With its subtle luminous tones and thick, malleable impasto, Petite magie colorée, 1957, represents an exquisite example of Jean Fautrier’s practice. As a precursor of Art Informel, Fautrier’s work is marked by his enduring attempt to release art from the limits of figuration typical of traditional easel painting. The canvas is approached by the artist as a living surface to be built on by additions and combinations of different materials, creating near-architectural visions through his caustic application of paint. The result is an account of the infinite possibilities of art, and of the richness and mystery implicit in the creative act of painting. As Fautrier stated, ‘painting is something that cannot be destroyed, that must destroy itself to reinvent itself’ (J. Fautrier, ‘Parallèles sur l’informel’, Blätter und Bilder, no. 1, March-April 1959, pp. 54-56). The ‘little coloured magic’ which the title refers to may in this sense take place in the artwork itself, embodying the transformation of reality that lay at the base of Fautrier’s artistic practice.
In Petite magie colorée the illusionistic perfection of the polished and finished painting has disappeared: the work is a solid object betraying the visceral process of its own making as an assemblage of ingredients mingling in a new form. The secret of Fautrier’s unique impasto is in his hâute pate; the artist worked on a horizontal plane, on which he built up a thick strata of layered, glued papers. Upon these he applied flaky pigments and light oils, and his signature white enduit, a primer made of blanc d’Espagne and glue. The grainy, almost earthy surface of the painting acts like the living skin of the artwork, in a way that reveals the artist’s creative process. The oil paint piles up on the borders where Fautrier’s paintbrush passed in rhythmic intervals, while three thin and coloured vertical stripes act as last remnants of painting’s ancestry. The resulting image takes the shape of the most essential geometric form, the square: a thick petrified presence, redolent of plaster in its coarse physicality. With such a work, it is, ultimately, Fautrier observed, ‘the quality of the matter’ that makes the difference between what he defined as merely ‘decorative painting’ and ‘painting painting’ (J. Fautrier, ‘Letters to Jean Paulhan’, quoted in Jean Fautrier 1898 -1964 exh. cat., Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, 2002, pp. 43-44).
The artist thereby transforms the flat canvas into a renewed art object whose highly-tactile presence addresses the body of the viewer himself. The process of looking is in fact slowed down by the complexity of Fautrier’s enduit, which asks to be read in its separate components as well as understood as a harmonious entity. In its complexity, the present work may be seen to distill many of the post-war and mid-twentieth century concerns about the need for art to abandon figuration in order to talk about its materials and its making. Like many other artists associated with what has come to be known as ‘Art Informel’, Fautrier also claimed that his astonishing ability to manipulate his materials with such dexterity came from an essentially emotional and intuitive response to the ‘matter’ he was using. An artist can do ‘no more than reinvent what already exists’ Fautrier insisted; ‘one restores, with hints of emotion, the reality that is embodied in material, in form, in colour ... The action of painting is not simply the need to lay paint on a canvas, and one must admit that the desire for expression comes, at its origins, from something seen. As this reality is transformed – modelled into an image according to the temperament of the artist – the image ends up becoming more real than reality itself’ (J. Fautrier, quoted in Fautrier 1898- 1964, exh. cat., Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, Paris, 1989, p. 13).