Review of The Sophie La Rosière Project: Iris Häussler | Leonardo/ISAST

Review of The Sophie La Rosière Project: Iris Häussler

The Sophie La Rosière Project: Iris Häussler
by Philip Monk, Editor

Art Gallery of York University, Toronto, Canada, 2018
224 pp., illus. 425 col. Paper, $30
ISBN: 978-0-921972-73-0.

Reviewed by: 
Robert Maddox-Harle
April 2019

This book is the catalogue of an exhibition held at The Art Gallery of York University during the last three months of 2016. Iris Häussler created The Sophie La Rosière Project that consists of a vast number of paintings, artistic forensic investigations, and various forms of documentation together with historical analyses.

Here is the first paragraph from Monk’s Introduction that sets the scene, so to speak, for a tale of mystery, deception and intrigue:

“The following documents gather together all we presently know about the early twentieth-century artist Sophie La Rosière. Born Sophie Basset, she died in 1948 but was only an active artist between about 1905 and 1918 when she aborted her practice and abandoned her studio, which, miraculously, has been preserved in its final state.” (p. 9)

I found reading the text and viewing the images in this book one of the most interesting artistic experiences of my life! Häussler is an absolutely brilliant artist, a genius I believe, but; “Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive.” The whole project is like a complex, convoluted psychoanalytical acid trip. In fact, an eminent Lacanian psychoanalyst, Yan Pélissier, has contributed a most engaging, analytical essay to the book. This essay discusses at length the two, ‘door paintings’ found in Sophie’s studio that she had covered in a black encaustic coating to conceal her painting under. Sophie La Rosière only painted on doors, window shutters, and other found objects, never on artist’s canvas. Further, this mysterious artist mixed her own pigments so no record exists of her visiting artist’s supply shops, which is strange given the artistic ferment and social milieu in Paris at the turn of the century.

Catherine Sicot in her essay discusses the meetings with Michel Menu, head of research at C2RMF, Paris which resulted in the X-ray revelations of Sophie’s paintings. She also attempts to situate Sophie La Rosière within art history. Gérard Audinet, Director, Maisons de Victor Hugo agreed to undertake this difficult task: “Audinet agreed to undertake a stylistic study of La Rosière works in this interview, situating her within art history” (p. 159).

The book has two parts:


Part One contains:

Philip Monk’s Introduction

A Chronology

A description of the Discovery (the two black doors),

X-ray reports of the doors

A description of the House & Studio,

Vanished Vanity by Gérard Audinet (an art historian’s analysis)

The Catalogue raisonné (almost 100 pages)

Letter to Sophie La Rosière by Iris Häussler


Part Two has three essays:

1 – Veiled in black ... and then? by Yan Pélissier

2 - A la recherche du (petit) monde de Sophie La Rosière by Catherine Sicot

3 – Intrapsychic Secrets by Philip Monk

These two sections are followed by:

Installations at York University Gallery, Scrap Metal and Daniel Faria Gallery Acknowledgements Image Credits

The book is beautifully produced, graphically rich, with numerous colour images and photographs which complement the almost 100 pages of colour reproductions of Sophie and Florence’s paintings. Florence was Sophie’s lesbian lover and artist’s model. The ‘obsession’ with Sophie’s paintings on the doors obscured with “black encaustic” is subject for psychotherapeutic intervention in my opinion. I quote below the last paragraph of Iris Häussler’s letter to Sophie:

“We sacrifice your “black paintings” for dissection. Like an exotic insect to be prepared for the showcase of a man’s ‘cabinet of curiosities’, your paintings are X-rayed and restored, even. Only you, Sophie could tell us if what we gain is less than what we lose, but you won’t speak. And neither will I.” (p. 144)

This reluctance to speak is of considerable concern Iris!

Trying to understand this Sophie La Rosière covert conspiracy is no easy matter, “...we cannot say what fascinates us more: La Rosière herself, or Häussler’s fascination with her subject, becoming one with her in all this obsessive, wanton production” (p. 168).

For all creative artists, if you are looking for inspiration, or perhaps an inner journey of intrigue then this book is a must read. The Art Gallery of the York University, under the direction of Philip Monk is at the cutting-edge of 21st century art, each book/project I have reviewed for this gallery has been challenging and inspirational. Sophie La Rosière, Iris Häussler and the mysterious Florence have lifted my jaded spirit to once again experience the “mysterium tremendum et fascinans.”