Pierre Soulages, one of France’s most famous post-war artists, died on Tuesday evening (October 25) in Nîmes in southern France at the age of 102. The news was announced by the town of Rodez in southwestern France, where Soulages was born on Christmas Eve 1919, and where a museum dedicated to his work opened in 2014.
When it opened, it was 94 years old. He had asked me to follow the hanging in the new museum, before accompanying him with his wife Colette to New York, where the dealers Dominique Lévy and Emmanuel Perrotin were waiting for them for the opening of a joint exhibition comprising 22 of his works. The Manhattan exhibition was a great success, but the artist did not show up. Lévy had chartered a jet, but, at the last moment, Soulages chose not to leave Rodez.
Mounting the first panel in his new museum had taken all day. He never accepted frames on his works, preferring to hang them in the air, a technique he had first experimented with at an exhibition in Houston decades earlier. Getting good lighting was not easy, as he suffered from poor eyesight. And if the lights were too strong, reverb was a problem, especially with the newer acrylic works. The painter therefore chose to continue working on the hanging in Rodez, instead of partying in Manhattan. Soulages did not disdain these honours, he was a proud man, but he did not necessarily appreciate the social gatherings and gatherings of the art world.
Recognition for his work has not come soon, although the market for his work has taken off in recent years – a 1961 painting sold for $20.1 million at Sotheby’s in New York last November. He will have to wait until 2009 for his first retrospective at the Center Pompidou; the Louvre devoted an exhibition to his recent works when he was 100 years old. Appreciated by French presidents Jacques Chirac and Georges Pompidou (founder of the modern art center that bears his name), Soulages suffered from a reputation as a so-called “official painter”, but this prejudice gradually faded. that recognition of his extraordinarily original painting practice was growing.
“Pierre Soulages knew how to reinvent black by revealing light,” wrote French President Emmanuel Macron. on Twitter following the announcement of the death of the artist. “Beyond the darkness, his works are living metaphors from which each of us draws hope.”
Politically, Soulages was an anti-fascist from the 1930s, then an opponent of the wars in Algeria and Vietnam. On occasion, this former rugby player – measuring 1m90 and weighing more than 100kg – did not hesitate to raise his fists and jump into the fray against the far right.
The retrospective at the Pompidou was met with mixed feelings from the artist. “I don’t like retrospectives, they are always boring,” he said at the time. “And the worst part is a retrospective of 65 years of work! They claim that I am the greatest French artist of 93 years. Well, I’m not a 93-year-old artist. I’m an artist, period.
Soulages has sometimes been criticized for being too repetitive and sticking to a formula since the start of his career, when he was a student at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Montpellier, in the south, where he met his wife Colette, now 101 years old. just celebrated their 80th wedding anniversary in the town of Sète, in a bright house they built on the Mediterranean coast; in recent years, they have divided their time between Sète and a small house near Place Saint-Michel in Paris.
Black was Soulages’ favorite color. He even dressed in black every day, which his mother did not like. “Do you already wear clothes for my mourning?” she would have teased him. As a child, the artist remembers, he covered a sheet of paper with ink to represent snow. A friend of his sister’s had teased him for this unconventional choice, but he was undeterred.
At a time when cubism still dominated the art scene, it took time for the young artist to embrace total abstraction and opt for what he called “outre noir”, or ultra-black which, after various experimentations in particular with walnut oil, became his signature style and subject. In 1979, this deep black will invade all his works. He claimed that black was not the absence of colors and that it kept changing with light, “absorbing all colors” – as it happens, physicists agree.
Natural light is the best way to appreciate the contrasts and tones of the Soulages panels. For a period he produced prints and even creation of stained glass for a church in Sainte-Foy de Conques, near Rodez, after carrying out around 700 tests with a small factory near Münster in Germany.
“If I was not a believer, I became one after visiting Conques”, says Lévy. “He studied how the light wouldn’t pass through the stained glass, but would be split, burst through the stained glass. So when you’re in Conques and you see the light coming through those stained glass windows, how the light hits the glass and then between and the harmonious explosion inside the church, it’s beyond religious And that’s what he was trying to achieve with his black paintings, to capture everything you give them, but they reflect each other in a completely independent way. It puts you in front of the void, in front of the full and the empty, in front of the strength and the vulnerability. It has this tension, and that’s what it was to know Soulages.
His work was physical. Every day, although this has naturally changed in recent years, he went to his studio on rue Saint Victor in the Latin Quarter, where his assistant prepared his equipment. He would drop paint in large frames on the floor and start creating waves with homemade tools.
“Illusion is not art, presence is art,” he said, invoking the aura of Mesopotamian statues in the Louvre and charcoal-painted bison in prehistoric caves. “My art is not a representation, it is a presence.”