Exhibition: 1929, Cat No 6; Paule Vezalay, 1988, 9 June – 7 July 1988, Cat No 1; Radical Women: Jessica Dismorr and her Contemporaries, Pallant House Gallery, 2nd November, 2019 – 23rd February, 2020.
Born in Bristol, Marjorie Watson-Williams moved to Paris in 1926 and
assumed a much more glamorous name, Paule Vézelay. She felt that her
original name was too long and old-fashioned and not suited to the
modernity of her work, and she loved the Romanesque abbey at Vézelay.
But it also had the effect of deracinating her. When the Tate came to
organise a ninetieth birthday tribute exhibition in 1983, Ronald Alley
wrote in the catalogue that ‚Äúthere are many who either do not know her
work or assume her to be a French artist who probably died some years ago‚Äù.
L’animal was painted in 1929, the year she got together with the
Surrealist artist André Masson (they were engaged at one time, but she
broke off the relationship). She was also friendly with Jean Arp and
Sophie Tauber-Arp. Her work of the late 1920s is semi-automatic and
abstract, featuring cursive linear motifs, but it subsequently became more
geometrical and in 1934 she joined the international group Abstraction-
She counts as one of the earliest and most imaginative British abstract
painters; her interest in abstraction pre-dates that of Barbara Hepworth and
Ben Nicholson and precedes the famous Unit One exhibition and book of
1934. Her incorporation of thread and wire into her work at that time are a
major contribution to the art of the period.
In a BBC television interview in 1984 (Women of Our Century),
Germaine Greer did her best to steer the artist towards certain answers (‚ÄúIn
England you usually exhibited as M. Watson-Williams. Did you do this on
purpose?‚Äù) but Vézelay looked puzzled by this line of questioning (‚ÄúWell, it
was my family name.‚Äù). She preferred to talk about her work.
Commentary by Patrick Elliott, Chief Curator at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh.