Fran­çois Rouan Wea­ving Time’s Chaos

Art Press - - INTERVIEW -

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.


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.


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

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