An Exploration of the Life and Work of a Master in a Series of Observations and Notebook Entries
It was seven days ago that I learned that a man, who I hadn’t known of before and whose work, by sheer coincidence, resembled some of my own, had recently passed away. I looked him up on the internet and found that the artist was in-fact a master and was once not too long ago described as the ‘greatest living artist in the world’.
The artist was a Frenchman named, Pierre Soulages. And he had passed away at the ripe old age of 102 on Oct 26, 2022 — the same day that some of my own black paintings and monoprints were on display in a solo exhibition at Alliance Française, Bangalore.
To be honest, my initial impulse was to just tabulate the extent of how similar my work was to Mr. Soulages’, but every new piece of information I found out about him fascinated me more and more taking me further and further away from that initial urge to find creative validation to the point where I am left with nothing but awe, respect and gratitude for the great master and the legacy he has left behind.
This is, in many ways, my humble homage to Pierre Soulages — the Master of Black.
“It’s what I do that teaches me what I’m looking for” — Pierre Soulages
17 December 1966, Pierre Soulages, Honolulu Museum of Art
A Free Spirit
Beloved in his native France, Pierre Soulages was once described by French President Francois Hollande, as ‘the greatest living artist in the world’.
Soulages (1919–2022) was a contemporary of abstract expressionists like Rothko, Pollock, de Kooning and others who carried with them the shared experiences of a global world shrinking and expanding simultaneously by the forces of migration, technology, war, and post-modernism.
“A painting by Soulages is a punch in the stomach. It’s true, to see it you have to lower your gaze as if you were lowering your weapon. If you accept being unarmed you will experience the shock. But if you hide in your shell saying it doesn’t look like anything, you will look instead of seeing and you won’t experience the emotion.”— Pierre Encrevé, linguist and author.
Born in the then tiny village of Rodez, France, in 1919, and raised by his mother and elder sister, Soulages described himself as something of a free spirit who once, when five, ran away from school after being punished. Traveling the route home from school alone he would never return back. This thirst for independence would never leave the artist.
As a boy, Soulages loved to paint. A story he frequently told was of when, as a child, he was tracing some big black lines on white paper using a brush and ink. When asked what he was drawing, the young boy replied, “snow.”
Two key experiences that would shape Soulages’ work as well as much of his outlook and approach to art were: his experiences growing up among the artisans of Rodez — tailors, carpenters, carriage makers and the like — he was particularly fascinated by the work of local cabinet makers, and his interest in archeology and his experiences while on archaeological digs around his native region.
The first would play a vital role in his choice of tools and approach when creating his art. His approach could possibly be described as that of an artisan; he was contemplative and methodical, and used unconventional tools – walnut stain to paint, utensils, flat masonry brushes, scrappers, long handled trowels and more, and he even created his own tools to push, pull, texture and sculpt his work.
The second was his choice of color (and perhaps even style). Soulages often explained the significance of this, himself: “The only living things that paint are humans and what’s more, for hundreds of centuries they went down to the darkest of parts of the earth, down into the absolute darkness of caves, to paint. they painted using black. This is surprising because there is white stone all over the place. The original coloring for painting is black. And is black not the color of our origins?”
James Johnson Sweeney, an early champion of Soulages, as director of the Guggenheim in the 1950s, wrote that, ‘A painting by Pierre Soulages is like a chord on a vast piano struck with both hands simultaneously — struck and held.’
Peinture 227 x 306 cm, 2 Mars 2009
Evolution as an Artist
1919 — Soulages was born in Rodez, France, on 24 December. He was encouraged to paint and draw throughout his childhood.
He was fascinated by the vast planes and fields of the country side which spread out in all directions. This was in stark contrast to the grim views of a hospital building which faced his bedroom window. Outside his home was also a court and a prison.
While on a school trip, young Soulages was moved by the unembellished walls at the Abbey Church of Sainte-Foy in Conques, France. A glance at the ancient, monochromatic walls of the abbey and another at a Soulages painting and it’s easy to see how the aesthetics of one feed into the other.
During wartime, Soulages studied at the Musée Fabre, in Montpellier. Soulages found fascination in the works of masters like Pieter de Kempeneer and Corbet, their artistic choices and how they used tenebrous darks and deep shadows to accentuate mood, shapes, forms, and primarily colours of the subjects.
1941 — Soulages met a young student named Colette Llaurens at the School of Fine Arts in Montpellier. A year later the two were married in a ceremony that took place at midnight wearing black. The Pierre-Colette relationship was to last a lifetime and was a uniquely special one not only for the artist himself but for the viewing public at large; it was impossible to think of one without the other. The two also shared a common fascination for pre-historic art with Collette even writing on the subject.
His interest in archeology and fascination with prehistoric art thousands of years old influenced him greatly, even going on digs with an archeologist friend. He donated the artifacts he discovered to the Musée Fenaille in Rodez.
‘When I noticed that all of the history of art that they told us about or showed us, was from recent centuries — the few centuries featured in museums. When I saw a reproduction of the Bison of Altamira — a prehistoric (art) work with the date of 18000 years and I painstakingly converted that into centuries, I thought, well, that’s 180 centuries. Socrates, Plato, they were 25 centuries ago and this is 180? Now we know that it was 340 centuries with the Chauvet Cave. I found that it’s important to think about the human activity that is painting.’ — Pierre Soulages
1942 — in German-occupied France, Soulages discovered abstract expressionism while at a barber’s shop reviewing the German magazine, Signal. As with typical Nazi propaganda, the text spoke of a loathing of modern art (which the Nazis considered “sick” and “immoral”) with paintings by Chagall, Mondrian and others presented as degenerate art. The text had the opposite effect on the Soulages who was astounded by images of the new art form.
1946 — The young couple moved to the outskirts of Paris where Soulages started making his first abstract paintings thus abandoning figurative art altogether. He started using unconventional, inexpensive tools – walnut stains, flat masonry brushes and even created his own tools. His began to use large brushes, big movements, and sweeping stokes where the background and underpainting broke through to catch the light.
1947 — first noticed in a group exhibition called Les Superintendents
1948 — Soulages was invited to Germany for a group exhibition of abstract art with one of his works selected for the exhibition poster. The event brought him critical acclaim and much needed peer recognition
The American curator and director of the Guggenheim, James Johnson Sweeney, bought a painting by Soulages paving the way for the artist in North America. He held an exhibition every year from 1954 to 1966 with his works seen by every major artist at the time
1967 — Soulages had his first large-scale exhibition in France at the National Museum of Modern Art, Paris
1979 – Struggling in his studio, Soulages was working at night when he realized his work was going nowhere and he was applying more and more black paint to the canvas. He stopped his work and called it a night. The next morning, he came back and turned on the light to realize that the new environment granted the black painting a presence like non other.
‘I saw that it was no longer black that gave meaning to the painting but the reflection of light on dark surfaces,’ he said. ‘Where it was layered the light danced, and where it was flat it lay still. A new space had come into being.’ His idea of Outrenoir (Beyond Black) was born. From then on, Soulages modified his process and started covering his canvases in thick black paint creating a variety of textures such that the light reflected on them in various forms.
He also started to suspend paintings from the ceilings thus allowing people to move in between them, catching variations in the reflected light and view them from angles not otherwise possible.
1986 — Soulages created the stained-glass windows for the Abbey of Conques. It took eight years to develop a special glass that met his requirements.
2014 —Musée Soulages, a museum dedicated to the artist opened on 31 May in Rodez. It shows over 500 works donated by the artist and his wife.
‘My instrument is not black but the light reflected from the black. When black is stripped it reflects differently from when it is smooth. Noir Lumiere (translated: black light) is an optical decision. Outrenoir is different. (It is) the mental realm that we inhabit when we like the work of art when it touches us.’ — Pierre Soulages
As a young man, Soulages was first moved by the architecture of the Rodez Cathedral in his hometown and the Romanesque Abbey Church of Conques.
18 Observations About Soulages’ Process and Methods — A Student’s Notebook
Soulages’ works flaunts bold mark making through large gesture and movement. The painter often said that his work was non-symbolic. He wished that fundamentally the audience should be free to enjoy their own experience of the paintings. He said, he ‘presents, not represents’ and he ‘does not paint pictures but merely paints’.
The following are a list of direct observations and other speculations about some of his work:
1. Soulages was deeply individualistic and thoughtful in his approach, and sought the highest in artistic integrity
2. Soulages often painted with canvases on the floor
3. Soulages made thousands of artworks through his career and most definitely used a wide range of non-traditional materials, techniques, over-sized tools and processes to create them. He was also known to make his own tools for painting.
4. He frequently used non-traditional tools like scrappers, trowels, spatulas, squeegees, palette knives and other tools used by carpenters and artisans. He did not skimp on amount of paint to be used either
5. Soulages almost never used smaller sized brushes to lay down color. The size and variety of his brushes grew quickly over his early career
6. Older works, starting with the ones with walnut stains, often played with transparency and different colored underpainting
7. Much of Soulages’ art, especially his older work where areas of the white canvas are visible, consists of absolutely gorgeous positive and negative shapes with the two constantly changing positions when focus is brought on them
8. Soulages created strokes that overlapped each other thus pushing and pulling them in space and making them appear to advance and recede
9. Earliest works used shorter, yet thick, brush strokes that often started and ended inside the walls of the canvas
10. His paint strokes appear to slip and slide around at great speed but were probably made slowly, maybe even one stroke at a time
11. Stylistically, Soulages’ work, while always black heavy, shows an evolutionary path when the focal area in the work began at the center (early works). Progressively the area of black began touching the sides to cover more and more of the canvas surface until eventually the entire surface was covered in black paint (works from 1979 onwards).
12. Played primarily with the idea that darks recede and lights advance
13. Used ultramarines, red-oranges and low-key greens, but more importantly white (or light), always seeking it, looking for ways to emphasize it by using darks
14. Often left isolated drips, smudges and marks as they were to give the work a unique voice
15. Soulages said he always had trouble starting work on a canvas. His approach was contemplative and his processes most definitely involved a design and planning stage.
16. The execution stage almost always involved pauses and shifting into modes of thoughtful observation and active painting, and back
17. Soulages was extremely private in his process – he never let anyone, not even his wife, see him paint. Any presence would influence his painting — guide his work and in his words would make it ‘false’.
18. The acceptance of destruction: When unsatisfied with his work Soulages would burn his paintings
Built to display works by the French painter Pierre Soulages, it also receives temporary exhibitions by other contemporary artists. It obtained the “Musée de France” label on December 20, 2005, even before the first stone was laid. It is built on the Foirail plateau, at the gates of the historic center of Rodez and the Notre-Dame cathedral.
The Sculptor of Light
It can be said that it was the quest for light that drove Soulages — his primary tool or medium in that search was paint in the color black.
Soulages himself reported that he was always looking for the light — the way the painted surface reflected the light of the surroundings. This can be observed in the beautiful negative shapes that his marks create. Our normal tendency as viewers is to focus on the lines, but focusing on the shape of the negative spaces (in older work: usually clean or dirty whites) renders a whole different experience.
Two ways Soulages used black to 'search' for the light:
1. Soulages used black while in search for the light using the principle of simultaneous contrast where a dark next to a light color will usually make the light color appear lighter — Black makes the color next to it appear lighter, brighter and even stronger that it really is.
2. In his Outrenoir series he began using the texture and properties of paint material in such a way that it reflects light in different ways turning into greys, blues and other colors depending on the surroundings, time of day, and angle of viewing. This texture itself was created in two primary ways:
a. One by the means of application i.e. the tool used and how it is used
b. And another by creating reflective surfaces by manipulating edges, varying line, angle, shape and even depth by means of carvings into thick layers of paint to make marks of various types and quality
My Speculations about Method and Process
A fact that is forgotten nowadays is that most of the artists who dove headfirst into the abstract expressionist movement, and especially those who began in pre-war twentieth century, were classically trained artists. They were steeped in all the fundamentals and formal principals of art that were taught for the last few centuries. Many of these artists had the tremendous option to either consciously put their classical studies into practice or chose to leave it on the sidelines — if it suited their purpose within the context of a particular work or series or mood they were trying to capture. And this reflected on their artistic choices and taste, and of course the beauty and impact of their work.
My theory: Pierre Soulages was one such artist who although rejected the formal academic processes and methods of creating art but undoubtedly was exposed to much of it, and even used it as a tool especially in designing his masterpieces.
Let’s take a look at a couple of examples of his work that point to this theory.
Above: Peinture 222 x 314 cm, Acrylic, canvas 24 février, 2008
Above: There’s a power in the simplicity of this work that I find extremely compelling. Given its massive size — 2 x 3 meters approximately — I can just imagine standing in front of gorgeous piece in person. A quick and dirty analysis (yes, this is a rough grid thrown down over this digital reproduction) of this work to determine the underlying geometry used by Soulages to create this powerful composition reveals that there is indeed an intelligence to it (as with many of his other works). The principles of dynamic symmetry were extensively used to design and compose almost all works of western art (academic and otherwise) prior to the middle of the 20th century (and is in use today too, albeit to a much lesser extent). It’s easy to see abstract art as spontaneous, ad-hoc and completely dependent on chance and intuition. Soulages proves otherwise.
Brou de noix sur papier 48 x 62,5 cm, 1946
Above: As with the previous painting, note the brush strokes that fluidly correspond to key positions (orange lines), aligning more or less with the composition grid. This work is probably a good example of a trained eye depending on educated intuition slightly more than strict adherence to traditional formality.
“When I work for a long time on a canvas that I don’t like, and I find it doesn’t correspond to what I want it to be, I destroy it. There are many paintings I do not like. All the canvases you see are the ones I have accepted.” — Pierre Soulages
It’s been just seven days since I first heard of Pierre Soulages, and what have I learned? Well, there’s obviously the technical, the procedural, the factual, the historical, but more so, I’ve learned that Soulages, with his allows us to see plainly what it means to see and to be human.
I believe Soulages, through his steadfast, life-long quest to create something special, shows the committed artist a path forward, a committed viewer a path inward, and the world at large that there’s a beauty surrounding us in each moment of life.
Through this experience I’ve also learned that as individuals we may not share the same time or space (or other things), but we share the ability to transcend these differences by what we create and how we perceive the world around us.
“When we say that the paintings are black you see black in your mind. That’s all I want. That you are alone in your thought with what you are looking at and what you are looking at does not take you back to a past experience nor anything other than what it is.” — Pierre Soulages
Peinture 18 Mars 2010
Pierre Soulages posing in front of one of his painting at the Rodez Museum in France.
PATRICK AVENTURIER/ABACA/SIPA USA (SIPA VIA AP IMAGES)
About the Author
(Below) This work was on display at Alliance Française-Bangalore from 14 – 29 October 2022, in a solo exhibition titled Non-Metamorphic Images from The Echoes of a Present. Created at a time when I didn’t know of Pierre Soulages nor had seen his body of work — while there are many differences, especially in my use of symbolism, narrative, and combination with digital-media, stylistic similarities with Soulages include the liberal use of black, impasto technique, use of unique texture created with non-traditional tools, and minimalistic use of line, shape and color.
Footnotes and Referneces
Pierre Soulages: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pierre_Soulages
Musee Fabre: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mus%C3%A9e_Fabre
Honolulu Museum of Art: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Honolulu_Museum_of_Art
Musée d'Art Moderne de Paris: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mus%C3%A9e_d%27Art_Moderne_de_Paris
Musée Soulages: https://musee-soulages-rodez.fr/en/
Abbey Church of Sainte-Foy: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abbey_Church_of_Sainte-Foy
Louvre (website): https://www.louvre.fr/en
Pierre Soulages on Britannica: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Pierre-Soulages
Pierre Soulages on Christies: https://www.christies.com/features/Beyond-Black-Pierre-Soulages-10009-3.aspx
New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2022/10/26/arts/pierre-soulages-dead.html
Perspective Documentaries: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JMkV-r_6--o
“Pierre Soulages: Outrenoir” by Barbara Anastacio: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=azb6K-R_q8M
Artist Pierre Soulages, "The Master of Black" Report by CBS: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Eydws5jJ6ys