Rouge et Noir - The french president called him 'the world's greatest living Artist'. Now one of the rarest works by Pierre Soulages, with red behind his trademark black paint, has come to auction. Martin Gayford salutes a masterpiece

In 1947, Pierre Soulages showed his work for the first time at the Salon des Indépendants in Paris. He was surprised and flattered to discover that Francis Picabia, a veteran of many avant-garde movements, greatly admired his exhibit. When they met, the great man asked his age. Soulages said that he was 27. Picabia replied that he would pass on the advice Pissarro had given him when he was young: "With your age and with what you do, it won't be long before you have a lot of enemies!"

This anecdote gives a sense of the astonishing historical sweep of Soulages's career. The interchange with Picabia took place 73 years ago. On Christmas Eve 2019, Soulages celebrated his 100th birthday,
an event that was marked by an exhibition at the Louvre in Paris.

As David Hockney recently noted, painters can live and work far into old age – especially if there is some harmony in their existence. But few artistic careers, ever, have lasted as long as that of Soulages. Jackson Pollock was only six years his senior; Yves Klein was nine years younger. Both – now dead for more than half a century – seem to belong to distant epochs.

Yet Soulages still spends every day in his studio, doing the only thing he has ever wanted to do: paint. And what he is doing now is visibly related to what he showed all those years ago. Of the Salon des Indépendants in '47, he recalled that all the other pictures were colourful, while his was "very dark". In comparison, "it looked like a fly in a glass of milk".

His painting has been dominated by black since his childhood, but within that near century of work Soulages distinguishes "three ways of black, three different fields of action". These include black on a lighter ground; black on black; and black with other colours "seeping out" in places, "exalted by the surrounding black".

One further approach, however, does not fall entirely within these categories – it is a dramatic rarity within his epic output, with not more than 15 canvases, according to the catalogue raisonné, created using this particular technique and combination of colours (red and black). Soulages's third method involved placing a canvas on the floor and scraping away upper layers to let the vivid colour "seep out"; but for these 15 paintings, Soulages applied a solid layer of colour
– a vivid red in the case of Peinture 128,5 x 128,5 cm, 16 décembre 1959, which is offered as the leading lot in Bonhams' Post-War & Contemporary Art Sale in London on 12 March – then applied solid black on top in such a way as to let a little red to be seen through it.

Art critics and historians love stylistic labels, and just as assuredly artists themselves do not. "It is fatal to name ourselves!", Willem de Kooning protested, and Soulages would no doubt agree. Naturally, the term 'abstract expressionist' – which de Kooning disliked – has been attached to Soulages, as well as several others: 'tachiste', 'art informel', 'lyrical abstraction'. He rejects them all, but also insists that he isn't very interested in the question.

His work does have obvious affinities with that of his contemporaries on both sides of the Atlantic, among them Mark Rothko, Robert Motherwell and Franz Kline, all of whom he met in New York in the 1950s. However, Soulages insists that his development has been individual and independent, beginning from his earliest youth in his hometown of Rodez, in the Aveyron region. He was attracted to the prehistoric and Romanesque art that is found thereabouts –
and also to the woods in winter.

Soulages began painting bare branches at the age of just seven, and admits they are a continuing fascination: "A black tree in winter is a kind of abstract sculpture." It would be wrong, however, to suggest his paintings are depictions of trees – or anything outside the pictures themselves. To emphasise that, he gives them titles that simply note their physical dimensions and the date they were completed. This places each picture not just within his own oeuvre, but in a long sequence of people making marks with paint that stretches back to prehistory.

Soulages has loved dark hues ever since those childhood experiences. Indeed, he describes falling for the lustrous blackness of ink to such a degree that his mother laughed at him for using it to paint snow. However, it is only – only! – for the last 40 years that Soulages has used black exclusively. The work that Picabia spotted at the Salon des Indépendants was executed on a white surface in brown-black walnut stain – which Soulages had begun using in 1946.

Although black has so long been his signature pigment, Soulages has often remarked that he is actually working with the reflections gleaming on the paint – that is, with light. Since as far back
as 1979, he has used no other pigment in his pictures, which he has described as "Outre-noir", meaning "beyond black". Soulages coined this term by analogy with French examples such as outre-Manche, 'beyond the Channel' (in other words, Britain).

So, given we are naturally interested in categorisation, Soulages presents us with an interesting question: where do we place him as
a painter? This is unresolved more generally with European abstraction of the 1950s and '60s. The conventional view is that American artists were the leaders, and that the most important innovation of the period could justly be called, as did the critic Clement Greenberg, "American-type painting". But the reality was more complicated: a case of parallel development. Soulages is one of a small number of European painters of the period – Hans Hartung, Serge Poliakoff, Gillian Ayres – who deserve far more credit.

It turns out that the prediction of Picabia's with which we began was not quite right. Rather than enemies, Soulages often encountered colleagues and fellow-explorers. At a dinner party in New York, he met Rothko, who did initially go on the attack. "Soulages is Europe", he announced – and he knew all about European museums. They were full of martyrdom and crucifixions. "Europe! Concentration camps, gas chambers, crematoriums. Me, I prefer bird songs." Soulages countered by saying he had been to the Met the day before, and it was full of paintings of suffering saints and Christ on the cross – and he had yet to find the museums of Native American art. In other words, America and Europe had a lot in common, historically and artistically. Then Rothko invited him to lunch and they became good friends.

Martin Gayford is an art critic, whose most recent book, The Pursuit of Art, was published in September 2019.


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