At once captivating and confronting, Les débutantes (bleu azur) is a spectacular example of Claire Tabouret’s distinctive figurative paintings. On this monumental canvas measuring nearly eleven feet wide, nineteen adolescent girls emerge from the waves of blue draperies with solemn expressions and searing gazes. Tabouret’s sweeping gestures and monochrome palette elides all specific historical times or places, transposing the painting into a dreamlike hinterland. Yet, it still powerfully engages the viewer with its emotional charge and visual saturation, stimulating speculation of their group dynamics and a close reading of individual figures.
Beauty for me is when something reaches eternity’, she has said. ‘A ray of light, music, a painting, sometimes these can make time disappear; it’s a strong and beautiful experience. I think that’s what art should be about: the end of time.”
Dazzling with an spectral, azurite-blue glow, the painting presents the young debutantes against a classic drapery background while in dresses of the same texture and color. The voluminous fabrics seamlessly melding together enfold the figures as an undulating body of water. Tranquilizing and threatening simultaneously, the draperies visualizes the social ties shared by these young women that simultaneously empower and restrict them. Realized with stirring brushstrokes that are not unlike the ones of Edvard Munch, the eclipsing volume and structure of the garments challenge the traditional way of depicting draperies in art history, where they are submissive to and at the service of the body posture.
Here the artist is inspired by the work of Gaëtan Gatian de Clérambault (1872-1934). Besides being a renowned psychiatrist, whom Jacques Lacan considered his master, Clérambault was also an aspiring anthropologist of drapery. With the belief that draperies, like all objects, obey certain mechanic and biological laws, during his assignment in Morocco, Clérambault conducted a photographic study of the traditional Moroccan costume, the haik. The way the voluminous gowns obscure the figures' bodies while accentuating their penetrating gazes, as well as the enigma enshrouding the scene, appears only in a more indexical way on Tabouret’s canvas
Against the flood of homogeneous draperies, the individuality of the debutantes seems to recede. Yet under scrutinization, it resurfaces in the details such as their hairstyles, facial expressions, and neck shapes of their gowns. The glimpses of magenta pink here and there irradiate the underlying hostility. They look the viewer in the eye, ready to fight their ways towards seminal marriages or away from the suffocating social shackles. Yet Tabouret painted the girls' faces with caring, attentive gestures, “as if my characters grow up” (C. Tabouret, quoted in J.-M. Colard, Claire Tabouret by Jean-Max Colard). The extraordinary glow they possess, as well as the halo the painting sheds onto the wall, absorbs the viewer into an electric yet indefinable pictorial space, where viewers are rewarded with deep exchanges with the protagonists. To achieve such effect, the artist starts the canvas with an acrylic fluorescent color all the way to the edges. She then paints the scenes and figures on top of the base with layers of darker tones. This first coat of color illuminates the painting from within, bathing the viewers with subtle yet miraculous light. It was during this period that Tabouret developed this technique that later becomes a signature to her art-making process.
As part of the Les Débutantes series, the present work is inspired by the Debutante Ball in Paris, a tradition from the nobility of the Ancien Régime. Falling into desuetude at the beginning of the twentieth century, this ritual of passage for high society girls at the beginning of their adult life became known as a new dash in the 1990s. Although the artist uses the official group picture of the Debutante Ball as a starting point for this ensemble of works, her paintings are far from—if not entirely opposite to—a reiteration of the photographs. Instead, the painting is a depiction of the absent in the photographs, or, in her own words, “a palliative to everything I am feeling that isn’t actually visible in the photograph” (C. Tabouret, quoted in L. Bismuth, "An Interview of Claire Tabouret by Lea Bismuth", 7 February 2014). In Les débutantes (bleu azur), Tabouret captures the grapple between the manifestation and repression of singularity that is fundamental to group portraiture. She also reflects upon the social rite and the entry into womanhood it represents. The artist credits an early experience in front of Monet’s Water Lilies at the Musée de l’Orangerie when she was four years old as forming her fundamental understanding of painting. The subtle, ever-changing expressions of the debutantes’ faces in the present work are no less evanescent than the play of light across the water. Tabouret translates the fluidity and immersivity of the Water Lilies on to the painting, both pictorially and metaphorically, where her fluid medium parallels her conception of identity as multiple, mutable, and even transhistorical.
Lot Essay Header Image: Present lot illustrated (detail).