Pierre Soulages

Pierre Soulages

Pierre Soulages is a multi-faceted artist with skills ranging from engraving, painting, and sculpting. He is one of the very few 20th century artists that are still alive today. He was particularly born in 1919 and in 2014, Francois Hollande thought that he is the “world’s greatest living artist.”

The French born artist is known for his passion for Roman art. Thus, he is keen to creating Roman monuments as well as engravings inspired by menhirs and dolmens from Rodez. As a matter of fact, these works of art are said to have inspired him first to become a professional artist before anything else. He has only discovered modern art by the time he visited Paris and there he saw Picasso’s and Paul Cezanne’s exhibitions. However, the encounter would prove to be a contributing factor to his decision to stick to classical art rather than absorbing those modern influences. This prompted him to return to his hometown instead and continued experimenting with his color palettes, but he focused on black/dark shades.

To Soulages, “black has been fundamental for me since childhood”, which he would be well-known for during the latter years of his career. He has even coined the term “outrenoir” which means beyond black in English and made it as his signature art style likewise to how Robert Ryman viewed white and how Yves Klein viewed blue. Therefore, Pierre Soulages is dubbed as the painter of black by many of his contemporaries.

He explains, “When light is reflected on black, it transforms and transmutes it. It opens up a mental field all of its own”. Apparently, he gives the color black a new and deeper meaning that other artists may have failed to perceive. Soulages views light as an element of nature to work with and so he used black as an approach to making light reflect on the surface of his black-painted canvas. As the light reflects on the surface, the black should be released from darkness and go straight into brightness. As a result, the painting affects a very vibrant and glowing color.

Some examples of Pierre Soulages’ notable art works include the following:

  • Etching No. 2 (1952)
  • Untitled (1956)
  • Lithographie 22 (1969)
  • Serigraphic series
  • Peinture (2011)
  • Eau Forte No. 12 (1961)

Early Life

Pierre Soulages was born in December 24, 1919 in Rodez, Aveyron in France. Rodez village was famous for the dominance of Roman and prehistoric art which the young painter of black grew up to. He was particularly fascinated by monoliths scattered around his hometown and cave paintings at Chauvet and Lascaux. Most of these cave paintings were executed 30,000 years ago, more importantly, this made the artist realize that “these caves were total darkness. People painted in the dark, they painted with the dark”.

No wonder by the time he paid a visit to Paris and closely observe the works of the modern artists there, he was not very much impressed by them. This even made him decide to not enroll at the esteemed Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris anymore and go back to Rodez to commit himself to Romanesque art and later on, outrenoir painting.

Early Training

Come the Second World War in the 1940’s, Pierre Soulages chose an isolated lifestyle in Montpellier where he toiled the land. In 1946 he finally decided to attend a formal art training in Paris and it did not take him long before he was qualified enough to be a part of an art exhibition at the Salon des Surindependants. However, he would still remain stubborn in regard to absorbing outside influences that the vibrant Paris has to offer at the time.

As a result of this rebellion, he developed his own form of abstract art which attracted the attention of several art enthusiasts for its uniqueness and originality. His works inspired by this unique abstract art were shown for the first time at the Galerie Lydia Conti in 1949. This one man show established his reputation in the industry, being given the accolade; one of the top young 20th century painters. He even became one of the co-founders of Tachisme technique. It is a style derived from Art Informel principles and one of the key variants of abstract expressionism, an art form popularized by New York School of Design painters which had flourished through the 1940’s and 1950’s.

Creative Process

Pierre Soulages’ early works were painted on paper. These papers were splashed with different liquid materials such as oil, walnut juice, or petrol. His temperamental attitude would often reflect on his works because he sees art as the only way to express himself emotionally. Therefore, his paintings are executed in a manner of sweeping and thick brushstrokes. His color palette was entirely composed of monochrome white and black but later became open to adding a variety of shades such as gray, brown and blue.

As he was inspired by prehistoric art in his early years, he painted three-dimensional representations of his native town, the Massif Central region. His impressions of the town were drawn in vertical lines, in his attempt to affect calligraphic images, an ancient Chinese form of writing. Therefore, it also safe to assume that Chinese art may have as significant influence on him. His other paintings also depict hieroglyphs and real Chinese letters similar to the works by Jean Paul Riopelle.

As Pierre Soulages’ career progressed, his style started to change. He started using palette knife, shifted to spatula, and then finally settling with the sole of his rubber shoes. He used such materials to gain a 3-D effect on the paintings, to consistently achieve a monolithic whole. Aside from painting, he also began expanding his career options with theater painting and design as another area of expertise. In 1949 he designed the costumes and stage sets for Heloise et Abelard, a play by Roger Vaillant. In 1951 English author Graham Greene asked him to design the theatrical presentation of The Power and the Glory.

International Fame

Between the 1950’s and 1960’s, a few American art dealers became interested in Pierre Soulages’ works. The famous Samuel Kootz was one of them, who has viewed the artist’s work as the “French analog” version of the New York School’s abstract expressionism. Therefore, his works echoed the styles of Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, and Robert Motherwell. Good thing Soulages took it as a compliment instead of finding the need to overshadow these artists. In fact, he became fond of them especially Rothko, whom he organized a party once for at his own studio in France.

According to art historians, even before Pierre Soulages established himself as a reputable artist in his homeland, he had been quite popular in America. Several museums and art dealers were buying his paintings, including the legendary Phillips Collection and the Museum of Modern Art in 1951 and 1952, respectively. And through Kootz, fifty-percent of his works were bought by collectors in the US such as the likes of Alfred Hitchcock, Nelson Rockefeller, Otto Preminger, and Billy Wilder. However, the gallery owned by Kootz was shut down in 1966, cutting Pierre Soulages’ ties with the American art scene.

From 1950’s to the 21st Century

Desiring to become a versatile artist, Pierre Soulages studied etching and lithography throughout the 1950’s. In 1957, with skills that have been upgraded, he bagged the grand prize of the Grand Prix for painting held at the Tokyo Biennial. During this period, he avoided being austere in his composition, instead, he somehow softened it but remained consistent with using contrast colors to achieve a certain rhythm and depth. He was also frequently using blues and greens in those years which was received positively by his audience.

Around 1957 his works were represented in museums and galleries around Europe and the US. One of the most notable exhibitions was held at Musee Fabre in Montpellier and the National Museum of Modern Art in Pompidou Center. The art form outrenoir would be officially introduced to the world stage in 1979 with ‘element of contrast’ with various colors as the main motif and theme.

At one point, Pierre Soulages worked frantically on a panting and the result was “everything became black”. He then thought that what he did was bad and yet he still resumed on working on the painting for the next three hours because he felt that the colors would become much bolder and stronger if he kept painting. Until fatigue caught up with him he went to sleep and by the time he woke, he looked at the painting and came to a realization that “I was no longer working in black but working with the light reflected by the surface of the black. The light was dynamized by the strokes of paint. It was another world.”

In 1994 Pierre Soulages designed stained glass windows for Conques church. His success proceeded through the new millennium. Brooks Adams, an American art critic, has said that the Rodez native’s paintings in the 1990’s are extraordinary because they don’t look like outdated or out of fashion despite the fast-paced environment that the artist is in. Having been a great artist whose works are timeless, several museums and authorities gave recognition to it. For one, the Hermitage Museum of St. Petersburg organized an exhibition for him to be a part of, and he is the first living painter to be invited by.

In 2007, the Montpellier’s Musee Fabre allotted a room exlclusive to Soulages’ paintings, most of which he donated to the city. The donated works are composed of 20 paintings which he executed from 1951 to 2006. From 2009 to 2010 a retrospective exhibition was held for Soulages by the Centre National d’Art et de Culture Georges Pompidou in Paris.

Today, Pierre Soulages is 95 years old. He stays in his two estates in Sete near Montpellier and Paris, where he would still paint and it seems that retirement was never in his vocabulary.