Fabienne Verdier: ‘Movement is the essence of existence’
As an exhibition of new work by the French painter Fabienne Verdier, Energy Lines, opens at Christie’s in Dubai, we look back on a visit to her studio in 2019 when she explained her continual struggle ‘to capture this constant becoming’
There is gathered stillness in Fabienne Verdier’s lean, athletic frame, a stillness dramatically at odds with the dynamic power of her paintings. ‘Movement,’ she says, ‘is the essence of existence, of what it means to be real in the world.’
The words are delivered with the finality of truth, backed up by a lifetime’s searching. Her paintings are an engrossing record of Verdier’s quest. The kinetic impulse of the universe — from the cellular process of sap rising, to lightning flashes and the billion-year action of geomorphic forces — is told across monumental abstract canvases in a graphic line that is never less than urgent.
Impermanence, the artist argues, is our earliest apprehension. ‘As babies in the cradle, before we can focus, we’re aware of moving shadows, we sense this movement of living things. Later, we learn that everything, every single thing in the world around us, is made up of atoms in motion, molecules in flux. To capture this constant “becoming” — this is what drives me on and drives me mad.’
It’s a dizzying thought, certainly, though Verdier scarcely fits the mould of frantic genius. Her home, tucked into a fold of the gentle Vexin countryside an hour’s drive from Paris, has the minimalist peace of a temple, with its sun-splashed wood and clean lines.
Across a spring garden, minimalism gives way to curated chaos in the library, a magician’s cabinet crammed floor-to-ceiling with books, bones, geological samples, animal pelts, sculptures, shells, feathers, fossils, driftwood and, in pride of place, rows of antique Chinese calligraphy brushes laid out like surgical instruments.
Here, projects are patiently researched, albums filled with an intricate découpage of photographs, drawings and diagrams pasted in with snippets of poetry, mathematical theorems and philosophical pensées. Works of art in their own right, these cahiers are an intriguing snapshot of the artist’s mind.
‘I live a little like a monk,’ Verdier explains. ‘Every morning, at first light, I paint for four or five hours in my studio. After that, I’m intensely busy with the notebooks — reading, cutting out, reflecting. It’s a kind of dynamic meditation.’
Painting, conversely, is an act of strenuous devotion. Verdier’s process, which can involve enormous brushes charged with up to 100 litres of thickened acrylic paint, evolved from Chinese calligraphy. At the age of 22, disenchanted with her studies at the Ecole Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Toulouse, where she was required to paint ‘busts of Beethoven and other dead things’, she enrolled at the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute, only to find a no less moribund establishment in the grip of Socialist Realism.
‘I have all these forms in my brain, in my bones, in my blood. Painting just made me understand it’ — Fabienne Verdier
By dint of sheer persistence, and an exceptional gift for friendship, Verdier managed to track down masters of traditional Chinese art sidelined or suppressed by the Cultural Revolution; and, over 10 gruelling years recounted in her memoir Passagère du silence, she learned the discipline and philosophy of calligraphic painting.
‘The masters gave me a piece of white paper and a brush, and told me to paint my spiritual view of tree branches,’ she says. ‘When I wanted to go out and paint what I saw, they laughed at me. They explained that there’s no good looking at a tree, or a landscape. You must, by force of contemplation, be at one with the thing you are painting. It took me a long time to realise that if I wanted to bring something new to painting, I would have to learn this thousand-year culture.’
More recently, she has done away with the brush altogether; her ‘walking paintings’ are made by standing directly on the canvas, dispensing paint from a funnel-shaped reservoir. Footage of Verdier at work in industrial dungarees and plastic overshoes demonstrates the immense physical effort and concentration required to produce a fluent line; hunkered behind the handlebars in preparation for each pass of the brush/funnel, she finds the fierce, inward energy of a woman in labour.
‘You know there are times when you “get” something completely,’ she says, ‘and it’s like an electric light in your head? Sometimes there is this moment when the life of the material and the life of your own spirit, the respiration of the world and your own life force come together.’
Sometimes, but not often. Verdier estimates that a good 80 per cent of her work is destroyed in a ritual fire pit in the garden. ‘I watch them burn,’ she shrugs. ‘It’s a kind of purification.’
After long years of solitary introspection, collaboration plays an increasing role in Verdier’s practice. In 2014, she was invited to spend a semester as artist in residence at the Juilliard School in New York, exploring a concomitance of music and art. Installed with her easel at the heart of the orchestra, Verdier worked with conductor William Christie in a performance of Handel’s oratorio La Resurrezione. ‘Riding the rhythms and sound structures of the music, I would see certain forms appear, sometimes whole landscapes.’
Building on the success of The Juilliard Experiment — the experience was captured on film — Verdier completed a series of works alongside string quartets in the Chapelle de la Visitation as part of the 2017 Festival d’Aix-en-Provence, and a film of that event ran concurrently with her 2019-20 retrospective at Aix’s Musée Granet. Further collaborations have included a project to illustrate a 50th-anniversary edition of the French household dictionary, Le Petit Robert.
‘Initially,’ says Verdier, ‘I intended to read the entire dictionary and pick out single words, but of course it was an impossible task.’ Instead, she chose 22 pairs of words related to her practice — ‘Arborescence-Allégorie’, ‘Esprit-Evasion’, ‘Force-Forme’ — with the intention of sparking a poetic synapse between the two meanings.
Words hold an almost hermetic power for Verdier (she writes as fluently as she paints), and ‘arborescence’, the organic extension of structure, is one of her favourites. If the forms in her paintings read almost figuratively — as trees, coastlines or rock formations — it is because she has internalised, as her Chinese masters demanded, the intimate processes of nature.
‘I have all these forms in my brain, in my bones, in my blood. Painting just made me understand it,’ she says. Nor does she claim full credit for the striking plasticity of her paintings. The play of stress and substance as viscous paint stretches, pools and folds is, she points out, no more than geomorphology in microcosm.
Even so, there are surprises. The series Sur les terres de Cézanne, conceived as a grand finale to the Musée Granet retrospective, is a close engagement with Cezanne’s paintings of Mont Sainte-Victoire. Not content to hike the hills of Provence with an easel on her back, Verdier, accompanied by her film-maker son Martin, had a portable version of her studio apparatus lugged up by donkeys to create a series of ‘walking paintings’.
Working through October storms, sleeping on bare boards in a monastery, she was tested to her limits. ‘The weather was truly, freakishly awful; I could barely see the mountain in front of me. But the wind and rain helped me, they carved reliefs in the wet paint. By morning, these had dried into gullies, and when we looked, we were amazed to find that these mapped on, exactly, to the rivers and crevices on the mountainside. In the end I destroyed all the walking paintings made on the mountain. But I recreated the effect of the wind in the studio using a fan, and exactly the same thing happened.’
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The finished series is remarkable: Verdier’s powerful line evokes not just the landscape but the telluric forces in the heart of stone. ‘They laughed at Cezanne,’ Verdier points out. ‘He suffered greatly on his mountain, because he wasn’t understood in his time. When he experimented with mass and void, they said, “But you haven’t finished your paintings.” In fact, he was breaking a path to new forms of abstraction, a new way of contemplating matter in the world.’
Does she feel that her own career has in some way squared Cezanne’s circle? ‘Ça? Non!’ says Verdier, appalled and intrigued by the sacrilege. ‘But I’d love to think so.’
Energy Lines: Fabienne Verdier, a private selling exhibition at Christie’s in collaboration with Custot Gallery Dubai, runs from 9 to 19 February 2023