Gaston CHAISSAC

1910: Gaston Chaissac is born at Avallon in Burgundy. The youngest of four children, the son of a cobbler, he is a solitary, dreamy child.

1915: His father is mobilised, and his mother takes over the family cobbler shop. 

1919: His parents divorce.

1923: His brother Roger takes charge of the family shop; Gaston leaves school and learns the trade of chef’s assistant in a restaurant in Avallon.

1924: Apprenticeship to a hardware merchant, then a saddler.

1926: Roger leaves to join the army; Claudine goes to live with her daughter Georgette in Villapourçon in the Nièvre, where she is appointed postmistress. The young man goes with her.

1927: He tries his hand at cobbling, makes brushes; he is unstable, casting about.

1929: His mother, concerned, sends him to naturopaths in Paris to treat his asthenia.

1931: Claudine dies and Georgette marries. Chaissac no longer feels at home living with her.

1933-1936: Travel between Villapourçon and Paris, where his brother takes him in and tries to find him work. Failures and uncertainty. Gaston is unsure of where his life is going and can’t seem to find his place. He helps an itinerant merchant on the markets, observes, is in a state of waiting.

1937: At the rear of the courtyard of his brother’s building, he meets an artist couple. Jeanne Kosnick-Kloss and Otto Freundlich open their workshop to him and teach him drawing and painting. They show trust in him. Using small formats, he sketches naïve drawings and intertwined shapes in India ink.

Committed to the hospice in Nanterre where homeless persons are taken in. Doctors protect him and encourage him to draw by giving him art supplies.

1938: He leaves for the La Musse sanatorium in Arnières; the Freundlichs organise his first personal exhibition at the Gerbo gallery in Paris. Their friends purchase works.

1939: Convalescence at the rehabilitation centre in Clairvivre, in the Dordogne. He introduces abstract signs in his gouaches.

1940: Works in the cobbler’s workshop. Masks, flames, faces and lace appear in his works. He takes part in the Salon des Indépendants and begins corresponding with André Lhote. At Christmas, Chaissac shows his works at an exhibition where he meets Camille, who is to become his wife.

1941: Death of his brother. He produces many works in small formats and distributes them to his entourage, to the doctors and to his protectors.

1942: He learns that he is to be a father. He leaves Clairvivre for Saint-Rémy de Provence, and works in a saddler’s shop thanks to the help of Albert Gleizes, who often takes him in at his home, along with many intellectuals. He is interested by the artistic surroundings, but does not feel at ease there. He experiments with various media, carrying on much experimentation.

At the end of the summer, he arrives in the Vendée, at Camille’s parents’ home, and they are married in December, a few days before the birth of their daughter Annie.

1943: Camille is appointed schoolteacher at Boulogne in the Vendée. 

Chaissac creates a relationship between writing and painting. He invents stories whose characters become drawings, but remains anxious about his future.

1944: He takes care of the house and their daughter while Camille is teaching.

He exhibits at a show in Paris where Raymond Queneau notices him, and they begin corresponding. The theme of abstract bouquets is recurrent.

1945: Explosion of colour. He exhibits at the Salon des Sur-Indépendants with Atlan, Bloc, Bryen, Brauner. His first text is published: Oasis Fleuries in the review Pierre à feu, published by the Maeght gallery. He produces many works, and his work is appreciated; yet he sells little. His characters are half-abstract, half-figurative. Having realised that people enjoy his letters, he aspires to be a letter writer, and his paintings become narrative like his chronicles.

1946: Start of his correspondence with Dubuffet, thanks to Paulhan.

He exhibits at the Salon des Réalités Nouvelles at the Museum of Modern Art with Picabia, Magnelli, Herbin, Leppien, Arp, Bryen, Delaunay, Freundlich, Gleizes, Gorin, Kosnick-Kloss.

1947: Exhibition in Paris, at the Galerie L’arc-en-Ciel, under the impetus of the Gallimard circle.

His works are exhibited in the Foyer De l’Art Brut in the basement of the Drouin gallery on the Place Vendôme in Paris. 

The COBRA group – Jorn, Arp, and Corneille – discover Chaissac’s writings. His timidity in using materials disappears as he becomes aware of being a true artist. He begins using larger formats. His experience of Art Brut enables him to begin finding new paths for experimentation. 

1948: The school in Boulogne closes, and Camille is transferred to Sainte-Florence.

His first letter is published in Les Cahiers de la Pleïade, by Gallimard. His characters are Cubist-inspired.

1949: The Chaissacs experience intense hostility in the local schools. His work is exhibited in L’art brut préféré aux arts culturels, in the basement of the Drouin gallery.

1950: He is no longer painting gouaches, but drawings in concordance with oils. The search for form predominates. A letter to Jules Lefranc is published in the COBRA review. The poetic character of his writing is sought out by the small poetry journals.

1951: Publication of Hippobosque au bocage, in the Métamorphose collection directed by Paulhan at Gallimard. The collection of letters from Chaissac to Paulhan, Gallimard, L’Anselme, Dubuffet, Giraud, and Madame de Gaigneron (owner of the Galerie L’Arc-en-Ciel) is assembled by Dubuffet. Chaissac makes his first collages.

1952: He invents the serpents series, which leads him to Letterism and crosses. He introduces writing into his oils. Tired of his technique, he begins to take an interest in salvaging objects. Many publications follow.

1953: Fascinated by discarded objects, he makes collages of salvaged pieces of wood, bark or roots, assembled alone or with pieces of metal or other objects. He is published in Paulhan’s N.R.F.

1954: He exhibits his assemblages in the unoccupied classroom of the public school in Sainte-Florence. He puts them on display; the result is exaltation, mediation, demonstrations and defiance between him and the population of the village, who see his work for the first time.

1955: Hybridisation of drawing and collage. The range of colours of the papers enables an abstract phase. 

1956: He goes to see Dubuffet in Vence, but despite their friendship and their rich exchanges of letters, the meeting is not very satisfactory for the two men. Chaissac paints in large formats where older shapes reappear. Materials are thick. Robert Doisneau comes to photograph him.

1957: Thanks to the multiplication of correspondents who take an interest in him, writing is omnipresent, to the detriment of painting, which stimulates him less.

1958: Gilles Ehrmann comes to photograph the totems in early Spring.

1959: He paints large abstract oils on the theme of beautiful women. The totems multiply.

1961: The public school in Sainte-Florence also closes, due to lack of pupils.

Camille is transferred to l’Ile d’Elle, near her native village. They move to Vix. He makes large drawings in India ink on kraft paper and large collages. He regularly exhibits at the Iris Clert gallery in Paris and Pagani in Milan.

1962: The house is uncomfortable; it is being renovated. Chaissac’s health deteriorates. Ehrmann’s book Les inspirés et leurs demeures is finally published by Les Éditions du Temps with texts by André Breton and Benjamin Péret and seven reproductions of Chaissac’s work.

1963: He exhibits considerably and his notoriety becomes international, but he expresses much distress, solitude and incomprehension. His health deteriorates – he suffers more and more from hypertension, asthenia, and rheumatism. 

1964: He decides to seek care in Nantes and leaves by taxi, but suffers a hemiplegic attack en route and returns to the hospital in La Roche sur Yon.

He dies on 7 November and is buried at Vix on 11 November.