To mark the 100th birthday of Pierre Soulages the Kunstsammlungen Chemnitz is organising the exhibition Soulages. Malerei 1946–2019. The artist is one of the main representatives of the gestural, non-figurative school of French painting, alongside Hans Hartung, and is considered to be the most important living artist in France. In his own country, Soulages’ works were held in extraordinarily high regard at a very early stage; his painting had a great influence, above all, on post-war artists in the Federal Republic. Until the late 1970s, Soulages’ painting exhibited traits of Art Informel. As of 1979 he began painting the monochrome black work group called “Outrenoir” (Beyond Black). The reflection of the incident light caused by the impasto paint application becomes part of the artistic intention. The constantly changing light conditions and the viewers’ different positions also play their part in Soulages’ art; the works are never “seen conclusively”, but always remain vibrant, inexhaustible. An exquisite selection of more than fifty paintings and works on paper ranging in time from the 1940s to today will provide comprehensive insight into the life’s work of this artist of the century. The exhibition aims not only to demonstrate that Soulages is an important historical figure in 20th century art, but also to highlight the unbroken energy, presence and timelessness of his painting.
The exhibition is being organised under the patronage of Her Excellency Anne-Marie Descôtes, Ambassador of the French Republic to Germany, and in close collaboration with the artist. It is sponsored by the Ostdeutsche Sparkassenstiftung together with the Sparkasse Chemnitz and the Rudolf-August Oetker Foundation.
I need painting.
When we enter the exhibition rooms we are entering a place of condensed experience: a force field. There is something existential about the archaic aura and almost sacred presence of Pierre Soulages’ paintings. Light is the guiding principle of his life’s work. Since 1946 he has devoted himself to non-figurative painting, questioning the traditional values of painting. The works of his early period are characterised by broad dark beam-like forms against a bright background. Alongside black, the luminosity of blue and red became a feature of the 1950s. Over the following decade the formats became larger and the chiaroscuro contrasts more intense. The 1970s heralded a transition, culminating in the increasing reduction of his painting to the essential. Soulages’ concentrated paintings are not remnants of a gestural trace. Instead they exhibit planes with a powerful rhythmic structure. His painting does not aim to represent, but to render something present. As Soulages says, »for me painting means: showing.«
Being attentive to what one does not know.
Works on Paper
Pierre Soulages’ works on paper illustrate that the visual force of his paintings is independent of the format. Parallel to his paintings on canvas, Soulages has almost always painted on paper as well. This gave rise to another experimental field that reveals coherence and continuity without forfeiting innovative force. The works on paper being shown here are from his early years and concentrate the elementary idiom of primal forms form his early painting. A dark shape stands out against a bright ground, and a painterly light emanating from painting itself conveys the viewer into an expanded pictorial space. To achieve this, Soulages has worked since the very start with materials not typical of painting, for example, nut brown stain usually used for furniture and possessing an intense brilliance of its own. He has applied tar to shattered glass. Instead of classical paintbrushes, Soulages uses coarse brushes, squeegees and puffs. The elementary power radiated by his paintings underscores the direct emotional impact of his art.
At that time a multitude of German artists came to me.
Soulages and Germany
By the late 1940s Pierre Soulages’ painting had already attracted the attention of German-speaking artists, critics and dealers. This not only marks the brilliant start of his international career as an artist, it is also of importance for abstraction’s new beginning in post-war Germany. This was triggered by the Grand Exhibition of French Abstract Painting initiated by the neurologist and art lover Ottomar Domnick and shown in several German cities in 1948/49. The poster for that group exhibition reproduced one of Soulages’ early nut brown stain works and consolidated the interest in this young artist. The original artwork and the poster are on show here. Soulages also took part in the first three »documenta« exhibitions in Kassel (1955, 1959, 1964), and in 1960/61 had his first museum exhibition in Germany (Kestner Gesellschaft Hannover and Folkwang Museum Essen). Today there are about 25 paintings and several works on paper in collections in public museums in Germany, a number of which are on show here.
I paint not so much with black paint as with light.
Works 1979 to today
Over the decades, Pierre Soulages has shifted light from the painting’s background to its surface, thereby eliminating the classic figure-ground relationship. His so-called Outrenoir paintings (Beyond Black), since 1979, feature rippled black surfaces that reflect the light. Over the past forty years, this type of painting has undergone countless variations, reaching a tentative highpoint in the three powerful upright paintings done by the artist for his presentation in the Louvre in 2019. Knowing these most recent works, it is possible to also see the paintings done between 1946 and 1978 anew and sense the unbroken topicality of his quasi »historical« works. Pierre Soulages’ oeuvre seems rooted in history and is at the same time – irrespective of its genesis – a physically intense art fully in the here and now. His paintings are both powerful and tranquil. His abstract painting has »just« itself as its theme and has made him one of the most important protagonists of European modernism.
Texte: Marie-Amélie zu Salm-Salm