WHEN, in the 1960s, the American artist Bill Copley went to visit the painter Serge Charchoune in Paris, he made much of the latter’s relative obscurity.
Charchoune, Copley explained, was working in a little impasse, or cul-de-sac, in Montparnasse, where figures as important (and similarly once-neglected) as Soutine or Modigliani had once painted.
“I am not one to romanticise or recommend starvation and obscurity for artists,” he wrote. “Such notions are for bad novels. Yet there is something so poetical and proper about Charchoune’s presence in the impasse that is often commented upon.”
The point was not that Charchoune was up a dead end, but that he was hidden in plain sight. Born in the Samara region of Russian in 1888, as a very young man he moved in avant-garde circles in Moscow and Paris, escaping the war in Barcelona and Mallorca.
When he returned to post-war Paris in 1919, the city was alight with radical artistic change. Charchoune was to associate with artists we now know as 20th-century giants: including Francis Picabia, André Breton and Marcel Duchamp. In other words, Charchoune was at the very heart of things, part of a major history of European art, but somehow not in full view.
It’s this essential contradiction that forms the conundrum at the heart of a new exhibition of Charchoune’s work at Edinburgh’s Talbot Rice Gallery. The show is simply entitled, The Exhibition Is Open, but it takes its name from a line of Charchoune’s Dada poem Foule Immobile: “The exhibition is open./And still no-one sees it”
And it’s a conundrum that strikes you about many of Charchoune’s best paintings. Take his Nocturne of 1931: a painting so black that at first it seems as if it is an abstract. Gradually you begin to pick out, through their radically different textures, what seem at first like geometric and biomorphic shapes. As your eye adjusts, like it must to any darkness, these surface variations suddenly coalesce into a landscape: a large looming tree, a pine or cypress perhaps, a squat little building, and the smooth curve of a hill.
Set in the dominating atmosphere and stern neoclassicism of the Talbot Rice’s Georgian Gallery, this is a show that is carefully and immaculately hung. The works are small, almost diffident in initial appearance, but each gives eloquent testimony to Charchoune’s restless reinvention, his refusal to adhere to a single painterly philosophy and to the effectiveness of his art, which seems to present complex ideas with the lightest of touches and great painterly economy.
This is not a complete history, but an elegant and allusive essay. It is curated by Merlin James, the painter whose own gallery, 42 Carlton Place, in Glasgow, run with fellow artist Carol Rhodes, is proving a fascinating addition to the city.
James has a passion for Charchoune, it would seem for the way that the artist resists easy classification and anticipated all kinds of subsequent artistic developments, and this show is a remarkable achievement, picking its way through the painter’s life and work in a manner that suggests a far bigger institutional show is now overdue.
Charchoune, James suggests, was good at art, but hopeless at the business of it. Many of the canvases were small because at times he was skint. He used free offcuts when they were available; at his poorest he worked on card. But in a sequence of very small works we can see just how remarkable he was.
Impressionisme Orientale from 1930 is a mere six inches tall, but in the spilled and spattered white line that moves in rhythmic loops from right to left and back again, we can see, on a tiny experimental basis, the kind of thing that Jackson Pollock would produce on a heroic scale in post-war America.
Or there’s a strange little pumping heart shape, entitled St Germain, of the following year that seems to give of a mystic glow yet retains a kind of sad cartoonish comedy that the painter Philip Guston would later make his own Charchoune often seemed to play with the language of concealment: his landscapes are crepuscular and gloomy. His still lifes seem to want to say still, the plump round fruit on the plate seems to be camouflaged, reluctant to be picked or plucked. In some works, active surfaces of spots, short sweeps and scumbling seem to conceal text, or perhaps even mystic meaning.
As a Russian, Charchoune would have been well versed in mysticism in painting, from religious icons to the spiritual fervour of early abstraction. But in his own work, it seems to occupy an ambivalent space.
A small painting shows a Christian tomb adjacent to an odd grey cloud. This is not some miraculous prelude to the resurrection, but the awful weight of loss or mourning: “The depression had bitten,” James writes . Three religious subjects from the 1950s feel shockingly contemporary in their studied coolness: a statue of the Virgin teeters as though about to fall, the face of a plaster saint appears wreathed in a shroud.
Charchoune spoke many different painterly languages and with his status a linguistic outsider, neither a Russian artist nor truly a French one, he seems to have slipped largely out of the English language version of the history of art.
But he was not as isolated as at first appears. When Copley went to visit Charchoune in that Paris impasse it was on the recommendation of the elusive Duchamp, now recognised as the most influential artist of the entire century.
Charchoune, at one stage in the early 1920s, had been optimistic about a new era in Russia after the revolution. The story goes that it was the dancer Isadora Duncan, who had recently visited the country, who warned him away from the political dangers there. Charchoune’s partner set out without him. She didn’t return.
Charchoune, living quietly if not quite in the romantic obscurity we would like to imagine, was a survivor in more ways than one. This exhibition gives you a thirst to see, and to understand, more. «
• Charchoune: The Exhibition Is Open is at the Talbot Rice Gallery, Edinburgh, until 16 February•