Pierre Soulages is one of the world's foremost abstract painters of recent decades. On the occasion of his 90th birthday he is being honoured by a retrospective in the Centre Pompidou in Paris. Starting on 2 October 2010 Berlin's Martin-Gropius-Bau
will be showing this exhibition in an altered form.
Over 70 pictures of all his creative periods, from the works with walnut stain (1947 to 1949) to the radically black paintings of recent years measuring up three metres high, are being shown, many of them for the first time in Germany. They illustrate the dynamic artistic development of this most famous of contemporary French artists.
Born on 24 December 1919 in Rodez, a small town located to the north of and roughly equidistant from Toulouse und Montpellier, Pierre Soulages refused to train at the Ecole nationale superieure des beaux arts in Paris, being out of sympathy with what he saw as that institution's retrograde approach to art. Instead he spent the year 1939 visiting exhibitions and familiarizing himself with the works of Picasso and Cézanne. But that same year he left Paris and headed south to Montpellier to attend the Ecole des beaux arts there. At that time he made the acquaintance of Sonia Delaunay, who showed him catalogues containing what those in power at that time considered to be degenerate art". For Soulages this was the justification for working as an abstract artist. After the war he moved to Paris, where he successfully exhibited in the Salon of the Surindépendants. His acquaintanceship with Francis Picabia and Hans Hartung in 1947, and his familiarity with the American scene as represented by such artists as Marc Rothko, Robert Motherwell and Wilhelm de Kooning, show how rapidly he was gaining an international reputation. In 1948, three years after the end of the Second World War, he took part in the then pioneering exhibition French Abstract Painting, which a. o. was shown in Stuttgart, Hamburg and Düsseldorf. He was the youngest of a group of masters of abstract art, including such names as Kupka, Doméla and Herbin. His participation in Documenta I, II and III brought him recognition in artistic and critical circles.
His wayward style, and more specifically his almost exclusive reliance on the colour black, give him a unique place in the world of art, although the American Robert Motherwell produced similar results in some of his works. But only Soulages consistently dedicated his works to the colour black over a period of decades, before finally turning to light.
His outrenoir, a term coined by Soulages for the use of black in his work, swallows up light, especially in his works on paper, achieving a particular sense of depth. Outrenoir, which may be translated as the other side of black, or beyond black, does not exclude, but draws the observer into the picture, inducing him to make a close and precise examination of the work by holding his gaze.
Like many painters, Pierre Soulages is fascinated by the phenomenon of light. He seeks obsessively for ways of letting light operate in the colour black. Works in which black is accompanied by a second colour such as blue or red remain the exception.
His individual style, characterized by strong bold lines and occasional calligraphic elements, is an important organizing principle in his works. I found small brushes only for the exact work, as was necessary and important in the art of the 19th century and earlier Picasso himself worked with fine brushes in his early works. But for me there was no question of that. I wanted to try something quite different, so I went into a paint shop in Paris and bought myself broad brushes and rollers of the kind used for house-painting. By using this technique in combination with a dark walnut stain known as de noix he created his first masterpieces, one of which was bought by the Museum of Modern Art in New York as early as 1948.
His paintings are to be found in the collections of over 100 museums worldwide, such as the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; the Australian National Gallery, Canberra; the Hermitage, St. Petersburg; the Musée national dArt moderne, Paris; the Staatsgalerie Stuttgart; the Instituto Valenciano de Arte Moderno, Valencia; the Museum of Modern Art, Toyama; the Tate Gallery, London; the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; and the Musée dArt contemporain, Montréal, to name but a few.
Soulages has received numerous distinctions, including the Grand Prix des Arts of the City of Paris, Hamburg's Rembrandt Prize, and the Japanese Praemium Imperiale.
The town of Rodez will be devoting a special museum to Pierre Soulages, to be opened in 2012.