M. Levittoux: The Path to Nature
M. Levittoux has travelled a long way to arrive at a place that reflects her emotional depth and intellectual acuity.
The daughter of Polish artist Barbara Levittoux-Swiderska, whose practice Levittoux defines as ‘rigorous’ as opposed to her own ‘frenetic’ approach to painting, she performed so brilliantly in the practical entry exam for the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts that she could disdain the theoretical side of the admission process.
After obtaining a degree in painting, Levittoux left Poland for England led by a curiosity that defines her artistic practice. ‘It was like living in a cellar and hearing a party going on upstairs; you’d really like to take part in it but you can only hear the noises’, she remembers of those years. Following the invitation of an English colleague, she moved to London and enrolled in the prestigious Byam Shaw Art School, now part of Central Saint Martin.
At the Byam, she discovered the joys of life model classes and of a buzzing creative atmosphere. Yet unlike many artists of her generation, she resisted the distractions of London’s glittering art scene, valuing the freedom of artistic life above all else: ‘time for painting is my most precious possession’, she still says.
A fervent gardener, who once grew vegetables on a terrace in Stockwell, Levittoux is a skilled artisan who relished in preparing her own canvases and primers. After a while, she grew tired of London’s ‘urban mystique’ and sought a slower paced context in which ‘nature could still offer unexpected surprises’.
She first found it in a family house set within the arduous mountains of Ariège, in the French Pyrenees. She remained there for ten years, gardening and producing a series of prints and watercolours of the local residents and surroundings, as well as of her beloved dog, Marty.
Levittoux is a painter-draughtsman. She is equally at ease with large canvases that she fills with boisterous colours, quickly sketched watercolours and with the technical prowess required by printing. She adapts her style to the various media in which she works. In her studio, large oil landscapes, such as Summer Garden (160x140cm), in which figuration verges on abstraction, coexist next to expressionistic linocuts in which social characters and issues emerge dramatically out of black and white contrasts, as in the topical Refugee Boat (100x80cm).
The linocut technique, which was part of her academic curriculum in Poland and has a long tradition in northeast Europe, comes naturally to Levittoux. Her models here are, in particular, Emil Nolde and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner.
A variety of references informs Levittoux’s practice: from the idiosyncratic French painter Pierre Bonnard, whose luminosity pervades her paintings, to Chaim Soutine, whose internationalism and expressionist style are reflected in her life and art, and the Danish polymath Per Kirkeby, who entertains a fascinating dialogue between abstraction and figuration.
However, she does not see her work as adhering to a particular tradition. ‘If anything I want to create a tradition, as do all of my fellow painters’, she says, ‘I nourish myself with tradition, I get a huge thrill from looking at other painters, both past and present … but my style, I never give it a thought. It’s all about the subject’.
Her rigorous work is both assertive and restrained. It combines the ability to seize nature by acute observation with a capacity to let things speak for themselves by means of light and colour. She now paints on pre-primed canvases that can be quickly stretched to allow immediate responses to new motifs.
She considers all of her subjects, including landscapes, as portraits and describes the excitement of ‘being assaulted’ by the visible in her work. Discussing a painting such as Oak Tree (112x112 cm), which impresses through its combination of a large format with the miniature effects of engraving-like striations, she says: ‘I don’t want to represent the idea of a tree; I want this particular thing with its distinctive elements’.
At some point, she decided to leave Ariège and travel south in search of light and lightness. It was while visiting friends in Umbria that, on a hot summer day, she discovered the cool waters of Lake Bolsena and fell in love with its region: ‘I fell in love with Italy as if it were a man … as so many do’, she admits. The region’s dark volcanic soil offers her a fertile terrain for both painting and gardening.
The surprising charm of the local landscape and population mirrors her amiable nature, passionate and kind at the same time. A vastly knowledgeable and inquisitive mind, Levittoux is assiduously tenacious. Having discovered a large farmhouse in Falconero, between Grotte di Castro and San Lorenzo Nuovo, she laboriously transformed it into the home and studio where, for the past eight years, she has been making – day after day, month after month, season after season – large portraits of her friends and vicinity.
The work that she has made since her arrival in Falconero shows an artist who has travelled from Soviet Poland to the cradle of the Italian Renaissance via pragmatic Britain. English empiricism is the backdrop of her art, for she admires ‘mighty pictures made with delicate means’. Free from the expectations of Socialist Realism and of idealistic classicisms, she has a romantic spirit that strives to discover the unanticipated magnificence of smaller things and places, as is the case of her paintings of Grotte di Castro, an old Etruscan village depicted in a series of seemingly aerial views that have in fact been painted en plein air.
Nature is the guiding thread of Levittoux’s art and life. She refuses to pre-determine her route. ‘I never had an inclination for directing my work’, she says, convinced that ‘new work generates from what has already been done, step by step in diligent yet intriguing ways’. She walks on a bright path where being an artist remains ‘a choice to confirm on every crossroad’.
Silvia Loreti, Bolsena, August 2016
Silvia Loreti is an independent scholar and curator based in London, where she lives with her French husband and their two daughters. She holds a PhD from The Courtauld Institute of Art and was Assistant Curator in the Department of Painting and Sculpture at The Museum of Modern Art, New York, where she worked on the exhibition Picasso Sculpture (MoMA 2015). She has taught and lectured in Britain, France, the USA and Italy and has contributed articles to The Burlington Magazine and Harper’s Bazaar. She is the co-author of Antiquity Made Modern: Picasso, de Chirico, Léger, Picabia (Getty Villa Los Angeles and Musée Picasso Antibes). She has been holidaying in Bolsena since childhood. This essay is based on an interview that she conducted with M. Levittoux in August 2015.
Margherita - text written by Lorenza Mazzetti
She comes to fetch me from Bolsena in her car. It is a big car, where in the back she carries all her pictures. I notice that
the car is one of those that have not been cleaned for a while. Full of straw and dust, I am amazed. But she is all at ease;
tells me to sit right beside her and stop gaping - come on, she says, wiping the seat, it’s only dust, I got it going only a few
days ago, it was stationary for a bit. Sure! - I say getting in - I don’t care...
She starts driving very fast, turns left, turns right, it is, in short, a race in green, we are going to her house in the country.
The real country, as I remember from my childhood. I am excited, gorge myself on leaves, shrubbery, sunflowers, oaks,
mulberries, reeds and the never-ending variety of the shades of green: dark green, bright green, the palest possible green.
She goes on driving as if flying. She says here are the Etruscan tombs.
D.H. Lawrence says the Etruscans were happy folk, and we know that from their frescoes, from their furtive smiles,
their love of living.
At last, we arrive at the big open gate: she drives in and stops in front of the big, strange looking cottage. A former barn,
very long, with many doors and windows.
A mulberry tree on the left and a big pergola that unites both parts of the house.
I feel myself floating in luminous sunlight, taken somewhere else, like in a dream. She says come on in, opens the
glazed door that gives takes you to the big living room, the kitchen to the right and to the left all walls are covered with
big paintings. I can hardly move amongst the pictures, I get tangled in brambles, caught up in the roots.
I step into the picture. I follow the path that leads to the wild looking village that shows up between the trees with the
church, the spires, towers and the disc of the moon in the sky.
I turn round, lost the way, what is this place? Where am I?
I become frantic, want to get inside. Along the path that leads to the town the sun is shining, the scent wafts from the
fields and laurels and fills me with infinite bliss. I lift my eyes and see a youth that dives into a river or stream, I hear the
shouts of rapture. Yes – it is them! they are the Etruscans who live in this place, I recognise them. My heart pounds with
joy. I slip under water and when I emerge I am back in Margherita’s house, who says our lunch is bread, onion and cheese.
- You told me you liked onion with cheese? There you are.
The onion is quite special. She brings it from the garden as if it were a precious stone.
I eat it. Bathed in the sunshine that enters through the door together with the entire mulberry tree, the flowers that get
in through the windows, along with the cat.
She gets up to feed the cat who rubs himself against my legs and she says: Lorenza, I NEED you to write me a few lines
for the exhibition at the castle of Sorano. But very quickly, without delay!
I don’t know if I can do it.
Lorenza Mazzetti is a writer, the author of The Sky is Falling and The London Diaries amongst other books. She is also a painter.