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Pierre Soulages and the Aveyron: Interview with Pierre Soulages
A visitor looks at works by French painter, engraver and sculptor, Pierre Soulages, at the museum of the « Outrenoir » master (« ultra-black »), on May 28, 2014 in the French southwestern city of Rodez. The exhibition "Pierre Soulages’ Outrenoir paintings" opens on May 31, 2014 until October 5, 2014. Visitors will be able to discover paintings donated by Pierre and Colette Soulages, as well as an exhibition of international dimension « The Outrenoir(s) of Pierre Soulages: European Museums and Foundations ». AFP PHOTO/ PASCAL PAVANI.

RODEZ.- What do you remember most of your childhood days in rodez and of the aveyron in general?
I have two birthplaces: Rodez and contemporary pain- ting. I spent my childhood and my teenage years in the Rouergue. A province I love. My father was a coachbuilder, he manufactured horse-drawn carriages. I was 5 when he died. So, I grew up with two mothers: my real mother, Aglaé, and my sister, who was fifteen years ol- der than me, and who also was my philosophy teacher when I was in high school. My mother was a woman of the old days, she could barely write but knew how to read. After my father's death, she ran a ''hunting-fishing-rigging'' shop. When I was 19, I went to Paris and then to Montpellier. But when I was a teen in Rodez, I had already discovered a reproduction of a cave painting, the Altamira bison, in a history book. It was as though a whole part of art had been revealed to me, as though I was questioning everything that had been made since the origin of mankind. Then, I accompanied an archeologist who was excavating dolmens. This is how, when I was 18, my name entered a museum–the Fenaille Museum–associated with the objects we had found (such as potsherds, prehistoric arrowheads, and so on). It had nothing to do with pain- ting yet! Then I wondered, ''why is there nothing from the Middle Ages?'' So, I did some research and discovered Romanesque paintings. It was another shock. These are my aesthetic roots. As you can see, they don't all come from Rodez, even though everything started there, in that very region, not to mention Conques' sublime architecture and the statues-menhirs.

How did those works shape both your vocation and your vision of art?
They freed me from what I was taught. I soon realized that we were locked in a very narrow-minded vision of art his- tory, restricted to a few centuries. I wanted to free myself from that imprisonment, the same prison I was locked in rue Combarel, where I was born. Whenever I had the chance, I would go down the Aveyron's riverbanks which surround Rodez to go fishing or accompany the poachers. I still love the wide spaces of the Causses and the Aubrac, where I used to go on holiday when I was a child.

Did that taste of yours for uncluttered spaces find a resonance in your works?
It certainly did. My aesthetic choices have ethical equivalents, interacting with the world and things. I feel closer to stone, wood and rust than nickel or lacquer. I'm more into clay than chrome.

This inclination appears in your relation to matter...
When I did my etchings, corroding copper, I was thinking that, in the end, corrosion is time trapped by matter. When you erode copper with acid, you do, in ten minutes, what would take centuries for Nature to do.

From 1979, the way you studied the reflection of light gave a new dimension to your work...
I've always been interested in what I didn't know. I still am. This is what led me to the Outrenoir, a light reflected by different layers or black. Black is the original colour of painting. For centuries, the cavemen, in their black pitch caves, would paint with black. Black is also the colour of our origin. Before we were born, weren't we plunged into darkness? I was once told that, as a child, I would plunge my brush in the inkwell to draw long black lines on white paper. ''What are you doing?'', they would ask. I would answer: ''Snow.'' That didn't go unnoticed. Perhaps I was trying, by contrast, to make the paper whiter than it really was by confronting it to black colour. My taste for black dates back to my childhood. Contrary to most people, I could not see any particular symbolism to it. Black is often the colour of mourning. It is a short-sighted and codified way to consider it. Black was also the colour of the gowns and religious habits of Benedictine nuns. All at once austerity, feast, anarchy, rebellion and authority. Whenever I had the chance, at the age of 16 or 17, I would dress in black. My mother was absolutely shocked. She said to me :''You're mourning me already!''

You made your first paintings in Rodez...
Yes, but I was still in my early stages. In the beginning, I really liked to draw the leafless trees in winter. The way they would write space, so to speak. It all comes from there. From that sort of abstract sculptures. What is art if not something that moves you thanks to the features of painted forms?

I've always looked for the presence of the works or the objects that were in front me. In my current works, that presence is even more obvious, you see reflections of it. The light changes, at Conques for instance where, from dawn to dusk, the stained-glass windows are never the same. Same goes for my ''black'' paintings. If you move, they're not quite the same anymore. When you look at them, their presence lies in the moment of your contemplation. In that very moment. The relation to space is different. The very space of the canvas is in front of the light that comes towards you from the canvas, and the person who's looking at it is also in that space.

The architecture of Conques deeply moved you when you first visited it, at the age of 12 or 13, so much so that you were certain that you life should be dedicated to art. Why did you turn to painting instead of architecture?
Because that's what I was doing already. I've always painted. At Conques, I was deeply moved, yes. It's been said that the Romanesque sculptors were clumsy, but I could only see how they mimicked shapes. I understood that art was what mattered the most. It seemed as though people around were wasting their lives earning it. They were not happy. On Sundays, they would behave weirdly, as if they were bored. I didn't want to be like them. I felt that the only thing that could fulfill my life was painting. I would become a painter. But I did not tell that to my ''wives'', my ''mothers'', for I was afraid they would try to put me off. For I knew I was too weak to defy their authority. I kept that intimate vocation secret, but they found out soon enough. They tried to put me off and send me to medicine school. I resisted. Later, eventually, my mother who was a very sensible woman said, ''He did his national service, he's a grown-up. Let him do what he wants.'

When you did Conques' stained-glass windows, you came back to your roots, both personal and artistic...
It was during Jack Lang's first mandate at the Ministry of Culture. Three times I had been asked to do stained- glass windows for an historical monument. I had always turned these requests down but, when they told me about Conques abbey-church, I was overwhelmed. Especially as my wife, with whom I went to Conques for our honey- moon, was in the atelier at that time. I accepted, saying: ''You know, ministers place lots of orders well knowing that, after they leave, their successors won't necessarily fulfill them.'' And yet, François Léotard took over the project after Jack Lang left. To make the stained-glass windows, I refused to draw sketches. I remember that Jack Lang, who had come back after François Léotard had left, always asked how the project was going. ''He's looking for a light'', people said. I was busy creating a glass that would fit that unique light displayed at Conques abbey-church. It took me seven years.

When you left rodez, what did you think of the town? What do you think of it today?
I remained very close to the town. But the ''old province'' that I used to know, the old craftsmen, the old Rodez, all of this disappeared. A landscape remains, a place housing magnificent monuments such as the Fenaille Museum, the statues-menhirs, the cathedral, Conques in the near distance, the Aubrac and Causses plateaus. The originality of Rodez lies there: a market between two geologically different areas. The Causses and the Segala, the ''country of rye'' that became the ''country of wheat'' when the railway allowed us to carry lime and enrich the soil. It changed people's lives. And there's still the Aveyron, of course. Even though trouts and fish, like anywhere else, are disappearing. And finally, I think that people nowadays are more open to modernity than their ancestors. There's been progress.

Do you see yourself as a native son?
Absolutely! Native of that country that saw many generations live and survive. One only needs to read the works of Emmanuel Le Roy, a great historian and a true ''Rouergue-lover''. He tells horryfing things about the mi- sery of a province that was kept away from any kind of influence for a very long time. Deep inside, I'm a provincial and still am.

I don't belong to any clique, I never mingled with the Parisian artistic scene, and I don't attend opening exhibitions. I have friends, but I'm not a socialite. When I come back to Rodez, I feel that I'm part of the people living here, these apparently coarse farmers, but very refined in reality. Down-to-earth and subtle. One of their best representatives would be the triple Michelin-starred chef, Michel Bras, an Aubrac fanatic. As a child, I would spend a lot of time with the fishermen and the hunters. They are accurate and have a natural sense of observation. These skills tend to disappear.

We are overwhelmed with images that are constantly thrown in our faces. So much so that we no longer know how to watch. We pay attention to nothing, we don't see the details. They know how to see. I think I use this in my painting. I feel I belong to the same ''ethnic group''

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