Lesage often wrote to a few faithful friends who organised his exhibitions:
“My only merit is sincerity. May men not tear that away from me… “
He who wants to fool no-one, who hates no-one and wants neither riches nor celebrity, will, however, be the object of the hostility of certain people, in the last years of his life.
Between 1950 and 1953, he paints his last canvases. With difficulty, for he is almost blind. One of them is acquired by President Roosevelt, who will keep it with him always.
One Sunday in February 1954, it is pouring rain on the little village of Burbure. Death slowly descends on the little house of this strange artist… His last words are:
“My subsistence is assured by my miner’s pension. I am detached from the goods of this Earth… Anyway… I am vegetarian… “
They were said with the smile that he always wore when he spoke of this life which was going to start again. And which he was sure to have already lived, in other times, in other places…
It is difficult to talk about the strange art of Augustin Lesage. However, it has fascinated a lot of people and the technique which he used is probably unique in the history of painting. It posed considerable difficulties because of the accumulation of a very big number of different elements which produced, however, an impression of immediate equilibrium and harmony.
Lesage painted without ever having learnt, with no model, with no previous study, without mixing any colours, with no rational division of volumes or subjects. However, his design was always clear, precise, with a regular and sure flow, without anyone being able to discern the slightest correction.
Most of the motifs can be studied through a magnifying glass, they are painted with such minutia. Close up, it all appears to be of a frightening complexity, but as soon as you take a few steps away from it… Miracle! Everything falls into place with marvellous rigour and poetry. It is at this moment that you get the feeling of being projected into a different world, like one that never existed before, according to Lovecraft’s formula, “not even in your wildest dreams”.
Lesage has always affirmed that he used no document to paint his fresques, borrowed from Ancient Egyptian, Indian, Buddhic, Balinese, Assyrian, etc. subjects. He said that his paintings were not the fruit of his own imagination and his hand was only the instrument of another brain. Even if he had been able to take inspiration from certain documents, that would not explain the prodigious synthesis, founded on a rudimentary, but faultless, technique, which he would have taken from them. Even for his most complex paintings, he never used precision instruments like compasses or set squares.
The commission, which met in 1947 to watch him work, and which was made up of doctors, professors, painters, architects, police officers and magistrates, noted from the beginning, that he had not the slightest complete image of what he was going to do. That he worked in an automatic manner, probably unconsciously. That the symmetries which abound in his paintings were always done to perfection, often at 1.50 m from the imaginary median line, which is extremely difficult.
The most astonishing thing, perhaps, is that Lesage’s art does not appear to have been subject to progress. His first canvas, the one that he painted slowly at first, on a canvas pinned to his kitchen wall, was just as “finished” as the last ones. His only explanation was:
“It goes very quickly, it goes by itself!”
He sold his paintings, with a lot of reticence, only to a few rare friends. He calculated the price by multiplying the number of hours that he took to do them, by the hourly rate – to the centime – which was paid to his miner friends.
Lesage believed that the spirits guided him. Spiritism, elaborated into a religion by its founder Allan Kardec, had great success in the industrial regions of most of the European countries, from 1880 on. Because the work was very hard and the dechristianisation of the second half of the XIXth Century needed a substitute, particularly in the popular classes.
At Lesage’s epoch, there were still in the North of France real spiritist “grand masses” in which whole working-class towns participated. They sang, they recited psalms for the spirits, which were supposed to manifest themselves to heal people, but also to speak about the other world. This other world whose frontiers with the Earth were not impermeable for the spirits and where all the dead were in communion while waiting to be reincarnated into another life, which they hoped would be better.