Pierre Soulages decided to become a painter at the age of 17 when, standing under the cavernous ceiling of a medieval church, he observed rays of sunshine filtering through the high windows, carving up the gloom below.
‘I saw light and shadow come to life,’ he said — and he has been revisiting that experience in his paintings ever since.
Today, the abstract artist is considered to be France’s greatest living painter. At 100, he is internationally renowned for his ultra-black canvases, the surfaces of which capture and play with light in such striking ways that they appear animated and alive. In 2009 he was honoured with a retrospective at the Pompidou, and in 2014 the Musée Soulages in Rodez, in the South of France, was opened by President François Hollande.
This month, Christie’s is offering a masterpiece from a key period in Soulage’s career, between the mid-1950s and the early 1960s. The work has not been seen in public since it was exhibited in late 1961 at the Kootz Gallery in New York, where it was bought by the visionary collectors Donald and Jean Stralem.
‘It’s a thrilling rediscovery,’ says Paul Nyzam, head of Post-War and Contemporary Art at Christie’s in Paris. ‘It is everything a collector would want to find in a Pierre Soulages, from the bold, energetic composition to the play of light and the sensual interaction between the black and blue paint.’
‘A painting by Pierre Soulages is like a chord on a vast piano struck with both hands simultaneously — struck and held’ — MoMA curator James John Sweeney
Born in Rodez in 1919, Soulages began to make a name for himself as an artist in his twenties. In 1948, James John Sweeney (1900-1986), a curator at New York’s MoMA, visited the artist in his studio after he heard ‘talk in Paris of a painter who worked in black with large black brushstrokes’. What he saw amazed him.
Soulages was creating monumentally dynamic paintings by scraping paint across the canvas with a spatula. Sweeney returned to the United States enthusing that ‘a painting by Pierre Soulages is like a chord on a vast piano struck with both hands simultaneously — struck and held’.
Soon, American collectors came calling, among them Nelson and David Rockefeller, Burton Tremaine and Mary Callery. By 1950 Soulages was exhibiting at the Betty Parsons Gallery in New York and hanging out with the Abstract Expressionist painters Robert Motherwell and Mark Rothko.
‘He had sell-out shows,’ says Nyzam. ‘People thought he was a French painter doing something American, while in fact he had little in common with the Abstract Expressionists.’
Matters came to a head in 1950 when Soulages participated in the group exhibition Young Painters in the U.S. and France at the Sidney Janis Gallery.
‘The exhibition was presented like a sporting event,’ said Soulages. ‘The show’s title clearly implied that France, or rather Paris, was still symbolically dominant in the art world. New York, in the name of the United States, was the challenger seeking to assert itself as a superpower by organising the competition.’
‘Soulages is an artist who deals with the universal and absolute language of paint’ — specialist Paul Nyzam
The result was a nationalistic tension between the artists involved — with Motherwell telling Soulages that only Americans could understand Abstract Expressionism, and Soulages countering by saying art should be understood by everyone.
‘Soulages did not identify with Abstract Expressionism,’ says Nyzam. ‘He is a rationalist; his paintings are not charged with existential emotion. He is an artist who deals with the universal and absolute language of paint.’
In this respect, Soulages is much closer to his friend, the late French-Chinese painter Zao Wou-Ki (1921-2013), who sought a universal aesthetic. Both found inspiration in prehistoric and ancient art: Zao in the earliest form of Chinese writing, dating back to 1500 BC; Soulages in primitive stone carvings and the Palaeolithic cave paintings found in Lascaux in 1940. That discovery had a profound impact on the artist, leading him to reflect that these anonymous painters ‘brought art to a summit from the very start’.
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In Peinture 162 x 130 cm, 9 julliet 1961, Soulages recalls the elemental blue-black palette of those prehistoric artists who worked in the shadows. Through his manipulation of paint, he shapes matter and light, and brings the primordial world of 71,000 years ago out of the darkness.