Pierre Soulages, “painter of black and light,” is a major figure of non-figurative painting, recognized as such since the start of his career after World War II.
Born on December 24, 1919, in Rodez (south of France), Soulages, who continues to produce work at a steady pace, is celebrating his 100th birthday at the end of this year. To mark this event, the Musée du Louvre is devoting an exceptional exhibition to the artist in the prestigious Salon Carré, which is located between the Galerie d’Apollon and the Grande Galerie and used to house the Paris Salon.
This tribute exhibition sets out to trace the chronological development of Soulages’s work from 1946 to the present day, through a small selection of pieces created over eight decades. Soulages’s exceptionally long career is illustrated by some of his major works, most of them from prominent French and foreign museums. The exhibition covers every period, with a focus on the outrenoir polyptychs. It also presents a number of very large paintings executed in recent months, demonstrating the remarkable vitality of Soulages, who has never stopped working.
The Pierre Soulages exhibition at the Musée du Louvre
This is the first time the Louvre has invited Pierre Soulages to present a solo exhibition. This artist has already exhibited works at the Louvre on two other occasions, however:
In 1990, the exhibition “Polyptychs: Multi-Panel Paintings from the Middle Ages to the 20th Century” (Hall Napoléon), in which Michel Laclotte established a line of descent from the medieval polyptychs to Francis Bacon, and where Soulages exhibited two paintings back to back.
In 2009, Painting, 300 x 236 cm, 9 July 2000 was exhibited in the Louvre’s Salon Carré in conjunction with the Centre Pompidou Soulages retrospective (October 14, 2009–March 8, 2010).
In June 1969, Soulages also contributed to the new design of the Louvre’s rooms devoted to 19th-century French paintings, by choosing the color of the walls: a deep red that visitors see to this day.
Pierre Soulages opted for total abstraction from the start of his career, challenging the traditional premises of painting. His was a singular approach, in the materials he used (for example, walnut stain and tar), in his tools which were more like those used by construction painters, in his decision to name his works according to their technique, dimensions and date of execution rather than with titles that would influence viewers’ perception of them. In 1948 he wrote already: “A painting is an organized whole, an ensemble of forms (lines, colored surfaces) upon which our interpretations of it emerge and fall apart.”
This exhibition shows the continuity of the artist’s work and its various periods, each reflecting his ambition to bring out the light through contrasts between the color black and light areas, through layering and scraping, and in the manner of applying a single pigment.
In 1979, when he had been a painter for more than thirty years, Soulages embarked on a new phase in his work: a quite different kind of painting that he called outrenoir – “ultrablack” or “beyond black”. Soulages’ painterly experimentations had always probed the relationship between black and light, but with outrenoir, which made use of the reflection of light, the space-time of painting took on a completely new luminous multiplicity. Contrary to a monochromatic work, “it is the differences of textures, smooth, fibrous, calm, tense or agitated that, in capturing or blocking the light, bring out the grey blacks and deep blacks.”
Brief Biography of Pierre Soulages
Pierre Soulages was born in Rodez (south of France) on December 24, 1919. After studying at the École des Beaux-Arts of Montpellier and working as a winegrower to escape forced labor under the German occupation, he settled in Paris and began producing abstract work in 1946. His first solo exhibition was held in 1949 at the Lydia Conti gallery and his first show in New York at the Kootz Gallery in 1954. His paintings, often large-format, and his abundant work as a printmaker, were widely shown from the 1950s, especially in Europe and the United States, where he would exhibit very regularly. Museum exhibitions followed, first in Germany (Hanover) and in the United States (Houston) then in Paris at the Musée National d’Art Moderne in 1967. In 1979, he embarked on a new phase in his work with a quite different kind of painting that he called outrenoir, presented in an exhibition at the Centre Pompidou. He went on to exhibit his work worldwide, including in Asia and Russia. He completed a stained-glass ensemble for the Abbey Church of St Foy in Conques in 1994, the year of publication of the first volume of the catalogue raisonné edited by Pierre Encrevé (followed by three other volumes). In 2009, the Centre Pompidou held a major retrospective, marking his 90th birthday.
There has been a permanent display of Soulages’ work at the Musée Fabre in Montpellier since 2007, and in 2014, the Musée Soulages opened in Rodez.
Pierre Soulages lives and works in Paris and in Sète.
Pierre Encrevé †