Gui Ignon (1897-1963) was a painter who drew upon a vast array of influences – formal training in Paris during the heady days following WWI, time spent as a POW in a German prison camp, hitchhiking across the U.S. during the Great Depression and drawing the people and places he encountered, and friendships with leading philosophers - to create an enduring and vibrant body of work. His oil paintings and charcoal sketches are marked by his natural gift for color, carefully honed technique, and unblinking exploration of intellectually and spiritually challenging themes.
Ignon was born in Caen, France, and at age nine moved with his mother to Paris to escape his abusive father. When WWI broke out, Ignon joined the French military underground in enemy-occupied territories as a bicycle courier spiriting messages across German lines. The messages were baked into innocent looking bread loaves. The ruse worked until, at a German checkpoint, a German guard snatched one of the loaves and tore it open, exposing a top-secret letter.
Sent to a POW camp, Ignon immediately began plotting escape with a fellow prisoner. Under the cover of night they climbed over the razor fence. At the Swiss border his comrade, who spoke German, convinced the guards that they were Swiss Germans. Fifty yards into Switzerland, the guard shouted "bon voyage." Instinctively Ignon's comrade turned, giving them away.
Ignon's next stop was St. Gilles Prison in Brussels, a foreboding, high security fortress. There, he was given the cell next to Edith Cavell, an English nurse who the Germans had accused of treason and espionage for her role helping English soldiers escape. Ignon and Cavell became close friends. He was fortunate that many of his fellow prisoners were intellectuals, academics, professionals, and artists, introducing Ignon to philosophy, politics, and the importance of art to civilization.
On an October morning in 1915 Ignon awoke to Cavell being taken from her cell. Thirty minutes later he heard the shots of her firing squad. Two years later he was released from St. Gilles through a prisoner exchange. He immediately enlisted in the Regular French Army and was sent to the trenches on the front lines, where he was felled by mustard gas. When recovered he was discharged from the Army and worked as a draftsman for the Bleriot Airplane Company.
After the war, Ignon entered Ecole Des Beaux Arts but was soon disillusioned with the school's traditionalist approach. In 1920 he entered Academie La Grande Chaumiere and was also a pupil of Louis Maron, who introduced him to the many artists in The School Of Paris movement. Ignon became disillusioned with Paris, believing the artists he knew preferred to talk about art than to make it.
In 1923, Ignon found the allure of America irresistible and headed to the United States, entering New York as an illegal immigrant. Moving into a cold water flat in Harlem, he began making a living at his art. His success was such that he was able to move to the Essex House on Central Park South. He divided his time between New York and Washington, D.C., where he took commissions from the elite and supplied his art to galleries in both cities.
With the onset of the Depression, Ignon's commissions were cancelled. His only option was to escape New York and take his chances on the road and see America. He stuck out his thumb and passed through Appalachia and other regions of the Deep South exchanging portraits and landscapes for room and board. His peripatetic adventures took him through the South, Midwest, and South West, and finally Hollywood.
By the late 30's Ignon had settled in a studio on Sunset Boulevard and in 1939 he was hired as a consultant on "The Nurse Edith Cavell Story" and played a small role in the film. In the late 1940s his friend, the celebrated photographer Man Ray, introduced him to James Vigevano, who became his art dealer and close friend until Ignon's death.
In 1943, Ignon met Olga Schiller, an extremely bright young scientist working in the nascent field of genetics at Cal Tech. Their first son, Roger, was born at Hollywood Presbyterian a year later. Ignon's friends in Ojai, D. Rajogopal and Jiddu Krishnamurti, had been urging him to move to the Ojai Valley, the ideal environment in which to paint and raise a family. Ignon took their advice, bought an acre in Ojai's East End and built a house that consisted primarily of a studio, designed by another friend, Raphael Soriano.
James Vigevano arranged an exhibition at the New York's Museum of Modern Art - a tremendous break for any artist. The museum wanted ten Ignon paintings for the show. Ignon built the crates and packed them off by rail and planned to meet them in New York. Three weeks before the show's opening, the curator called to ask, "Where are your paintings?" They never arrived. Six months later they were discovered moldering in a boxcar on a siding in Louisiana. After struggling for years, finally getting a break only to have it destroyed by a hapless railroad clerk was the nadir of his career. It was 1949 and another child was on the way. The crates and shipping had cleaned out all his savings.
Olga took a job with Beatrice Wood experimenting with glazes. Ignon did not put aside his brushes but began giving private lessons, then took a permanent job at The Thacher School as head of their art department. He loved teaching and nurturing the talent of his pupils. He inspired them and they inspired him. At night and on weekends he focused on his own work.
With a steady salary from the school, Ignon was free to experiment and explore his profound questioning of religion, metaphysics, science and the constant mystery of human behavior and psychology. Aldous Huxley, Alan Watts, David Douglas Duncan, Henry Miller (to whom Ignon gave art lessons), Man Ray, Rajagopal, Krishnamurti, and Raphael Soriano were some of his well-known friends, but many of the Thacher School faculty, parents of his pupils, and his pupils, could be counted among them.
Ignon died in 1963 of esophageal cancer, which may well have been hastened by his exposure to mustard gas during WWI. But there was no question that he had lived an outsized life, one full of rich experiences and the creation of a extraordinary body of artwork.
His friend James Vigevano summed up his life best when he wrote:
"Ignon was a profound thinker and philosopher who expressed his idea with paint instead of pen. It was his relentless exploration and experimentation to visually articulate metaphysical concepts, the interpretation of the subconscious and examine existential and scientific questions of the universe that I admired most about him. He was not interested in making pretty pictures, although he could if the pantry was looking thin. We had each experienced war. I knew what he was about and what was stored in his cellar. His important work could be disturbing and always deeply provocative."
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