Fernand Mourlot, lithographe

Henri Matisse et Fernand Mourlot, rue de Chabrol, 1950,
photo Helène Adant

For more than half a century Fernand Mourlot was synonymous with the resurgence of lithography, a process which would attract under his influence the greatest artistic masters of our times.Under the direction of Fernand Mourlot, artists such as Picasso, Matisse, Chagall, Miró,Braque, Dubuffet, Léger, Giacometti... enriched their own work as well as contemporary art in general with a new medium of expression, a new realm of experimental possibilities.With Mourlot, and thanks to him, modern lithography took on a personality and found a future.

Mourlot was already working in printing before the outbreak of the First World War; on the rue Saint-Maur, one of the most popular neighborhoods of East Paris, his father owned a lithograph printshop. Jules Mourlot had nine children: Fernand, like his brothers, was relegated to the machines at a very young age, and learned the art first-hand. In June of 1914, Mourlot father was strolling down the rue de Chabrol and saw a hand-written sign: "Printshop for sale." He immediately sold his shares in Russian stock and bought it. In addition to commercial work, the Bataille studio also produced theater and cabaret posters. For two years already Jules Mourlot had operated two printing studios in Paris and Créteil. But his two eldest sons went to war; three years after their return, the father died and the printing studio was renamed Mourlot Frères. Georges, the oldest son, took command of the commercial side of the business; Fernand, the second-oldest, handled the artistic aspects; later a third Mourlot brother, Maurice, a nature and still-life painter, would join them.

One of the most important features of Fernand Mourlot's domain was to be the art poster. For the Delacroix exhibition in 1930, he had the intuition to propose for the first time an exhibition poster prepared and produced as a work of art in its own right. Another important feature would be the lithograph, a painter's medium then limited to illustration. The first painters to create lithographs at the Mourlot Frères studio were Vlaminck and Utrillo; for many years they would be the only ones; the medium, which enjoyed an extraordinary popularity in the 19th century, had been for many years on the decline.

The lithograph, invented by Aloys Senefelder at the end of the 18th century, was immediately accepted in the highest artistic circles; but the medium did not come into its own before its adoption by Cheret, Lautrec, Bonnard and Vuillard: these were the painters who would find in the modern technique and its bold colors a unique form of expression. Fernand Mourlot's stroke of genius was to invite artists to work directly on the stone, as one does when creating a poster. At the same time he carried out experiments with lithographic inks and colors, carefully dosing the varnishes and essences and analyzing the resistance of the resulting tones to the effect of light.

For the 1937 Maitres de l'Art indépendant exhibition at the Petit Palais, the studio created two posters (based on paintings by Matisse and Bonnard) of such excellent quality, it was clear that they had attained the height of printing mastery.It was also in 1937 that the studio began a fruitful collaboration with the editor Tériade, founder of the legendary review Verve. For the six editionsafter the Second World War Mourlot assisted Matisse, Braque, Bonnard, Rouault and Miró in the creation of important lithographs. "Among all the different techniques for illustrating text," commented Paul Valéry, "the lithograph is perhaps the one that best complements poetry." Some of the most beautiful art books by modern painters were produced on the rue Chabrol; the lithograph,however, would remain an art form for initiates, not reaching its full expression until after the liberation.

In 1945 there walked into the Mourlot studio an artist whose graphic genius and prodigious inventiveness would lend a new dimension to the lithographic process as well as to his own art: Pablo Picasso. "He came like he was going to battle," Fernand remarked. The battle would last four straight months and would be taken up again and again at different points during the next several years. Set up in a corner of the studio which was soon to become his own private domain, Picasso created, between 1945 and 1969, nearly four hundred lithographs at the Mourlot studio. Accompanied by the press-operators Tutins and Célestin, he worked mercilessly, inventing the most complex and extravagant techniques, the inherent difficulties of which were dissolved in the man's customary brio. The workers had never seen such a display of audacity and artistic liberty. The most famous work from this period was "La Colombe de la Paix."

Pierre Cabanne, extrait de Cinquante années de lithographie, extraits
© Pierre Bordas et fils éditeurs, 1983