Wednesday, August 29, 2007


Charles-Frédéric Soehnée was born on November 3, 1789 in Landau in the Rhineland, to a respectable family who several years later relocated to Paris, where the young Charles-Frédéric studied art. During 1818 and 1819 he painted a series of curious watercolors, filling the pages of three notebooks with scenes set in a mostly barren landscape peopled by human figures whose faces are often obscured or turned away from the viewer and by a bestiary of fantastic creatures. In 1822 he published a volume of researches into the painting techniques of antiquity, specifically the employment of encaustic and varnish. He developed and marketed a varnish formula of his own, which was subsequently adopted by a number of artists, including Delacroix, and which made him a wealthy man. He lived to a great age, dying in Paris, in 1879. As far as is known, he never painted again.

The image above is captioned première halte (“first stop”). The shaggy beast of burden, which appears to be nursing one of its dismounted riders, has a vaguely insectivorous snout. There are other variations. In one painting the animal has an elongated trunk like an elephant's; in another it appears to be breathing fire. There is also an elongated slug-like creature, bearing at least a score of riders on its back, as well as outsized pink crustaceans and beasts whose living bodies are nothing but skeletons. In most of the more developed images there is a single bat, or occasionally more than one, soaring somewhere above. In one tableau a bat, its enormous wings outspread, gapes forward from its perch in the prow of a boat crowded with passengers, some of whom appear to be fishing using some kind of rodent-like mammal as bait.

I don't know much about the sources and traditions Soehnée may have drawn from when he created these paintings. In what appears to be the only volume devoted to his work, a catalogue issued (in French only) by the Galerie Jean-Marie Le Fell, several antecedents are mentioned, notably Goya. He may have had a grand design in mind, or perhaps he was just playing around, amusing himself as young doodlers often do. A number of Soehnée's pages are collections of figure studies, often not colored in, but whether finished or unfinished there is a unity to everything by his hand that has survived, a like desolation, a whimsy undercut by an unwavering emotional remoteness. Like the enigmas of the Voynich Manuscript and the Codex Serafinianus, Soehnée's paintings are fragments of an alien world that will never really quite be ours to enter.

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