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