Pigments by Léon Gontran Damas

Pigments by Léon Gontran Damas

  • Pigments, by Léon Gontran Damas. Title page.

  • Pigments, by Léon Gontran Damas. Frontispiece.

    MASEREEL Frans (1889 - 1972)

To close

Title: Pigments, by Léon Gontran Damas. Title page.

Author :

Creation date : 1937

Date shown:

Dimensions: Height 19.5 - Width 14

Technique and other indications: Posted by Guy Lévis Mano (GLM)

Storage place: Private collection

Contact copyright: © Private collection - All rights reserved

Pigments, by Léon Gontran Damas. Title page.

© Private collection - All rights reserved

To close

Title: Pigments, by Léon Gontran Damas. Frontispiece.

Author : MASEREEL Frans (1889 - 1972)

Date shown:

Dimensions: Height 11.2 - Width 7.5

Technique and other indications: Woodcut Published by Guy Lévis Mano.

Storage place: Private collection

Contact copyright: © ADAGP © Private collection - All rights reserved

Pigments, by Léon Gontran Damas. Frontispiece.

© ADAGP Private collection - All rights reserved

Publication date: October 2007


Pigments by Léon Gontran Damas


Historical context

The French colonial school promotes a small part of the colonized youth in order to assimilate them and make them the future elite destined to supervise the populations of the colonies. While slavery has been abolished for several decades by the French Republic, a colonial power, its policy of assimilation does not yet help to recognize the deep cultural differences and does not concern itself with dealing with problems arising from slavery.

The most talented young people in school succeed

at the end of the 1920s in the preparatory classes of Parisian high schools. Léopold Sédar Senghor (1906-2001), Senegalese, and Aimé Césaire (born in 1913), Martinique, met in 1932 in the khâgne of the Lycée Louis-le-Grand, in Paris; their personal itineraries, their difficult life in the Parisian context, when the Porte de Vincennes had just triumphed there, the Colonial Exhibition (1931) and their meetings with political activists from the Latin Quarter led them to found in the mid-years 1930 the Mouvement de la Négritude: the Black world, they assert, has a thought, a sensitivity, an art, a word of its own and which cannot be satisfied with the ways of the French school or of European academicism . Léon-Gontran Damas (1912-1978), Guyanese, is the very first to publish in this orientation; he does so with virulence.

It was a young avant-garde publisher, Guy Lévi-Mano, in the Montparnasse district of Paris, who published on his small printing press in 1937, Pigments, collections of poems sharp enough for the time. Guy Lévi-Mano was in fact one of the most active young publishers at the time to publicize deeply new poetic publications, in particular surrealist ones.

When war was declared in 1939, Pigments is prohibited by censorship, because of appeals to the critical conscience, if not to rebellion, of the enlisted Blacks, kinds of new slaves, says Damascus, that internal conflicts in Europe only concern from afar .

Image Analysis

If the cover of the collection adopts the usual graphic forms of the taste of the 1930s (sobriety, balance, refined geometric lines, functionalism), the frontispiece by Frans Masereel stands out with dazzling force. Masereel, Belgian, (1889-1972) is one of the best wood engravers of the twentieth century. It was marked by social and, at that time, anti-Nazi themes; he brilliantly practices the style of the first German expressionists.

Masereel, in a fairly geometrical style typical of the "modernist" style of the time, brings out a young black man, naked, from an enormous starched shirt collar, symbolic of the financial power of the rich world. To the left, the large modern city bows out; on the right, the tropical trees, more flexible, also move away. The black body in the center rises like a strong dark cloud emerging from a volcano.
Frans Masereel does not engrave this wood without remembering the Ballets Nègres, Joséphine Baker, or the then new craze for jazz. But his engraving does not seek exotic seduction. She proclaims the naked revolt, a black body silhouetted without transition (which the woodcut technique allows) on a white light which is that of an explosion.


The body

The young body is powerful, muscles massive: it signifies the strength of a civilization, already mature, which must make itself known and recognized. She is born, but she is already born an adult, says engraver Masereel. As in classical ancient and then European iconography, Athena was born as an adult, clothed and helmeted, from the thigh of Zeus. The black man is born, naked, strong, upright, powerful.


The space shown by the engraving is significant: like the mouth of a volcano, the starched collar from which the black man is born is encircled by a bow tie, luxury of the white world; the symbolism is obvious, even naive. But the white giant is beheaded. Behind his back rises, still barely visible, a black people, arms sometimes raised, exulting or dancing. The space is close, the engraving narrow and tight: we suffocate in this world. The large tropical trees undulate under the blast of the explosion, the buildings go obliquely. But the explosion of the birth of negritude does not destroy them: Masereel indicates that negritude participates in the modern world, where it claims its place; and even it will enrich it.

The top of the engraving is particularly revealing. We see the top of the skyscrapers, a vertical cloud, a raised arm and an open hand (and not the Communist closed fist), a head, the treetops: all this inserted in an explosion light which is also a dawn light.

  • slavery
  • colonial history


Léon Gontran DAMASCUSPigmentsParis, Guy Lévi-Mano, 1937.

To cite this article

Yves BERGERET, "Pigments of Léon Gontran Damas"

Video: Lair des bijoux, Faust, Gounod.