Through images that resonate like icons of the contemporary world, François Bard scrutinises his era, pointing out its futility and pride with an amused and distance eye. His characters, encased in tight frames, stand out for their presence and their strength. His last series, The Paths of Glory, is currently on show at the Waltman Ortega Gallery in Miami until 31 March 2016.
What do you tell through your paintings?
I always tell my own story, but I also show human beings as they are, with their imperfections. This is why I use generic terms such as Untitled, The Kilt, Dealer, The Paths of Glory… I work on the theme of vanity that in my mind underlines a type of imperfection, and that is one of the grand themes in the history of art: the representation of princes, kings, power, the Medici family, battles won… There is also religious vanity in all these saints who meditate on skulls and question life beyond – real vanities in short.
When you say that you question this theme of vanity, you clearly intend to give a contemporary form to a theme that belongs to classic painting… Yes, the theme is still relevant, and I deal with it in quite a classic way, which is painting. I like to draw inspiration from iconic photographs that I recreate in my own way. The photos that I find in the press or in magazines are contemporary vanities for me, like this beautiful photo of Kennedy smoking a cigar… Images are easy to access but no one really looks at them… Even though they represent the postures of society, of the world and of the media.
So everything is an illusion?
Yes, perhaps, or even a big misunderstanding.
Do you look cynically upon this society?
No, because I’m part of it! An artist’s vanity is huge! The idea of giving meaning to one’s painting and one’s day by painting! Not wanting to waste time, thinking that one’s time is precious… this is vanity!
So this is why you pose in certain paintings?
Yes, this is an expression of the artist’s vanity. In other words, the artist’s somewhat heroic attitude in wishing to replay certain social games – the way that Woody Allen did in Zelig when he played a chameleon-man who took himself for Hitler when he was standing next to him, and so on.
Does this mean that the artist is the one who is best positioned to take a distance?
It’s more comfortable for me to be my own subject even if I like getting people to pose and to photograph them – I work a lot from photos. People aren’t always available. In any case, it’s important that they be friends, people I know well, hence the importance of my dogs…
Technically, do you see yourself as being in line with the tradition of grand painting?
Yes, you can find the key elements of painting: a hanging frame, a canvas, oil paint.
Have you tried other mediums?
I’ve tried acrylic paint but I haven’t found the unctuousness or sensuousness offered by oil paint that also darkens by a few degrees when it dries. Because of this, acrylic is too far from the effect I’m looking for when I paint figuratively the way I do.
How about photography?
This interests me in a certain way. To go over my background, I started by painting figuratively – one might say classically with live models – before attacking abstract painting. I was 40 years old when I went back to figurative painting thanks to photography and these little digital cameras that allow you to take stock of what you’ve taken straight away. Perhaps also because my abstract painting wasn’t looked at enough…
You say that even though in France – unlike other countries like Germany and the United States – we bow to the dictates of abstraction. It’s astonishing that interest in your work was relaunched by figuration!
Yes, it’s also to do with the change of millennium. The 20th century was a century of abstraction and total deconstruction. The cards were dealt out differently when we entered the 21st century. Abstraction no longer made much sense because the adventure was largely over. Perhaps the same thing can be said about figuration, but the practice of painting can be renewed by digital devices or other technologies.
Still, you offer a link between abstraction and figuration through your touch that takes us to abstraction when we zoom in.
To answer you, I’m going to tell you what got me interested in my dog. When she was little, her head was all black and she had black and white splotches on her body. When I looked at her, I had a living version of my abstraction! I think that if I hadn’t gone through this abstract period, I would be painting completely differently. I have more of an abstract vision when I paint with black, white, or a shape. I’d even say that I’m really in line with the concept.
What do you mean?
I see my paintings a little like icons, like propaganda images. It’s necessary to create strong images that are a bit iconic in order to capture attention. An icon is a type of glorification. I like taking black and white photographs and repainting them, I call these works “Profanations”: this makes my painting even more iconic! And even vainer! I find it fun.
You nevertheless wish to preserve a bit of mystery because over here your frame cuts off the head, over there, the legs… Often we only see part of the subject. This becomes an element of your signature.
Yes, it’s important for me to keep a bit of mystery. With this framing, I allow the spectator the possibility of taking hold of a face, of imagining it. I like space being left for imagination on what’s left unpainted. For me, the importance of not revealing everything relates to the same subtlety and difference between pornography and eroticism.
Your work is also very cinematographic!
Yes, when I was young, I loved films by Antonioni for example, with extremely powerful shots and compositions. Film has always been important for me. I loved those special moments of discussions with friends that always followed. We’d take the time to appreciate in depth.
There’s also the notion of time from the spectator’s point of view: the time to look at a painting, to appreciate a work and to soak in it, as if before an idol.
Yes, there’s also the time to make, found in the work of all artistic artisans. I like being alone in my studio, nourishing this relationship to time and solitude. My work can be understood as a travel log of my life with individuals who are very close to me. To put it another way: I try to rediscover myths through my daily life and those around me.
You always isolate your models, like wandering souls. We also see a metaphysical dimension in your paintings: the horizon is flat, the subjects emerge from darkness… I wouldn’t say that they’re going towards death, but something close to it. Which old masters are important for you?
I enjoy looking at Velasquez, Zurbaran, Ribera… All this classical Spanish painting from the 17th and 18th centuries. There’s also Italian baroque painting, with Caravaggio of course, but this is a more talkative style. I take great pleasure in looking at classical painting, but also contemporary and current art. On another note, I’m fascinated by NASA’s photos of the moon – I even own some really bewitching shots. These photos of the moon with a black “sky” really make an impression on me. The darkness is a type of duality: night and day, life and death. It’s only through blackness that we have absolute infinity. My dream is to get out of this “colour”, but I can’t manage to. It’s an infinite depth, it changes the reality of things, it creates ambiguity and thrusts us into the cosmos. The black background becomes the golden background of icons, taking us out of time and space.
What’s the most important for you? Form or colour?
The most important is to match form and light: this must be right. I’m less of a colour person than a value person. The light I use is quite strong, in connection with vanity. I like things that sparkle, this is the “magpie” in me!
Just in your painting or also in your life?
No, just in my painting: it has to sparkle, it has to glisten, the light has to be strong, a little metaphysical.
What’s your relationship with the art market? Does it put pressure on you?
It’s difficult to talk about it. I stand back and I do what I have to do. Pressure exists, necessarily. If there’s an exhibition, we want it to work, for me as well as for the others involved, and we don’t want to flop. But the art market is so abstract for me. We tend to look at the stars rather than our fingers, especially in France! The CAC 40 of art! What interests me is painting, and I like my life.
Can you think of an artist or a painting that moved you recently?
There’s an interesting Romanian painting school with one artist in particular, Adrian Ghenie – who represented Romania at the last Venice Biennale. His painting deals with post-Nazi history. I also like the very powerful universe of Jaume Plensa, far from my own, but it touches me. And there are painters like Bacon or Freud who I’ve always liked.
How long have you been working with Olivier Waltman?
Since 2012, I’m lucky to be with a very good gallerist.
Regarding formats, you’ve gone from small formats on paper to consistently large-format canvases…
This is the iconic aspect! I feel enclosed as soon as I work on small formats that don’t let me express a gesture. I like to take formats that match my scale, my size and allow gestures to be expressed. Anything over 160×130 is good!
Do you make preparatory drawings?
Sometimes but not systematically. Sometimes the study is enough and does not need to be transposed to a large format.
Sometimes your works are untitled, sometimes titled. Why?
Because I don’t always have ideas! But I also like this “Untitled” that answers the silence, in which case it’s better to say nothing…