Pourquoi des inscriptions dans la peinture

Why do I put texts in my paintings?

« Vos toiles n’ont pas besoin de cela ! » C’est ce que me disent certaines personnes qui découvrent des inscriptions dans ma peinture. Il s’agit de courts textes condensés et instantanément lisibles, de nature à interagir avec l’image.

La première chose qui doit faire réfléchir est le fait que, dans la plupart des musées et expositions, la réception d’une peinture se produit de toute façon dans un aller-retour entre une image et un texte positionné à côté, souvent sur un cartel. En effet, il y a toujours un titre qui accompagne chaque œuvre. Parfois, c’est un titre totalement dénué d’intérêt, comme « Nature morte aux pommes » ou même « Sans titre ». Cependant, les gens tiennent à se pencher quand même pour lire ce qu’il y a à lire. Souvent, on tombe sur des titres apparemment sans rapport avec les créations. Ils semblent vouloir nous suggérer fallacieusement que l’œuvre a un sens extrêmement profond qui nous a échappé, pauvres blaireaux que nous sommes. À ceci s’ajoutent fréquemment, sur les cartels ou dans les catalogues, des commentaires plus ou moins obscurs, rédigés dans la novlangue de l’art contemporain. Difficile de soutenir que l’œuvre doit se suffire à elle-même alors que tout le monde cherche un texte d’accompagnement. Il y a sans doute un avantage à associer la peinture avec un minimum d’écrit, quelque chose comme un exhausteur de goût en cuisine. Cependant, bien souvent, le statut bâtard de ces textes s’avère insatisfaisant. Tant qu’à faire, pourquoi ne pas y aller carrément et mettre dans l’œuvre un vrai texte, efficace et maîtrisé par l’artiste lui-même ? C’est le choix que j’ai fait.

La peinture devrait-elle d’ailleurs être un genre où il n’y aurait, une fois pour toutes, que de la peinture ? Il est vrai que la tradition des pièces de chevalet ne comporte généralement pas de texte, si bien qu’on peut penser que c’est un genre bien établi. Cependant, les tableaux ne sont qu’une partie des arts visuels bidimensionnels. Il y a aussi les œuvres sur papier, où les artistes jouissent d’une liberté accrue. Et cette liberté, ils la prennent fréquemment pour ajouter un texte, une inscription ou une annotation. De Jacques Callot à Goya, un grand nombre de graveurs ont spontanément apposé des écrits au bas de leurs estampes. Avec le xxe siècle, le développement massif de la diffusion sur papier a considérablement renforcé la tendance, qu’il s’agisse d’illustrations, de BD, de caricatures. Pourquoi la peinture, par respect des conventions, resterait-elle en dehors de cette synergie narrative entre textes et images ?

Imaginons une pub où il n’y aurait que du texte ou que de l’image. Dans le premier cas, ce serait austère, dans le second, inefficace. Je ne fais certes pas de la pub au sens commercial du terme, mais mes peintures fonctionnent un peu à la façon de publicités existentielles.

Why do I put texts in my paintings ?


My compositions frequently include texts—short and easy to read. Some people seem surprised and say (Your canvases don’t need that’! For them, painting is considered as a genre in which, precisely, there is nothing but paint. Making a painting would be like sitting in front of a piano: you can play in a thousand different ways but the piano remains the same Nevertheless, I carry on including inscriptions. This what I would like to explain here. 

There are too many, far too many texts everywhere … 

The first thing to note is that in most museums and exhibitions people approaching a work lean to one side, to look at the label. They read the title and often continue with explanations—or at least part of them—and then return to the work. There is therefore text that is in fact associated with the reception of art. If there is a significant quantity this may correspond to a need. However, the question that arises is as follows: is it really a good thing and, above all, is it an appropriate formula? 

Let’s have a broad look at the situation. First of all, a great many titles are of no interest. For example, why write ‘Apples‘ next to a painting that represents apples? Or again ‘Woman wearing a hat‘, ‘Reddish nude‘, etc.? If there is no title, ‘No title‘ is written all the same and the public leans to read ‘No title‘. 

Let’s go to more ambitious titles The one that comes to my mind is a work by Pollock entitled in French ‘Reflexion du Grand Plongeur‘ (thinking of the great diver). I was given the Encyclopédie universelle de la peinture when I was young and I saw for the first time a reproduction of this painting on a three-page fold-out. There firstly seemed to be no connection between the title and the work. Just the splashes and dribbles typical of Pollock’s ‘drip’ technique. However, beside it was an argued commentary by a Scandinavian theoretician. I was fifteen and followed as well as I could. But is was somewhat annoying that this man had seen so much while I saw so little. He stressed the genius of abstraction which he considered went so far beyond old-fashioned painters who—poor things— would depict a diver in a bathing suit standing on a promontory. Much later, I realised that the great art historian was babbling without noticing a translation mistake in the title, thinking that ‘Dipper’ meant ‘Diver’. The original title, Reflection of the Big Dipper means ‘Reflets de la Grande Ourse‘ in French. With his drips, Pollock simply wanted to express the cosmos in a practically figurative manner. 

In fact, there are almost always hazy titles to try to make us dream, voluntarily this time. He seems to be telling us that ‘this work of art is much deeper than you believe! Keep on looking and you might find!’ It must be clearly understood that painting is a difficult art, an art that may lack strength and often leaves the public in a state approaching indifference. In this context, the artist might be tempted to set out the title a second chance, using it to make mysteries. However, mysteries in labels often flirt with the bottom of the range. It is not a good idea to make water cloudy to give the idea that it is deep. 

In addition to the title, they inflict a commentary 

In contemporary art, the title is obviously almost always followed by a commentary, and this is where things often get worse. Mention can be made for example of an installation seen at the Centre Pompidou at the end of 2020 in the exhibition Global(e) Resistance (sic). It consisted of a large number of eggs with white or red shells, laid out in a perfect square pattern—hanging or placed on the floor. I thought that this must certainly mean something. But ‘understanding’ was only possible after reading the famous label. We learned that the author ‘examined the specific issues—such as the hinging of religion and politics and the position of traditions in the present—faced by African governments since the end of colonial regulation and in the contemporary world […]. The hanging eggs refer to the fragility of the democratic process and perils as well as threats weighing on populations because they belong to communities. The colour white calls for greater lucidity among the powers in position.’ 

What we generally draw from such experience is the abuse of this Newspeak that is so typical of contemporary art. Selected extracts that are real treasures can be see on the Internet. However, the problem stems from the fact that these texts are outside the works. They do not contribute to their expression as would an instrument added to an orchestra. They have an exogenous role that is always more of less that of emphasis. They are there to provide cultural certification, museum status. With all the commentaries, the works are no longer appreciated for themselves as a result of the pleasure and interest that they generate but by the fact that they are linked to a text, to theory, to progress, to a presumed stage in the history or art and to things like that. Finally, the work is no long an art object but an object in the history of art. 

What seems new and incongruous is in fact very old and very common  

I would now like to mention a much more simple and traditional way for making text and images work together. The important word is together. When you trace a simple annotated image you don’t need to have completed major studies in iconology to understand that drawing and words complete each other naturally. Text and image also function in tandem in a comic book. This is the case in many situations. 

 In fact the combining of image and text is widespread, with the noteworthy exception of the world of fine arts and museums. You could take a paper board and improvise a kind of space-time chart. From left to right: the time axis; from bottom to top: the scale of social prestige. Use a green marker for the moments in which texts and images combine well. There would be a lot of green to place on the left until the Renaissance: Egyptian art peopled with hieroglyphs, Byzantine mosaic in which each saint is specified, illumination, paintings and stained glass with phylacteries, the Bayeux Tapestry, etc. Likewise, there would be green on the far right since the end of the 19th century for comic books, illustrations and press drawings. Green again for certain new kinds of figurative painters—discussed below. Along the whole of the bottom, green for numerous vernacular practices: painted façades, ‘images d’Épinal’, ex-votos, the ‘Palais Idéal du Facteur Cheval’, outsider art (art brut), street-art, etc. For the large empty space in the centre you would have to use a red felt pen to cover most of the painting from the 15th to 19th centuries, modern art, museal art— a whole body of works dominated by the idea of painting as a genre in which it is not done to place text, or at least to limit it to secondary calligraphic effects, etc. There would therefore be green at the bottom and on the sides and red in the centre. This is not an innocent arrangement. It suggests that the pairing of image and text is older, more universal—I was going to say more natural—than ‘pure’ painting. The latter is probably a temporary evolution achieved in the history of western painting by the loss of its text component. 

However, the history of art is never linear. There are fertile returns to the past, moments during which abandoned veins are explored to renew the palette of means of expression. Let’s look at a few situations in which the need to combine text and images re-emerges. 

Jacques Callot versus Charles Le Brun 

There was first of all the tradition of works on paper. For a long time they were not intended to be hung on walls. They remained in a portfolio the enthusiast could take out and consult as he wished. They were sometimes set in a book. The fact that they could not be seen by the public had a number of disadvantages but conferred great freedom. And thus many artists naturally inserted text—especially when the works were engravings or prints and not just preparatory drawings. 

Good measurement of this specificity features of works on paper is drawn from the way in which two 17th-century artists showed the wars of their period in different ways: on the one hand Lebrun with his series at the Galerie des Glaces, and on the other Jacques Callot with his collection of engravings entitled Les Grandes misères de la guerre. Lebrun’s approach is hagiographic to the point of boredom, with his unchanging support of the glory of Louis XIV. Jacques Callot was free to give a realistic description of the Thirty Years’ War and accompanied each engraving with a text giving his point of view. So we see that at in the period in question when an artist has the freedom to express himself truly, not only does he make much more realistic images but he readily combines text and image. 

Best of: a trip to the Alps 

Rodolphe Töpffer (1799-1846), the inventor of comic strips, had a particularly interesting life. Initially, he would have liked to be a painter in the most academic meaning of the term but was prevented by a sight defect. This is why, thanks to his wife’s dowry, he opened a boarding school for boys in Geneva. Passionate about education, he sought to both amuse and enrich his pupils. So he had the idea of organising group visits in the Alps. He showed the boys the drawings that he had sketched and annotated. The best anecdotes are shown in particular. They look, they laugh and they comment. It is obvious that the boys were more interested in these drawings than in the respectable paintings that decorated bourgeois dwellings. Töpffer then started making (very) imaginary stories that combined texts and drawings. In interaction with his pupils, he was fortunate to understand better than anyone what attracts the public. These were the conditions for his gauging of the narrative force of texts and images. He understood immediately that he had discovered something important and began to elaborate theories about his discovery. 

The real 20th century and its fruits 

Historical painting developed strongly in the 19th century. The genre consisted of referring to historical, biblical, mythological and literary events and finally stories of very different kinds. This painting quite simply possessed a narrative dimension and reached a fairly broad public thanks to its presence in much-frequented places such as palaces, town halls, churches, etc. Certain changes occurred at the turn of the century. First came progress in the quality and quantity of paper supports (illustrated books for the general public, magazines, newspapers, etc.). The artists involved could reach a larger and much more general public than that of passage in official buildings. There was thus a movement from murals and easel painting towards illustration, with most artists maintaining the two genres. Then, access to paper supports caused many artists to recover text-image synergy in a natural manner. 

The painter Louis-Maurice Boutet de Monvel (1850-1913—not to be confused with his son Bernard—is a perfect illustration of the transition. He started in  Caravaggio style, as can be seen in his  Bon Samaritain in the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Orléans. He then became an imaginative ‘pompier’ artist with paintings like Le Triomphe de la canaille (in the same museum). With the new possibilities provided by paper, he switched gradually to illustration. His album about the life of Joan of Arc was immensely successful. He is an example of an artist who started by emulating Ribera and contributed to the invention of 20th century figurative work on paper. Each page of Boutet de Monvel’s albums combined an elegant image and very concise text. Text-image synergy had been brought back. 

A few words should obviously be added about the importance of comics—already mentioned at their beginnings with Töpffer. Art historians generally award little or no place to this. In fact, they are focused on museums and art centres—noble venues par excellence. However, museums are little suitable for works on paper. Indeed, why be uncomfortable looking at comic plates in showcases or on walls when it is so much more pleasant to leaf through them while sitting at home? But we would be wrong after a few visits to museums to underestimate 20th century figurative work on paper and its continuation until today. Going into any bookshop is enough to see that the comics section is growing continuously while that of the fine arts is shrinking terribly, reduced in practice to a few forecastable leading lights. Real 20th century art goes well beyond the museal art dear to historiography. It is a popular art form in which text-image synergy operates powerfully. 

Advertising can teach art a few lessons 

It is true that the final aim of advertisements  is not mainly artistic. This does not prevent reflection and wondering what makes them effective. You can see that practically all advertisements combine an image and text. An advertisement consisting of texts alone and reserved for local information (e.g. ‘carpet sale, date’). And you wouldn’t even imagine an ad that would consist of a simple image. Advertising appears to be based on synergy between text and image. Professionals make the same observation as Töppfer in his time: the text must in no way repeat the image. This would be useless and hence boring. You have to grip the person looking. Nothing forbids the use of similar mechanisms with regard to art. One might even see kinds of existential advertisements in certain contemporary paintings. 

Present ‘inscriptionists’ 

Now let’s talk about present figurative painting. Indeed, there is something new and very interesting in the art world: a number of painters now incorporate inscriptions in their paintings. They are not simple calligraphic effects but short texts intended to be read as texts. Among these ‘inscriptionists’, mention can be made of Marcin Maciejowski, Rinus Van de Velde, Muntean and Rosenblum, Damien Deroubaix, Filip Markiewicz, etc. 

As an example, the interesting duo of Viennese artists Muntean and Rosenblum paint very large formats of scenes that are both realistic and enigmatic and featuring several persons (often young people). Below, clearly legible phrases span the whole width of the work. For example, one of their compositions shows three morose teenagers splashing about negligently in a swimming pool. We read ‘We must be what we are, that is a necessity, but what are we?’). The writing is a fair size in a simple font and can be read effortlessly. It is made to be read at the same time as we discover the painting. The text makes the inner trouble of the young bathers explicit. We are close to what for novels is termed an inner monologue. 

What pushes these artists in this direction? It is probably quite simply the continuation of the culture in which they have been immersed. Indeed, many grew up with comic books and continued to read them when they were adults. Audio-visual and cinema are also of great importance in their visual culture. They also spend time on the Internet. This is where in particular many of them find images that they use as a starting point or a model. How can one not be struck by the fact that these artists are fairly little involved in the tradition of modern art and of contemporary art? However, they are acquainted with this museal culture as they have often studied art, but for them it remains a comparatively scholastic and exogenous input. The visual culture that has fed them most is—and I repeat this—comic books, illustration, the audio-visual and things like that. Text is never very far from the image in this culture. 

The motorway service area table syndrome 

It is now the moment to say what my personal position is in this ‘inscriptionist’ movement and what my options are. First of all, I would like to stress that I do not like a painting to be vague, hazy, indeterminate and, finally, leave the viewer to find a meaning in it. I know that there are people who think the opposite. Indeed, many say that they like to project themselves into the painting, to imagine things themselves. However, the work must display little directiveness for it to handle everybody’s feelings or mad ideas and aim to be a crystallisation point and nothing more. In short, it must be little affirmed, weak and in practice more or less abstract. 

The famous ‘Outrenoirs‘ by Pierre Soulages form a good example of this preconceived opinion that is light years from my sensitivity. A religious lexicon is used endlessly on their subject. We are begged to believe that there is room for spirituality behind these black pastings. Yes, but which? In fact the viewer is just invited to contribute the spirituality himself. ‘My painting’ says Soulages himself ‘is an area of questioning and meditation where the meanings attributed to it can be constructed and dismantled.’ In these conditions art resembles the tables at motorway rest areas where you have to bring your own food. I prefer to go to a real restaurant. Let’s say that I like painting to be powerful! This in any case the direction that I would like to follow, insofar as my resources allow it. The use of texts is one of the instruments that enable me to take a painting out of a situation of hesitation and uncertainty. 

The art of existential advertisements 

I have noticed that I am touched in many fields when on the one hand there is rhythm, style, scansion, something incarnate and on the other an account, a view of existence, an interpretation of the world—and the two blend together. An example is that of rap. Unfortunately I do not know this musical universe well but observe—and everyone will agree—that it has an indisputable ability to make many people (especially young people) vibrate and even live. Note in passing that it is practically the opposite for contemporary art, which has practically no public and in any case no popular public. Why does rap have such an audience? Well the reason is fairly simple and should make all artists think. In a way, rap has a double nature: first, the singers express their lives in crude terms. They put their skin on the table as Céline would have said, make interpretations of existence that then mark (rightly or wrongly) their audiences. Their texts are interwoven with scansion, music and images that flow.  

It is roughly the same thing in poetry, novels, the cinema and all branches of culture: everyone uses his means of expression and at the same time shares a vision of life. Curiously, one field is an exception. This is the plastic arts that seem to be in the shadow, suffering from a chronic deficit of links with life and the world. Abstraction and modernity obviously form a voluntary off-topic. There ere also many cases of contemporary artists who adopt woolly-minded intellectuality disconnected from everything. 

However, even new figuration painters who are sometimes very brilliant in terms of painting often say little about their emotions and their life. They are taken over by the crafts temptation to make demonstrations  of painting for connoisseurs, as if the subject and the meaning of a work were things that are secondary, external and heteronomic. The example of Adrian Ghenie, one of the most famous of them, is eloquent: after making extremely powerful sorts of paintings of history like ‘Pie-fight at the Chancellery of the Reich‘, he now makes quasi-abstract decorative compositions in which he scatters lumps of colour here and there, like multi-coloured sweets. So what does this do? 

Personally, I do not believe in the autonomy of painting. I do not want my paintings to be simple exercises of style, whatever the respectability and importance of questions of form. Like a rap singer, I would like my compositions to pass on something of the way in which I feel life and persons. From this angle, the fact of tracing lettering prevents the meaning of my paintings from being vague, floating, evanescent or even lost. This is one of the things that enables me to share my sensitivity as directly as possible.