François Rouan Weaving Time’s Chaos
Rouan at the Musée Fabre, Madani at La Panacée, American landscape photography at the Pavillon Populaire: Montpellier dominates our pages this month. What with Jonathan Meese at the Carré Saint-Anne (see the next issue), the current vibrancy of the city’s exhibitions stands in strong contrast to the gloom smothering the rest of France. On which, more soon.
François Rouan, Tressages 1966–2016 is a remarkable exhibition at the Musée Fabre in Montpellier (through April 30). Conceived by its curators Michel Hilaire, Isabelle Monod-Fontaine and Stanislas Colodiet on a human scale, this retrospective features some hundred works—exclusively paintings, in fact, even though Rouan has been making photographs and films since the 2000s. From Les Portes de Rome, which he initiated at the Villa Medici in the early 1970s, to the Chambres Siena (2013), exhibited over the last three years at the Château de Hautefort, most of his series, with or without braided strips of painted canvas, are represented here. The exhibition sequence is chronological but it opens up perspectives between the pictures walls that make it possible to compare—or weave together, one might say—different periods. Reading this interview with the artist, it will be clear that braiding is more than a technique for Rouan: it is a philosophy, an allinforming thought process that, for fifty years now, has fashioned an untypical body of work that has ceaselessly regenerated itself by going back over what has already been done.
RL Officially, braiding appeared in 1966, initially in the works on paper. But, viewing
Objet-Tressage, the film of interviews that you made recently with Mick Finch and Philip Armstrong, I saw cabins you made with wooden crates that already contain
the idea of braiding. Those works date from 1963-64. At the time, I wasn’t expecting to spend my life making paintings. While at the Beaux-Arts, I was also studying with architects. I felt it was easier to think about painting in relation to architecture and the city, rather than to dream of an ideal painting off in my corner. We conceived projects that sneaked a bit of life into the city. Antoine Grumbach and I thought up micro-interventions that would bring braiding in from that angle. We were very attentive to connections, to the fact of linking things together. At the same time, in the studio, I was making things that had to do with the monochrome and the opening of its plane, somewhere between Matisse and Fontana. One day I had this paper and I decided to cut it all to pieces, into strips, with the idea of creating a visual plane that would address the question of depth, without lapsing into the rhetoric of the perspective system. I tried to be as unsubjective as possible. Hence the pink and the blue. Roughly speaking, they were the colors of Brigitte Bardot’s skirts.
DEBRIS AND DISASTERS
Precisely, when one sees the Tressage bleu et rose from 1966, one realizes that on the orthogonal grid of the braided strips of paper you painted another diagonal one, which suggests another braid. But it's a trompe l’oeil. You soon began to add dashes, crosses and hatching that added to the levels. That was my discreet, modest way of arguing against the efficacy and frontal simplicity of my classmates at the time, and particularly Supports/Surfaces. But that happened slowly, surreptitiously. I had really
bought into modernist ideals! What I like in a painting is the way it opens or closes simply by the play of light. I see the painting object as bound to be a “gaze-deceiver.” You think you’ve seen it, but it escapes you. Otherwise, you get bored always seeing the same thing. What I am looking for is movement and displacement. It took a long time, and this search has occupied me all my life. In the life of an artist, in mine anyway, there is a daily chaos. How do you integrate this material into your work plan, which changes things, although without denying them? In its relation to space, the Musée Fabre exhibition is very calm, very pure; it more or less neutralizes the disorder. That struck me the first time I went. Sometimes I couldn’t even recognize my own works. I had to photograph details from my paintings to reassure myself that the disorder, the debris and the disaster were still there. In this world where mediation is so important, artists have made a pact with simplification. An idea must be presented as efficiently as possible. And the idea of braiding can indeed be seen in that light. Except that if it represents fifty years of activity, it’s more the sign of a particular pathology. What excites me is first of all the pleasure of looking at painting, and maybe what’s still youthful about me is this way of starting with a passionate impulse. As if the painting was the possibility of constructing the ideal harem. They will all be there, they’ll exhaust you, but luckily all this goes on only in the mind. I tell people that I live in a complete shambles, but they have no idea. Braiding also creates a snag in the effect of the real. But this effect of the real is difficult to convey in the reality of the exchange and what can be shared. I think braiding is interesting insofar as it produces blocks of the real that escape reality, even if, objectively, it starts with a tension in relation to reality. Braiding is a vector of communication in a practice that is constantly courting the risk of the ivory tower—pathology, madness. I’m constantly in relation with the world (notably with the young people who support me on a daily basis in the studio). And that produces felicitous effects in painting. I amworking on a publication that will reflect this permanent chaos. How do I do that? Some works I go over again years later. Some paintings go through six or seven different states.
You un-braid, re-braid and then repaint? I might de-braid, but it may also simply mean preserving a piece, like a shard, by going back to it and painting all around it.
In fact, you are braiding time. Absolutely. Even when I got into photography, I didn’t choose a view camera for reasons of archaism. I came back to these tools because I realized that you could braid whatever you wanted by cutting up strips of film, then putting them back in the view camera in order to tattoo other images onto them, which are more braided than superimposed. I store up time and heterogeneities. It braids as it will. This business of imprisoning time in a medium is the only way of escaping the absolute beauty of the concept. What interests me is touching a bit of the real, not reality. And what interests me in the real is that it has the hardness of an undeniable fact. It’s not something you can conjecture about, you can’t imagine it. There’s a good reason why I’ve always been interested in Dubuffet and the Art Brut artists. In fact, I’m more attracted by that tradition than by the pseudo-heirs of modernism. I’ve never been close to the approach of a Martin Barré or a Simon Hantaï, for example, who made their landscape out of a formal, intellectual and spiritual ideality. I don’t work like that. I have a superego that tends towards that but in practice it’s quite the opposite. Braiding has been a way of keeping this double movement together in one place.
Two things emerge from what you say: beauty and complexity. Your practice involves an extreme complexity of technique. For example, Trotteuses X (2011–13) is a picture that is very difficult to “unravel” mentally. As you say, this isn’t an age that encourages complexity. And yet the result you arrive at is really very simple, because standing in front of your works one gets a real shot in the arm of beauty, something universal. The viewer doesn’t need to know about the history of abstraction, or to go into the subtleties of how they were made, to be touched by your paintings. To achieve that kind of simplicity of beauty, is it really necessary to go through so much complexity? What you are describing is this mad ambition I have. Much as I respect thinkers and art historians, I do not paint for intellectuals. The question of beauty is something that anyone should be able to perceive.
There has to be a sensorial emotion, whether for good reasons or bad. As for Trotteuses X, I didn’t originally think of creating a diptych. Those paintings started off in Pollock mode. I wasn’t happy with the first and I wanted to match it with a second. I put one on top of the other and I cut out flower motifs. In this way I could bring the canvas at the bottom through to the top, and vice versa. I had to weld all that back together on the back. Then I did some more Pollock on a canvas and I appliquéd the other one over it. But of course, there was an imbalance between the initial spurt and the imprint, a loss of matter. So therefore I repainted, like a photographic retoucher, all these spurts on the second picture. This is not the kind of thing that philosophers want to see. Art is not made with concepts, but through the real of what is traversed, through desire. You have these grids based on the idea of purity and it’s clear that they’re oozing all over the place. Beauty comes from having gone through things that are anything but beautiful. It draws on, and doesn't totally erase, the violence of disputation, referential disorder. People often talk about my cashmere colors, but if you come to the studio you’ll see that’s not how they smell.
ABSTRACTION AND FIGURE
We have talked about the relation to time. I’d like to discuss your relation to art history, your time in Italy in 1970s, the series of
Portes de Rome, and your discovery of Siennese painting. There you were going deep into a distant past, not just into Matisse and Fontana. What did you find in the Allegory of Good and Bad Government by
Ambrogio Lorenzetti? I mademy first stopover in Sienna on my way to Rome. I visited the Palazzo Communale, but also the Campo Santo in Pisa. And I was dazzled. In Rome I went to look mainly at the Etruscans, because in the early days I hated that Roman Catholic atmosphere. Then I met the mayor of Sienna, who gave me access to the frescoes. What I soon found interesting in Lorenzetti was the “painting in a painting” aspect used to transform a given, architectonic space by the decorative power of color. The room in the Palazzo Communale has three walls, each divided into three registers. I started making drawings. This drawing of the space made it very difficult to get an overall idea of the object because the pictorial style privileges nothing; the handling is homogenized. It’s as if there were a lot of small paintings hung up to cover the wall. That made me think that a decorative system could be applied while integrating figurative representation. Lorenzetti freed something up within me. Also, for two years I had been working on the materiality of the monochrome in the Portes de Rome series. I star-
ted drawing every day, inspired by the idea of producing abstraction using debris, shards. I thought to myself that my geography, in the present, was made by what I was looking at. I’ve always said that I wished never to invent anything, but to redistribute what I saw through a subjective experience that generates an object which cannot be reduced to an idea.
Sienna sees the emergence of the figure, which appears and then seems to be swallowed up by the braiding. The Cassoni imply a forcing of the gaze, which reminds me of the dancers taken from Lorenzetti in
Cassone V, subtly rendered by the contrasts of hatchings and primary colors. In fact, that picture is not braided but the lozenge-shaped structure of the composition suggests a form of braiding. Did you understand at that point that you didn’t necessarily need to braid strips of canvas, that you could simply braid images? Yes, I was put off by anything that had a seductive effect: people were admiring the work of braiding. So I started thinking that perhaps I could braid without having to use those old-fashioned, artisanal techniques. I found there were va-
rious different ways of combining heterogeneous elements without braiding strips of canvas. In the exhibition at Montpellier Isabelle Monod-Fontaine speaks of the phenomenon of the “return back.” It’s true that these last years I’ve been going back over assembly, dis-assembly and dismantling. I left the exhibition with a strong desire to paint, without braiding. I welcome what makes me want to work. It can be anything, maybe it’s what psychoanalysts call a drive. I have a whole bunch of things waiting for me in the studio, but this exhibition tells me I should break everything up and join them together by means of painting, as I did when I was making the Stücke (1988).
Your work gets darker in the 1980s. Youwere going through harrowing times, what with the loss of your companion, Brigitte Courme, but human history generally also rears its head here. I am thinking of the Selon ses
faces series (1982), with all its black hat-
chings, and the Triomphe de la raison (1989, referring to the system of the Terror under
the Revolution), of the Stücke and the
Voyages d’hiver (1988), which evoke the death camps. We go from Arcadia to Hell, from Lorenzetti’s dancing bodies to the gas
chambers. There is a conjunction between the death in 1982 of Brigitte, who was joie de vivre personified, and something that came from much further back, probably from childhood. My way of thinking was shaped by the adult narrative of the tragedies of history. Even before I read Walter Benjamin I knew that history was simply a succession of disasters. Let’s talk about this “Triumph of Reason.” Seeing people of my generation applauding the cultural rhetoric of the arts when the Left came to power put me in a conflictual state. I was angry. I am sensitive to discourse, and if the gap between what is preached and what is practiced gets too wide, I refuse. I painted those pictures in protest at the commemorations of 1989—for example, against Daniel Buren’s intervention at Valmy.(1) And I couldn’t forget that I and some of my comrades had been excluded from the communist students in 1965 for not supporting the candidacy of François Mitterrand. We knew all about his past. That situation in the 1980s worried me and worries me still. So, I read Walter Benjamin… The worst thing art can do is cut itself off from what a country is going through. In the end, I found it easier when I was living in Italy. Ok, it wasn’t idyllic, there were the Red Brigades, but this wasn’t my country. What keeps life on the move is culture. And that culture must have to do with beauty, and it must allow movement, shift something in the way we look at things. Once you have movement, things get going again. What keeps us going is this sense of displacement, the openings it creates.
Translation, C. Penwarden (1) In 1989, Daniel Buren and other artists were invited to commemorate the Battle of Valmy. See Catherine Millet’s memorable article on this event in artpress 163, November 1991 (editor’s note).
Richard Leydier is a Paris-based critic and curator. François Rouan Né en/ born 1943 à/ in Montpellier Vit et travaille à/ lives and works in Laversine Expositions personnelles récentes/ Recent shows: 2013 Galerie Thessa Herold, Paris 2013-2015 François Rouan, trois saisons au Château de Hautefort 2014 Galerie Ditesheim & Maffei Fine Art, Neuchâtel 2015 Musée des beaux-arts, Rouen 2016 Tajan ArtStudio, Paris À noter la parution, en ce début 2017, de Dire ou ne pas dire, éditions Cadastre8zéro, compilation de fragments autobiographiques de l’artiste.
François Rouan dans son atelier à Laversine. Vers 2005. (© A. Katharina Scheidegger). In the studio
« Porta Flaminia II ». 1975-1976. Peinture à l’oeuf et huile sur toiles tressées. 200 x 170 cm. (Collection Francis Berthier, © photo Atelier de l’artiste). Oils with egg on braided canvas