Interview with Jean-Yves Jouannais, « Everything gets mixed up in my mind », march 2011

Jean-Yves Jouannais

« Everything gets mixed up in my mind », march 2011

Jean-Yves Jouannais: I am most intrigued by the way you insist on giving a number of your canvasses an esoteric title, destined for a wide audience, and an esoteric, confidential, title. Even if you appear to do so in a playful way, I wanted to know if the images you create give themselves over to being deciphered via this double logic. Within these images is there, if we take a classic esoteric image, a shell and a kernel, a body and an inner core, or marrow all at the same time?

My reading of your partly auto-fictional book, Pertes humaines (Human Losses), has prompted me to conjure up a hypothesis. It is as though the core or marrow of your pictures was essentially comprised of matter rooted in the emotional turmoil of childhood and adolescence, whilst the shell or body was comprised of its adult, mature, and politicized manifestation. In particular, my mind turns to Noces Vermeilles (Blood Wedding) alias “La Vie de ma soeur” (The Life of My Sister), but also to La Troisième République (The Third Republic) alias “La Mort de Daniel” (The Death of Daniel).

Marc Molk: That’s true. It’s actually a little secret. You help me rid myself of it, just by bringing it out into the open. I like that… and am also embarrassed by it. I wouldn’t want people to think that I am an overly sophisticated person, which, perhaps, I am, unfortunately. Each of my paintings has an “official title” and a “private” title. As to whether others should try to search for or guess this hidden meaning, I think not. It is of no interest, it is always tied up with my private life. This would enclose each painting in a biographical anecdote of some sort instead of allowing it to live its life as a hermeneutic floating object.
The lives of those I love is what sets off emotional turmoil in me. That this turmoil, this emotional matter, this “marrow” which you talk about (which comes not only from childhood or adolescence, but, deep down, from an in-born sadness) is present, vital, is undeniable. It is the motivation behind the painting, plays a part in choosing which elements will go into its making, and more than anything, it determines who will be the work’s ideal audience, the recipient of it, “who” is, in a way, the “reason for the painting”. Roland Barthes wrote in A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments that when we express our views about Love, however theoretical they may be, we are always secretly addressing them to someone. Our views on love are always, no matter what people may say, “allocutive”. And, well, I think I also need this mechanism in order to paint (and also, for that matter, to write).
I then try to extract a maximum of equivocation from this primordial slush of the heart-strings. In doing this, the genre of allegory (though much disparaged, cheapened and with its reputation as being heavy-going) that I use in my work is perfect. It allows me to pretend to give a picture a fixed meaning whilst suggesting that several other meanings exist. In fact, as long as you don’t go over the top, willy-nilly style, with the whole paraphernalia of signs, it is a very subtle genre. What you have to measure out is the use of these symbols and how visible they are. They are, however, simply accessories which are relatively eye-catching, but which are not indispensable to an allegory; it’s a case of take it or leave it. As far as I can, I try to practice a deeply-buried form of symbolism. In bringing Christ’s crown into a picture, the effect is hard-hitting, at a previously mapped-out place. Everything then instantly becomes blurred if it is with a disco ball: is it the Earth? The Sun? The Night? Festival-time? Perdition? I think that with a hyena yawning in the corner, we are very far from the Square and Compasses. Ideally, I would like turn gestures and postures into symbols (c.f. Georges de La Tour, or of course Caravaggio), and hence, from this standpoint, my strong interest in dance, though for the moment my forays into this area have been extremely tentative ones. This burying of symbols gives rise to rather realistic allegories, and where the meaning is not enchained in any way.
I talk of my canvasses as being “hermeneutic floating objects” because I am not actively in the pursuit of a closed, premeditated form of coherency. In my pictures I introduce elements of a pertinent, confidential nature to me, as well as symbols which can be received within an allegorical framework, and finally elements which do not look like symbols, and which are, strictly speaking, not symbols, which are concerned with neither the intimate nor the public facet of the picture, and which nevertheless give hints as to its meaning. Except that, in truth, these hints don’t lead anywhere. My words will undoubtedly seem pedantic in the extreme but, from time to time, I play around with the aesthetics of how meaning is denoted, but without actually targeting any fully established meaning. I’m pulling the wool over people’s eyes, turning the evocative “allure” of a particular detail, under which nothing is hidden, to my advantage. My paintings are more than partly secret, but not in the way you might think, not in the way they lend themselves to be guessed at. On the canvas, there is a good deal of fantasy hermeticism, empty signifiers, and also elements used simply to create atmosphere. They “open up” the picture, or aerate it. It is a bit like a certain kind of poetry where, even if you never quite succeed, you have to get rid of the referent in order for the words to flourish. At other times, I often want to introduce a specific meaning, and can see very well that nobody will understand what I wanted to say. That said, I paint it all the same, in a conscious way, and point out to the person for whom the picture is originally intended (who hasn’t asked for anything and who is hardly ever the owner in fine), that an intention of mine is present at that particular place.
In conclusion, the title is essential, as it can transform, through the magic of naming, an ultimately very realist scene into pure representation, and all the details of the painting into potential symbols. It’s like pouring a cascade of champagne onto the summit of a pyramid of glasses, and strangely enough, the champagne filters down into the glasses at the base. In addition, the title levels everything out, and smoothes the whole, endowing it with the “finery” of unity, and an implacable logic. This is often all it takes. It’s almost too easy.
Within this jungle, each canvas then has a destiny, which I pay great attention to and which influences its meaning. Each canvas has a story, on its own scale. There are paintings that I keep hidden, and whose existence has to remain hidden from certain individuals, as there would be repercussions in the way of family problems for me. There are also canvasses which have given rise to misguided interpretations by close friends, but these interpretations are so beautiful that I would be totally incapable of refuting them, and I end up by using these interpretations myself.
Now, to answer your question directly: yes, there is a marrow and a shell but, I hope, or I would like to think that my work is such that there are thousands of marrows and thousands of outer shells. Of course there are. We always want everything. At the time of the revolution, it was common, admissible, natural even to add the odd couplet to “La Marseillaise”. Everyone added their little bit. This tradition was then lost, “official” couplets were added, and the result was La Marseillaise. With each election, or significant political event, “La Marseillaise” should find itself being re-written… so that, if it was within my powers, and was practicable, I would allow each viewer of my paintings to come up with a new title, or a supplementary title, which would mean something to him or her, and which they would then write down after the others on a never-ending cartel. It would be a good thing, this idea of each of my paintings becoming the “pretext” for a collective, infinite work literary work. Because, at the end of the day, the true meaning of a canvas is not that important. What counts is the intuition of a meaning that the picture procures for us.

J-YJ: At the end of his life, Michel Foucault attempted to firm up the intuition he had about the action of “truth-telling” or “dire vrai”. I don’t think he wrote anything on the subject but it was the topic of one of his last lectures at the Collège de France. It culminated in a description of three classic figures: the militant revolutionary, the philosophical hero and the damned artist. These three figures were, in his eyes, figures with a passion for the truth and who were never hindered by the fear of demagogy. According to him, these three figures stemmed from an improbable lineage that began with the Greek Cynics, and which then took an unexpected turn through Christian asceticism in the Middle Ages. It certainly is a strange sort of genealogy: bridging the gap between Diogenes and and the Dominicans ( the 13th century order of mendicant friars ) is no easy task. But what Foucault explains is that within this asceticism motivated by faith can be found a certain number of stances or comportments which are positively Cynic – such as the bias towards denudation, poverty and the rejection of the precepts of outward appearance… In The City of God, Saint Augustine himself recognizes this sharing of common roots between Cynic philosophy and Christianity as he saw it. Something of the same order can equally be found in the figure of Saint Jerome and his prevailing upon the Christians not to show themselves to be inferior to a philosopher such as Diogenes.
All of which leads me to say that I have the impression that on the threshold of your practice as an artist there is a vague, yet very potent desire towards this “truth-telling”, but which the combined effect of the techniques, tools, grammar and the spirit which you call upon in doing so tends to mask, conceal or even distort this “truth-telling”. You talk at length about your use of allegory. J.L. Borges wrote that, in his view, allegory was the clear manifestation of the propensity of all art to create falsehood and lies, and effectively made any artist a potential Gongora. This is where there is a very strong tension to the work, not at its heart, but at the very threshold of your work, and which makes it passionately interesting. It is as if the mission behind this strange taxonomy which you give yourself over to, showing us around your canvasses as if we were visiting lots of small shops displaying emblems, decorative motifs, and allegories and notwithstanding the “empty signifiers” or the “elements simply used to create atmosphere”, was to render opaque a place, or a spot where everything was in place and concurrent, ready for the truth to be told. This area of the psyche, which you designate from the onset, is the place where there is a fear of something: “As to whether others should try to search for or guess this hidden meaning, I think not. It is of no interest, it is always tied up with my private life. This would enclose each canvas in a biographical anecdote of some sort instead of allowing it to live its life as a hermeneutic floating object.”
What is the source of this feeling of enclosing, or inhibiting a work’s scope by linking it too explicitly to a biographical truth? My apologies for dragging you back to the very place where you don’t want to go.

MM: What possible worth can my life have? I’m not Napoleon, there will never be any crowning glory in painting if I search solely in that direction… It would only ever be bland.
As a notion, I admit that the truth is not overly important for me. To give you an example of an intimate nature, my grandmother, who had played the Lottery all her life, was, while on her deathbed in Marseilles, anxious to know that her daughter should be left wanting for nothing just as my parents were getting divorced. It worried her so much that it almost drove her to distraction, and in her groans she pressed my mother on the subject daily. My mother was in a state of acute distress herself, and was as incapable of reassuring her as she was of saving her. In the end, her daughter whispered in her ear: “Don’t worry Mummy. Don’t tell anyone, but last month, I won the Rollover Lottery!”. The only response that my grandmother, flabbergasted, was able to muster up was to sink back into her pillow and say: “Ah! Now you can see what use it was me playing all these years!”. She seemed immensely relieved, instantly, and smiled as she stared into space. That very evening, we were due to catch the ferry to Corsica, where we lived. In the middle of the night, the captain informed my mother of my grandmother’s death, as we had left the ferry company’s telephone number with the hospital. In the darkness of the cabin, my sister and I listened in silence to my mother’s crying. A short while later, my mother began playing daily, even though she had always considered the Lottery as being a silly game the purpose of which was to make the poor pay for their right to dream. She has been playing the Lottery for the last twenty years. If she does win, she could say to herself that she hadn’t really told a lie, she just got a bit mixed up with the dates. She will never stop playing… anyway, let’s move on, that’s not the issue here. Was my grandmother in need of the truth? Almost definitely not. I was about sixteen years old, and was in the room at that particular moment, at that moment of the invention the truth. I said nothing, I was dumbfounded. To me, this gesture, this lie that my mother told was aesthetically perfect. There was no hope for my grandmother, she had secondary cancer of the liver and had gone yellow, all over. Her suffering was unimaginable. We thought that her nightmare would last a few weeks more, but no. It ended that evening. What I am trying to say to you is that true love can be contained within a lie, and that it might be a deliverance.
Was this story of the Rollover Lottery believable? No, no more than the poems of Gongora aren’t sombre. It worked, however. There are occasions when the régime of the truth escapes from what is real, or conventional and when the essence of things works on a different level. Veridicality can be paradoxical. I often hear people saying: “After you’re dead, there’s nothing”. This same person might then confesses to feeling woeful, and there is no way of getting round it for them, it becomes an invisible yet very real obstacle. If you say to them something along the lines of: “Come on! Snap out of it”, they get very angry! However, what proof do they have of the existence of their woe apart from the following affirmation: “I am woeful?”. Within them, technically speaking, “there is nothing”, and you would have a job trying to find anything that carries the name of “woe” under their nails or behind their ears. However, this woe exists. Thus, I can assure you of one thing: you only have to say “paradise exists” in order for it to truly exist. We have just created it. The same goes for the truth. I am not only talking about how performative language can be in subjective terms, but of the effective performativity of language – in other words the performativity of language “for real” though it might be intangible, and unverifiable. Everything is true, absolutely true: one thing and its opposite, wet and dry, hard and fragile, etc. Thus, Le Courage de la vérité ( The Courage of the Truth ) is nothing more than the courage to live.
I’m not sure if this answers your question. I think not. It is undoubtedly more of a reaction than anything else. I think perhaps you are right to question me about the way my paintings beckon – and at the same time deviate from – a sort of radical biographical sincerity. You are right. I’m undoubtedly not serene enough to dedicate myself solely to the contemplation of life as it comes. Perhaps the form of painting I practice is impure. I feel as though I am caught in a pincer movement between a biographical urge, not in the name of the truth, but as historian of the lives of those close to me, and an urge that I would classify as being “Platonist”. The latter drives me to paint Ideas, abstractions, for other people: “La libération sexuelle” (Sexual Liberation) or “La promesse du bonheur” (The Promise of Happiness) are two examples of this. Using allegory is the only technique that I have found which allows me to bridge this within the same painting. J.L. Borges is very nice… but are we to cast aside Goya’s allegories for the sake of Borges and his diktats? No. Allegory is a genre of an insincere kind, it may well be, but I have answered this question of true and false. On a deeper level, I believe that what people hold against allegory is this form of naïvety which we prevent ourselves from believing in. This naïvety seems false to us because it is we who are the true cynics (you spoke of noble cynicism, and here I am exposing its aporia). The paintings of French classicism in the 17th century put allegory at the top of the hierarchy of genres and it somehow made spectators feel majestic, stemming from a grandeur of meaning. Except that who, in this day and age, still thinks, in absolute terms, about “l’humiliation de l’innocent châtié” (roughly translated as “the humiliation of he that is refined, innocent”) or the beauty of the notion of “mitigating circumstances”, when confronted with an allegory of Justice? Of course this type of image does not ring true. It’s because of the emptiness or hollowness within us!
I am brave indeed to paint allegories. Not just in the face of the mocking triumph of materialism (with its demands for hardcore realism, as if the thirst for something concrete, void of any symbolic constraint, or any outside referent, had yet to be quenched). Not just in the face of modern barbarity’s mockery (which abandons us, and we find ourselves in the midst of things, not knowing whether we are on our arses or our elbows, with the only comfort being that we can either buy or sell them). And not just in the face of all these forms of mockery which straightaway, a priori, discredit my paintings. You need to be brave to stick it out, flying in the face of the malicious (malicious in the sense of taking pleasure from being cynical. My paintings already secretly send a shiver up the spines of the malicious). I’m brave.
Furthermore, I don’t think I do so exaggeratedly, allowing myself to slide down the slippery slope of allegories which are jam-packed with symbols, or of corny, Bouguereau-style, allegories. Me too, I have a hard time with frippery, excess, and fussy affectation. I’m a bit of a Quevedo. I talked about how I bury symbols in my paintings, and you will also notice that they are not “crammed” with different elements, nor is there any Baroque-like accumulation. I also take great care with what is important in giving an allegory a long-lasting after-taste: severity. By this I mean the severity or “severe style” that could be said of ancient Greek sculpture. I am concerned with striking a balance, I try to marry virility with a lightness of touch (though I’m not saying I succeed, I only try). At the same time, I try to keep away from austerity of the likes of David, or Gerhard Richter (Richter’s figurative work… mind you, his abstract painting is similarly austere) but also from the sugary, icing on the cake variety (that’s something I’ve already gone into. What is more – and this really takes the biscuit – under certain conditions I might be easily forgiven for it myself, Californian kitsch having gone that way.)
See, there’s the answer to your question: I think I’m committed to a fight of a different kind, beyond that of me, myself and I. Through painting, and to the best of my abilities, I want to play my part in the fight for an invisible world, for the invisible world. And this is what diverts my attentions away. I would dearly wish to devote myself to painting of a more intimate, gentle and exclusive nature. I often dream of it, it’s a project of mine. Which I will never manage to do.

J-YJ: I have a similar belief in the invisible world, and I do not recollect vindicating cynicism in any way, however noble cynicism may be. By digging deeper into the inner workings of Idiocy, what I was specifically trying to do was to set about uncovering modern, and then, contemporary forms of esoterism. I definitely was not in the pursuit of sniggering buffoonery nor big-top, cheap laughs.
I love what you write in your brilliant, convincing defence of Allegory, and the way you illustrate it. It is precisely this way in which the artist feels threatened by his or her art, and the degree of this threat, which creates this spectrum of different levels of intensity that Harald Szeeman regarded as the only true manifestations of art. The work we do must not be our suit of armour. What astounds me, however, is your evocation of French 17th century classicism. If there is one thing I believe in, it is the Republic. You too ; you confided it to me.
Thus, I was expecting from you more of an evocation of the virtues of the Allegory during the Republican era. In short, I was anticipating Phrygian caps and Marianne’s naked breast rather than lady Justice inspired by Cesare Ripa’s Iconologia.
This question is particularly interesting to me, not for ideological reasons, but because I see works as prisms that emit a light whose age or origin, or in other words, whose pedigree, we are not always in a position to recognize. So I wanted to know what the source was of this brightness that shines from the Allegories figuring on your canvasses. In the same way, I wanted you to take us back upstream on the river which carries away Ophelia in your work. I also wanted you to shed light on the pedigree of this dead belle blossoming in the moonlight.

MM: As for the invisible world, you revealed one to us in its entirety in Artistes sans oeuvres (Artists Without Works) – I would prefer not to. I know that you are neither a cynic nor a nihilist (each of us is something of a cynic and a nihilist, though we are a lot more than just that), and I know that the Idiocy that you champion is linked with idiosyncrasy and with a game of hide-and-seek. I apologize, I allow myself to get carried away in a vehement, more than slightly paranoid way because it is not hard to see the contradictions, peculiarities, and shortcomings of my explanations… I’m not a systematic-type painter, who is able to talk flawlessly about his pictures, without blundering. Though I can see very well that people might think it to be the case, that this is the impression I give… and I blame myself both for not being this ultra, ultra-lucid, ultra-coherent painter, whilst I pass for being one, simply because I talk too much and because I’ve got views on everything. Neither am I one of those uncompromising, instinctive painters that almost paints his canvasses “from the outside in”, and whose compulsive response to any question is be to dish up the pocket mythology of “oh, it just came to me!” phrases that can so often be heard coming out of the mouths of these Robo-painters. In my exchanges with you, I ask myself questions about the nature of my views, even though it’s not the right place. I have the feeling of laying myself wide open, when what I would really like is a suit of armour. Let’s just say that you shouldn’t take it for granted that everything I tell you about my paintings is like a fine mesh net, made from tough nylon, and which I could cast off in style, without batting an eyelid… it wouldn’t catch anything. It is more of a strange-looking raft, a skein of odd pieces of wood, relatively well bound together… But I think it floats (I am on top of it in any case), and sails (in fits and starts only). You ought to know that the different sides, or half-sides, of my thinking together make up a sort of raft.
As for the use of Allegory, I would like to point out that certain of my pictures are not allegorical. They are in the minority, and thus I talk little about them. I mention this as an affirmation of the pre-eminence of the painting itself in my work. The painting is the priority. I take pains to produce a global aesthetic proposition, which then rapidly fades into the background if the canvas I am painting leads me elsewhere. What we call “style” is the same as sweating. We always sweat the same sweat, regardless. I cannot see the point in premeditating or pigeon-holing “your style” in advance. As in the seventies, some people might fantasize that they have been attributed with the monopoly on green circles, others with lattice work… It was already a bit pathetic at the time, nowadays it would be quite simply grotesque! I don’t even think about style. With this natural sweating of style creeping into everything, I am wary of giving myself free rein when it comes to trying out a new trick or a shortcut in one of my paintings. The point of all this is to further relativize the idea of a flawlessly worked out coherence to my work, whether it be formal or, in this instance, stylistic. Even to the extent of publicly shooting myself in the foot.
Regarding France’s 18th century Grand Siècle, I mentioned this era because it was a sort of golden age for the spirit of mythology and the paintings of the Church, and thus of allegory. Aesthetically speaking, I will admit to you that I personally have an immense admiration for the XVIIIth century. Politically, I am a nasty republican with distinctly Third Republic tendencies, all Black Hussars and no-holds barred laicism. Nevertheless, I know very well that France wasn’t born in 1789, I can feel it. Moreover, France’s kings played their part in making France what it is, its grandeur, its History and its Genius (some people are just going to love that). So, as a painter, I firmly believe that I am very transversal.
Digging deeper, however, I would be inclined to find the allegories of the XIXth century a bit naff. The XIXth century is what dug a hole for the use of allegory. It turned it either into a sort of utterly predictable, univocal political tract, or into panels used for the decoration inside the palaces of the Second Empire. It both “secularized” and “castrated” the use of allegory.
Liberty Leading the People again brings up the subject of Liberty, though to a certain extent it also assigns it to something. This assignation, this realism was all very pleasing. At that moment in time, this eruption of the use of allegory onto the scene, into “modern-day” History, was very potent. And with the figure of Liberty manning the barricades alongside Gavroche, entering into the Heraclitean flow of events, it was stunning. Except that a few decades down the line, such use of allegory cheapened it as a genre. It was sold off in the name of thousands of unworthy causes, before being engulfed by ideology and then reduced to the ranks of propaganda imagery… (Saying that though, looking back on it, allegory was already under the thumb of political power in the XVIIth century, though not systemically, which makes all the difference). At the end of the day, allegories such as Bouguereau’s “The Night” (though actually rather well done. I have nothing against Bouguereau, I would love to have one at home, it would certainly create a stir in up-tight circles) are so soppy, so utterly vain and inoffensive, that they stopped bringing discredit onto the allegory by turning it into the silent butler for the excessive sentimentality of the floozies that used to barge eachother out of the way in order to be the first up the stairs of the Opera Garnier. There was much outstanding allegory in the XIXth century, except that it suffered from a century of “over-exploitation”, and the sap ran dry.
Later, some of the great surrealists like Magritte tried to breath new life into the genre, with such marvels as, for example, La condition humaine (The Human Condition) (and others, quite a few actually).
But even though we had seen a return to strong doses of poetry and metaphysics, there was, alas, no-one there to see it. Nobody was there to take a serious look at these works, to take in the full weight of these canvasses, and much fun was had with what were taken as being plays on words or professional dreamers and their nonsense. I will always remember, a few years back, this young American girl who was in the queue behind me for the Louvre. She was getting ready to buy tickets for the whole family and on coming across the naked breasts of La Liberté guidant le peuple (Liberty Guiding the People) (we’re back again) on a 100 franc note, she suddenly went bright red and, with her hand covering her mouth exclaimed: “Oh my God, the French are totally crazy! Look at this! They put naked women on their money!”. Once she went into the museum, I ask myself whether she had the chance to make the link with the original painting, and more to the point, with all of the revolutionary symbolism of the nourishing breast. I doubt it.
In the evenings, I read (along with Babar the Elephant, and Noddy) my children extracts from Greek mythology. I do my best to be a good parent. I explain to them that Daedalus was father to Icarus, that they flew off together, and that he himself did not perish. I explain that it was he who conceived the labyrinth in which they were both imprisoned. I talk to them about Styx, the nymph, who ended up by giving her name to one of the rivers of Hell, and of the coin that was slid into the mouths of the dead as payment to Charon the ferryman of the dead for their passage into the other world. I try to pave the way for the construction of a giant “pinball meaning machine” inside them. At a later stage, every painting, or every book they read will go into this machine, and the flashing lights and noises will be much brighter and noisier. Now that all the necessary precautions have been taken, I can talk to you seriously about Ophelia. What you were evoking in your question was undoubtedly, officially speaking La Marseillaise (The Marseillaise), or “Brunette Ophelia”, officiously speaking, and which in fact represents my daughter in a sort of sarcophagus of pom-poms, and which she almost appears to be flying out of.
It all began when, after having politely detested Bonnard for years and years, I realized that I had been an ass, and that I had overlooked an elephant without seeing it. Since then Bonnard has been a great source of sustenance for me. With all its bath-tubs and Marthes lying down in them, it became obvious that what his work was a compulsive re-examination of the myth of Ophelia (a terribly erotic allegory about love pains, and suicidal love. Look at that! Yet another allegory). In a biography about Marthe written by a British authoress, I discovered that Marthe, who suffered just as much from persistent asthma as she did from “nervous disorders”, had, in actual fact been constantly “on the brink of suicide”. I also discovered that, along with Pierre, their lives were spent between stays at the sanatorium accompanied by Pierre, and time spent in idyllic country houses (the existence of a family fortune spared them from financial worries). Thus, Bonnard painted many of his canvasses by putting them up on the walls of the rooms that Marthe stayed in during her treatment. He knew exactly what he was painting. Well, my painting is a nod in the direction of Marthe, and to this long line of Ophelias, given that there have been hordes of them, often verging on the ridiculous, but romantic to the hilt and strongly hypnotic (like the very famous one indeed by John Everest Millais, this ultra-corny masterpiece, the sublime nature of which reaches new heights). There you have the “pedigree” of this canvas…
My mind suddenly goes back to when we were in the studio and you asked me why I so often painted people lying down, and I replied by referring to the tradition of recumbent statues. The response was satisfactory, truthful, but somehow seemed a bit too predictable, obvious. In writing to you now, it seems clear to me that each of these recumbent statues is in fact an Ophelia, or an Ophelia-like figure. It’s all a bit mind-boggling for me. If we look first at the black soldier in L’Empire français (The French Empire), whom we are not sure whether he is asleep or dead, floating in a very aquatic gradation of colours. And then at the Bosquet de Vénus (Venus’s Copse), where Marie-Antoinette is lying on the cacti, putting on a post mortem-like grace. And not forgetting Le stade du Vel’d’Hiv’ (Vel’d’Hiv’ Stadium), where all these bodies piled on top of eachother are reminiscent of the way twigs floating on the surface of a stream sometimes get stuck in one of the bank’s recesses, and form a bundle which has been abandoned by the current… I am now realizing that even the mere fact of using water in the making of my paintings, and of drowning them beneath coloured juices, could be likened to an Ophelia-like process… I didn’t think it was so significant, or at least that this figure could be quite so operant… I realize that this was undoubtedly the primary intuition behind your question regarding Ophelia, and that what you supposed would be evident for me I have only just come to realize… or that it was you that handed me the key. She is absolutely essential… this is a revelation to me.

J-YJ: Yes, if the Rimbaud-like sleeper in the valley featuring in The French Empire had been just a recumbent statue, there would be no reason why his feet should have been left out of the frame. We do not see much more of Ophelia’s tootsies in the painting by Millais, possibly because they are hidden from our view by her dress or because they are concealed by the water. Or more than likely because the image itself did not “frame” them. If you think there is any point in it, I would like you to talk in more detail about this aspect of hydraulic activity in your work. Your mention of “the act of drowning them beneath coloured juices”, troubles me greatly in that I ask myself whether this truly is – and to what extent? – a dream of yours to bring into being a river, and to use it to irrigate the image you create. A dream not just to imitate or mime the river, but to physically summon its flow, and to invoke Heraclitus through the very flow of his river.

MM: I was deeply impressed by Yves Klein’s “fire-painting”, in which the only marks left on the surface of the canvasses were the curls of a blowtorch flame. I took onboard this idea of making the elements paint, and made it mine. I wanted water, the air and the earth to do the painting. The same goes for fire but I am yet to find my own method with fire. I use the airbrush for the air as well as ready-made paint sprays, and this allows me to obtain, to my taste, some very gentle “dispersal” effects. Concerning the ground or the earth, I spread particles of it across the surface of my canvasses and they then become embedded and alter the way these juices, the ones I was talking to you about, divide up. Most of the time the purpose of these juices is to “colourize” my canvasses, which are often originally in black and white. The already-painted canvasses are placed horizontally, and I then pour the coloured juices or juice onto their surfaces.
While these juices are still liquid, I work them via spraying different things on them or by angling the canvas in different directions. I also use earth and other solid elements as obstacles. This extends to the use of different type of pulses: lentils, rice, dried beans, etc. During this phase, I paint “with water”, or am accompanied by it. Later on, I then go back to the juice, but this time with oil-based glazes. This is why I mentioned an “Ophelia-like” process, even if in the case of L’Empire français(The French Empire), the juice preceded the painting of the soldier, as it did, moreover, in the La Marseillaise (The Marseillaise), where the juice preceded the painting of the child. The juice, or “the river” was there before the soldier or my daughter dived in, if you like. However, the figure is often painted prior to the juice, leading to the drowning of the figure, in the true sense of the word, at a given moment in the making of the painting. Then comes the matter of choosing what reappears and what stays down below (I sometimes make these choices “during”. I have my little secrets for how heads are kept out of the water). Yves Klein also did “rain-paintings”, made by fixing blank canvasses to the roof of his car before embarking on a trip from Paris to Marseilles in gloomy weather. The work that I, myself, do consists of fluvial paintings or current-sensitive paintings. It is these axial or radial colour currents that the curious-minded can observe on my canvasses, and which create the spatial distribution for the structuring of the space around or across the figures on the canvas.
This water has immense power because it brings a “realist” foundation to my canvasses. I use the word “realist” in that they become nothing more than plaques or plates on which a large quantity of random accidents is recorded. Viewed from a certain distance, there always seems to be a logic behind their organisation, which we would have a job to qualify in simple terms, but which is, let us say, the logic of water, the logic of reality in its movement, and which is independent of my will. I am not the author of this logic, all I try to do is to capture it, integrate it into my canvasses and then to organize all the plans that I had for the picture around it. Thus, I can confirm to you that when I use the expression “drown”, I use it literally. This is, however, no more than a phase or a technique in the making of my paintings, and which although certainly important, plays only a very specific role. I am perhaps wrong to do so, but I have a mistrust of all that is fascinating. Water is one such thing. I wouldn’t want to drown in it as well (however romantic the idea may be).

J-YJ: In the course of your career, which still has many years ahead of it, do you, in your work as an artist, have any recollections of a piece – a painting, though it might also be a book or some other object – that was not anecdotal in the slightest, which should even have been of great or paramount importance, and which would have thrown new light on the rest of your work, but which, for a host of different reasons, you either did not know how to or were unable to give shape to it? It might have been for sentimental reasons, difficulties with inspiration, or because you were afraid or lacked experience, on account of technical, ideological or other impossibilities.

MM: Your question saddens me. It takes me back to all my outlandish ambitions, to all the dreams that I had for each painting, each manuscript and, which clearly never came to fruition. I don’t know about other people, but as far as I am concerned, the residue left over by all my ambitions is public, being there for all to see: my paintings. Saying that, many of them have been destroyed. With regards to what remains, one possible answer I could give to you is that I did not know how to, nor had the ability, to find the right shape for anything that was in my mind.
I think I’m making progress from the technical point of view. I can feel it, technically speaking. I think that it is possible to make progress as an artist. There comes a time when you cross a threshold, that of expression, and this allows you to be identified. Even as we speak, I’m not entirely sure whether I have crossed this threshold. Perhaps we have put the cart before the horse in doing this interview. What we should do, if possible, is to have this same conversation in ten year’s time.
You evoke a lack of experience, and it certainly plays a role: a lack of experience of oneself. Knowing when to stop, or when to say no to a particular effect; carrying on believing that an almost-dead canvas can be brought back to life; being capable of working for a long time or not, etc. Painting rapidly reveals to you the dominant features of your character. You very quickly get an idea of what you are made of. What is called “experience” is far more of a metamorphosis of character than the accumulation of knowledge. Painting quickly confronts you with questions of regret, abandonment, and hope, as well as your beliefs. And all this just in your work as an artist, independent of the result… the individual’s character, thus, has to adapt, fake it, or harden… adapt, above all. You can see very quickly whether you are a bit cowardish or inspired, or whether you are afraid or ready to throw caution to the wind. In the space of a week you accumulate more “experience” in these specific, ethical fields than in a year of ordinary life. After this, you work on what is there, and you seek to perfect yourself or give it all up.
You also talk of “sentimental reasons” behind creative failure, and I’m not sure if you know just how spot-on it is, and to what extent they are important: “sentimental reasons”. When you get on in your years, when you are are past your mid-twenties that is, when you are an adult for good, the main obstacle you face is sclerosis not just of the knees, but of our feelings. We hunch up over memories of former loves, which are no longer as painful as all that, and which no longer affect us directly in any case, time having dampened their blows. We make fun of young love, snigger, and are secretly envious of this basic impulse whilst no longer having the slightest idea what stuff it is made of, nor how these idiots can be so blind and naïf, so new to the world. When you paint, however, you have to draw upon emotional risk if you want to bring the best out of yourself. With a bit of experience, you can quite easily paint some beautiful canvasses, but to get the best out of yourself, you need to lay yourself on the line. That is a difficult thing to do, far more so than perfecting the making of binding agents or the wielding of marten-hair brushes. When I was on the telephone to a friend yesterday, we spoke about something which is a fundamental belief of mine: watching insincerity battle against itself is undoubtedly a more authentic, more universal spectacle than that of restful sincerity, which effortlessly says it all. It is possible to see, on a canvas, if the painter was sincere or insincere, and especially whether he has “tried” to be sincere. This has the effect of setting in motion the mechanisms of authentic pathos, which are very moving. Paradoxical intentions, or, in fact intentions alone can be the basis for a successful painting.
Ideologically speaking (my apologies for going back in turn, in a scholastic way, to each of the terms you used, it’s just that I don’t want to forget anything), ideologoically speaking then, I think I have freed myself of several idiotic worries of mine. The first of these is to to do “contemporary” painting. Contemporariness is greatly inferior to idiosyncrasy, and my present aim is to produce painting of an absolute sincerity, which is totally mine, singular (by which I mean personal, rather than strange). I have also freed myself from the political context in France and its contempt for painting. I am past caring now, I exhibit my work abroad as soon as the occasion presents itself… plus things have changed slightly in these last five tears (not fundamentally, just a little). Though what I need to do is to free myself of all the hustle and bustle in my life. You will be asking yourself what this remark is doing here in the ideological bit. I worship other people, encounters, friends, the Internet… I need to relieve myself of all these distractions, all these people. They take up huge amounts of my time. The only problem is that I am afraid of being on my own. I know several artists that have been forgotten by those around them because they have chosen to dedicate themselves uncompromisingly to the studio. I need to be surrounded by a throng of people, an intelligent throng. Besides, even outside of my painting, I need it. Simply because I’m scared stiff of being alone in the world, like everyone else is.
Right, I can sense that I’m not really giving an answer to your question. On re-reading it, I find myself turning into the racehorse on a steeplechase who, for no reason, comes to a halt at the last, multi-coloured hurdle. For the moment, what I esteem to be my best piece of work is Malabar (Chewing-gum). The latter is a little pink vulva, a light-chestnut coloured fleece, a zooming in on L’Origine du monde(The Origin of the World), a frame around a gaping cervix, a “hole” which is more gynaecological than Courbet’s sombre cavity. Let’s say that I am sure of the effect it has as a canvas. It is, however, nothing compared to several of the canvasses that I wanted to paint but which, lamentably, were ditched…
If I now call upon this inner-core or marrow, this kernel that you talked about at the beginning of our interview, this is all that I have to say: when I was about ten years old, I was living in Guadeloupe. During this time, I tried, on several occasions, to paint a lambis, a sort of magnificent West Indian shellfish that I had come across in reproductions of the painting by Odilon Redon, and which were to be found in all the markets over there. I only had gouache from school. After a few attempts, I succeeded. The picture I painted was a faithful recreation of this big fat pink shellfish, just like in the picture of the painting, and, moreover, was done in a similar style: watery, and blurred. From the next day onwards, I tried something different. I took an interest in drawing, by which I mean strokes on a page, and it took me a good thirty or so years before I came back to using water – to take up the memory of this childlike copy from where I left it. If a key work exists, it is, as I am speaking to you now, this one. Remember, of course, that this is a memory of something, and that it has undoubtedly been embellished beyond recognition, and that this gouache painting is almost definitely no different from any other childlike splurge of gouache. Without a doubt, I have, for the last thirty years, continually mistaken my pitiful, prep school lambis for Odile Redon’s sumptuous “shell”. Everything gets mixed up in my mind.

(translated from french by Jonathan Waite)

Interview published in Marc Molk : Ekphrasis, label hypothèse & D-Fiction editions (January 2012) :

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