At the Musée de l’Orangerie, the intimate geographies of Sam Szafran

The studio in the rue du Champs-de-Mars looks like a shambles of easels, trestles, armchairs strewn with clothes. The floor itself is covered with empty frames, loose leaves, in a carpet so inextricable that it seems impossible to cross the room. On this bric-a-brac fall, from the ceiling, snowflakes.

This delicate charcoal, dated 1970, belongs to a series of “psychic meteorologies” by artist Sam Szafran, as aptly summed up by art historian Julia Drost. The unleashing of the elements echoes the inner torments, beating rain or icy whirlwind, like a storm under a skull.

Former Uprooted Child

The studio (or should we say the studios, so numerous were his moves) is one of the leitmotifs of the work of Sam Szafran, a former uprooted child, whose “obsessions” the Musée de l’Orangerie sets out to reveal. Conceived by Julia Drost, who has been working for ten years to establish the catalog raisonné of the artist who died in 2019, the exhibition allows you to (re) discover a work long neglected by institutions and unknown to the general public.

“Sam Szafran has always been against the grain: figurative in the great era of abstraction, cultivating a taste for outdated techniques such as pastel and watercolor”, explains the commissioner.

His master Degas

A Jew of Polish origin, most of whose family was decimated by the Holocaust, this “miracled, in his own words, received his artistic education in the cafés of Montparnasse and in the books he collects with passion. In 1961, a decisive meeting with Alberto Giacometti convinced him to choose the path of figuration, but he quickly moved away from naturalism to dig a singular furrow, tinged with dreamlike.

In his views of the studio in the rue de Crussol, in the early 1970s, incongruous elements appear: a tightrope walker, in reference to Philippe Petit who had just joined the towers of Notre-Dame on a wire, boxes of pastel which fly away or a “tub” suspended in the air, a nod to Degas, his “master”, whose techniques he borrows.

From a constraint (oil painting was too expensive), Sam Szafran makes a strength: his mastery of pastel, the fruit of hard work, impresses in the series devoted to the Bellini printing house, then in his Stairs, where he twists the perspectives to give a feeling of vertigo and capsize the gaze. Polaroid collages reveal his working method. His “urban landscapes”painted in watercolor on silk, form a kaleidoscope of key places in his life, drawing an intimate geography.

lush jungle

Another obsession, plants are gradually invading his studio in Malakoff, the ultimate refuge, like his compositions. The cabbages of his childhood give way to aralias, rubber trees and, above all, Monstera philodendrons, whose openwork leaves become a repetitive, hypnotic motif, in the wake of Matisse. In the middle of this luxuriant, almost suffocating jungle, the silhouette of his wife Lilette often emerges, draped in a Japanese coat and seated on a bench signed Gaudi. Like an anchor in reality and a great escape from the threat of engulfment.

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