John Aldus obituary


Show caption John Aldus’s Dialogue, 1988, at the School of Engineering, Geneva. Photograph: Art John Aldus obituary Artist with a thought-provoking approach to what seemed familiar in Geneva and, for the last quarter-century, in London Charles Darwent Thu 17 Feb 2022 14.06 GMT Share on Facebook

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On 31 January, the daily Tribune de Genève announced that four of Geneva’s best-known characters had suddenly been orphaned by the death of their maker, John Aldus, at the age of 81. These figures – a pair of art collectors, a poet and a pretty young woman, name unknown – were not actual Genevois but life-size, hyper-realist bronze sculptures of them, mingling with other burghers in the city’s Plainpalais Square. Placed there in 1982, they were collectively titled Alter Ego – Aldus was one such himself, the artist having for five decades been known by his birth name, Gérald John Ducimetière.

One of John Aldus’s Alter Ego figures in Geneva. Photograph:

The Alter Ego figures remain Aldus’s best-known works, but they are easily misread. The quartet of bronzes are not public sculpture in any usual sense of the term: their purpose is not to memorialise or decorate, but to use familiarity to make space unfamiliar. If one word can be applied to the broad range of Aldus’s art-making – drawing, printing, film et al – then that word is probably “uncanny”.

His 1974 video piece, La Blessure (Wound), showed a woodsman’s axe hacked into the floor of Geneva’s venerable Musée Rath; in the photo series, Matterhorn (1975), the Swiss art collector André L’Huillier – one of the characters in Alter Ego – spoons a chocolate replica of the titular mountain into his mouth. These early Swiss works often featured Aldus himself, a Byronic figure with a dark beard. The video Poisson shows him ruminating, for 13 seconds, on the question of why fishermen, demonstrating the size of a catch, do so palms-in rather than palms-out. In a 1975 interview, citing Plato, Aldus ruminated on beauty. “In nature,” he says, “nothing is beautiful or ugly. Man’s obsession with beauty is driven by the knowledge that only we are capable of producing ugliness.”

This view, and its classical underpinnings, was typical of Aldus. If his background in the Genevan suburb of Veyrier was hardly intellectual – his father, John, worked in a factory, his mother, Lucie (nee Poitry), was a concierge – the young Ducimetière proved prodigiously bright. Locally schooled, he won a place at the Écoles des Arts Décoratifs and Beaux-Arts in Geneva, graduating in 1961 with the Prix Pierre Cailler. More prizes followed, with federal grants to match. As a student, he had visited Salvador Dalí in Cadaqués, and his work would retain a strong tinge of the surreal.

John Aldus in his studio. Photograph: Evelyn Cantacuzène-Spéransky

In 1995 he changed his birth name, Gérald John Ducimetière, to John Aldus. “Ducimetière” means “of the cemetery” in French. Perhaps with resurrection in mind, the artist jettisoned his first forename for his second, conflating the last letters of “Gérald” with the first of “Ducimetière” to become John Aldus. (The surname was also chosen to honour the company whose eponymous graphic software Ducimetière liked to use, swallowed up that same year by Adobe.) The following year he moved to London; perhaps, like his familiarly unfamiliar Alter Ego characters, the point was to flirt with displacement.

The works Aldus made in London were as thoughtful, and thought-provoking, as his Swiss work had been. His light sculpture, Lykeios (2000), punned in French and classical Greek. The building in whose turrets the piece was installed was called the Lycée, the word deriving from the Athenian temple of Apollo Lykeios where Aristotle had taught. Aldus’s British masterpiece, Tokens (2006), commissioned by Camden council, saw him embedding copies of the fragments attached as identifiers by 18th-century mothers to the clothes of the babies they abandoned at London’s Foundling hospital into the pavement of nearby Marchmont Street. As often in Aldus’s work, the experience of space in the piece becomes an experience of time. Tokens also recalled the artist’s own, more fortunate birth. “I had nine months in my mother’s womb and I became an artist,” Aldus said. “That’s all.”

John Aldus’s Tokens, 2006, embedding 18th-century mothers’ identifiers from the Foundling hospital into the pavement of nearby Marchmont Street, central London

As to his own displacement, moving to London made him happy. Living and working in a studio in Hampstead, Aldus drove most days to an arts club in Chelsea where, book in hand, he would sit by himself, bespectacled and lost in thought.

Aldus married Isabelle Braillard in 1986; they later divorced. He is survived by their daughter, Noémie.

• John Aldus (Gérald John Ducimetière), artist, born 26 April 1940; died 26 January 2022

• This article was corrected on 21 February 2022. John Aldus’s father was also named John.

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