A cooking class led me to painting. Subsequently, fortuitous circumstances were to generate a necessity: writing on art and its metamorphoses.
* * *
Twice a week, in the grip of an arid ambition, I sat down, after a day’s work, in a classroom at McGill University. This ritual was my diet for the last three years prescribed to fatten my curriculum with an MBA. The “Master Business Administration” was my entertainment.
Halfway through the realization of this desire, which I was indifferent to, I had to leave these classes, thinking I would resume them the following term. My spouse had left me, and I had changed jobs. Alone, with a moment of leisure to fill, on the advice of my ex, I signed up for a cooking class.
I loved this course. For me, it was a revelation. I could take a class for the sole purpose of savouring my own pleasure.
* * *
Engineer, after ten years of practice, I had become an adviser in the planning of computer systems for a large company. In this environment, an investment is conceived as an effort that must be made today to ensure future viability. In life, investing in oneself, as in a hobby, to build an inner balance, comes under the same principle. If the career or the emotional life collapses, this thing that one has cultivated over the years will become a refuge. In management, this strategy is called diversification. Realizing that I could apply this rule to myself, after mayonnaise, I was going to try out the visual arts. I left the MBA and signed up for a drawing class once a week. I was forcing myself to do something I suspected I liked.
* * *
Three years later, my friend Max told me that he had enrolled in a portrait studio in Woodstock (NY), under the guidance of Albert Handell. To convince me to go with him, Max brought out a book containing reproductions of Handell. Leafing through it, we lingered on a small portrait of a burly man with a beard, glasses and violet eyes; it was enough to post my registration. Attracted by Woodstock, this mythical place for people of my generation, I wanted to meet this painter.
* * *
Albert advised me to squint and focus on values, this translation of colours into black and white. On the third day, there was a click. There will be a separation between subject and form. The subject became an object on which I could extract, project or merge forms. I had registered for this workshop to learn techniques and I discovered by experimenting with a simple process, the difference between intellectualization and feeling. From that moment, like a musician, who has an ear, knows by hearing another musician, if he has an ear or not, I could feel by looking at a painting, if its author shared this sensitivity.
This experience provoked a questioning: continue to practice a profession that I didn’t care about or give me permission to change. After several months of hesitation, I decided. I became a painter.
* * *
Authors brought together in a television program were talking about their latest work. One of them presented the biography of the greatest art dealer of the 20th century. Under the circumstances, he aroused my attention. Four years after my career change, I was looking for a gallery.
The next day I bought L’homme de l’art D.-H. Kahnweiler (1884–1979) by Pierre Assouline1. I wanted to know the qualities of a good gallery owner believing that it would be of great use to me, but my belief has been short-lived. However, from his opinions revealed in his biography, I wanted to know more. I got his book on Juan Gris2 and his Confessions Esthétiques3.
* * *
Theoretical writings on art did not interest me. Their authors make me think of a boss who judges his employees without ever having practiced the job they do. For these, who have never drawn a single line, the work of art serves as a screen to speak only of content, whether real or invented, they are concerned only with the «what» not with the «how.»
With Kahnweiler, we move on to another plateau. From his knowledge and his assiduous visits to workshops, he speaks of the work of art as a material entity distinct from the outside world and takes a stand. He does not hesitate to describe the problems encountered and the solutions provided by the artist. For these reasons, he represented and he still represents the defender that every artist dreams of finding. What Picasso seems to have been aware of.
Picasso said: “Without him, I would never have had a career.” It is he, in fact, who, overwhelmed by the boldness of the Demoiselles d’Avignon, decided in 1907 to buy from him henceforth all his production, […]. Picasso was then twenty-seven years old and Kahnweiler twenty-three. They have been linked for sixty-five years4!
Moreover, to read Kahnweiler is to penetrate the thought of Picasso and to learn that the artist who dominated the art of the 20th century was resolutely against abstraction and to note that cubism is a poorly understood phenomenon.
For several years, Kahnweiler was my reference, his visual sensibility, my factor of attraction. I liked its coherence and I shared its position against abstraction. I found his explanations clear. Moreover, during his lifetime, no one dared to attack him directly, him or Picasso.
* * *
A painter friend, tired of being bombarded with Kahnweiler’s arguments against abstraction, left a book on the table in my studio that he had begun to browse. It was ABSTRACTION and EINFÜHLUNG5 by Wilhelm Worringer (1881–1965). The title didn’t appeal to me. The hermetic style preferred by certain specialists in the visual arts puts me off. I left the book to dry out hoping that my friend would come and take it back. After a few weeks, mechanically, I approached the preface. From the first line, it is declared that the writing is a doctoral thesis presented in German in 1907 and translated for the first time into French in 1977. This discrepancy made me dive into the text.
Worringer places form at the apex of artistic expression. For the first time, I had the feeling of reading about the visual experience which had changed the course of my life ten years before, the process of extraction of forms, when, to quote it, one uses reality as an artistic medium6. I was overwhelmed by his astonishing reading of art history. So much so that I was not surprised to find by luck, a few months later, one of the works of the predecessor who had influenced him. It was QUESTIONS DE STYLE7 by Aloïs Riegl.
Immediately, in the preface, it is declared that it had taken a century to have a French translation of this work, published in 1893, on the styles of ornamentation. Seventy years behind for Worringer, a hundred years for his predecessor! These discrepancies confirmed what I felt: something continued to emanate from these works. I had to dissect the works of the Riegl—Worringer tandem that I could find. Why? Because I have always admired painters who knew how to remain on an upward slope until the end of their lives and whom I link, whatever their style, to their convictions. I felt that with Riegl-Worringer I solidified the base of my convictions. I was enthusiastic, I discovered aesthetics as a science of form.
This pathway culminates in Worringer ’s theory. With concrete examples drawn from Egyptian, Greek and Gothic art, Worringer affirms that abstraction is the sine qua non condition for the appearance of a great style. Nothing less.
* * *
Kahnweiler has always been fiercely opposed to abstraction. In his rectitude, he could not ignore someone who cracked his aesthetic edifice.
Trusting this intuition, I went in search of Kahnweiler ’s answers. German being his mother tongue, I was sure that he had read Worringer, understood what I had understood and, of course, disputed it.
* * *
Sure enough, Kahnweiler answered. In articles published in 1919 and 1920, he responded to Worringer ’s arguments. Then, during World War II, in his book about Juan Gris written in hiding to escape the Nazis, Kahnweiler was of Jewish descent, he reiterates in a footnote, like a poorly incorporated collage, his disagreement with Worringer.
It was for years that I wrote my book on Juan Gris which I consider to be my main work. An American art historian called it a “catch-all.” She was not wrong, but she did not know the cause of this character. I lived, I realize it today, with the unacknowledged, but always present feeling of a possible catastrophe from one minute to another, which prompted me to enter into this writing everything related to the subject, directly or indirectly, for fear of not writing anything else8.
Why in 1945, 25 years later, in front of his death, did Kahnweiler insist on reaffirming his disagreement? Because Kahnweiler was one of the handful of men who understood the importance of what was at stake.
At stake was the next major artistic movement, “Cubist rhetoric exists but what does not exist is a style of our time that can support the weak while winning the approbation of the strong and capable of bringing all men together around works of art9.” He was convinced that this style would have to go through cubism, without necessarily resembling it. Despite the considerable impact of Cubism on 20th century art, this style did not take place. Kahnweiler ’s explanation: the conditions were not favourable.
* * *
Wanting to satisfy my curiosity, I found myself in a labyrinth of solid and contradictory arguments on abstraction. The more I walked in these corridors, the more every detail seemed important to me. I had only one certainty about the Worringer and Kahnweiler conflict, the two cannot be right. Can both be wrong? And other questions arose.
Why, on his position against abstraction, has Picasso never been attacked? The fear of confronting Picasso?
Why Worringer, one of the first advocates of abstraction, who died in 1965, never commented on the great abstract experiment of the 20th century?
Above all, why has this abstraction not engendered a great style, but its opposite, the current explosion of movements in plastic arts? Because the conditions were not favourable. Who can be satisfied with such an answer? A critic? A museum curator? Certainly not me.
And the soliloquy continued. The abstraction? The great styles and their metamorphoses? Going around in circles, I went back to the same square over and over again. The only way to get out of it, to put my thoughts in order and to see things clearly was to write. I wanted to objectify my thinking hoping to arrive at the truth.
* * *
I had started this research in 1994. In 2012, after having written and rewritten an essay (115 pp), I had the feeling that it could have been better, more solid.
I had returned, dissatisfied, to my paintings having become addicted to aesthetics.
* * *
Now it was the digital age, the internet, one day, while surfing, I wanted to see if there was a translation of Riegl's main work, Spätrömische Kunstindustrie, (which deals with late Roman art) and highly recommended by Worringer for understanding his work.
My work is based at many points on the insights expressed by Riegl in his Stilfragen (1893) and his Spätrömische Kunstindustrie (1901). Knowing these works is, if not necessary, at least very desirable for the understanding of my work. Without always agreeing on all points with Riegl, my work stands on the same ground as his with regard to the method of inquiry, and it owes to him its most powerful stimuli10.
Just surf the internet. This writing from 1901 was translated from German to English and published in 1985 by a small Roman publisher specializing in archaeology. The planets were aligning. Fortunately, I went to Rome quite often.
* * *
My friendship with Giandomenico goes back to our years spent together at Polytechnique11. Several years (17) after our studies, an opportunity arose. My spouse’s brother was studying in Paris. He had a house and we could stay there for three weeks. From there, I had only one idea: popping over to Rome to see my friend again.
Until the 20th century, Rome was one of the main centers of art in Europe. Wandering through the Eternal City, we understand that many artists have stayed there. To be welcomed in this unique place by a Roman friend was my privilege and like a gift from destiny, I was able to return several times thanks to Giando who granted me invitations. Naturally, I got my hands on LATE ROMAN ART INDUSTRY12.
* * *
Immediately, I was amazed by Riegl’s interpretation of the art of antiquity and the links he establishes between architecture, sculpture and painting. Perhaps because I understood better what I had seen in Rome. His explanations touched and surprised me.
Worringer quotes Riegl extensively, yet I never expected him to misinterpret it. All consider Worringer as an extension of Riegl. Even Kahnweiler is convinced of this. In his Confessions Esthétiques, he goes so far as to write : “Riegl, of which Worringer is currently the most notorious representative13.” In my mind, this is a mistake, a confusing misunderstanding. To be certain, I obtained his writings on The Origin of Baroque Art in Rome14 and The Dutch Group Portrait15.
* * *
These three books and their disparate titles are just different sections of the same work in which Riegl covers a period from antiquity to Rembrandt. Within it, from the block of stone to the treatment of space, the evolution of the visual arts is always set in motion by means that excite sensory perception. Riegl does not tell anecdotes, and his demonstrations are not always easy to understand. And if we add that in current art, novelty is priceless, consequently everything that belongs to the past no longer has value, we understand why Riegl is overlooked.
* * *
Riegl had cleared up the conflict that had obsessed me for years, and much more : a purpose. I wanted the truth about abstraction. Looking for it, remaining long dissatisfied, guided by the same god to whom Worringer sacrificed, the unknown god of hazard, I discover a place that I thought did not exist. A place where you can grasp at a single glance the art of all periods and link current art to that of the predecessors, from the conceptual installation to the Parthenon. It is a place without artifice, which can frighten us or serve as a springboard.
Here, the art object, the material entity, exists for what it is, it does not serve as a pretext. At all times, it has been the perfect match for the society that gave birth to it. Today, this means that current art, championed by refined minds and displayed in impressive museums, is the art of a society that has been polluting, and continues to pollute, to the point of endangering all of life.
The journey to understand its evolution is the subject of this painter’s writing. A painter indifferent to the content, who in front of a painting seeks a solution to the problem he is confronting.
* * *
“What will happen with painting when I’m gone? They will have to walk on my body! They can’t escape it, can they?