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Mela MUTER (1876 - 1967)

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Auguste Perret : a studio for an artist

It's no secret that I am a fervent admirer of the architectural achievements of Auguste Perret. After discovering the most famous and remarkable such as Notre-Dame du Raincy, the buildings on Franklin and Raynouard streets, the Théâtre des Champs Elysées up to the city center of Le Havre and more particularly its Saint Joseph church, I went in search of his more anecdotal achievements. I then became interested in the Parisian workshops bearing his signature.

It all started with a photographic outing on the architecture of Boulogne-Billancourt in the 1930s. I discovered the studios of Dora Gordine and Marguerite Huré, then that of Chana Orloff in the 14th arrondissement.

A Polish friend, attached to the history of artists from her country who came into exile in Paris, told me of the existence of another studio commissioned by a painter of Polish assimilated Jewish origin, Mela Muter and designed by the architect Auguste Perret.

Auguste Perret had fruitful relations with the Parisian artistic and literary milieu and more particularly with women artists.

4 workshops for 4 women artists: sculptor, painter, stained glass artist. I wanted to know who were these women who created between the walls imagined by Auguste Perret and all became major artists of the 20th century.

Let's start together by criss-crossing Mela Muter's journey in France.


Paris is still the world capital of art at the beginning of the 20th century.

Under the impetus of the various universal exhibitions in Paris, circles of avant-garde artists were formed, attracting among them foreign artists, actors in the dialogue between these French and international movements.

The place of women is not anecdotal in these institutions, and many actively participate in them despite the rigidity and reluctance and age-old patriarchal prejudices.

These academies are real places of exchange and sociability, which try to break with the aging pictorial tradition.

They allow access to workshops and models for fairly modest sums, and to meet other artists.

Coming from a well-to-do and cultured Jewish family in Warsaw, Mela Mutermilch joined the classes of the school of painting and drawing for women of Milosz Kotarbinski . Then accompanied by her husband Michel Mutermilch , writer and literary critic, she moved to Paris in 1901.

She joined the Colarossi academy , then joined La Grande Chaumière nearby to follow the courses of the sculptor Antoine Bourdelle who would become her mentor.

We are then in the heart of Montparnasse, a district which will see the birth of L'école de Paris , of which Mela Muter will be one of the important figures.

But as Mela Muter says herself, she will only make a short stay in these academies, believing her teachers unable to teach her anything, or else fearing that their teachings would influence and curb her talent. She therefore decides to leave these schools to work alone by studying the paintings of the masters in museums.

Studying does not mean copying and Mela Muter quickly knew how to assert her personality in her painting.

Signature de Mela Muter sur ces oeuvres
Monogram of Mela Muter on these works

His very first works are characteristic of Polish symbolist painting from the beginning of the 20th century and also influenced by the school of Pont-Aven, as evidenced by his frequent stays in Brittany. His productions will show landscapes and figures of Armorican peasants. Then her inspirations will extend to Spain and Provence where she will stay between the two wars.

Quick recognition

Mela Muter quickly receives recognition of her talent from art critics and multiplies exhibitions. She was named a member of the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts barely a year after her arrival in France. Proof of his nascent aura, the press articles on his artistic work are multiplying and even if not all are favorable to him, the majority agrees to recognize the strength of his compositions and portraits.

She began to exhibit her works for the first time in Warsaw in 1902. Exhibitions followed one another in Paris, Barcelona and Girona.

A personal style that asserts itself, an admired portraitist

His very personal style developed from 1905 then asserted itself completely before the First World War. Quite characteristic dry and short brushstrokes with a light and matte color palette. Although remaining attached to the subjects treated since its inception, Mela Muter is increasingly focusing on portraits. His first favorite models are among the peasants, fishermen, the old, the poor and scenes of everyday life. Next will come a chapter on children, then on "motherhood".

In the 1920s, his talents as a portrait painter were truly and indisputably recognized. His personal style is now easily recognizable, a dry, dense and harsh transcription of the physiognomic and psychological traits of his portraits with the sole purpose of bringing out the intimate character and fixing the soul of his model through a posture, a gesture, a gaze, ignoring his social status.

A life full of tragedy

This real recognition should not overshadow the dark episodes that Mela Muter has been going through since her arrival in France. After the deaths of her mother in 1908 and her sister in 1911, she met Raymond Lefebvre, intellectual and socialist activist who converted to communism, in 1917 and divorced her husband Micha in 1919.

She participates with him in political and pacifist activity, but in 1920 her new companion mysteriously disappears in unexplained circumstances in the Barents Sea, following a chaotic return from a trip to take part in the second congress of the Communist International. A possibility of political assassination is mentioned by the French press of the time.

At this new tragedy, Mela Muter learns that her son has severe bone tuberculosis. All of these events seem to cause his conversion to Catholicism in 1923.

Cubist nude (1919-1923)

An avant-garde representation of the origin of the world by G. Courbet

Mela Muter continued to paint and exhibit regularly in Paris and Europe, but when her son died in 1924 and then her friend Rainer Maria Rilke in 1926, she fell into a deep depression.

A workshop designed by Auguste Perret

At the end of the 1920s, the recognition of Mela Muter acquired, his private order book was always full. She acquired a plot of 155m2 located at the end of a private courtyard, Allée Maintenon, in the Montparnasse district. She commissioned the Perret brothers to design and build a house-workshop.

This realization is delivered a year later. It revolves around a patio acting as a skylight. Its frame is in bush-hammered reinforced concrete with a filling of two-tone bricks laid out in a checkerboard pattern which gives it all its uniqueness.

Mela Muter in the patio of his house-studio (1928-1933).

© "Les portraits de Mela Muter", L'Architecture d'aujourd'hui , n°3, avril 1933.

Mela Muter hard at work on the portrait of her model of the day, Auguste Perret (1928-1933).

© "Les portraits de Mela Muter", L'Architecture d'aujourd'hui , n°3, avril 1933.

The distribution of spaces is simple, rational and functional. On the ground floor a dining room, a kitchen and a showroom; upstairs the workshop overlooking the private courtyard and a bedroom with bathroom.

Only the staircase leading to the first floor has a real singularity because it is completely detached from the walls of the house.

In 1946, Jean Dubuffet, then tenant of Mela Muter, praised this staircase by letter addressed to Auguste Perret. But I will not dwell on this letter, preferring to remember that Mela Muter, who had fled Paris when the Germans arrived, had wanted to recover his studio after the war but Jean Dubuffet, a proven anti-Semite, never wanted to return it to him. ...

An exile in the south of France during the second war

The war is here, Mela Muter is experiencing financial difficulties and even converted to Catholicism, it is not good to stay in Paris, xenophobic critics are not foreign to her departure from Paris, because it is not good to be an artist foreigner exiled in France with her political convictions.

She then rented her studio to Jean Dubuffet and went into exile in the south of France in an apartment received by the city of Avignon and in return taught drawing and art in a college in the city.

Return to Paris at the liberation

Returning to Paris after the liberation, Mela Muter continued to be active in the pacifist movements and campaigned for the protection of the Polish borders on the Oder and the Nysa.

She tries in vain to recover her house-studio rented to Jean Dubuffet and finds herself forced to live in a modest studio at the back of the courtyard at 40 rue Pascal.

After a major retrospective of her work in Paris in 1953, she remained faithful to her figurative style but the success was no longer there.

She suffers from sight problems which prevents her from painting, operated in 1965 she exhibits one last time in a last retrospective of her lifetime in New York in 1967.

A few months later, on May 16, 1967, Mela Muter died poor and forgotten in his modest Parisian studio.

The workshop today

It has not been denatured on the outside, but its interior layout has undergone transformations over three periods (1991, 1995 and 2012).

In 1989, a request for the total demolition of the interior floors and partitions received an unfavorable opinion from the Bâtiments de France, but the same year an authorization was issued for an interior renovation. It is on this occasion that we will discover that the recommendations of the authorities on the respect of the existing will not all have been followed.

A new phase of work is undertaken in 2012. A visit by the Department of History of Architecture and Archeology of the City of Paris in 2021, following a request for elevation, will also reveal a fairly clear distortion of the facilities interiors designed by Auguste Perret, once again disregarding the advice given by the "competent" authorities.

Interior fittings nowadays (Agency Oglo Paris).

A redesigned ground floor with an art gallery trend, which although moving away from the original workshop spirit, nevertheless allows a 21st century trend reconciliation with the initial vocation of the premises.


The first half of the 20th century marked a turning point for women artists, long marginalized or even ignored in the art world. They play an important role in the birth of modern artistic movements but continue to be little recognized or quickly forgotten.

Famous in the Parisian capital during the Roaring Twenties, Mela Muter was one of its pioneers. She crossed this century to the rhythm of its turbulence with her radical and personal paintings, her political commitments and her movement in the artistic whole of Paris.

But his work these days is somewhat forgotten all over the world, still in the shadow of his male counterparts at the Ecole de Paris.

Due to his choice of subjects and his very personal technique, Mela Muter is a bit against the current of the avant-garde of his time.

Nowadays, his work remains little explored, little known or even unknown to the general public. IT is never too late to restore the memory of this artist and give her all the place she deserves in the history of art.

E.G. Sep.2022

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