In Paris this spring, tribute is being paid to Gérard Garouste by three exhibitions. At the Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature, at the Beaux-Arts, and at the Galerie Templon… The chosen theme, “Zeugma”, creates a bridge between the collective and the individual, myth and its commentary. Find out more…
In the 1980s, Alain Pacadis, the punk dandy behind the Palace nightclub described Gérard Garouste as “the artist who paints his wife and his dog”. The artist hadn’t yet evolved into the giant he would become – a top-notch status that was confirmed in December 2017 when the Académie des Beaux-Arts voted him in as an academy member, succeeding Georges Mathieu. In the 1980s, the young artist was just emerging from a few shady twists and turns of existence, and was painting to survive, possibly less for financial reasons than in an urgent response to life. Over 30 years later, things haven’t changed much. It is still Élizabeth who we find as Garouste’s Diana at the Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature. This time, Garouste himself plays the role of Actaeon. The theme of Diana and Actaeon is one that has cropped up on many a canvas, notably handled by Titian, Luca Giordano, François Boucher and Cavaliere d’Arpino. All variations on a myth recounted in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, in which Actaeon surprises the goddess Diana while she is taking a bath in the company of her attendants. Failing to keep herself from the man’s sight, she blushes and throws water in his face, transforming him into a stag, whose fate is to be hunted and devoured by dogs. Gérard Garouste has taken a few liberties with the myth. His Actaeon is a wild zoophile who violates the animals before he is transformed and dies in their vengeful jaws. Scenes of penetration, fellatio, metamorphoses, emasculation, hurling two-headed creatures… Garouste paints a perverse Actaeon, who, above all, is responsible for his actions. His work is not spared of tumultuous violence. To such an extent that Claude d’Anthenaise, the museum director, wondered during the exhibition’s opening, his jesting tinged with concern: “Shouldn’t we refuse entry to young children?”
Zeugma, an elegy of transitions
This exhibition is one of three paying homage to the painter in Paris as spring gets underway. As well as the Musée de la Chasse, Garouste is holding shows at the Galerie Templon (“Zeugma”, meaning “bridge” in Greek, where he develops the notions of passages and transmission), and at the Beaux-Arts (“Zeugma, le grand œuvre drolatique”, a series of monumental installations and theatrical setups). Blatant homage that it’s possible to see as a new wave in figurative painting – but a wave that Garouste takes with a grain of salt. “I’ve been fashionable before, I’ve also been a loser. For the same reasons. It’s a swinging pendulum game. In terms of art history, the hand in the Chauvet grotto is closer to a Matisse than an 18th century painting. The relationship between modernity and classicism doesn’t matter.” Gérard Garouste makes this comment while sitting on a couch in the Stag and Wolf Room at the Musée de la Chasse, a room decorated with conspicuous woodwork, tapestries and stuffed animals. A room that he loves. His voice is deep, slightly rusty. His gaze is simultaneously searching and absent; gilded rings circle his fingers. With these hands, there was a time when Garouste prepared his own colours, crushed his own pigments, tested his oils, working with a chemist and restorers. All this to increase his knowledge, to learn. To acquire technique, then to forget it while focusing on his subject. Because that, in the end, is what matters to him.
Garouste combines, and has always combined, different levels of reading in his often cryptic paintings. He represents literary or mythological themes (from a corpus that he deepens rather than widens, namely including the Talmud, Cervantes, Rabelais, Dante, and Barthes). These are themes that he twists while peopling his works with figures from his entourage, filling out his paintings with symbolic animals – donkeys and geese are omnipresent in his show at the Galerie Templon. Garouste directly paints his life onto the canvas, through the vehicle of myths. There’s nothing suppressed about his work – his self-allusions are entirely conscious. His work abounds with gaps and rapprochements in meaning, associations of ideas, hence the gathering of these exhibitions under the banner of the zeugma or “bridge” – another recurring element in his work. In L’Intranquille, a superb self-portrait in words that sketches out his literary life, we read: “I like the idea that we represent one thing and that we talk about something else.”
“Over time, I’m getting closer to the centre”
The subject as an alibi… It’s impossible to write about Garouste without mentioning his relationship with Hebrew, a language he has used since the end of the 1990s – and that has left an influence on his reading and paintings. Hebrew is a question of interpretation. As Garouste is fond of often pointing out, “the same three-letter root can result in different words”. The painter offers an example: “Desert, word and bee have the same root.”
Gérard Garouste is obsessed by the origins of our culture and the rereading of myths, and especially interpretation. “The words in the Bible are a bit like flint that we strike and that gives off sparks.” But not everything falls in the domain of truth, like History, but becomes a matter of interpretation, like mythology. In short, in the way that Hebrew opens up the meanings of words, Garouste opens up his painting as he operates what he calls the “disassembly of words and images”. “A good painting places all responsibility on the person who looks at it,” he adds, citing Roland Barthes’ La Mort de l’auteur. “It’s the reader who finds meaning from a work. I don’t create paintings that answer questions, but that raises them.” Gérard Garouste is a man of mystery who embeds his paintings with keys to reading them, clues. For those looking at them to notice and interpret themselves. This way, meaning opens up…
In L’Intranquille, Garouste alludes to his growing interest in Cervantes and Rabelais – a passion nourished by images from his childhood and visits to his beloved Uncle Casso. For Garouste, personal history, the history of the world, and the history of art can only be understood through their relationships with one another. “I dance around the core issue. Like a spiral, but with a centripetal rather than a centrifugal force. Over time, I’m getting closer to the centre. From my own depths, I touch the depths of others. This is where dialogue begins.” The zeugma is the bridge between the collective and the individual, the past and the present, myth and its commentary.
Style serves discourse… “The realism of observation and the banality of classicism,” Garouste said to Hortense Lyon in 2015. Even when he hides behind the neutrality of his method (sketches, glazing…), Garouste is identifiable through the expressionist handling of subjects, his great talent as a colourist, and his stretched-out, whirling impastos. There are also his frequent plays on anamorphosis – because “an anamorphosis is an erection”. Something that fits in well with his Diane et Actéon series. “Style is the residue of influences,” notes the artist who looks to Spain in particular, drawing inspiration from Le Greco, Velasquez and Goya. “Painting penetrates the artist, he doesn’t invent it.”
The Classic and the Indian
Gérard Garouste was born in 1946. After a childhood marked with hatred and fear, he studied at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris from 1965 to 1972. “As a student, I soon realised, while reading De Chirico, that the quarrel between traditional and modern artists has erupted in every era. Anything you do will be challenged by the next generation. I didn’t want to be taken in by this.” In the 1970s, Garouste created frescoes at the Palace, where he presented Le Classique et l’Indien, a performance of which he was the author, director and decorator. The two title characters offer the painter an axiology, described in L’Intranquille. The Classic is “the man puffed up with norms”; the Indian, “someone intuitive, rebellious, creative” on the verge of madness. So does it come as any surprise to see, at the Beaux-Arts de Paris, amongst his huge painted fabric architectures, a unit resembling an inverted tepee? Architectures baptised Indiennes. “In Bordeaux, the term “Indiennes” refers to painted fabrics from Indian trading posts. The first time I showed these works was in 1987. At the time, the CAPC (Bordeaux’s museum of contemporary art) was largely supported by the mayor Chaban-Delmas. The CAPC is a windowless cathedral. In these gloomy cells, I created enormous canvases, some of them sixteen metres tall by seven metres wide.” Architectural forms that were entirely painted, with themes drawn from Dante’s Divine Comedy. “The canvas of an oil painting is stretched over a frame; the object is all you need. Tapestries are different. They can dress up whole walls; we can create architectural forms with them. I incidentally change the way they’re arranged for every exhibition. At the Fondation Cartier, they stood two and a half metres high. At the Stedelijk Museum, they made up a frieze.”
Between the late 1970s and late 1980s, Garouste’s renown was established. The artist often says that he is positioned “as a breakaway from the breakaway”. Moving against the flow, he was the only French artist to take part in the “Zeitgeist” exhibition (at the Martin-Gropius-Bau in Berlin, in 1982) – an exhibition which, as its name indicates, set out to present the air du temps. Garouste was also supported by Leo Castelli, “a man of great openness”. Ever since, with his exhibitions at the Fondation Cartier (2001), the Villa Médicis (2009) and the Fondation Maeght (2015), his election to the Académie des Beaux-Arts and this springtime homage only seal a destiny already placing him in History.
“Zeugma”, three Gérard Garouste exhibitions. In Paris: at the Beaux-Arts until 15 April (14 rue Bonaparte), at the Galerie Templon until 12 May (30 rue Beaubourg), at the Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature until 1 July (62 rue des Archives).
La Source, when art serves society
Gérard Garouste’s work is not confined to art. In 1991, he set up La Source, an association aiming to support society and education via artistic expression, namely geared at children and young people in difficult circumstances and their families. The association has developed in recent years, and today, is established in seven French departments, both in rural and urban areas. In concrete terms, the association organises workshops run by professional artists and community workers. It is active in a wide range of artistic fields, including painting, engraving, sculpture, photography, video, installations, performance arts and writing. “Art is crucial for a child’s balance, and the way that it’s practised at La Source, it helps to boost citizenship. Helping children to blossom and introducing them to art is a way to cultivate their sensitivity, imagination, intelligence, with the hope of making them beings with desire” (www.associationlasource.fr).