Pierre Soulages
Year, Birthplace 1919, France
Pierre Soulages was much affected by a visit to Sainte Foy Abbey in Conques when he was 12 years old, and he became interested in Romanesque and, later, prehistoric art (he accompanied a local archaeologist on research trips and then visited caves decorated with prehistoric paintings). The landscapes of Rouergue and Causses were etched in his memory and from a very young age he felt drawn to black. He began to paint, though with no knowledge of contemporary art tendencies. At 18 years old he moved to Paris in order to prepare to become an art teacher and for the entrance process to the École national supérieure des beaux-arts. He was accepted but became convinced that the teaching there had nothing to offer him and he returned to his hometown. During this first stay in Paris, however, he did visit the Louvre and saw exhibitions by Cézanne and Picasso, which had a great impact. Drafted in 1940 then demobilised in 1941, he was stranded in his region until he finally managed to move to Montpellier, where he made frequent visits to the Musée Fabre. In order to evade being drafted to the STO (forced labour service) in 1942, he spent the rest of the war hidden among local winegrowers. On one occasion, he met Sonia Delaunay at the house of his neighbour, the novelist Joseph Delteil. It was not until 1946 that he managed to devote himself entirely to painting. He moved to Courbevoie, in the Parisian suburbs, and then to the capital itself. His works in walnut stain on paper and his canvases, dominated by black, were dark and abstract. Rejecting all influences, he quickly found an artistic approach that suited his temperament. From the outset, he also rejected expressionism. Working with broad brushstrokes, he created bold forms ‘in one go’. In 1947, he exhibited at the Salon des surindépendants – the only non-juried salon – where his paintings were at odds with the other works of the postwar period, almost invariably semi-figurative and colourful. In 1948, having attracted attention at the Salon des réalités nouvelles, he was invited to participate in the Französische Abstrakte Malerei exhibition [French abstract painting] held at various German galleries; he was by far the youngest of the small group of painters which included pioneers of abstract art such as František Kupka, César Doméla and Auguste Herbin. The poster showed one of his paintings in black and white. The same year, he was visited by James J. Sweeney, curator of MoMA in New York. After a first solo exhibition at the Galerie Lydia Conti in Paris in 1949, he began to participate widely in exhibitions around the world. The Phillips Collection, in Washington, was the first gallery to buy one of his paintings in 1951, followed by the Musée national d’art moderne, in Paris, and MoMA, in 1952, and the Tate Gallery in London, in 1954. In 1953, his work Peinture, mai 1953 [Painting, May 1953], exhibited at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, provoked a wide range of reactions, adding to his growing reputation. From then on he exhibited at the Kootz Gallery. He also designed ballet and theatre sets (1949-1952), produced etchings at the Lacourière studio (from 1951 and above all from 1957), created designs for carpets (1963, Aubusson) and made sculptures (1975). The first retrospective exhibitions were held in 1960 in Hanover, Essen, Zurich and The Hague (followed by Houston in 1966, the Musée National d’Art Moderne in Paris in 1967 and Pittsburgh, Buffalo and Quebec in 1968). His first exhibition at the Galerie de France, in Paris, was held in 1960. In January 1979, Soulages began to experiment with a new technique, adding and removing black for hours. In this way, he invented his first painting based on the reflection of light on the textures of the black surfaces, working in thick layers with a slight relief, indentations and grooves and, at the same time, playing with light and colour: the subject of his work was not black in itself but rather the light which it reveals and organises. He began to apply this new technique, calling it ‘black light’ or ‘ultra-black’ to enormous canvases, which often became polyptychs. His creation of the 104 glass windows of Conques Abbey, between 1987 and 1994, was an important stage in his work. He invented a type of colourless ‘white’ glass, which was translucent, with variations in its crystallisation, which took on warm or cold tints depending on the quality of natural light. Soulages received numerous prizes and honorary mentions, from the São Paulo Biennale, in 1953, to the Carnegie Prize in 1964, the French Grand Prix National for painting in 1986, and the Praemium Imperiale in Japan, in 1992. In 2007 the renovated Musée Fabre, in Montpellier, dedicated a permanent gallery where a significant donation of his work is displayed. A Musée Soulages is due to open in Rodez in 2013. AC