MARCH 17, 2001 IN THE ARTIST’S STUDIO
ON RUE CASGRAIN, AT MONTRÉAL
BY RICHARD BARBEAU

 
Q : Do you still have the same degree of motivation that you had at the very beginning of your career?

A : My motivation is increasing because I am getting closer to “intuition”. Before engaging in the study of fine arts and understanding painting in particular, I went through difficult periods during which I wanted to rationalize my approach. But now, I let instinct and intuition take the lead and I really enjoy painting. Thanks to this, I am becoming more confident in my work. And after Varennes, where my pai9nting exploded into contrasting colours, I discovered what it was that I enjoyed about painting.

I used to do a lot of research to enrich myself with all kinds of different experiences, even if it meant worrying which path I should follow. At a certain moment, in the solitude and tranquillity of Varennes – I worked in Varennes for five years, the first two I had neither telephone nor television – I devoted myself entirely to my work until the day people started knocking at my door for my paintings. I wanted to make a supreme effort to discover myself, to be happy with painting, to be in harmony – me with my painting, and my painting probably with me too!

Q : You say, “I’ve found what I enjoy in painting; ca you explain this for us?

A : The great revelation is the love of colour. During my extensive research I worked a great deal with tonality, conventional shades, and values, and that drew me towards the cubist tradition. Coming to terms with colour was as if I had suddenly opened a window in which resonance, the attraction of colours were starting to come to life. Previously, I was conditioned by the painting of the past. Today, I throw myself into the unknown and this pleases me immensely. At that moment I broke my mooring and had the impression of navigating, advancing. I do not try do decide where this will lead, but I do know now what I no longer want to do, and that is to work with past memories dominated by the history of art.

We want to know everything about art history, but there comes a point when we must forget everything in order to give painting a certain freshness. This freshness is the innocence of art. I think that it is basically the love of painting. I had this before going to the École des Beaux-Arts, buy during my studies; I wanted to understand why I was working. Today I prefer to feel my painting; I prefer to live it.

Q : You speak of the pleasure of colour, by colours are also prisoners of form; do you also have an interest in form?

A : The relationship of colour certainly goes with that of forms, but the movement of forms is independent to the movement of colours. It’s a combination which happens on the surface to create a more concentrated attraction in the rapport between them – for it’s always a question of rapport. I pant as much with backgrounds as with the surface. I paint with space. It’s a need to construct a sort of architecture in space. I love to build, to construct. I have experimented with various mediums, and personally I was not particularly satisfied because I was limited in the invention of my forms. Mediums are seductive but form is an integral part of one’s culture with respect to art, painting, even knowledge. It’s an intuitive knowledge, however, and not a scientific or rational knowledge. Form, for me, is the means of being receptive to one’s feelings!

Q : Could you describe what you are currently working on? You’re using a particular technique, aren’t you? Collage?

A : For a year now I have been working very quickly using what is for me the relatively new medium of collage. I have also been painting, but with collages there are two extraordinary processes which I particularly like. I draw with coloured paper and scissors. Drawing comes naturally to me; it’s something that has developed over the years but that I put on one side because of my painting. The problem of forms with cut up paper is that the pieces can be assembled in many ways by moving them and placing them different ways round etc. The imaginative possibilities in composition are therefore boundless. There are two processes: cutting out forms and assembling them. For me, movement takes first place in my collages; everything is moving. There is a certain lyricism that develops in a geometric assembly with collage, where as in painting this can be somewhat inflexible. With collages everything moves.

Q : There’s a lot of energy coming out of all that?

A : The energy is much faster, much more powerful in impact, in the “punch’ of form, the punch’ of the discovery of the composition. It’s the impact, the shock. You have to create a tremor in the stability of things in order to be able to lose yourself, but equilibrium is always there. In truth it’s much more like diving than wanting to swim on the surface. I dive! The momentum is there!

Q : Throughout your experience as an artist, have you come to any firm conclusions concerning practice and method etc.?

A : Yes. It was in Varennes that I discovered my greatest certainty. One is always in doubt about the particular panting one is working on, but I have no doubts about the direction that I should take in my painting. I used be concerned about finding my vocation. It was a time of introspection, research, awareness, and worry, but my new painting is an affirmation as regards the unknown. One is always working into the future.

Q : Are you less anxious about trying or exploring new things?

A : I am less anxious, but I mustn’t strop working; if I stop, it worries me enormously. I have been having renovations done to my studio and it’s very difficult for me to stop working. When I was teaching, I thought I understood art. Following on from what I developed in my full time work from 1972/3, I realised that I didn’t know my painting. I had to discover it. This brought a lot more joy in the very wonderment of it. My task is no longer to explain my painting; it is, rather, to help people to love it. I think that painting is just that: it should be loved for its own sake, not in accordance with the dictates of some preconceived philosophy. I am not an advocate of a philosophy. I understand that one can have a certain concept of painting, but when one is in the act of working, instinct and intuition are very enriching. The unconscious, I you like… the unconscious after having been conscious for a long time…

Q : This liberation is therefore a kind of maturity?

A : The painting guides us. I believe that it is not us who guide the painting. We are, as it were, in thrall to something beyond us, but one needs to break through a wall before arriving at this second state. After breaking through this wall… it’s either life that helps you to break through, or some kind of shock… I was lucky enough to be the victim of something which took me to hospital, and I recovered. I completely changed. Now I accept my limits in painting. And within my limits, I have discovered something that I had not suspected concerning pleasure – the pleasure of painting really exists. There is not only the will to paint, for will is a tool serving awareness, intuition, instinct, etc. Will supports work, as long as it is imaginative and one has the freedom to express oneself. When I say “express” myself, I do not mean that I want to be expressionistic in painting, but I strongly believe in spiritual expression in art, that which perhaps gives soul to a painting. Through geometry – if it is applied in a solely plasticien way – I get the impression of doing equations. However, if one uses it as a language, freely, to express oneself, the forms actually sing, a musical sonority is achieved through colour which adds depth. I use the same gestural actions in painting as before, but my painting does not give the same result. It’s as if something has broken and enabled me to create and construct behind this break.

Q : What kind of temperament or attitudes leads a man to devote his whole life to painting?

A : I was raised in a family of nine. My parents were not in agreement with my choice of work…however, I was not prevented from going to the Beaux-Arts provided that I could support myself. I therefore worked on boats and paid for my studies that way. I liked drawing from an early age without really knowing that it was art. At the age of about fourteen or fifteen, we were invited to go to the musée de Montréal and I discovered a room that contained paintings by Van Gogh. I said to my teacher, “That’s what I want to do in life, I like colour, there’s wind in those branches, and the trees are vibrating”. He replied that air was invisible and that it was impossible. A teacher from another school was passing by. He had heard everything and asked me to repeat what I’d said. I repeated it as if it were an error that I’d made, but he said, “your visual awareness is very sensitive; develop your visual awareness and everything else will be alright”. He didn’t give me any theory; he just said to make use of my visual abilities. I am therefore visually receptive by nature. After this came studies at the Beaux-Arts to learn about art history etc. And then I was curious to go to Europe to see the artists I admired. That allowed me to discover that artists were ordinary human beings, and I realised that I could talk with them normally, telling them how I felt. I though at first that it was necessary to convey to people facts about painting, and that it was absolutely essential to study the whole history of art in order to talk about it. However, I began to realise that in studying the history of art, we could also our contact with our elders for whom I have a great admiration. I have a little more difficulty with the younger generation because my roots are more with Cézanne, cubism, Braque and Picasso. I like Bruegel’s painting. I like painting that is firm, solid. I do not particularly like painting that is accidental – though it’s debatable trying to decide what is accidental and what formal – but I do not like to be shackled with rationalism. It’s impossible for me.

Q : There is a lot of strictness of form in your work, but also a certain spontaneity!

A : There are a lot of unpredictabilities. My way of working with my collages comes from my experience in painting. In 1972, I did a series of collages in Saint-Ours. It was a bit like a premonition of something that I didn’t bring to fruition at the time. I returned to painting. As for my method of working, I like to construct the composition graphically very quickly. Then, a little likes an artisan, with a lot of patience and passion, I like to come back to my painting so that the colour is nurtured, and the unity of tone is solid regard to form and the strength of the contours. I love contours of forms, because their profile leads me to discover the backgrounds which are in unison with the floating elements. They always stand out giving a certain depth, a certain dimension, not of perspective, but in a kind of layer created by the different planes. I work with the up and down movement of forms, a bit like a fan, with the aim of encompassing the whole surface of the canvas. I don’t want my painting to be confined and concentrated in a unified mass neglecting the background. For me, everything is a flat surface in painting.

Q : Apart from the spatial side, I believe there is also a temporal dimension that preoccupies you?

A : A painting is, of course, a passing moment. One has to seize the moment, but do it with a sort of synthesis in which an emotion is not described only from the visual point of view. I like panting to portray all my experience: the desire for adventure, the desire for the unknown. That is what I call the circular aspect of space. It consists in searching for all acquired experience, all evolution, and all desire for everything new. The result is something that is closer to the cosmos, in the sense that I don’t want to pay attention simply to the temporal aspect. It’s more the idea of eternity that one tries to portray, but in one precious instant. Painting never stays the same. Time passes and we, too, change. We are in harmony with life, whether through our own personal development, through fulfilment of our capacities, or through hardships in life from which we bound back. We are always reacting to something and always contesting things. We have a way of both admiring and rejecting what we love in order to be able to belong in painting. If I admire Braque I do not wish to imitate him, and am therefore obliged to reject him. I do not reject him because I wish to banish him; I reject him to fulfil myself better. I’m asserting myself in painting a lot more there days. I would say that I assert myself very naturally, without effort, without having to tell myself that I’m looking for a style. I’m not looking for a style. Style, after all, is the man. I’m not looking for a style of painting that I can hang on to. The fact of not recalling what one is doing helps us in painting. Everything is coherent; everything follows us.

Q : What do you expect of the observer, what do you wish him to feel when looking at your painting?

A : I like observers to react emotionally and to talk when they are looking at my paintings, but I do not like talking about my paintings with them. I’ll talk about art, but not about my paintings. I like my paintings to provoke conversation. The painting itself doesn’t speak, but it makes people speak about it. We often hear people say, “modern painting doesn’t say anything”. For a painting to speak, one must hear it; and to hear it, one must familiarize oneself with it. You need some cultural background to appreciate abstract art. Abstract art is not the portrayal of an outside event, or of a subject, a theme, or object. It is the inventive process of the artist, with the autonomous characteristics of art: form, colour, space, medium and the rapport between these. Our predecessors simplified painting. The impressionists captured the passing moment. I love Cézanne because he built time into his painting. His roots were in nature and figuration, but he moved towards the abstract. The cubists accentuated abstraction; Mondrian defined it in a more rational manner, more categorical, along with the Russian painters, Malevitch Popovov and many others. We ourselves have inherited a North-American style of painting. We are not exactly French, and not really American. We are, however, of European culture. I’m a lot closer to Copenhagen, or Denmark, painters such as Mortensen, Herbin or certain plasticien painters. I’ve adopted the architectonic family of painters. I strongly believe in formal beauty, inhabited by feeling. Someone always finds something in your painting that you hadn’t even noticed. The spectator is very important. I am very attentive to those who look at paintings and I like to listen to what they are saying. Even if they don’t have the correct vocabulary to express what they are trying to say, they give a personal meaning to what is in front of them. I call that “sensing” the thing. Instead of seeing it, they sense the composition. That is what I find interesting.