Jean Cortot
Writing and drawing are essentially the same [1]

jean cortot - collage panneau ecrit 1985 newsletter art comes to you 20

Écrit – 1985
Collage and ink on canvas laid down on panel
31 x 39 cm / 12.2 x 15.3 in.
Diane de Polignac Gallery, Paris

The artist painter Jean Cortot constructed his work based on the symbiosis between painting and writing. Passionate about literature, he described himself as a “predator of texts”. Cortot was born in 1925 in Alexandria, his birthplace providing an early foreshadowing of a life among books.

[1] Paul Klee


In 1942, the painter Jean Cortot entered the Académie de la Grande Chaumière, where he founded the Échelle group with the painters Geneviève Asse, Jacques Busse, Jean-Marie Calmettes, Ernest-René Collot, Daniel Dalmbert, Christiane Laran and Michel Patrix, as well as the sculptor Jacques Dufresne. The name of the group—which translates as ‘ladder’ or ‘scale’—was inspired by the artists’ shared studio, from which they could climb a ladder to access the rooftops of Paris. At the end of the Second World War, the artist moved to a studio in Montparnasse, where he would work throughout his career.

In 1948, the painter Jean Cortot was awarded the Galerie Drouant- David’s Prix de la Jeune Peinture for an urban composition, winning the prize against competition from the artist Bernard Buffet. Created in 1946, the prize was awarded each year to an artist under 30 years of age. The jury was composed of painters and art critics. Cortot became a leading figure in the figurative painting movement, painting landscapes of the French Ardèche region and the Mediterranean town of La Ciotat, as well as still lifes, portraits, and other subjects.

jean cortot - chantier naval a la ciotat 1949 newsletter art comes to you 20

Chantier naval à La Ciotat, 1949
Oil on canvas
89 x 130 cm
Musée national d’art moderne – Centre Pompidou, Paris

bernard buffet - nature morte au revolver 1949 newsletter art comes to you 20

Bernard BUFFET
Nature morte au revolver, 1949
Oil on canvas
60 x 81 cm
Musée d’Art moderne, Paris


The artist painter Jean Cortot’s already geometric style became increasingly abstract, marked by graphic, broken-up forms. The line became the subject of his works. In 1952, Jean Cortot accompanied his father Alfred Cortot, a famous pianist, on a tour of Japan. The trip left a deep impression on the artist and inspired him in the creation of his imaginary ideograms. The Correspondances series, which the artist began work on in 1959, signalled the important role that writing would play in his subsequent work. Symbols and characters fascinated the artist, who integrated them into his artistic language, creating an indecipherable, imaginary alphabet. It was the gestural aspect of writing that interested the artist. Jean Cortot was interested in Surrealism and the movement’s collages of words and exquisite corpses. The artist was also familiar with the poem-paintings of Paul Klee.

jean cortot -canvas untitled 1959 newsletter art comes to you 20

Untitled, 1959
Oil on canvas
33 x 19 cm.
Diane de Polignac Gallery, Paris

paul klee - jadis surgi du gris de la nuit 1918 newsletter art comes to you 20

Jadis surgi du gris de la nuit, 1918
Watercolour, pen and pencil on paper mounted on card
23 x16 cm
Kunstmuseum, Bern


In 1967, the painter Jean Cortot began work on the series Écritures, which he described as a seismograph: a recording of feelings and impressions. The characters in his works were as fantastical and mysterious as ever. The Spanish writer Jorge Semprún stated that: “Jean Cortot had shown us some of the Écritures that he was soon going to exhibit (…) this incomprehensible but obvious language, carrying within it the limpid mastery of a communicable meaning, but whose transcription would have been, perhaps temporarily, rendered impossible, because one would have lost the keys, the alphabet, the syntax of these writings, crying and opaque, transparent and obscure, heartrending like the traces of an I love you on a steamed-up window pane. [2]”

[2] Jorge Semprún, La Seconde Mort de Ramon Mercader [The Second Death of Ramon Mercader], Gallimard, 1969

jean cortot - canvas ecriture 1969 newsletter art comes to you 20

Écriture, 1969
Oil on canvas, 22 x 26,5 cm
Diane de Polignac Gallery, Paris

jean fautrier - ecriture sur fond bleu 1963 newsletterart comes to you 20

Écriture sur fond bleu, 1963
Etching, aquatint and embossing in colour, 76 x 57 cm
Musée d’art et d’histoire, Geneva


The letters in Jean Cortot’s works became legible starting in 1974, as the artist took texts directly from literature to construct his paintings. He turned to his contemporaries and became friends with the writers Raymond Queneau, Jean Tardieu, Henri Michaux and Michel Butor, composing paintings in homage to his favourite authors. The painter Jean Cortot invited the spectator-reader to contemplate and decipher his works, which were made to be appreciated over time.
In 1978, Cortot began his Onomagrammes series in which he shattered sentences and words. Letters assumed their independence as the atoms of language—a common source for all writers, they evoked possible future creations.

jean cortot - canvas la lune change de jardin 1983 newsletter art comes to you 20

La Lune change de jardin, 1983
Ink and gouache on paper pasted on canvas laid down on
panel, 46 x 27 cm
Diane de Polignac Gallery, Paris

“Anyone who knows L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue immediately knows, on looking at La Lune change de jardin, that this painting refers to René Char. Blue on a background of saturated blue, with a touch of indigo, the words floating without a fixed line, unstable, fleeing. Or, as they emerge from a fluvial background, they are like the shadows of light fish that are returning to the depths of the bed. This unstable nature of the letters can also represent the instability of the night sky or reason. This sense of disequilibrium in Jean Cortot’s work – mixed upper and lower case letters, various typographies, no apparent plan, disorder or hypertrophy of the central N – is also the imbalance of a thought without a master, left to itself, to its inherent folly. [3]”

The artist painter Jean Cortot drew inspiration from two main sources: poetry and philosophy. One appeals to the imagination, while the other structures thought; together, they gave birth to an individual voice, both sensory and cerebral. Cortot’s paintings are therefore intellectual, while also underlining the irrational nature of human beings. His work is not a discourse on art, but a personal response to painting in the midst of its revival.

[3] Translated from the French, Severo Sarduy, Jean Cortot, Montrouge, Maeght Editions, 1992

jean cortot - collage encre les fleurs du papier 1984 newsletterart comes to you 20

Les Fleurs du papier, 1984
Collage and ink on panel
34 x 25 cm
Diane de Polignac Gallery, Paris

Jean TARDIEU (1903 – 1995)
Les Fleurs du papier
Je t’avais dit tu m’avais dit
je t’avais dit je t’avais dit tu m’avais dit
je t’avais dit tu m’avais dit je t’avais dit tu m’avais
dit je t’avais dit

– Oh comme les maisons étaient hautes !
Oh comme le vieil appartement sentait la poussière !
Oh comme il était impossible a retrouver
le temps du soleil le temps du futur, des fleurs du
papier !

Je t’avais dit tu m’avais dit
je t’avais dit je t’avais dit tu m’avais dit.

Text : Mathilde Gubanski
© Mathilde Gubanski / Diane de Polignac Gallery

Art Gallery Diane de Polignac » The Newsletters » Newsletter Art comes to you NO. 20 Jean Cortot Writing and drawing are essentially the same