The Two Lives of Jean-Mi­chel Meu­rice


From Oc­to­ber 2016 through No­vem­ber 2017, four ex­hi­bi­tions of work by JeanMi­chel Meu­rice at four dif­ferent ve­nues— Dun­kirk, Be­thune (La Cha­pelle Saint Pry and La­banque) and Le Tou­quet—sur­vey his pain­ting and do­cu­men­ta­ries, the work of his friends and his connec­tions with the world of ar­chi­tec­ture.

Jean-Mi­chel Meu­rice leads two lives. They’re pret­ty dif­ferent from one ano­ther. Since 1963 he has made more than 140 do­cu­men­ta­ries. Films on art, por­traits of now-de­cea­sed ar­tists (Bram van Velde, Hen­ry Moore, Si­mon Han­taï, etc.) at work in their stu­dios, and do­cu­men­ta­ries and in­ves­ti­ga­tive films that have ta­ken him on in­nu­me­rable ad­ven­tures around the world. That’s his day job. He spends three or four months wor­king on a film and then he’s out of there. He puts down his mo­vie ca­me­ra, sound equip­ment and suit­cases and locks him­self up in his “lit­tle mo­nas­te­ry.” Meu­rice the film­ma­ker steps back and Meu­rice the pain­ter takes over. At last this en­semble of ex­hi­bi­tions re­veals this ar­tist’s two lives. It be­gan at the LAAC in Dun­kirk (Oc­to­ber 14, 2016—April 2, 2017) with a re­tros­pec­tive of his pain­tings ac­com­pa­nied by scree­nings of his films. Or­ga­ni­zed around large-for­mat can­vases, the show aims to de­mons­trate the lo­gic of his ap­proach to pain­ting, ba­sed on an in­ten­se­ly ex­pres­sive use of co­lor and his si­gna­ture bru­sh­work. It’s on­ly a few ki­lo­me­ters from Dun­kirk to Be­thune, where Meu­rice spent his youth. There, at the Cha­pelle Saint Pry mu­seum un­til June 25, is the se­cond ex­hi­bi­tion in this suite, a two-per­son pre­sen­ta­tion of work by Meu­rice and his old friend Jean Le Gac, who taught dra­wing in Be­thune ear­ly in his ca­reer. The third event is ta­king place at the Be­thune art cen­ter cal­led La­banque un­til Ju­ly 23, with work by Meu­rice and friends. The suite will end at the Tou­quet mu­seum (June 17-No­vem­ber 5), fea­tu­ring his works as­so­cia­ted with ar­chi­tec­ture. Far from being a di­sad­van­tage, this ar­tist’s in­sis­tence on tem­po­ral­ly com­part­men­ta­li­zing his prac­tices consti­tutes a way to constant­ly fre­shen his thin­king, as the fol­lo­wing in­ter­view brings out. With one foot in this world and the other in his stu­dio open to the cos­mos, Meu­rice has pro­du­ced an ori­gi­nal and po­wer­ful bo­dy of work. At a time when the art bu­si­ness is flou­ri­shing, this way of life and mode of crea­tion seems to de­mons­trate a dif­ferent mo­ra­li­ty.

Loo­king over your bio­gra­phy, there’s a cons­tant back-and-forth bet­ween pain­ting and film­ma­king. Your fil­mo­gra­phy is im­pres­sive—140 films! How do you­ma­nage to car­ry out two pa­ral­lel prac­tices with such

consis­ten­cy? I’ve ne­ver consi­de­red pain­ting a pro­fes­sion, a way to earn a li­ving. I li­ked to paint; it came na­tu­ral­ly to me, but it wasn’t like ac­cep­ting a job. I was in­ter­es­ted in mo­vies since I was ve­ry young. When I was a tee­na­ger I de­vou­red tons of films. Then I came across Ca­hiers du ci­né­ma. The first thing I read in it was a long in­ter­view with Or­son Welles by An­dré Ba­zin. I was real­ly struck by the way he tal­ked about Sha­kes­peare. So I saw film not on­ly as a form of re­laxa­tion but as a cultu­ral tool, just like pain­ting.

Did you go to film school? No, I lear­ned on the job. I was lu­cky—ear­ly on I had a chance to earn good mo­ney ma­king do­cu­men­ta­ries for TV, and that be­ca­me­my trade. That was a tur­ning point for me. I pain­ted at night be­cause, ex­cept du­ring va­ca­tions, that was the on­ly time I could. But I’ve al­ways had a lit­tle stu­dio so­mew­here. The im­por­tant thing was to have this phy­si­cal re­la­tion­ship with pain­ting. At a cer­tain point I felt I was in dan­ger of lo­sing that. So I be­gan to or­ga­nize my life ve­ry sys­te­ma­ti­cal­ly. I spend so­me­times three or four months to­tal­ly im­mer­sed in ma­king a film. Then I can stay in my stu­dio for two or three months. Cut­ting my­self off from pain­ting has made it pos­sible for me to avoid re­pea­ting my­self. I al­ways seek to pro­duce ve­ry simple forms, so as time goes by there is a risk of re­pea­ting what you know how to do. I didn’t want to ex­pose my­self to that kind of at­tri­tion, so these time-outs be­came ve­ry im­por­tant for me.

Ha­ven’t you ever been temp­ted to drop

pain­ting? No. I like it when people call me “Meu­rice the pain­ter.” My iden­ti­ty as a film­ma­ker doesn’t mat­ter to me. The work I’ve done proves that I am one, but on a phi­lo­so­phi­cal le­vel, that doesn’t count for me.

That’s pa­ra­doxi­cal, since you’ve spent more

time ma­king films than pain­ting. More time chro­no­lo­gi­cal­ly, but even when I’m not pain­ting I’m thin­king about pain­ting. You don’t need much to paint. You just need a lit­tle time. My job al­lo­wedme to tra­vel, think, ask people ques­tions and pose them to my­self, and it bought in en­ough mo­ney so that I could keep pain­ting. That was an ideal si­tua­tion. But I have had to make choices. For ins­tance, I chose to give up my po­si­tion at the Fran­coGer­man cultu­ral te­le­vi­sion chan­nel Arte, where I was in charge for two and a half years. What has ci­ne­ma brought to your prac­tice as a pain­ter? It’s al­lo­wed me to keep seeing in pain­ting things that were just pain­ting, and not use it to re­present a world, people, things, so­cie­ty, po­li­tics and so on. Pain­ting is a me­dium that connects you and the cos­mos, not you and so­cie­ty. The vi­sual and aes­the­tic lan­guage in my films is the lan­guage of ci­ne­ma: fra­ming, light, depth of field, white ba­lance le­vels, edi­ting, sound, pace. People tell me so­me­times that my films are pain­ter­ly. I don’t know about that. My eye has had been trai­ned, but it’s been trai­ned by the aes­the­tics of great pho­to­gra­phers and film­ma­kers.

Still, in your ear­ly pain­tings there were some fla­shy co­lors more as­so­cia­ted with

cer­tain kinds of mo­vies. At that time I was doing “abs­tract Pop Art.” I used or­di­na­ry co­lors and ma­te­rials ta­ken from mo­dern life, not “art” ma­te­rials. That non-thea­tri­cal ap­proach to pain­ting was in­fluen­ced by Ame­ri­can mo­vies that fra­med wi­thout com­po­sing, just cut­ting off land­scapes and in­ter­iors. I was com­bi­ning Pol­lock and Tech­ni­co­lor Ci­ne­maS­cope.

ABS­TRACT POP ART You star­ted sho­wing your work quite ear­ly, no­ta­bly along­side Si­mon Han­taï at the Four­nier gal­le­ry. Which pain­tings were they back

then? I was sho­wing pain­tings moun­ted on a stret­cher, en­ti­re­ly co­ve­red with alu­mi­num foil, fol­ded and crea­sed. That let me create an am­bi­gui­ty. I su­per­im­po­sed pain­ting over that, not like ad­ding co­lor but like ad­ding a new ma­te­rial. I used li­ve­ly co­lors, flo­wers made of clea­ning gloves glued on­to the can­vas. No­bo­dy saw the work I was doing be­fore that show be­cause it was dis­mis­sed as abs­tract. But real­ly I re­jec­ted most of the School of Pa­ris abs­tract pain­ters. I more or less pain­ted in op­po­si­tion to that. Against ges­tu­ra­li­ty, skill, pro­fes­sio­na­lism and sen­si­ti­vi­ty. I wan­ted simple bru­sh­work, ve­ry mi­ni­mal, not at all cle­ver.

In your view, should film­ma­kers, like pain

ters, be consi­de­red au­teurs? There are dif­ferent areas of the brain at work. Film­ma­king is a mat­ter of in­tel­lec­tual ex­per­tise; eve­ry­thing must be conscious­ly de­ci­ded, al­most down to the se­cond. That’s even more the case for the do­cu­men­ta­ries I make. You have to mas­ter all the ele­ments in­vol­ved. When you paint, on the other hand, you should be caught up in so­me­thing big­ger than your­self. When I was doing ve­ry large-for­mat pain­tings with strips, I had to be ca­re­ful so that the lines didn’t cross. I used a ru­ler to draw straight. In other words, I de­vise sys­tems when I paint, just like a ma­son buil­ding a wall brick by brick. A ma­son doesn’t think about it; he sim­ply uses his le­vel to make sure the lines are real­ly straight. It’s the same in pain­ting: you have to be “free in your head,” have an ove­rall pro­ject in mind, and then let your­self go.

You hung out with the Sup­ports/Sur­faces

ar­tists wi­thout being part of the group. I took part in a few group shows, but when Claude Vial­lat in­vi­ted me to par­ti­ci­pate in an open-air ex­hi­bi­tion I re­fu­sed. What I paint is made to be hung on a wall, in a buil­ding. I ne­ver in­ten­ded to work in op­po­si­tion to mu­seums; on the contra­ry, I wan­ted to see my pain­tings han­ging side by side with the art­works they give ac­cess to.

FILMING PAIN­TERS When you make films about art, what’s

your goal? When I first star­ted out I made a se­ries of por­traits of the ar­tist of the kind you find in a te­le­vi­sion pro­gram on contem­po­ra­ry art. I wan­ted to film pain­ters like you’d film a crafts­man or a car­pen­ter in his work­shop. Back then, there were no films like that ex­cept Le Mys­tère Pi­cas­so by Hen­ri-Georges Clou­zot (1955) and two se­quences sho­wing Ma­tisse dra­wing and pain­ting in Fran­çois Cam­paux’s mo­vie.

What about Hans Na­muth’s film about

Jack­son Pol­lock? That’s more like a mo­ving pho­to made with a mo­vie ca­me­ra. It wasn’t done the way you’d make a film, with a struc­ture and a dra­ma­tic arc. I was the one who brought Na­muth’s film to France, be­cause I had seen the stil­ls. In a TV pro­gram I was doing then, I in­clu­ded re­por­tage about an ex­hi­bi­tion where Pol­lock ap­pea­red, and I pop­ped Na­muth’s film in­to it. That’s when I dis­co­ve­red that Pol­lock’s pain­ting was more like cal­li­gra­phy than violent brushs­trokes. A film of an ar­tist at work re­veals things you can’t other­wise see. When a pain­ter films ano­ther pain­ter, you have a cer­tain rap­port, but you have to for­get about your­self as a pain­ter so that you can try to get dee­per in­to the other pain­ter’s world.

I re­mem­ber being blown away by your film

on Han­taï. Han­taï was to­tal­ly in­to it. He even made sug­ges­tions for scenes, like the one of a girl co­ming home from school who walks on a trail of pain­tings pla­ced on the ground. He li­ked that idea. He al­so thought of the scene where he slips un­der a pain­ting, cal­ling to mind (as Georges Di­di-Hu­ber­man re­mar­ked) gi­ving birth. Han­taï sho­wed the ca­me­ra­man how to hold the can­vas, and then he got un­der it. His wife was sur­pri­sed to see him un­tying the knots by him­self, since he so­me­times as­ked her to help him tie the hun­dreds of ti­ny knots on a five or ten me­ter can­vas.

Maybe you’ve had fe­wer sur­prises in ma­king your film about Ca­ra­vag­gio than one where

the ar­tist him­self takes over. Yes and no. I had to write a text for the Ca­ra­vag­gio piece. I was fa­mi­liar with his pain­tings in Mal­ta, be­cause I had gone to see them. But I hadn’t plan­ned on shoo­ting his pain­tings in Si­ci­ly; I thought I’d use slides. But I found it im­pos­sible to write about those pain­ting wi­thout ha­ving seen them. So I went, at my own ex­pense, all by my­self, to Mes­si­na and Sy­ra­cuse. I fil­med the pain­tings with my lit­tle iPad. This se­quence was ve­ry short in the fi­nal film, since the qua­li­ty of the foo­tage wasn’t good en­ough, but I real­ly wan­ted it to be there.

As an art cri­tic, I un­ders­tand that to­tal­ly. You can’t write about so­me­thing you ha

ven’t real­ly seen. That’s why pain­ting is pain­ting. Be­fore seeing Ma­le­vich’s White on White, I had a fan­ta­sy about pure concep­tua­li­za­tion. That fas­ci­na­ted me. But when I saw it, I rea­li­zed that it was more like yel­low on yel­low, or even cream on gray. And it’s got cra­ckles. There’s thick paint, and paint skin on the edges, etc. In short, it’s a pain­ting—it’s phy­si­cal.

You’ve made ma­ny films that re­qui­red a lot of re­search—about the Ma­fia, the Cold War, the geo­po­li­ti­cal his­to­ry of the Middle Eas­tern coun­tries and the fi­nan­cial world. Af­ter all that, when you get back to your stu­dio it

must feel like you’re ta­king a rest. That’s true, but it’s fas­ci­na­ting to make do­cu­men­ta­ries like that. I did a se­ries of six films about the French bank Cré­dit Lyon­nais. I met about a hun­dred people, drew up a short list of fif­ty and then en­ded up in­ter­vie­wing twen­ty or thir­ty. That meant lots of tra­vel and ma­ny, ma­ny hours of conver­sa­tion and ana­ly­sis. I’ve made a ca­ta­logue of people I’ve met and spent at least two hours of my life with. The list runs from Gor­ba­chev to Cardinal So­da­no (num­ber two at the Va­ti­can), and in­cludes Sou­lages and Jean-Claude Killy. I had to tra­vel all over to make those do­cu­men­ta­ries. I be­came es­pe­cial­ly fa­mi­liar with the Cold War. That was one of the grea­test ad­ven­tures I’ve ex­pe­rien­ced.

So for you pain­ting is a plea­sure, part of the

he­do­nist di­men­sion of life. Right. It’s a way to step back. I’m a lit­tle like a mo­nas­tic scribe bu­sy co­pying illu­mi­na­ted ma­nus­cripts and culti­va­ting me­di­ci­nal herbs. That’s what I would have been in the fif­teenth cen­tu­ry. To­day, pain­ting is what lets me live like that. I have one foot in things of this world and the other in my lit­tle mo­nas­te­ry open to the cos­mos. It re­minds me of the be­gin­ning of the sto­ry about the Ab­bot de Ran­cé: “Where are you going to­night, Fa­ther, to hunt like a de­vil, and now you’re praying like a saint?”

Trans­la­tion, L-S Tor­goff

« Vi­nyl Na­va­jo ». 1969. Vi­nyle. 250 x 156 cm. (Court. ga­le­rie Ber­nard Ceys­son).

Jean-Mi­chel Meu­rice en tour­nage. 1969. The ar­tist filming

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