La peinture pour saisir et exprimer la vie des hommes

Painting to express the life of men

Les arts plastiques actuels n’attirent, en réalité, qu’un public assez limité. Ils constituent une branche très accessoire de la culture de notre temps. Je connais des gens qui regardent des films et des séries, qui écoutent de la musique actuelle, qui lisent des romans, etc. Rares sont, en revanche, ceux qui visitent des lieux d’art contemporain et, encore plus rares ceux qui achètent des œuvres. Pour prendre la mesure de la situation, il suffit d’observer la place toujours plus restreinte occupée par l’art contemporain dans les librairies ou dans les programmes télé.

Comment expliquer que l’art, chose inédite, passionne si peu ? Une des raisons principales relève du pur bon sens : à quelques exceptions près, l’art contemporain ne s’intéresse pas à ce qui nous intéresse. Il se tient éloigné du monde réel et de nos vies. C’est pourquoi on ne se sent pas concerné. À force de s’autonomiser, de s’abstraire, de se conceptualiser, d’habiter des mondes d’hypostases, l’art, du moins l’art officiel, paraît tout simplement perché. Il se passionne un peu trop pour lui-même et pas assez pour le reste de l’univers.

Ce n’est pas comme cela que j’envisage la peinture. Je pense qu’elle doit, au contraire, contribuer à saisir et à représenter la vie des hommes et des femmes de notre temps. Elle doit aider à révéler en quoi elles consistent. C’est, en réalité, ce que font toutes les branches vivantes de la culture. En dépit de ce que l’on entend, la peinture doit, elle aussi, avoir des sujets, et des sujets forts. Ce n’est peut-être pas une condition suffisante, car il y a également des questions de forme, mais c’est certainement une condition nécessaire. Toute image qui nous dit quelque chose est une bribe de récit. C’est pourquoi il faut laisser se déployer pleinement la dimension évocatrice et narrative de la peinture. Qu’il s’agisse d’exprimer le tragique de nos existences ou d’en faire la satire, l’art ne doit pas être aux abonnés absents.

La notion de sujet est même si cruciale qu’il faut probablement l’actualiser et la renforcer. La peinture d’histoire et celle de genre avaient tendance à présenter des actions, remarquables ou plaisantes, sous le mode de leur extériorité. Tel combattant se bat comme un lion dans la mêlée. Soit ! Mais quel genre de type est-il ? Est-il heureux ou taciturne, agit-il avec fureur ou méthode ? On peut bien mettre en scène toutes les actions imaginables, la plupart du temps, cela ne dit pas grand-chose de ce que pensent les intéressés. Or ce qui nous touche, c’est de ressentir ce que qu’éprouvent les protagonistes. Pour plus de vérité, il convient donc de permettre d’accéder à ce que vivent les gens dans leur for intérieur. L’image est forcément apparence, mais justement il faut essayer de laisser apparaître quelque chose de véridique. D’événementielle, la peinture doit s’efforcer de devenir, si j’ose dire, existentielle. C’est ce que je tente de faire.

Painting to express the life of men


It is difficult to be truly interested in art if it doesn’t involve us in any way

When it comes to contemporary art, there is one simple thing that is obvious, one thing that is probably the major issue to ponder: it is the fact that its audience is almost non-existent, or at least that it is limited to small circles. The general public, in particular, has disappeared. I’m talking about so-called contemporary art, which has the status of official art nowadays. I will add some nuances later on by widening the perimeter, but, in general terms, it is indeed a profound disaffection.

Yet art has not always had this confidential status. In fact, at certain periods, it has been incredibly widespread. For example, at the end of the 19th century, cities abounded in statues, and homes, as soon as affluence allowed, were filled with paintings. The artistic events of the Belle Epoque, such as salons and the universal exhibitions, attracted huge audiences from all social classes. It should be remembered that the attendance at salons, of the order of 600,000 visitors, was ten times greater than at our current FIAC.

On the other hand, it is easy to see that people still have a good image of painting. Many admit, at least in principle, that art and painting are important and honorable things. Many visitors come to museums of early paintings, especially when they are travelling. Finally, the plastic arts were the first cultural practice of the French. However, I repeat, contemporary art does not interest many people.

Some say it’s the fault of consumer society, capitalism, insufficient support from the ministry, all sorts of external causes, but not art or artists. Perhaps there is some truth in these explanations. However, other branches of culture are doing well, at least much better than art: comic books have a large audience, as do novels, films, TV series and, in fact, almost all fields. So, there is a specific problem with contemporary art: its role in culture is constantly decreasing.

How do we interpret this singular situation? If we step back, the explanation is almost common sense. If art does not interest people, it is simply because art is not interested in people: it has given up expressing what they feel. Art is turned towards something other than the little humans that we are: it has become autonomous, self-referential, interested in itself, its community, its internal successes, its Potemkin-like history and, of course, deliciously hermetic questions.

There is no better way to understand this situation than to look at what is happening in a completely different area of culture that has a large and cohesive audience. An interesting example, in my opinion, is rap music. I can speak about it in a disinterested way, because it is a music that I don’t much listen to or identify with. However, I am fascinated by the passionate relationship that rap groups have with their audience. What are we seeing here? First of all, theres a pulsation, a scansion that brings a flow of energy to the audience. Most importantly, there is also a narrative in words and images that condenses and expresses the personal adventure of the rappers involved. These narratives lead to elements of interpretation of current life and even, more generally, of human existence. Everything is expressed in simple, sincere and vivid terms, in such a way that it is catchy and easily shared. In short, rap goes straight to what concerns the authors and the spectators the most. This is the exact opposite of the situation in contemporary art.

A word that runs through the entire history of modern and contemporary art, a very significant word, is “abstraction”. Abstraction designates first of all, by ease of language, one of its results: abstract art, that is to say non-figurative art. It also designates, in a broader sense, a tendency to distance oneself from reality.
Let’s start with abstract art in the strict sense of the term: it is particular in that it is limited, roughly speaking, to registers of forms, either geometrical or matter-oriented and informal. These forms are not pure invention, they exist in nature. They can be found, for example, in crystals, earth, traces and various sediments. They can also be seen in construction, in industry and in many places. We already have an experience, an impression, a certain sensitivity about them, as we do about everything we have been confronted with. So, we are never completely indifferent to abstract art, precisely because it is not really abstract. However, the mineral and constructive universe is the subset of forms and experiences furthest from the living and from ourselves, and the one that concerns us the least. This is what appeals to these sorts of nihilists who are, in reality, the abstractionists.

The opposition between figurative and abstract art is now somewhat outdated since the latter has almost disappeared. However, the word abstraction remains relevant, because it designates much more than abstract art strictly speaking. It expresses a secular effort to detach oneself from reality and all that goes with it: confusion, errors, emotions, vulgarity, base pleasures, etc. It is a matter of moving away from reality and entering an autonomous, immaterial, unreal, purified world, basically a world of ideas. Thus, with contemporary art, we naturally enter a universe of concepts, of sensory experiences that refer to nothing and of various discoveries with the commonality of not involving us. What is at work is nothing other than a psychology of distance from the world, a rejection of representation in perfect continuity with the great tradition of iconoclasm and negative theology.

In short, if the public feels little concerned by modern and contemporary art, it is not because it has not been sufficiently sensitized, because it does not “understand” yet, because it needs more mediation, or more education. It is simply because the very purpose of this art, its DNA, is to distance itself from human life.

Many have criticized the autonomization of art: Trotsky, Rancillac and Gombrowicz, etc.

This question of an art that flees from reality and ends up not being relevant to anyone is not new. Throughout the 20th century, a certain number of observers and artists have questioned this essential subject. I would like to mention three of those whose reflections seem to me particularly significant.

Let us first mention the case of Leon Trotsky. During the five years of the terrible Russian Civil War, he led the Bolshevik forces in the field until their victory. Obviously, I will not comment here on either the man or his methods. As soon as this gigantic effort was accomplished, what did he do? Strangely enough, he found nothing more urgent than to write a book on art and literature. In it he sets out a kind of doctrine on culture.

In the Bolshevik movement, center stage was occupied by artistic avant-gardes, often qualified as futurists, by assimilation with what was happening in Italy. They included ardent militants. They put pressure on the new regime to obtain the pure and simple elimination of other artistic trends considered bourgeois. This was aimed at talented figurative painters, most of whom had already distinguished themselves during the tsarist period and not all of whom had gone into exile. Trotsky’s point of view was completely at odds with the Russian avant-garde. His idea was that by forbidding themselves figuration, the Futurists deprived themselves of the essential possibility of representing and interpreting human existence. He wrote: “If one cannot do without a mirror to shave, how could one construct or reconstruct one’s life without seeing oneself in the mirror of literature?” (He uses the terms art and literature alternately, domains encompassed in the same analysis.) A circumstantial argument followed. The avant-gardes had not, in his opinion, gone beyond the stage of unfinished research. They remained alien to the masses and unfit to interact with them. Let us note in passing that before 1917, Trotsky in exile visited the United States. He enrolled in the Ash Can School. This school was both a movement and an educational institution. It brought together great artists who painted the lives of the men and women of their time, the social contrasts and the transformations of society in the crudest possible way. This seduced Trotsky and, back in Russia, there is no doubt that he had in mind the power and effectiveness of this kind of painting.

My second example is Bernard Rancillac. Originally from the upper middle class, he became angry with his family and wanted to put his art at the service of a very left-wing commitment. One of the moments that decided his artistic choices was in the early 1960s. It was a meeting of artists. They debated about abstract art. According to them, this art of the future would naturally be understood and appreciated by the population. One mentioned his neighbor, a farmer, who « understood ». Another mentioned the baker in his neighborhood. He too « understood ». Not only was abstraction on its way to becoming hegemonic in the small world of art, but also, it was thought, the population would approve of it. One man, who had remained a bit on the sidelines until then, took his turn to speak. He said he was a sociologist. He first tried to explain to the participants what his profession, which was not well known at the time, consisted of. “Sociology,” he said, “is a kind of extremely scientific art. We study the composition of society. We interview people that no one else interviews.” This unknown person was Pierre Bourdieu. He told of what he had observed regarding the reception of abstract art. It was, according to his investigations, the exact opposite of what the artists who had just spoken believed. Abstract art was in fact very poorly known by the general public and even less understood. The interest that could be shown in it hardly goes beyond the artistic microcosm. Pierre Bourdieu pushed his reasoning further. He called for a figurative art adapted to the time, an art that the population could feel involved in. Rancillac was not indifferent to these words. He noted the name of the sociologist and attended his lectures. This awareness allowed him to engage with others in a counter-current figurative painting, known as narrative figuration. It remains an example of a courageous departure from the empire of abstraction.

My third example is Witold Gombrowicz. His book Against the Poets is particularly interesting. It is mainly aimed at poetry, but his reflections are so easily transposed to art that I cannot resist the pleasure of mentioning them. His point is that poetry used to be expressed in simple ways and that many people shared it. For example, I remember my grandfather reciting Victor Hugo’s poems to me when we went fishing, the same thing at the end of a meal, in the car, etc. And of course, when he was a teacher, he made his pupils learn them by heart. But poetry, according to Gombrowicz, has become more and more hermetic, incomprehensible, unreal, so much so that it expresses nothing or so little that it no longer concerns anyone. “Their authors,” he says of the poets, “did not write them for us, but for their god of art.” Or again: “We could define the poet as a being who can no longer express himself at all.” Gombrowicz castigates, “the social isolation of poets.” “When they feel attacked, the only thing they know how to do is […] to be indignant at the profane or to lament the barbarity of our times.” They convince each other, “like a parish priest giving a sermon to another parish priest.”

In reality, much of the 20th century has already embraced the notion of subject and narrative art

In order to analyze the situation in greater depth, we must try to understand what happened in the 20th century.

In the first place, at the end of the 19th and during the 20th century, there were groups of artists and theoreticians who criticized the very idea of a subject in painting. These authors wanted to rid art of it in the future. They ridiculed history painting. They found genre painting anecdotal. If they were more accepting of still lifes, it is simply because they have, if I may say so, little or no subject matter, or a very cryptic subject matter. The important point is that, for these detractors, the subject seemed exogenous to the universe of forms. A subject among forms was, in their eyes, like a hair in the soup. They believed that if the subject of a work could be presented in words, it was a literary subject, not an artistic one. To be bound by a subject was to them a form of submission that reduced art to the status of a mere illustration. It was therefore necessary to free the work from this subjection, to purify it, to make it autonomous. This emancipation may have been seductive in theory, but unfortunately it has led to a learned art that has, I repeat, lost all capacity to interest people, except for small circles.

Secondly, we must mention two movements that are well covered by historiography. I am referring to surrealism and expressionism. These two movements do not take up the classical idea of the subject, but they update it, often in an exacerbated way, in a search for meaning. What can we learn from these experiments?

Surrealist works claim to come directly from our unconscious, thus impregnated with the authenticity inherent in our psychology taken at its source. So much for the intentions. The reality is quite different: it is often a rather artificial jumble of small details served by a flat and meticulous pictoriality. As Lars Elling pointed out to me a few years ago, when I met him in Oslo, no one has ever had a dream that had anything to do with this miserable side of surrealism.

Expressionism has the merit of a more advanced awareness of pictoriality. However, the bias towards constant outrageousness locks it into a genre. Expressionist artists only depict extreme situations, so that excess becomes routine. The authors concerned are in a position comparable to that of a species of bird that has only one call at its disposal and cannot differentiate between a message indicating the arrival of a predator and another signaling seeds to be pecked.

In the end, surrealism and expressionism are attempts to renew the subject or meaning, as you will, but they are forced, artificial and there is not much, in my eyes at least, to be retained.

Thirdly and lastly, we must mention those movements that generally remain outside the history of art: illustration, comics and, of course, the permanence of figurative painting. If you go to museums and leaf through art history books, you might think that 20th-century figurative art is just a survival to be ignored. In reality, even if most art historians are not aware of it, the 20th century is the great century of figuration. Large-scale distribution on paper allows artists to be everywhere, except, of course, on the walls of museums. This art has several characteristics: it is popular, it is narrative and the pleasures inherent in a beautiful work (art in the first sense) are appreciated. These successes show again and again that what interests people is art that resonates with them, narrative art that fully assumes the notion of subject.

It so happens that the painters of the new figuration are not very inspired by the figures of modern art, surrealism or expressionism. Of course, they are familiar with them, but their breeding ground, their mother art in the sense of a mother tongue, where they have been immersed from a very young age, is illustration, comics, cinema, etc.

In summary, it is a total error of perspective to believe that the 20th century has dismissed narrative art and the importance of a subject in painting. On the contrary, it has given them a boost.

Many early paintings have unfortunately lost their subjects along the way

What about early paintings? Just ask the museum guards. All day long they see people coming and going in front of the paintings. Visitors want to see works of art and even masterpieces. They try to enjoy it. However, most of them do not understand what it is all about. They still see painting as a cultural object to be appreciated, but they don’t look at it as if they were watching a performance. The subject has evaporated.

There is often, in fact, a double subject: an apparent subject and a deep subject. For example, in one of my favorite paintings by Valentin de Boulogne, we see Judith cutting off the head of Holofernes. This biblical reference is the apparent subject. However, we also discover the extreme situation of this sad young woman who comes to mechanically decapitate this naked man who looks like a big red hairy beast. This situation remains tragic even though the protagonists are anonymous. This is what I call the deep subject. The problem is that both the apparent subject and the deep subject are affected by a dysfunction, at least as seen through the prism of our 21st-century eyes.

Let us first examine the apparent subject. The problem is precisely that it is no longer clear to the viewer. It is often misunderstood because the biblical, ancient, historical or literary episodes it deals with are mostly unknown to today’s audience. We may still vaguely remember the story of Judith, but who has in mind the story of Potiphar’s wife or that of the Levite of Ephraim? All these subjects have drifted away with the cultures to which they belong. Many people walking through museums seem a little lost, as if they are being asked to appreciate comic books whose speech bubbles have faded away.

Let’s move on to the deeper subject matter, that is, the human situation that is presented on the canvas. The problem is that artists have often wanted to condense a whole story, with its various sequences, into a single image. As a result, each gesture tends to be studied, overplayed, and the whole thing takes on a theatrical, artificial air. This is not as effective as it used to be. Each of us, unlike the early artists, lives in the midst of photographs. We make and look at more and more of them. These photos capture moments of life, in mid-air, fortuitously. It familiarizes us with the truth of these moments. So, when we see compositions, for example David’s The Rite of Napoleon, we immediately feel that there is something fake, inauthentic. In a way, artificiality is sometimes pleasant. However, one could not permanently support an artificial kitchen, and it is a bit the same with painting. Often words come out, like “academic,” a term that would be more accurate to translate as “not truthful,” as academic teaching has been excellent at times.

An approach to the subject that puts the feeling of existence at the heart of the painting

Like most artists of the new figurative painting, I feel the need for a renewal of the notion of subject. A refoundation, as politicians would say. It is an aspiration. It is also a matter of trial and error and empirical research. However, some broad lines emerge:

First of all, there is a tendency to strengthen the figurative character of painting. To evoke the lives of men and women is always more or less to show what happens to them, to tell stories and stage situations. What is a Greek tragedy? It’s nothing more than a condensed story that brings out contrasts and questions. Painting is a bit like that.

In the word “representation” we find the prefix re -, as in “narrative” and “reflection,” and even, I would add, in “rumination.” To know, at least in the sense of literature and art, is probably to take up the real in order to rethink it, to chew it over, to really digest it. That’s why representation, far from being a useless and slavish mimicry, is a time for deepening, a time for very precious metabolization. In my eyes, this is what makes art, when it fits into the paradigm of representation have a higher status. It pursues, in fact, with its own means of expression, essential goals that are perfectly analogous to those of the best literature, cinema and many other branches of culture.

Then comes the vague feeling that the real subject of the painting is rarely the action itself, but rather the way the protagonists experience it and are put to the test. When you watch a game of this or that sport, you want to know who is going to score a goal, who is going to win. We are in the action. I could take the example of a battle scene, a genre more practiced in art: it would be the same thing. However, in painting, we always arrive after the battle. What is interesting is not to know the outcome of the conflict, we already know it, but to accomplish a kind of return to access the truth of a moment. What did the people who were there experience? What would we have experienced if we had been there? What does this teach us about human life? Is this warlord triumphant? Yes, but perhaps he is consumed by melancholy. Did such a dragon charge with great fury? Yes, but he may just be a drunken brute, etc. It is very difficult to understand the dynamics of a battle when you are not a strategist yourself, and from this point of view, painting does not bring much. On the other hand, we understand the expression of our fellow men and their situation. We can be wrong, but we immediately have an idea. By a mirror effect, we can easily put ourselves in the place of others. This has been part of anthropological fundamentals since the dawn of time. We are not far from a kind of emotional universality. Sharing this is at the heart of the new approach to figurative painting, in general, and mine in particular.

One could say that it is a question of a less event-related and more existential painting.

This leads a number of artists to depict humans who are busy with minimal tasks or who are simply unoccupied. This is also what I do in many of my paintings. For example, here and there we see characters occupied with insignificant or terribly everyday things. There is nothing remarkable about these actions. They belong to a kind of grey zone that is little explored, but which constitutes the essential part of our time. By becoming more aware of these moments, we have the impression of gaining closer access to what our lives are made of.

There are also paintings in which the main character is in a passive and relaxed position. This is an attitude I particularly like. He stands there and looks on, half in awe and half in contemplation. He is just a vague awareness, an open eye on the world. He lets himself be penetrated by his environment. He doesn’t seem to experience much more than the vague feeling of being there, in the middle of the world. With this type of subject, the aim is no longer to depict remarkable actions, but rather to paint the simple feeling of existing.

I also happen to be very sensitive to the notion of life’s journey. This is perhaps the kind of pictorial theme on which I differ most from other artists of the new figuration. Having lived for some time, I have known people at various times in their lives. Often, I am interested in them almost mechanically. I have an image of what they were like when they were young, and then ten years later, and again a decade later and so on. In reality, these recollections merge into a simple vision of whole lives. It gives me flashes of sorts. It’s interesting, it’s disturbing to grasp lives in a brief intuition. In lifetimes, there are upswings, downswings, stagnations, and unforeseen events in spades. What saddens me most of all are those seeming successes that are really falls. Last but not least, there are those rare and moving cases where a kind of vocation seems to be quietly unfolding and being fulfilled.

In short, I am very interested in knowing what people become and this is a recurring theme in my painting.
One last thing: the practice of multiple tones. To appreciate a statue, it is good to walk around it to see it from several angles. This is well known. Well, I like to do something similar for the characters I portray. Almost always, I evoke their serious, respectable, sometimes tragic side and, at the same time, their ridiculous, comic side. I am interested in people on a case-by-case basis, without moral or ideological prejudices, driven by a kind of variable geometry casuistry. It still makes me feel good to be a bit mean to others. However, I have no illusions, I realize that I am like them. I put myself in their place, almost in spite of myself, and this leads me to indulgence, even benevolence.

In short, my painting pursues this simple goal: to evoke as best I can the women and men of my time.