Pierre Soulages : Painter of black and light
Pierre Soulages
Painter of black and light
Hans-Ulrich Obrist + Cédric Moullier, April 8, 2013
Pierre Soulages_Portrait
Pierre Soulages_Portrait

An interview with Pierre Soulages

(…) from the very beginning, Soulages has thought of painting in its relation to architecture. Not only is he “freeing himself from painting so as to approach architecture” but he treats painting as architecture, fixing his works by means of cables stretched from floor to ceiling, working exactly like an architect, with architectural space. “If you hang a painting on a wall,” he says, “it functions as a window. But fastened to cables, it becomes a wall itself.” Shown like this, his paintings establish a new mode of presentation, a new space, opening new prospects for the many contemporary artists who, in their installations, investigate the relation between the work of art and its space of exhibition, and the work of art’s status as an object (…).

Pierre Soulages/Soulages S-T
Pierre Soulages/Soulages S-T

Hans-Ulrich Obrist: What was your first profound aesthetic experience? Do you have a clear recollection of it?

Pierre Soulages: Yes, it was in the interior of the Romanesque abbey of Conques, near Rodez, the town where I was born. A town that was for a long time cut off from everything.

H.-U.O.: Was this first contact a real epiphany, in some sense?

P.S.: That first contact was followed shortly afterwards by a certain reflection about art. I had found in a book a reproduction of the Bison of Altamira. 18,000 years! That’s a hundred and eighty centuries, I thought to myself. And I realised, suddenly, how narrow was the history of art you were taught in school or saw in the museums. There you were presented with five or six centuries of painting, and even if you went back to ancient Greek sculpture, it was no more than twenty-six centuries. But a hundred and eighty centuries! From that moment on, I wanted to see what they didn’t tell us about. They talked to us about Romanesque architecture, for example, but not a word about Tavant, Saint-Savin and so on. So I then tried to find out all about painting, all the way back to its most distant origins, and likewise, about the art of other countries, of Africa, Asia… I also took part in archaeological excavations of prehistoric sites, caves, dolmens…

Pierre Soulages/Eau-forte XIX, 1970
Pierre Soulages/Eau-forte XIX, 1970

H.-U.O.: What is it in particular that touches you in these periods?

P.S.: The prehistoric was revealed in a succession of waves. We knew about Pech Merle and Niaux. Then came Lascaux, and now we have Chauvet, in Vallon-Pont d’Arc: that takes us back three hundred and forty centuries! These vast painted spaces inspired a desire for freedom. The paintings impressed me by the force of their presence, which went far beyond the concern for illusionistic representation that ended up in the study of perspective. This last was presented to us as an advance, but the presence of the work found itself overshadowed by what it represented. And to this narrowing down of the visual, I preferred an opening-up…

Pierre Soulages/Lithographie 21, 1969
Pierre Soulages/Lithographie 21, 1969

H.-U.O.: And as regards architecture, what are your influences?

P.S.: I know something of contemporary architecture after the Bauhaus. As it happens, I actually met Mies van der Rohe, in Chicago in 1957. He’d chosen one of my canvases for one of his students, Anderson Todd. But going back a bit further, I really like Étienne-Louis Boullée, for his writings and drawings, as well as Ledoux and a few others, the architectural utopianists. I recently received a postcard of a museum that Tadao Ando has just built, it’s completely underground. There’s another that I visited, at Miho, by I. M. Pei, that’s partly underground. They made me think of what Boullée wrote, and I quote from memory: “It is necessary that the parts that project above the surface of the ground allow one to imagine what the earth hides from view.” The idea of an architecture that you don’t see, that you imagine or suspect, it’s wonderful. …

Pierre Soulages/Pierre Soulages_6 August 1956
Pierre Soulages/Pierre Soulages_6 August 1956

H.-U.O.: What was your first exhibition abroad?

P.S.: It was in Germany, in 1948. There were ten of us, and I was with Bott, Kupka, Domela, Herbin, Del Marle, Hartung, Schneider...

H.-U.O.: The famous walnut-stain poster? Another invention!

P.S.: An act of daring, rather. As far as I know no one had used it before. After Arte Povera, it wouldn’t be such a surprising thing to use.

H.-U.O.: The idea of invention interests me enormously. When I interviewed Albert Hoffman, the inventor of LSD, he was 100 years old, and he told me that he could clearly remember the day he made his discovery… Do you have a clear recollection of your discovery of black?

P.S.: Black used like this, yes. It was in 1979. I was painting, or rather making a mess of a painting. A big black daub. I was miserable, and thinking that it was pure masochism to go on so long, I went to bed. On waking up I went to look at the painting, and I saw that it wasn’t the black that made the picture come alive but the light reflected on the black surfaces. On the striated surfaces the light vibrated, and on the smooth areas all was calm. A new space: the space of painting was no longer on the wall, as in the Byzantine pictorial tradition, nor was it behind the wall, as in perspective painting, it was now physically in front of the painting. The light was coming to me from the painting, I was in the painting. And what is more, the light was coming from the colour that is the greatest absence of light. I went on from there.

Pierre Soulages/Pierre Soulages_Collection Centre Pompidou, Musée national d'art moderner_RMN_Adagp, Paris 2009
Pierre Soulages/Pierre Soulages_Collection Centre Pompidou, Musée national d'art moderner_RMN_Adagp, Paris 2009

H.-U.O.: So what you use, then, is the light, not the black.

P.S.: Exactly. It’s the light reflected by the black paint. I invented a word for the phenomenon: outrenoir (ultra-black).

H.-U.O.: How would you define outrenoir, in 2009?

P.S.: It’s another mental space than that of black. Art is always a matter of mental space. This “other” space in front of the canvas creates another relationship to space. And a different relationship to time. And it gives the work a tremendous presence. The notion of presence is enormously important in art. When a painting refers to a subject, its presence is weakened. A painting has to be present when you look at it… What I like is the force of a painting’s presence. …

Pierre Soulages/Soulages sans titre 4-8
Pierre Soulages/Soulages sans titre 4-8

H.-U.O.: Let’s go back to the black. You say it’s a violent colour, which has eliminated the others.
For you, it’s also a passion.

P.S.: Black interested me first of all in terms of its relationship to the other colours, it’s a contrast. Alongside it, even a dark colour lights up. In the same way, it intensifies white. But absolute black doesn’t exist, or it exists only in caves. I find it fascinating, what’s more, that people went down into the darkest of places, into the complete darkness of the caves, to paint with black! The colour black is the colour of origins. Of our own origins too. Before we’re born, before “seeing the light of day,” we are all in the black dark. And the first person to produce a black square was Robert Fludd in 1617. It was a Rosy Cross. The Rosicrucians believed, I think, that the whole world began in black and would end in black.

H.-U.O.: Before Malevich?

P.S.: Indeed, some centuries before.

H.-U.O.: What does the colour represent, for you?

P.S.: As a symbol, black is contradictory. It connotes anarchy as well as authority. It is as much pomp and celebration as austerity and mourning. For me, its value is far from being symbolic: I love it for the painterly power it has hidden within it.

Pierre Soulages/Soulages_Original lithographie1970
Pierre Soulages/Soulages_Original lithographie1970

H.-U.O.: It’s a colour that has fascinated you for a long time…

P.S.: That’s true. As a child, I preferred to dip my brush into black ink rather than paints. I was told that I used to make big black marks on paper, that I used to say that I was doing snow…

H.-U.O.: Marcel Duchamp said, essentially, that the viewer does half the work…

P.S.: His contribution is even more important, and of a different kind! …

H.-U.O.: A thing about your paintings is that they have no titles.

P.S.: But they do! A title: the size of the painting, and the date. I have always wanted my paintings to have the character of an object, of a thing. That’s why the title is limited to their materiality, which is further emphasized in those that are fixed to cables between floor and ceiling. A painting on the wall is a kind of window. On cables, it becomes a wall.

H.-U.O.: Like that, the paintings divide space.

P.S.: They give it rhythm. They create a different space. Part of the exhibition at the Centre Pompidou is organised according to this principle that I’ve been using since 1966.

Pierre Soulages/Soulages_Pochoir, 1956
Pierre Soulages/Soulages_Pochoir, 1956

A Pierre Soulages chronology

_Pierre Soulages born in Rodez (Aveyron) on 24 December 1919. Begins to paint regularly in 1934.
After gaining his baccalauréat, in September 1938 he leaves Rodez for Paris, where he enters the studio of René Jaudon to study drawing. Visits the Louvre, the Orangerie, the Petit Palais, and the Picasso and Cézanne exhibitions. Although accepted at the École Nationale des Beaux-Arts (Paris), he returns to Rodez. Mobilised in June 1940, he is sent to Bordeaux and after the armistice to Nyons (Drôme).

1941-1945_Demobilised in early 1941, he becomes a student at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Montpellier, where he
meets Colette Llaurens, marrying her in October 1942. Together, they visit the Musée Fabre. Refusing compulsory labour service in Germany, he obtains false papers and employment as a manager at a vineyard near Montpellier, where he meets writer Joseph Delteil, a neighbour, to whom he shows his paintings. Called up again in June 1944, he is demobilised late the same year.

1946-1953_In 1946, Soulages and his wife move to Courbevoie. In 1947, he shows at the Salon des Surindépendants and becomes friends with Hans Hartung and Francis Picabia. Moves to rue Schoelcher in Paris and in 1949 has his first solo show, at Galerie Lydia Conti, and designs the set for Roger Vailland’s play Héloïse
et Abélard. In 1950, begins to systematically title his paintings as “Painting [size], [date].” In 1951, he does his first etchings, at Roger Lacourière’s studio. In 1952, Soulages shows four paintings at the Venice Biennale and designs the set for a stage version of Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory (never performed due to the death of Louis Jouvet).

Pierre Soulages/Pierre Soulages_Adgp, Paris 2009.
Pierre Soulages/Pierre Soulages_Adgp, Paris 2009.

1954-1966_After successfully staging Soulages’s first New York solo exhibition in 1954, gallerist Samuel Kootz
becomes his US representative (putting on a further seven shows in the period to 1966). In 1955, Soulages participates in the first Kassel Documenta and shows at Gimpel Fils in London. In 1956, he has a solo show at the Galerie de France (followed by many more between then and 1992). In 1957, moves his studio to the rue Galande and visits New York, meeting a number of American artists (among them Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell and Franz Kline). That same year, Soulages is awarded the Grand Prix at the Tokyo Biennale. There are retrospectives in Hanover in 1960 (touring Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland), Copenhagen in 1963, and Houston in 1966.

1967-1978_In 1967, the Musée National d’Art Moderne is the first French art museum to mount a Soulages exhibition. In 1968, the painter visits New York and afterwards Washington for exhibitions of his work. Writes an important theoretical text for the Matisse retrospective in Copenhagen in 1970. In 1974, he moves to a new studio in the 5th arrondissement. Later that year he has a major exhibition in Dakar (which then travels to Lisbon, Madrid, Montpellier and Latin America). Makes three bronzes based on etched plates (1975-1977), shown at the Galerie de France in 1977.

1979-1993_Begins “a different painting” that he calls outrenoir. At the exhibition of his recent work at Centre
Pompidou in 1979, Soulages has his paintings suspended in space (a principle first adopted in Houston in 1966). The Danish government commissions a large painting for the Musikhuset in Aarhus (installed 1982); a monumental polyptych is installed at the Regional Telecommunications Centre in Dijon in 1983. In 1984, Soulages returns to Japan for a retrospective. In 1987, he receives the public commission for stained-glass windows for the Abbey of Sainte-Foy de Conques.

1994-2009_In 1994, following the inauguration of the stained-glass windows at Conques, the maquettes are shown
in Münster. In 1996, the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris stages a Soulages retrospective (travelling to Montréal and São Paulo). In 2001, Pierre Soulages is the first living painter to be given an exhibition at the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg (which then travels to Moscow). In 2005, Pierre and Colette Soulages donate work for the future Musée Soulages in Rodez, and also to the Musée Fabre in Montpellier, where the permanent exhibition of Soulages opens in 2007.