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Posts Tagged ‘Pierre Soulages’

Pierre Soulages and his all-black canvases

Sunday, December 6th, 2009

By Tobias Grey

Published: October 9 2009 22:15 | Last updated: October 9 2009 22:15 in The Financial Times

 

Pierre Soulages
Pierre Soulages: ‘There are people who refuse to accept that you can create light on a black canvas’

Members of the media are seen at the Pompidou Center in Paris, ...Centre Pompidou, French abstractionist Pierre Soulages, Photo: Reuters/Jacky Naegelen (France Entertainment) 

Black is the new black for Pierre Soulages, France's best-known living artist

“Painting is a play of opacities and transparencies.”  ~Pierre Soulages

Standing over six feet two inches tall and dressed in his habitual black, Pierre Soulages looks as though he’s just stepped out of one of his monumental all-black canvases, suspended like cavernous portals from the ceilings of Paris’s Pompidou Centre. It is a banner year for Soulages, who never fails to oversee the hanging of his paintings.

The Pompidou’s autumn show, which anticipates Soulages’s 90th birthday on December 24, is the biggest it has ever mounted for a living French artist. It looks back over more than 60 years of his painting, with emphasis on more recent developments in his work, which have led to him being dubbed the “painter of black and light”.

The exhibition brings together more than a hundred significant works dating from 1946 to the present, from the revolutionary walnut stain works painted between 1947 and 1949 to the “beyond black” oil paintings of recent years, most of the latter being shown for the first time.

At the same time, the Louvre is exhibiting a 300x235cm canvas that Soulages completed in July 2000. He specifically chose Le Salon Carré to display this luminous, striated work where black- and-white lines converge on an all-black background of broad, horizontal brush-strokes.

“I picked this room because the paintings are a mixture of Byzantine and Renaissance works,” Soulages says. “I wanted to underline the rupture, not only between Byzantine and Renaissance art, but also between Renaissance figurative art and my own style.”

One would venture to describe this style as “abstract” but Soulages disagrees. “Abstract art is a general term which is incredibly vague,” he says. “I wanted to call my first painting ‘concrete’ not ‘abstract’. But people told me concrete art designates paintings made up of geometric shapes. I replied, ‘If that’s how you define ‘concrete’ art, then you better find another term for ‘figurative’ art because geometric shapes are like figures.’ ”

With these words a smile creeps on to Soulages’ lips: he knows there are some battles that are not worth fighting. A confirmed “individualist”, Soulages has never aligned himself with any art movement or school, shunning the distraction of urban mondanities, or anything that might lead him to neglect his art.

“I’ve got nothing against people who are part of a group but I don’t like being bossed around,” he says. “Groups are interesting for sociologists or historians but artistically it’s a mistake because by grouping artists together you only become focused on what they share. What did artists like Manet or Sisley have in common? Impressionism; but what’s much more interesting is what makes each unique.”

It is one of the reasons Soulages has always looked to fabricate his own painting materials. Not content with the kind of “chic material” sold in art shops for “specific purposes”, he appropriates builder’s paintbrushes, book-binding tools, tanning knives, pieces of cardboard – even the soles of his own shoes.

Meanwhile, Soulages’s fascination for the artistic possibilities of the colour black dates back even further than he can remember: “A cousin of mine, who is 100 years old, told Pierre Encrevé, the curator of this exhibition, that when I was a boy I dipped my paintbrush in the ink-well and began to paint swathes of black on a white sheet of paper. When my family asked me what I was doing, apparently I replied: ‘Painting snow’. Of course that made everyone laugh. But I was a shy child and not trying to show off. Looking back now, I think I was trying to make the white paper appear whiter by laying down the black.”

As a boy growing up in the southern French town of Rodez, Soulages liked to paint the stark black branches of leafless trees. He used to visit centuries-old caves such as those of Pech-Merle in the Lot or Font-de-Gaume in the Dordogne, where prehistoric hunting scenes worked in crushed charcoal had been made on the walls.

“It astounded me that for 340 centuries men have been painting in black in some of the most obscure places on earth, caves pitched in absolute darkness,” he says. “I wrote once that black is the colour of painting’s origin. I don’t think it’s possible to refute this.”

By his own recollection, Soulages started painting seriously in 1940. His first major exhibition was in Germany in 1948 as part of a collective of abstract painters. It was the first exhibition of abstract art in a German city since the rise and fall of the Nazis. At 27 years old, Soulages was easily the youngest artist to be exhibited. “There was Kupka, Domela, Hartung, Schneider,” he says. “[Gerard] Schneider would be 112 years old now, [Frantisek] Kupka 143 years old.”

But it was Soulages’s distinctive walnut stain painting that was chosen for the exhibition’s poster, a copy of which is on display at the Pompidou Centre. “It’s interesting because most American painters of the time got to know my work because of that poster,” he notes.

By 1954 the influential American art dealer Samuel Kootz was selling Soulages’s paintings all over the US, to large museums, but also to European expatriate filmmakers such as Billy Wilder and Otto Preminger. Such precocious success by a Frenchman was not universally welcomed by the American art world. But Soulages, who had been forewarned by the French painter and poet Francis Picabia that he would not want for enemies, shrugged it off.

“When you’re noticed very young you’re bound to have enemies; there is jealousy – it’s inevitable,” says Soulages, who last year sold a canvas for €1.5m, a record price for a living French artist. “There are also those who dislike you on an aesthetic level: people who don’t accept abstract art, for example, or who refuse to accept that you can create light on a black canvas.”

It was this last discovery, the result of an ultimately happy accident, that has sustained and nourished the past 30 years of the artist’s career. “It happened in 1979,” says Soulages, whose powers of recall are of a rare precision. “I was working on a painting and floundering around in a morass of paint, unable to understand what I was doing, but with something deep inside me compelling me to continue.”

Finally Soulages went to bed. When he woke up, what he saw “was not just a black painting any more but a painting where reflected light had been transformed and transmuted by the black surface. When I realised that light can emanate from the colour which has the biggest absence of light, I was both perturbed and profoundly moved. From that moment my eye changed and I’ve worked in this way ever since.”

The patient and deliberate way in which Soulages sets about creating continuity in his art goes hand-in-hand with his private life. Always there to give objective advice or provide le mot juste is Colette, his wife and muse of 67 years’ standing.

“I met a person with whom I have had a conversation that has never ceased,” says Soulages. “She had the same tastes as me, was interested in the same things, and we’ve continued to live together. I didn’t think it was going to last so long, but here we are.”

Earlier this year, the green light was given to a Soulages museum in the artist’s native Rodez; it is scheduled to open in 2012. For Soulages, that is just one more thing to look forward to. “I don’t live in the past,” he says. “What interests me is the next toile I want to do or the one I’m already working on.”

taken from : http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/2510df26-b462-11de-bec8-00144feab49a.html

see also : http://ow.ly/uqKW 

Soulages at the Pompidou Centre, Paris, October 14-March 8 2010.
www.centrepompidou.fr

Soulages at the Louvre, Paris, October 14-January 18 2010.
www.louvre.fr