In celebrating the noteworthy artistic merit of Leeds, the centenary exhibition of Maurice de Sausmarez’s birth provides an insightful perspective into one of the university’s most fundamental and often overlooked artistic contributors. De Sausmarez was a significant figure amongst 20th century artists and educators for his aesthetic diversity and cultural innovation, as the exhibition demonstrates a plethora of his works spanning the dynamic fields of portraiture, still life and landscape painting under a traditionally minimalist style. Following his formal training at the Royal College of Arts where he obtained a critical viewpoint on the beneficial role of art and education in society, De Sausmarez moved to Leeds in 1947 after being appointed Head of the School of Drawing and Painting at the Leeds College of Art. In continuing to help the school of art at Leeds grow, he was fundamental in establishing the new Department of Fine Art, running as its head between 1951 and 1959 and overseeing a critical juncture in the blossoming of the university and Leeds’s very own dynamic art scene.
His educative role at the university combined with his own pedagogical outlooks ensured a productive and stable flourishing of the arts at the university, a prospering that was accompanied by de Sausmarez’s own academic lectures on art education. Following the publication of his book Basic Design: the Dynamics of Visual Form in 1964, de Sausmarez looked to influence the way artistic practices were taught at the level of both university and society itself, promoting the practice of art and the duty of education to foster creativity at every stage of individual growth. A number of his educational pamphlets are on display at the gallery, and offer a valued insight on the critical theory regarding artistic practices which still remains increasingly relevant to this day. His work itself draws upon this critical perceptive and his creative surroundings, calling upon traditional artistic forms and reinventing them within modern aesthetic practices.
The work on display traces de Sausmarez’s development meandering from his early adaptations of Cezanne-like portraiture and still life onto his more adept experiments with colour and light in abstract landscape works of diverse geometrical patterns. His work clearly draws upon the post-impressionism of his predecessors, adopting still life fruit pieces, portraiture and even vivid nudes in imitation of artists like Gauguin, Cezanne and Poussin. Early parts of his art often focused on the commonplace aspects of life, depicting void street scenes around Europe or even bar scenes such as in the piece ‘Whitelocks’, which portrays Leeds very own pub in a trivial manner similar to the French impressionist Edouard Manet’s piece A Bar at the Folies-Bergère.
Whilst de Sausmarez’s work often mimics such artists through his minimalist depictions of everyday life and use of a dark brooding palette, his work often goes beyond the simple representational value that such scenes suggest through his experimentation with form and colour in adopting elements of cubist and futurist movements. His heady landscapes embody such diversification, as rolling hillsides of Mediterranean beauty are transformed into abstracted and quantified scenes of contrasting colour and light, as is evidenced in the piece Farm on the Road to Montaione. The exhibition and his work offers a diverse showing of artistic experimentation at the heart of the university’s artistic field, a dynamic which may long continue with such crucial figureheads like de Sausmarez continuing to underpin the creative diversity within the city’s cultural core.
Image: Maurice de Sausmarez, Farm on the Road to Montaione, 1965, oil on canvas 61 x 142.5 cm, de Sausmarez Family Collection, ©The Artist’s Estate