L'École Marchutz

Leo Marchutz as Teacher

Marchutz Fellow
Students in the first session of the Marchutz school, ca. summer 1972.

Students in the first session of the Marchutz school, ca. summer 1972.

Throughout this year, we are featuring texts that spotlight the life and values of Marchutz the school and Marchutz the artist as well as interviews by people who knew him. Here, one of the co-founders of the Marchutz school Billy Weyman recounts Leo's rejection of traditional academia for a personal education rooted in the study of nature and the art of the past. 

“It was seven years ago in Aix-en-Provence that I was introduced to Leo Marchutz as my painting instructor for the year to come. Ever since that time I have become increasingly aware of exactly what the teaching of Marchutz means and how valuable it is in these times. To understand the whole man, an evaluation of his relatively short teaching career is essential. As he himself refused all formal training, it is interesting to see the approach he now takes to guiding the young to a deeper understanding of art and painting.

Marchutz proposes that a student copy first and choose for this purpose a painting to which he is naturally drawn. If the idea of copying works of art seems today outdated then maybe it is proper here to reconsider why painters ever felt that copying was a valid means of learning. This being the first principle of Marchutz’s teaching, the matter shoud be pursued.

Since the names Cezanne and Van Gogh have been and are generally equated with art in its higher state, I will take the liberty of contrasting their attitudes to those of the Academy. Though for different reasons, both proposed copying other works of art. One may well wonder where the difference lies. Ever since the eighteenth century and the birth of Neo-Classicism and the Academy, there have been patterned beliefs about “correct” painting and drawing. It was generally accepted in academic circles that there was one way to draw and paint correctly and that way was gotten from study of the great masters. Ingres for example saw the ultimate truth in Raphael and nowhere else. The Academies in turn held up Ingres as a divine example for their students to follow. So art was limited to the general taste of the time. Even worse the Academy was not directing its students to the art of Ingres and Raphael but to their methods. If copying is of any value at all then it shoud be evident that the Academy’s approach is not one to observe. By looking at Cezanne and Van Gogh one can be more sure of understanding the benefit to be had from copying. Both rejected the Academy’s teaching and both turned to working from the masters of their choice. For them it was a means of penetrating nature, knowing that what they chose to copy had its roots firmly planted there. Let it be understood that nature in this context is simply, as Cezanne himself put it, ‘the spectacle which the Pater Ominpotens Aeterne Deus spreads before our eyes”. When Van Gogh copied Millet it was not Millet’s methods which he copied, it was the spirit which he himself felt behind Millet’s figures. The results are purely Van Gogh and hardly less original than the paintings he made from nature. The value of copying is immense if the reasoning behind it is right, for it instructs, through art not through technique, the poetic as well as the visual sense. The mere learning of technique is without value because it has become dissociated from the very source from which it grows, namely the artistic intuition which, seeking its own expression, gives birth to the work of art. The technique therefore evolves with the work of art. It does not precede it.

I cannot tell you how to do it; only how not to do it
— Léo Marchutz

Marchutz has another motive in suggesting copying as a means to artistic initiation. It gives him an accurate idea of a student’s natural response to color and drawing. The way the student responds reveals a great deal about his particular feeling and intuition. This is why Marchutz lets a student commit himself to a copy before he offers advice or criticism.

Students often ask Marchutz how a thing shoud be done. He answers, "I cannot tell you how to do it; only how not to do it". The meaning of this statement shoud be clear if seen in relation to the academic approach : that is to say, where the “right way” is predetermined, not only by the instructors but by the school and the predominating tastes of the time. One may recall that according to many critics Cezanne could not draw, and with the limited criteria of the Academy this is certainly true. But according to art nothing could be more false.

At the same time Marchutz advocates the self-discipline and constraint that only when exercised by internal forces can awaken truth to Goethe’s words : “Unfettered spirits will aspire in vain to the pure heights of perfection. He who wills great things must concentrate his efforts, only in limitation is mastery revealed and law alone can give us freedom.”

Today dominating trends in art pretend to be vehemently opposed to the academies. Their roots can be traced back to the Bauhaus school of the early twenties. The Bauhaus admitted it could not make artists but proposed to put all the necessary tools and theories at the disposal of its students. In the hands of the right students art would “blossom”. The tools in question were a variety of technical procedures. After experimenting with all the possible ways of working a student was supposed to choose a technique to his liking. The sterility of such a procedure vies with that of the Academy, for the one is a multiplication of the sins of the other : one technique is replaced by several and the basic contact with nature is subordinated to the mere mechanics of painting. Marchutz advises students to go to nature directly, guided by the masters with whom they have particular affinities. Few artists of merit have done otherwise.

It is evident that techniques do no mean much to him. Students who come equiped with all the methods and formulas for “making paintings”, are sure to meet with disapproval. In such a case his criticism is outspoken, whereas a seemingly awkward and infinished painting may evoke his enthusiasm.

He is conviced that too much emphasis on results is dangerous. He personnally devoted four years of his life to doing delicate pencil drawings of Aix streets. During that time he concerned himself more with understanding a few basic relations such as “roof to sky” or “ground to buildings” than with elaborate and “finished” drawings. The value of this may be more clearly understood if one can sense the meaning of Baudelaire’s words in defense of the work of Corot, who was heavily attacked for the sketchiness of his landscapes. He says, “There is a great difference between a thing created and a thing finished : generally that which is created is not finished and a thing very much finished may not be created at all”. So Marchutz encourages students to forget about making works of art and to value more what goes into their minds than what goes onto paper. This is not negative advice. He hopes to instill in a student a sense of what is important and what is superfluous. The common desire among students is to find an original way of working and to make a “masterpiece”. Since neither originality nor the making of masterpieces can be had by looking for them it is best to forget about those things and begin the slow and natural process of growing while in contact with art and nature.

Basically Marchutz’s teaching suggests, never dictates, and speaks with a still, small voice as do his character and his art. Love is the force which moves him and finally the force which nourishes his relation with young painters.

In reality the world is filled with enough great art and enough of the written word to allow any young person to avoid painting schools altogether. But rare is the young man who trusts his own artistic intuition enough to abandon all school instruction. Marchutz was an exception. Surely this is one reason why he is such a unique teacher. Sensing the flaws in a system, he strives to correct them. I believe he has succeeded. It would be impossible for schools and academies to adopt and carry out Marchutz’s approach to teaching. But individual teachers could profit greatly from his example. He has brought something new and alive to the very institution he himself rejected.

The teaching of Leo Marchutz involves the irrevocable truths of all time, those which are nurtered and preserved by tradition and which go unchanged and unchallenged from one age to the next. But he does more than profess these truths : he represents them.”

- William Weyman, Aix-en-Provence, 1968