Paint It Black: Pierre Soulages at the Louvre

Pierre Soulages Louvre Daisy Sainsbury Pierre Soulages, Painting 222 x 314 cm February 24, 2008 Paris, Pierre Soulages © Archives Soulages/ADAGP, Paris 2019.

Pierre Soulages is undoubtedly one of France’s most successful living artists; his works have fetched seven figure sums at auction and his paintings hang in major public collections across the globe. Under the rather fabulous epithet, “the painter of black and light,” the Abstract artist has spent eight decades pursuing the possibilities of a single color – wherein lies both the intrigue and, to my eyes, limitations of his work. 

To celebrate the artist’s 100th birthday last year, the Louvre is holding a retrospective in the museum’s “Salon Carré,” on show through March 9. The exhibition is comprised of 20 or so works, presented chronologically and spanning from 1946 to three new paintings created in 2019. In the earliest examples, visitors see how Soulages swapped oil paints for less traditional materials, using walnut stain on paper in “Brou de noix sur papier 48.2 x 63.4 cm” (1946) and tar on glass in “Goudron sur verre 45.5 x 76.5 cm” (1948-1). Here as throughout his career, the literalism of the paintings’ titles reflects the artist’s emphasis on materiality and his refusal to guide the viewer’s interpretation. Black is already present in these early works, but by the time visitors get to “Peinture 220 x 366 cm” (1968), an oil on canvas with wide vertical brush strokes, it occupies most of the painting’s surface. 

In 1979, a decade or so later, Soulages had an epiphany in his practice and began working on his “outrenoir” series (translating roughly to “beyond black”). Subverting the established conception of black as the absence of light, he became interested in how a black surface could create reflections through different textural effects. From then onwards, Soulages was no longer the painter of black, but worked in a dual media, manipulating layers of paint with knives and spatulas. Light became an integral part of the vast, sculptural paintings for which the artist is now best known. 

Discussing the show with French friends, I’ve quickly learnt that a Brit should tread carefully before daring to critique such an undisputed national treasure. For a people who usually leap at the chance to be contrarian – rightly recognizing that this makes for a much more animated dinner party – Soulages seems to be a rare sacred ground. But, at risk of being banished from my adopted land, the retrospective left me feeling underwhelmed. The sheer length of the artist’s career commands its own respect, but it also begs the question: did he never get bored of black? Didn’t he want to try out something different or reinvent within a wider practice? 

Like many of the greatest French artists, Soulages speaks eruditely about his work, drawing out its philosophical underpinnings and lending it a profundity that some viewers might not find at first glance in the paintings themselves. The depth of the artist’s reflection only sharpens the sense of surprise that he never strayed very far from the black and light paintings; such an enquiring mind could surely have tried his hand at something else. Indeed, once one has perused the works through the lens of the artist’s own interpretation, his ideas soon feel well spent, even within the comparatively small retrospective currently presented at the Louvre. Black and light, works made up of matter beyond pigment, the surface as a play of the viewer’s projected responses – fine, but then what?   

Thankfully, the show does leave you with a new angle in which to approach the rest of the Louvre’s permanent collection. Visitors may well find themselves more attentive to how black operates in other artists’ work. You suddenly notice the foreboding symbol of darkening clouds in Géricault’s “The Raft of the Medusa” (1818-19), the luxurious black satin of a noblewoman’s dress in van Dyck’s “Portrait of a Lady with Daughter” (circa 1632), and the way the shadowy background blends with the sitter’s somber dress in portraits by Holbein or Titian, allowing the subject’s face to command the viewer’s full attention. You become more conscious of the shapeshifting nature of the color black, and the manifold symbolisms it has carried over the years. From its first manifestations, in the charcoal drawings on prehistoric cave walls, black has stood in for as many notions as the human mind can imagine: it was a symbol of fertility for the ancient Egyptians, the color of the underworld for the ancient Greeks, and a sign of humility for Benedictine monks in the 12th century. It signifies nothingness and absence, something scorched or sullied, absolute or indelible, the color of obscurity, secrecy, mystery, danger, death and mourning. 

With its resistance to precisely this plethora of symbolisms and its emphasis on materiality, there is certainly a place for Soulages’s oeuvre in the art historical narrative – and all the better if it moves my fellow dinner party revelers. But, for me, what we project onto a color – the complex systems of signification that we weave around one sole entity – has an interest with a longer shelf-life than an idea that runs its course in a single exhibition visit.

Article published on Blouin Artinfo.