration to Abstraction, light remained the central axis around which his work turned and developed and through which he sought to attain a total sense of spiritual fulfilment. Always of service of his friends and fellow artists, he was generous with his time, talent, and knowledge. A brilliant man and gifted artist, Lacasse’s intellect, character, palette, and style are as multifaceted as the prisms of light he painted.
The works of Lacasse are in museums worldwide including: Musée d'art moderne de la Ville de Paris; Musée national d'art Moderne, Centre Pompidou, Paris; Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris; Musée des Beaux-Arts, Brussels; Magritte Museum Jette, Jette; Musée de Tournai, Tournai; Tel Aviv Museum of Art, Tel Aviv; Eilat Museum, Eilat; Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh; National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne; Museum of Modern Art, New York.