Peinture, 21 Novembre 1959 is a magisterial painting dating from one of the most significant periods of Pierre Soulages’ superlative career: an outstanding body of work that spans more than sixty years so far. By the end of the 1950s Soulages had achieved international recognition, having exhibited at the 26th Venice Biennale in 1952, in group shows at The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York in 1953 and 1959 and the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam in 1957, as well as extensively at galleries within Europe and America. At his first showing in America at the beginning of the 1950s, Soulages’ work attracted comparisons with that of the Abstract Expressionist artist Franz Kline: “Both these painters with significant differences in method seem well along the royal road to a new absolute expression; both are making significant history in the drama of contemporary abstract painting…” (Sam Hunter cited in: Pierre Encrevé, Soulages, L’oeuvre complet, Peintures, I. 1946-1959, Paris 1994, p. 158). The 1950s also saw important developments within Soulages’ painting in terms of technique and practice. In order to accommodate the increasingly large size of the canvases, necessary so as to give full rein to the artist’s expressive use of pigment, Soulages began placing his canvases on the floor as a support, and built a wooden contraption that enabled him to stand above ground in order to paint the middle of the composition. The paintings of the 1950s are imbued with a growing luminosity and dominated by increasingly powerful sweeps of paint: Soulages employed large scale builder’s brushes as well as constructing a ‘lame’, a tool composed of a piece of rubber at the end of a long piece of wood, which enabled him to cover the canvas with sweeping washes of colour. Peinture, 21 Novembre 1959 encapsulates these significant developments within Soulages’ technique, projecting a feeling of concerted authority and undeniable presence.
The importance of Peinture, 21 Novembre 1959 is attested to by its distinguished exhibition history, having being featured in major shows at an international level, including the VII Bienal de São Paulo in 1963, and the Musée National d'Art Moderne (1967) in Paris. Magnificently thick washes of midnight blue pigment adorn the upper level of the canvas, tinged with sweeping suggestions of cobalt and gleaming sapphire hues. The striking white of the background provides a dazzling visual contrast, resulting in a superbly multifaceted and stunningly dramatic painting. The powerful arcs of the brushstrokes are suggestive of some primeval geological formation, plunging and ascending in an ancient primitive dance. Soulages was strongly inspired by the rugged carved monoliths and menhirs that abound near Rodez in Southern France, the place of his birth: in its commanding sense of solidity and strength, Peinture, 21 Novembre 1959 appears to pay homage to these ancient sculptural forms. A further source of influence is cited by Bernard Ceysson, who notes that: “Soulages is a great admirer of the simplicity and grandeur of Cistercian architecture… In this space defined by the musical rhythm of pure and implacable geometry, light merges into darkness” (Bernard Ceysson, Soulages, Italy 1980, p. 18). This statement appears especially apposite with regards to Peinture, 21 Novembre 1959, in which the soaring curves of the paint markings are arguably reminiscent of the remarkable vaulting found within cathedrals and churches of the medieval era. Peinture, 21 Novembre 1959 brilliantly conveys a sense of striking dichotomies and opposition, with the stark contrast between the dark and light areas of the canvas evoking the ancient concepts of Yin and Yang, masculine and feminine, night and day. These disparate yet irresistibly complementary forces appear to act in magnificent concert through the glorious complexity of the differing textures and hues within Peinture, 21 Novembre 1959.
Peinture, 21 Novembre 1959 magnificently illustrates Soulages’ abiding fascination with the significance of form over illusion: the commandingly linear passage of the strokes of paint exist in a world entirely unencumbered by allusions of objectivity. Yet, despite this apparent negation of any element of imagery, the expressively delineated washes of pigment arguably recall one of Soulages’ earliest influences, the sight of bare tree branches dramatically silhouetted against an icy sky: “Was my childhood fondness for bare trees due to my love of black as a colour? Or was it the other way round? Did I begin to love black because of the trees in winter without their leaves; because of the way the black trunks and branches stood out against the background of sky or snow, making them look brighter by contrast…” (the artist cited in: Ibid., p. 60). Whilst the strong gestural nature of the paint surface within Soulages’ work invites associations with the paintings of the American Abstract Expressionist artists, in particular Kline, Soulages is much more deliberate in method, anchoring each sweep of pigment irrevocably in place on the canvas with authoritative precision. The result is a work that, despite the energetic movements of the paint surface which dominate the upper level of the composition, is suggestive of meditative profundity: a work that encourages intense contemplation and cogitation on the part of the viewer. Soulages has consistently resisted attempts to categorise his painting through chronological means, declaring that: “I don’t depict. I don’t narrate. I don’t represent. I paint, I present” (the artist cited in: 'Interview with Michel Peppiatt' , Art International, November-December, 1980). Soulages’ corpus is thus imbued with an air of timelessness, transcending conventional limitations of era or decade to project a singular beauty of form, colour and texture. Peinture, 21 Novembre 1959 masterfully encapsulates these theories in its suggestion of immutability and agelessness, moving resoundingly beyond traditional artistic issues and ideals to express a sensation of deep universality and significance. Ultimately Peinture, 21 Novembre 1959 is a truly exquisite painting which eloquently articulates Soulages’ primary concerns during a highly significant period of the artist’s creative development.