O n the occasion of the retrospective exhibition organized at the end of this year by the Musée du Louvre to celebrate his 100th birthday, Pierre Soulages (born on December 24, 1919) welcomes us in his Sète-based studio. The artist looks back at the beginning of his career and talks about his relationships with museums, along with his great stained glass commissioned work at Conques.
Guy Boyer: Would you say that your career really began, or rather that you received your first artistic recognition, with the 1948 exhibition on French abstract painting that travelled throughout Germany?
Pierre Soulages: More or less. Marie-Amélie zu Salm-Salm explains it well in the catalogue for the exhibition of my drawings held in Antibes in 2016. I was 18 when I came to Paris for the first time. I left Rodez to pass the entry exam of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts de Paris in order to become a drawing teacher. But I was disappointed by the curriculum and went back to Rodez. However, I had gone to the Musée du Louvre and seen the exhibitions of Cezanne and Picasso. I lived in Montpellier after I was demobilized in 1941, and I would often visit the Musée Fabre to admire its masterpieces. I stopped painting during the war and went back to it only in 1946. Back in Paris, I tried exhibiting at the Salon d’Automne, but I was not selected. Nobody had ever seen my work yet. Francis Bott, a German painter, told me that the Salon d’Automne was not for me, and advised me to present my paintings at the Salon des Surindépendants. I did not know anybody. There was no jury; and for a small amount, artists were given three meters of picture rail to show. A few artists my age, like Alberto Fabra and Javier Vilato, offered me to exhibit with them. Not in the main exhibition room, because there were Clovis Trouille’s paintings and it didn’t fit, but in the second one. Next to the other very colorful works, my black paintings stood out. They caught visitors’ attention.
Afterwards, Roberta Gonzalez, the daughter of the Spanish sculptor Julio Gonzalez, told me her husband liked them. Her husband was the abstract painter Hans Hartung! And Christine Boumeester claims that Francis Picabia thought my works were the most beautiful in the fair. Reusing Pissaro’s warning to him, Picabia then told me: “Given your age and your talent, you’ll soon have a lot of enemies!” The following year, at the Salon des Réalités Nouvelles, Dr. Ottomar Domnick, the organizer of the “Grosse Ausstellung französischer abstrakter Malerei” exhibition, decided to include me in his selection, along with Del Marle, Kupka, Herbin and Schneider. Although I was the youngest artist of the show, one of my works was used for the poster of this exhibition that travelled all throughout Germany. This poster played quite a big role because it was immediately pinned at the circle of American artists, to which Robert Motherwell and Franz Kline belonged, before they turned to abstraction. Then came the Phillips Gallery in Washington, and the Guggenheim and the MoMA in New York at the beginning of the 1950s.
GB: Who discovered you in France?
PS: In France, it was Lydia Conti who discovered my work, and especially my walnut-stain paintings, in 1949. They had quite a lot of success among artists. The first state support I received was for the theater set I created for Roger Vailland’s piece, Héloïse et Abélard, and the first acquisition date back to 1950. One day, Jean Cassou, the director of the Musée d’Art Moderne, sent someone to my studio to meet me. He thought my works “was very beautiful, but, he said, they would not fit in a kindergarten”. You can imagine my surprise. He had come to commission a decorative kindergarten project! It never saw the light of course. Pierre Daix (although a communist- and god knows how much communists were against abstract art) was the first one to realize that my works played with light and not darkness; that they were not about the black value but about the light it reveals. I had to go further, “beyond black”.
GB: In the 1950s-70s, colors like yellow, red and blue pierced under the black, mostly through scraping; but since 1979, you have been using black only. What difference to you make between “black light” and “beyond black”?
PS: I forged the concept of “beyond black” to go beyond optical effects; since reflection on a black surface is an optical phenomenon. It also appeals to people’s sensitivity and imagination when they like a painting. So I felt I needed another expression than “black light”, which I was using then. It was at that time that I thought about “beyond black”. It characterizes the reflection of light on the various states of black surfaces. The topic of these monopigment paintings is not the black value in itself, but the light it reveals.
GB: How did the huge Conques project come about?
PS: The big commission work for the stained glasses of Conques came much later. At first, I was only supposed to make stained glasses for the transept of the Church of Sainte-Foy. But Dominique Bozo, who had left the Centre Pompidou for the Ministry of Culture, quickly saw that such a grand place needed unity. So, between 1987 and 1994, I worked on creating hundred and four stained glasses for the abbey. They received much praise. The main idea of this project for me was to modulate and play with the light through creating a surface that seemed to emit brightness, and in harmony with the sacred dimension of the roman architecture. Meanwhile, the mayor of Montpellier, Georges Freche, was chasing me to do something in his town. Several times, he offered to open a museum at my name, but I always refused.
Finally, in 2007, he suggested building a new wing to the Musée Fabre. My wife Colette and I donated about twenty artworks that I came to hung with the museum staff. Then, there was the project in Rodez with the museum designed by the Spanish RCR Arquitectes, which probably contributed to them receiving the Pritzker Prize for Architecture in 2017, three years after the opening of the museum. Today it is home to my walnut-stain works, some paintings and etchings, and the 96 cardboards of the stained glasses of Conques, some of which are more than 3,50-meter high. I agreed for the Rodez museum to bear my name on the condition that 500m2 would be dedicated to other artists, and that I would not be involved in the selection process of these guest artists.
GB: Paris had its share too…
PS: Parisian institutions were not very responsive at first, but they caught up later on. In 1979, I presented my first black paintings at the brand new Centre Pompidou -the ones that focused on the “beyond black”. It was the same year than the release of the movie Jean-Michel Meurice made about me, which received the Grand Prix of the Art Film Festival in Paris three years later. In 1996, Suzanne Pagé proposed a backward retrospective show entitled “Black Light” at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. And the Centre Pompidou also held a major exhibition of my work in 2009.
GB: What about the Louvre?
PS: Three times, the Louvre was crucial in my career. The first time, I was featured in the “Polyptyques” exhibition curated by Michel Laclotte. One of my multiple-panel compositions got hung among classical works, some of which from the 13th century. I was told that Francis Bacon got struck by my painting. But I wasn’t there. The second time, it was for my 90th birthday. The museum had put one of my works next to The Battle of San Romano by Paolo Uccello in the Square Salon.
Despite its monumentality and golden frame, it looked smaller than I thought. I asked for my painting to be placed ten centimeters away from the wall. I didn’t want it to stand on the same level than this classical masterpiece. And this year, in 2019, the Louvre is dedicating me an entire exhibition for my 100th birthday. I believe only Matisse and Picasso enjoyed a retrospective exhibition in this prestigious place.
Interview conducted by Guy Boyer in Sète, May and July 2019.