It’s a rare occasion that we are treated to a comprehensive overview of an artist’s entire oeuvre. The Jean Fautrier retrospective at the Musée d’Art Moderne de Paris is a one such treat and offers a number of revelations thanks to its extensive look at the work. What’s unique about this lovely exhibition is the slow unfolding of the artist’s ideas and obsessions over time. It is as though everything he is thinking from the earliest works on is always moving towards the final works before his death. Or put differently, we see the rare occurrence of every avenue explored over forty years converges in the last paintings.
|Jean Fautrier, Lac Bleu I, 1926|
The early works are rough as he grapples with the human form and visitors will want to skip the early rooms. But he soon settles down around 1930 to start producing the works for which he has become renowned. That said, the early years are not without interest. In his so called black period, Fautrier begins his lifelong preoccupation with the re-animation of still lives. Here we see dead animals, flowers without water to sustain them, and in the dense material thickness of the paint everything is brought back to life. The figure in the middle of these images —in compositions that will remain constant throughout his career—is like a beacon of light radiating its energy against a black background. In the black works we find another hallmark of his work in the form of multi-colored backgrounds that are worked over again and again in order to create a nuanced and dynamic field of possibility for the emerging figure. The fastidious painting and repainting of the background begins early in Fautrier’s oeuvre. Similarly, this background is always agitated, in motion, and overstated, despite the fact that the object in the foreground is always the focus.
|Jean Fautrier, Forêt (Les Maronniers), 1943|
The sculptural quality of the painted image is another concern that he begins in his earliest paintings. The unique materiality of Les Otages, the series in which he painted the heads of the prisoners of the Gestapo in 1944 are exemplary of Fautrier’s dense use of paint. In these he also begins to use the palette knife to spread plaster onto paper and then push it around into a shape over which he carefully paints the arabesque forms that we saw him develop in the delicate drawings from the 1930s onwards. As I say, tracing these constants and developments throughout the works on display is the joy of this exhibition.
|Jean Fautrier, L'encrier, 1948|
I have always thought of Fautrier as an artist with a limited, muted palette, but this is not so. In fact, the more bleak his vision of everyday life, the more open, clear and bright is his palette. The soft blue, that is the background for all the object still lifes after World War II might deceive us into thinking that he is painting blue skies and sunny days. And yet, while the colours make the works radiate, they are not without sadness and a sense of skepticism towards the world he depicts. The thick plaster surface pulls us up close, but it is not luscious in the way that oil paint can be when it is massaged around a canvas. On the contrary, the thick surfaces are so filled with frantic lines and cracks that we see the roughness, the doubt and depression in the agitated backgrounds.
It’s also interesting to note that his depictions are never fully abstract. This is another of the Fautrier constants that can only be perceived when studying the oeuvre in its entirety. Without the early figurative works and their gradual formal development we could be forgiven for seeing the later images as abstract. In the earlier works he struggles with the human form to such a degree that when he finally paints a work such as Johanna there is no mistaking the misshapen, doubled over woman’s body in the curves of the plaster. Likewise, in Paysages, 1957 we recognize the mountain range and lush water filled valley from thirty years earlier – always in the same colours, always in the horizontal form of a landscape. And in keeping with the resistance to full abstraction, there is utter tragedy in the arabesque lines of paint over the dense plaster forms. And in some works, these same lines are infused with life and hope on the dead plaster.
Layer upon layer upon layer of plaster, paint and colour give the works a sense of time and of memory – there is a memory in the paint itself as well as in the objects painted. Also, the choice to work on paper and then attach paper to canvas creates a layering of materials and time, if only that taken to dry because of the thickness. Thus, the works are a history and a melancholy that accrues in the layers, each one seeping into the crevices of that underneath. There are also times when Fautrier’s works remind us of a Lucio Fontana ceramic, with the shine of the oil on the crustations of paint that have been left behind as the knife moved across the paper. And so, all in all, there is a lot going on in these sculptural paintings, and their richness of material, texture and meaning is given their full dues by this extensive exhibition.