He is a giant who has just passed away. A man whose tall rugbyman stature – 1.90 meters! – matched the imposing paintings. A contemporary acclaimed as a “classic” by the great historian Georges Duby and celebrated by a number of exhibitions around the world, from Mexico City to Tokyo, via Dakar, without forgetting Saint Petersburg, where in 2001 he was the first living painter admitted to the prestigious collections of the Hermitage. Only North America, after recognizing this paint early on, ended up neglecting it a bit..
Nothing of the sort obviously in France. In 2009, the Soulages retrospective at the Center Pompidou registered more than 500,000 admissions. Since 2014, the inauguration in Rodez, his hometown, of a superb museum in his name, endowed with significant donations, has attracted more than a million visitors. The centenary of the artist, on December 24, 2019, was even greeted by an exhibition at the Louvre, a consecration for a living artist reserved until then only for Chagall and Picasso.
At the same time, critical voices have become increasingly rare, such as that of the philosopher Luc Ferry recalling in 2014 that “the first black monochrome was born in 1882 under the brush of Paul Bilhaud, one of the pillars of the fumiste spirit”. The interiority of Soulages’ painting, despite an austere appearance in which blacks dominate, these famous “outer-blacks” reflectors of light, was able to reach a wide audience.
” For me, confided the artist in 2009 to The cross, the work is not a sign. It must refer neither to a past, nor to a psychology or an anecdote, otherwise it loses its presence. It is an object capable of mobilizing what inhabits us deep down. »
A life devoted to painting
This high standard will have guided his whole life, entirely devoted to painting: winter in his Paris studio, summer on his hill in Sète, in this thebaid he had designed in 1959, hidden in the vegetation and open to 180 degrees on the sea horizon. There, Soulages affably received his chosen visitors. Above all, he breathed the sea air, he who liked to see far and beyond the centuries, an admirer of cave paintings like tapas from Oceania.
As a child, in Rodez, he had discovered with wonder the menhir statues of the Fenaille Museum. Another striking memory was his first visit, at the age of 5, to the abbey church of Sainte-Foy de Conques, taken there just after the death of his father by his very religious mother. Returning there with his class, at 12, the upset teenager “by this nave, the highest in Romanesque art, this massiveness combined with so much grace” decided “that art would be at the center of his life”.
Much later, between 1987 and 1994, he produced opalescent stained glass windows with sober curved lines for this building, which has since been classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. And he will thus reconnect with Aveyron, which he had left at the age of 19 to take drawing lessons in Paris.
In 1939, the young Pierre Soulages indeed passed the entrance examination to the National School of Fine Arts but, fearing an overly academic education, he fled the capital.
The war breaks out. Demobilized in 1941, he enrolled at the Beaux-Arts in Montpellier where he met his wife, Colette Llaurens, his unwavering support. Refractory to the STO, he hides as manager of a vineyard. His neighbour, the writer Joseph Delteil, encouraged his vocation as a painter and made him discover the poets, Guillaume IX of Aquitaine, Jean de la Croix, Agrippa d’Aubigné and many others… Soulages, endowed with a prodigious memory , loved to recite their verses, beacons on his way.
A gift of observation
In 1947, his first paintings exhibited at the Salon des surindépendants switch to abstraction. Drawn in walnut husk on white paper, their thick lines like props give a vigorous impetus in these times of reconstruction. Other tar paintings on fragments of glass are directly inspired by the clogging of the windows of the Gare de Lyon, broken in the bombings. A testimony to the artist’s gift for observation, constantly on the lookout, even for an accident, as during this engraving session where he pierced his copper plate and created a sparkling white hole.
At that time, with his friends Hans Hartung and Jean-Michel Atlan, Soulages already considered himself a maverick. He will always remain so, attached to his freedom to invent his own path in painting. This did not prevent him from welcoming, later, the young painters of the Supports/Surfaces movement with benevolence, from supporting Daniel Buren and his columns or even from engaging in the great debates of his time. , for peace in Algeria in 1956 or against the war in Iraq in 2003.
Curious about everything, Pierre Soulages had forged friendships over the course of his long existence with the champion of the Nouveau Roman Claude Simon as well as with the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, the historian Pierre Nora or the physicist David Quéré, with whom he loved to talk about the dynamics of a drop of water.
The reception of his early works was favourable. Hailed by Picabia, exhibited in 1949 in New York, purchased in France for the National Museum of Modern Art by Jean Cassou and Bernard Dorival in 1951, then in 1953 by the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, the great kid de Rodez gains confidence. He created some theater sets, notably in 1951 for Louis Jouvet, who died of a heart attack during rehearsal, almost in the painter’s arms.
The mythical night of the birth of the “outrenoir”
Soon, his paintings almost two meters high compete without complex with the formats of the American abstract expressionists. Soulages befriends Robert Motherwell and Mark Rothko, whose colorful and vibrant fields echo his own research. Beneath large black bands, it lets whites, ochres or embers well up, like a smoldering fire. He dares deep blues, echoing the Mediterranean. And elsewhere creates transparencies by diluting its colors.
“Soulages, in Occitan, comes from soil agents, sun acting, he liked to say to explain his irresistible attraction to light, despite a palette dominated by black, this instrument of powerful contrasts. “Black, for me, is an intense color, more intense than yellow”, added this admirer of Courbet, of whom he owned a small Portrait of a woman.
At the end of the 1960s, black was already threatening to invade his painting, as in this huge painting from May 14, 1968, now at the National Museum of Modern Art, similar to a wall of large shields. The demonstrations then ignite the Latin Quarter where the artist has his studio. At the beginning of the 1970s, Soulages aired out his lines in loops or flexible legs, on panoramic formats.
Then came that famous night at work, which he has recounted many times, when, literally brooding, desperate because it had ended up covering the entire surface of his canvas, he ended up going to sleep. Back in the studio, he noticed that his painting emitted a strange light. Outrenoir was born, first baptized “black light” because of its ability to reflect, to modulate clarity, through its brilliance and the irregularities of its surface.
Soulages wanted to clarify the miracle of this painting “whose light comes in front of the viewer, creating a space that encompasses us”, like a mysterious presence. A game that he often reinforced in his exhibitions by presenting his canvases, not nailed to the wall but presented back to back on cables, sometimes in polyptychs. ” I do not believe in God, he said, but I believe in the sacred. »
From then on, this insatiable experimenter set out to explore the infinite possibilities of this Outrenoir. Like the craftsmen of his childhood in Rodez, he never stopped inventing tools, scrapers, knives, brooms, to create variations in relief, deep furrows or sensual caresses. Towards the end of the 1990s, gradually abandoning oil for more fluid acrylic, he painted by fingerprints letting reappear, here and there, the immaculate frame of his canvases.
He will cut his paintings into strips, to better recompose them. He will imprint strokes in his painting with a musical rhythm. He will oppose smooth or combed, shiny or matte surfaces, sometimes with a vein of blue or brown, reminiscent of his beginnings. A scathing denial to all those who sometimes reproached him for the monotony of these Outrenoirs, for lack of knowing how to taste all their nuances, meticulously deciphered in the catalog raisonné of his work by Pierre Encrevé, who died in 2019.
Just before his 100th birthday, the artist had again dared new formats, vertical canvases, as large as three squares superimposed according to the mathematical formulas he loved. Stelae punctuated by friezes and calmer beaches, like the vast Mediterranean horizon.
A man of total freedom and at the same time of deep loyalty to his roots, his first attachments, Soulages confided to Michel Ragon (1), in response to his detractors: “When you passionately love one thing, it excludes everything else. The more limited the means, the moreexpression is strong. »
Important donations to museums
Concerned about his posterity, the artist granted important donations at the Center Pompidou in Paris, the Art Institute of Chicago, the National Gallery of Art in Washington and the Tate Gallery in London.
In 2005 and 2006, the Soulages couple also offered at the Fabre museum in Montpellier, 20 paintings, plus 9 others entrusted to deposit, after having been requested by the socialist mayor Georges Frêche and associated with the renovation of the museum.
In Rodez, the UMP mayor, Marc Censi, first asked Pierre Soulages to give his hometown the boxes of the stained glass windows made for the neighboring abbey church of Conques, then the prints… before obtaining his agreement to create a museum in his name. “I accepted on condition that it opens up to other artists. I wanted a lively place, especially not a mausoleum”, Pierre Soulages told us in 2014 when he inaugurated this museum. He offered her more than 250 works and as many archival documents.