Neue Luxury - - News - By Dr An­gela Hes­son

The dom­i­nance of black in the com­po­si­tions of par­tic­u­lar artists has a his­tory of crit­i­cal con­tro­versy and emo­tional res­o­nance. From Car­avag­gio’s darkly sym­bolic chiaroscuro, to Goya’s night­mar­ish car­toons, to the Im­pres­sion­ists’ much pub­li­cised (since dis­puted) elim­i­na­tion of the shade, black is rife with sym­bol­ism. An achro­matic colour, black ab­sorbs light. It is per­haps this ca­pac­ity for dead­en­ing that has car­ried with it myr­iad as­so­ci­a­tions with melan­choly, haunt­ing and oblit­er­a­tion. That it should, con­versely, be per­ceived as an in­stru­ment of pos­si­bil­ity, va­ri­ety, even op­ti­mism is a rad­i­cal no­tion, one which sets the work of French pain­ter Pierre Soulages apart from that of many other artists pre­oc­cu­pied with no­tions of dark­ness.

Known as ‘the pain­ter of black’, Soulages first be­gan to es­chew chro­matic colour in the 1970s. The artist at­tributes his in­ter­est in black to its sta­tus “both as a colour and a non-colour”. “When light is re­flected on black,” he writes, “it trans­forms and trans­mutes it. It opens a men­tal field all its own.” Yet his in­ter­est in the colour dif­fers from that of many of his avant-garde friends and for­bears. Nei­ther a metaphor for the void (à la Male­vich) nor a sig­ni­fier of mor­tal­ity (à la Mother­well), Soulages at­tributes his pref­er­ence for the colour (or non-colour) to its ca­pac­ity to pro­duce and ma­nip­u­late light. Stri­a­tions within the thickly ap­plied black paint re­flect light, trans­form­ing the dark, im­pasto sur­face into an ac­tive pro­ducer of lu­mi­nos­ity.

Soulages’ par­tic­u­lar ver­sion of black was ar­rived at serendip­i­tously, and has, over the years, un­der­gone many pro­cesses of re­fine­ment. For the past 30 years, he has worked pre­dom­i­nantly in outrenoir a term he in­vented to de­note black that is more than black: black that opens rather than closes fields of vis­ual pos­si­bil­ity and per­cep­tion. Black had al­ways been a sig­nif­i­cant pres­ence within his paint­ings, em­ployed as an el­e­ment of con­trast with other col­ors. His ear­lier com­po­si­tions, many cre­ated with wood stain rather than paint, fea­tured thick, cal­li­graphic strokes against paler back­grounds. He re­calls one day in 1979 when, dur­ing a par­tic­u­larly in­tense paint­ing ses­sion, with­out pre­med­i­ta­tion or in­tent “ev­ery­thing be­came black.” “I thought it was bad,” he ex­plains “but I con­tin­ued work­ing on it for two or three hours ... Even­tu­ally I went to sleep, and a few hours later I looked at what I had done … I was no longer work­ing in black but work­ing with the light re­flected by the sur­face of the black. The light was dy­namised by the strokes of paint. It was an­other world.”

1 While paint­ing has al­ways been Soulages’ pri­mary medium, his use of paint has be­come in­creas­ingly three-di­men­sional, even sculp­tural, lend­ing an el­e­ment of hy­brid­ity to his prac­tice. This em­pha­sis upon tex­ture and re­lief is in­te­gral to the artist’s ma­nip­u­la­tion of light, al­low­ing it to strike the paint at dif­fer­ent an­gles, and with dif­fer­ent de­grees of in­ten­sity de­pend­ing upon the re­flec­tive­ness of the sur­face. His tools re­flect this: tra­di­tional paint­brushes are re­placed by chis­els, rakes, combs and scrap­ers. Paint is thick­ened or thinned into un­du­lat­ing re­lief. Fur­rows are carved and dragged into it. Many of Soulages’ im­ple­ments have an in­dus­trial or even sur­gi­cal ap­pear­ance, and the ma­jor­ity seem to fall out­side a tra­di­tional pain­ter’s tool­kit.

That the artist should main­tain such an in­ter­est in the ma­te­ri­al­ity of paint, its tac­tile qual­i­ties and po­ten­tial for three- di­men­sional ma­nip­u­la­tion is per­haps partly at­trib­ut­able to a life­long in­ter­est in crafts­man­ship. Soulages was born in Rodez, Avey­ron, in 1919. The street in which his child­hood home was lo­cated was renowned for its ar­ti­sans of all de­scrip­tions— tai­lors, cob­blers, watch­mak­ers, binders, cabi­net mak­ers, print­ers and sad­dlers were all amongst the fam­ily’s neighbours. Be­fore em­bark­ing on his artis­tic ca­reer, Soulages worked as a de­signer of stage sets, a role within which he si­mul­ta­ne­ously drew upon his in­ter­est in crafts­man­ship, and also be­gan to de­velop the pow­er­ful, stripped back style and pal­ette that was sub­se­quently to dom­i­nate his paint­ing. It would seem a log­i­cal as­sump­tion that this early as­so­ci­a­tion with the stage might have left some residue of the­atri­cal­ity upon Soulages’ paint­ing, yet this is far from the case. In his artis­tic ca­reer, Soulages has never been a sto­ry­teller. One might pre­sume, for ex­am­ple, that for an artist who came of age dur­ing the Sec­ond World War, the shad­ows of his­tor­i­cal vi­o­lence and trauma would be vis­i­ble within his paint­ing; how­ever, Soulages has ab­jured di­rect ref­er­ences to the great con­flicts of his age. His is not an art that retells events, and while he draws upon nu­mer­ous his­tor­i­cal in­flu­ences, none are evoked lit­er­ally.

Yet cu­ri­ously, for a pain­ter whose ca­reer has been so con­sis­tently em­bed­ded in ab­strac­tion, some of Soulages’ most pro­found early in­flu­ences were fig­u­ra­tive. As a teenager, he was fas­ci­nated by pre­his­toric art, par­tic­u­larly the 3,000-yearold mono­liths which dec­o­rate the land­scape of his na­tive Avey­ron re­gion. In the years that fol­lowed, he dis­cov­ered re­pro­duc­tions of the cave paint­ings at Las­caux, Al­tamira and Chau­vet, where fig­ures of an­i­mals, ren­dered in char­coal and dat­ing back thou­sands of years, emerge out of the dark­ness. This sense of pre­his­toric peo­ples, work­ing in the dark to pro­duce dark sub­jects, was pro­foundly in­flu­en­tial upon the young artist, who saw within this over­whelm­ing black­ness the pos­si­bil­ity of pro­found and var­ied ex­pres­sion.

It is a com­mon in­stinct of crit­ics and au­di­ences alike to seek out traces of au­to­bi­og­ra­phy in artists’ work. In the case of ab­stract art, this process is ad­mit­tedly more com­plex, and view­ers of­ten turn to the sym­bolic as­so­ci­a­tions of colour or the dy­namism of a work’s ges­tu­ral qual­i­ties to find glimpses of the artis­tic psy­che. Soulages’ monochro­matic paint­ing, with its ar­chi­tec­tural, even in­dus­trial forms, is, upon first ap­pear­ance, lacking in much of the bravura upon which per­son­al­ity read­ings de­pend. Yet, while the elim­i­na­tion of a tra­di­tional pal­ette pro­duces an un­de­ni­able air of uni­for­mity, the ca­pac­ity of Soulages’ outrenoir to pro­duce var­ied emo­tions is a re­cur­rent fo­cus within his prac­tice.

Soulages has de­scribed the process of mak­ing art as one of shock or cri­sis. His own process is at once metic­u­lous and vi­o­lent. While not char­ac­terised by the hy­per­ac­tive spon­tane­ity of many of his ab­stract ex­pres­sion­ist con­tem­po­raries, his tech­nique is none­the­less marked by phys­i­cal­ity and strength. There is a de­ci­sive­ness, both to the marks he leaves upon the can­vas, and to the process by which he ed­its his oeu­vre. Com­po­si­tions that the artist per­ceives as un­suc­cess­ful are burned, some­times in quan­tity, at the bot­tom of the gar­den. There is lit­tle time, or in­deed, space, for sen­ti­ment in the work of an artist whose ca­reer spans more than 70 years, and there is some­thing pleas­ingly cathar­tic in so ir­re­versible an ac­tion.

Cri­sis is also some­thing that art elic­its in its au­di­ence, and Soulages has re­ceived many ac­counts of view­ers weep­ing in front of his paint­ings. There ex­ists in his work a sense of open­ness— even of blank­ness—that al­lows spec­ta­tors to map their own emo­tional land­scapes onto the can­vas. A fea­ture of his paint­ing is the ab­sence of tra­di­tional ti­tles to ac­com­pany it, a ges­ture which seems in part about al­low­ing the au­di­ence in­ter­pre­tive free­dom. Pro­vided only with the dates and di­men­sions of the paint­ing, the process of es­tab­lish­ing the work’s sub­ject, (or per­haps, in­deed, its lack of sub­ject) rests solely with the viewer.

Many of his paint­ings are scaled ap­prox­i­mately to hu­man size, which lends a par­tic­u­lar im­me­di­acy and dy­namism. In Pein­ture 202x159 cm, 19 Oc­to­bre 2013, the can­vas is marked by thir­teen ir­reg­u­lar, hor­i­zon­tal chan­nels across the sur­face. De­pend­ing on where one stands in re­la­tion to the paint­ing and the di­rec­tion of the light, the un­even sur­face and the in­cised grooves within it progress from matte to highly re­flec­tive. As the light is re­flected by par­tic­u­lar fur­rows, they seem to de­ma­te­ri­alise. Be­cause move­ment is cen­tral to the process of view­ing art, the art it­self seems phys­i­cally to trans­form be­fore one’s eyes. The ap­pear­ance of the paint­ing, then, is de­ter­mined by the viewer as well as by the artist. It is an ob­ject of con­stant trans­for­ma­tion, sub­ject not only to the per­cep­tions, but also to the phys­i­cal po­si­tion of its spec­ta­tors.

Soulages came of age at a piv­otal mo­ment in the rise of ab­stract paint­ing, and crit­i­cal ac­claim for his work was swift and last­ing. Af­ter a pe­riod of wartime mil­i­tary ser­vice, he set up a stu­dio in Paris, hold­ing his first ex­hi­bi­tion at the Sa­lon des In­de­pen­dents in 1947. In the 1950s, in keep­ing with the tra­jec­tory of the mid- cen­tury Avant Garde, Soulages re­lo­cated to New York. There, he was rep­re­sented by the em­i­nent dealer and cham­pion of Amer­i­can mod­ernist paint­ing, Sa­muel M. Kootz. Soulages was to re­main in New York for more than a decade, closely ac­quainted with the most in­flu­en­tial names in Amer­i­can Ab­stract Ex­pres­sion­ism, for which his work has fre­quently been read as a kind of Euro­pean equiv­a­lent. Mark Rothko, Willem de Koon­ing and Robert Mother­well were all amongst his friends, and Soulages re­calls nu­mer­ous oc­ca­sions when the artists came to­gether to ex­change ideas.

Yet for all his as­so­ci­a­tion with Amer­i­can ab­stract paint­ing, he re­mains a thor­oughly French pain­ter. Af­ter the abrupt clo­sure of Kootz’s Gallery in 1966, Soulages re­turned to France, where he has re­mained ever since. His sen­si­bil­ity, both in­tel­lec­tual and emo­tional, is closely, if at times ab­stractly, linked to the par­tic­u­lar his­tory and cul­ture of his coun­try of birth. Soulages has de­scribed paint­ing as ‘a po­etic ex­pe­ri­ence’ and his works main­tain a com­plex re­la­tion­ship to other art forms. Ba­diou has noted Soulages’ works’ synes­thetic re­la­tion­ship to con­tem­po­rary French lit­er­a­ture, in par­tic­u­lar that of the poet of the 1940s and 1950s, An­dré Fré­naud. Ba­diou per­ceives in Fré­naud’s ‘rugged peas­ant force’ and ‘stub­born pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with lan­guage’ an ana­logue for Soulages’ un­remit­ting fas­ci­na­tion with the ma­te­ri­al­ity of the painted sur­face.

2 The sense of mul­ti­dis­ci­plinar­ity is also man­i­fested in Soulages’ re­la­tion­ship to ar­chi­tec­ture, both as an in­flu­ence upon his paint­ing, and as a source of cre­ative en­deavor in it­self. Be­tween 1987 and 1994, Soulages re­turned to the place of his birth for a ma­jor com­mis­sion funded by the French Min­istry of Cul­ture. The artist was 13 years old when he first vis­ited the Ro­manesque Abbey church Sainte Foy in Con­ques, Avey­ron, and he re­calls hav­ing ex­claimed to an ac­com­pa­ny­ing friend “You see, that’s the mu­sic of pro­por­tions!” The abbey was built in the 11th and 12th cen­turies, and fea­tures one of the high­est naves in Ro­manesque ar­chi­tec­ture, sur­rounded by a se­ries of high, nar­row win­dows. Al­most de­stroyed by fire dur­ing reli­gious con­flicts in 1568, the church fell into dis­re­pair over the next two cen­turies, be­fore be­ing re­stored un­der the di­rec­tion of Pros­per Mer­imée in the late 1800s. Fol­low­ing fur­ther dam­age in WWII, the win­dows were filled in the 1940s with neo-me­dieval­ist scenes, the colour­ful com­plex­ity of which dom­i­nated the quiet lin­ear­ity of the me­dieval space.

Soulages’ ap­proach to the com­mis­sion was one of sym­pa­thetic in­te­gra­tion rather than os­ten­ta­tion. In his de­sign for the new win­dows, he drew not only upon his es­tab­lished vis­ual lan­guage of mono­tone stri­a­tion and rep­e­ti­tion, but also upon the an­cient forms of the area’s ne­olithic stand­ing mon­u­ments or stat­ues men­hir, with which he had been fas­ci­nated since child­hood. In the act of in­ject­ing new work into a much-revered his­toric build­ing, Soulages en­tered into a form of col­lab­o­ra­tion with the orig­i­nal cre­ators of the ed­i­fice. His in­ter­ven­tion was an ex­traor­di­nar­ily gen­tle one, evok­ing the forms and shades of both the orig­i­nal ar­chi­tec­ture and the sur­round­ing land­scape, sub­tly en­hanc­ing the build­ing’s air of quiet­ness and con­tem­pla­tion.

The com­mis­sion also seemed a nat­u­ral ex­ten­sion of the in­ter­est in lu­mi­nos­ity ex­pressed in Soulages’ paint­ing. Draw­ing in light from the sur­round­ing sky and tint­ing it with a milky opales­cence, the space is del­i­cately trans­formed into a pale, serene void. He ex­plained to the me­dieval his­to­rian Jac­ques Le Goff, “It’s nat­u­ral light that is trans­formed, trans­muted; it has an in­ner life, in keep­ing with this ad­mirable space which so lends it­self to med­i­ta­tion or prayer... That was what struck me the most dur­ing this ad­ven­ture: cre­at­ing for such a space a ma­te­rial that shows the flow­ing of time. That is some­thing that has deep mean­ing.”

3 In 2014, French Pres­i­dent François Hol­lande de­scribed Soulages as “The world’s great­est liv­ing artist.” Such grandiose ac­co­lades are per­haps at­trib­ut­able in part to the con­sis­tent na­ture of his prac­tice, his per­fec­tion­ism and his fo­cus on con­tin­ual re­fine­ment. He is cer­tainly, in fi­nan­cial terms, the most suc­cess­ful liv­ing artist in France, and this has en­dowed Soulages with a cre­ative free­dom that few artists can en­joy; rather than be­ing sub­ject to the fickle de­mands of the mar­ket, he is able to fo­cus with­out dis­trac­tion on those sub­jects and tech­niques which con­tinue to en­gage and ex­cite him.

Since his first ret­ro­spec­tive ex­hi­bi­tion in Hanover, Ger­many in 1960, Soulages’ oeu­vre has been ex­hib­ited in­ter­na­tion­ally with­out in­ter­rup­tion. In 2001, he be­came the first con­tem­po­rary artist to be ex­hib­ited at the Her­mitage Mu­seum in Saint Peters­burg, Rus­sia, an hon­our akin to artis­tic canon­i­sa­tion.

But it is to Rodez, his birth­place, that he and his wife Co­lette have made two do­na­tions com­pris­ing nearly 500 works, from post-war oil paint­ings to his on­go­ing outrenoir phase. The Musée Soulages is housed, fit­tingly, in a se­ries of rusty black steel cubes, de­signed by the Cata­lan ar­chi­tects RCR. At the artist’s in­struc­tion, the mu­seum’s café, run by the Miche­lin three-star chef Michel Bras, of­fers a menu that art stu­dents can af­ford, and a large gallery in the mu­seum has been set apart to ex­hibit work by a di­verse range of emerg­ing artists. These de­ci­sions are all in­dica­tive of Soulages’ de­sire to make pro­duc­tive, ac­ces­si­ble use of his own suc­cess. As a legacy project, the mu­seum serves not only to cel­e­brate the works of its name­sake, but also to ad­vance the tal­ents of his suc­ces­sors.

In De­cem­ber 2015, Soulages turned 96. He con­tin­ues to paint ev­ery day, in his light-filled stu­dio in Paris Latin Quar­ter. To­day, the artist and his wife, Co­lette, di­vide their time be­tween the city and a house over­look­ing the Mediter­ranean, in Sète, near Montpellier. They have been to­gether for 75 years, united ini­tially by a shared en­thu­si­asm for pre­his­toric art, and still, it seems, de­lighted by each other’s com­pany. There is a pro­found sense of plea­sure in Soulages’ con­tin­u­ing prac­tice, which be­lies that loaded moniker ‘the pain­ter of black’. He con­tin­ues to find fas­ci­na­tion in the daily rit­u­als of cre­at­ing, dis­cov­er­ing, re­fin­ing - rit­u­als in which he has now been im­mersed for the bet­ter part of a cen­tury. Dark­ness re­mains in his work, a source of ex­plo­ration and ex­per­i­men­ta­tion, both ma­te­rial and emo­tional: a site of emer­gence, of evo­lu­tion, and of re­turn.

Plate 03. De­tail of: Pein­ture, 57 x 81 cm, 9 mars 2014. Acrylique sur toile / Acrylic on can­vas, 57 x 81 cm / 22.4 x 31.8 in.

Photo by Dmitri Kes­sel. Pho­tos by Manuel Li­tran.

Plate 02. De­tail of: Pein­ture, 97 x 130 cm, 30 juil­let 2014. Acrylique sur toile / Acrylic on can­vas, 97 x 130 cm / 38.1 x 51.1 in.

Plate 01. De­tail of: Pein­ture, 222 x 137 cm, 28 juil­let 2015. Acrylique sur toile / Acrylic on can­vas, 222 x 137 cm / 87.4 x 53.9 in.

2. Alain Ba­diou, 3. Ibid.

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