Visually stunning, technically perfect, transcending the imagination - for over fifty years now, a group of artists in France have been creating a vast body of original work. Their contribution to culture has been enormous - and yet these artists lead a marginal existence.
Ignored by the media, shunned by state institions for the arts, generally despised as 'counter-Modernist' - their works cannot be found in any article, book or exhibition on 'Art of the 20th Century'. And yet, to a discerning group of gallerists, patrons and collectors, their names are legend: Henricot, Verlinde, Di-Maccio, Cat, Poumeyrol, Kandl, Peyrolle...
Since arriving in Paris seven years ago, I have made every effort to become acquainted with the French contribution to Visionary art. The images that have gradually unfolded before my eyes have manifest, above all, an independence of vision combined with a sureness of technique.
French Visionary art is, if not a movement, certainly a recognizable trend in contemporary painting. Though marginal, its existence in France can undeniaby be felt; its style is detectable in many of the paintings presently hanging in galleries or appearing in posters on café windows.
To characterize this 'post-surrealist' phenomenon, a number of expressions have arisen in the French language: l'art onirique, l'art phantastique, l'art imaginaire, le réalisme fantastique, les marginaires and, above all, l'art visionnaire.
And so our interest - for the present - is the city of Paris, and French-speaking culture as a whole. The time is the start of the twenty-first century, with its turning away from Modernism to embrace new perspectives and modes of perception. The artists who concern us are les Visionnaires.
Given the historical importance of Surrealism both in France and abroad, it is rather surprising to find that les Visionnaires, as the possible hiers to Surrealism, lack cohesion or direction as an identifiable group. Granted, galleries have been created, books published, and the artists themselves have crossed paths many times.
But, no daily meetings in cafés take place, no particular revue or manifesto has been established, and (most mercifully) no leader or 'pope' like as André Breton has emerged. Instead, there is a preference for solitude, painterly industry, and independence of thinking and expression.
One result of this expansive freedom is that the artists themselves have naturally fallen into certain groups or 'genres of expression' within the visionary realm. Cat, Thomas, Ugarte, Trignac, Margotton, Poumeyrol - all of these artists (and more) have revived the genre of landscape painting and elevated it to vertiginous heights.
Meanwhile, the genre of 'the fantastic' or 'fantastic realism' has also been enriched and expanded by the imaginative inventions of Verlinde, Halingre, Alaux, Martins de Barros, Bruvel, Huss, Fagan, Lórien and others. The dark and macabre has received its due in the disturbing visions of Poumeyrol, Ruppert, Kandl, Ljuba and Dado. Other artists, such as Henricot, Di-Maccio and Peyrolle, have remained more singular in their vision.
TOWARDS A DEFINITION
OF L'ART VISIONNAIRE
The two greatest attempts, thus far, to bring these diverse groups and genres together may be found in the writings of Michel Random and Hervé Sérane. In 1979 Michel Random published his richly illustrated study l'Art Visionnaire, followed by a companion volume (with the same title, but different text and images) in 1991. Meanwhile Hervé Sérane, the founder of Galerie Râ, published his own essay on Les Visionnaires (Editions Galerie Râ) as well as the more polemical text Voyage au bout de l'art moderne (Voyage to the edge of Modern Art, Editions M. de Maule, 1997). It is, above all, in the works of these two writers that a uniquely French perspective onto Visionary art emerges.
Both Random and Sérane agree that any one ready formula or definition of Visionary art remains impossible. Random first cautions us that "Nothing is more simple, nor more complex, than giving a definition to the word visionary." (1)
And yet, like shamans trying to catch a shape-shifting spirit, so may the essence of Visionary art at first escape us but eventually be grasped. Random writes:
"The unusual may dissolve into the fantastic, the fantastic into the imaginary, the imaginary into the world of images. Visionary art is above all a world of images where, not only do all substances acquire form, but so too do the spiritual and metaphysical. The image, being real, becomes a repository for the imaginary. It is an image in the sense that it offers us a vision of what is both actual and possible. To accomplish this is the highest aim of Visionary art."(2)
In his most succinct summary, the writer concludes: "In its own way, Visionary Art makes the visible and the invisible a single totality." (3)
Meanwhile, for Hervé Sérane, there are a definite number of qualities which characterize this art. "A Visionary painting is characterized by three qualities: its spiritual dimension, its timelessness, and its mastery of technique." (4)
THE SPIRITUAL DIMENSION
In Voyage to the edge of Modern Art, Sérane elaborates these three points. First of all, he sees the work's 'spiritual dimension' as proof of the artist's integrity and authenticity: "The spiritual dimension is what gives the work its energy. It is proof that the artist has successfully entered into contact with the deepest, most essential and authentic aspect of his being... Such a quest demands the greatest sincerity possible, and also the greatest humility (we do not insist enough on the humility necessary to create a visionary work of art). The artist's increasing awareness of this spiritual dimension allows him to continually renew himself through the miracle of creation. The artist scours all eternity in search of that mysterious path which leads to the innermost part of his being." (5)
For Random as well, the Visionary's life-journey becomes 'a path to the absolute': "From the moment of his birth, each person is called upon to follow a path, which is to say, an unending understanding and unveiling of the invisible, of the indescribable world which we invoke and which questions us until our death. To live is thus to pursue an initiatory journey between consciousness and dreams, between 'the real which becomes a dream, and the dream which becomes reality' as the great German poet Novalis said." (6)
Meanwhile, the 'timeless' quality of visions automatically disqualifies l'Art Visionnaire from its status as a contemporary movement. Sérane is adamant on this point. Visionary art lies 'beyond modernity':
"Situating itself outside of all trends and fashions, the visionary work of art concentrates on the essential, which is to say, on the portion of eternity alloted to each of us... This impression of eternity and its sense of time 'momentarily held still' can only be acquired through vision. The Visionary artist enters into communion with the universe as a whole. His visions come from a time and place far beyond the limits of 'modernity'.
"Indeed, timelessness is much more interesting than modernity because it forces the artist to seek the essential in the depths of his own mind and mysteries of the elements themselves. Through his prodigious faculty of creation, the visionary artist attempts to grasp the secrets hidden in all things." (7)
For Random, 'the secret hidden in all things' is, above all, a vision of unity: "What is man's quest, if not for that unity hidden within all things - in life, love, the world, metaphysics and religion?" (8) And he elaborates: "In the same way that time, space, energy and matter are fundamental expressions of a single totality, the mineral, vegetable, animal and human are also expressions of a single language. The Promised Land is there, in the eye that marvels at the visionary totality. An art that recovers this plenitude of being necessarily returns to the source of wonder." (9)
In a final stirring declaration he concludes: "Man can recover the ancient language of the gods." (10)
MASTERY OF TECHNIQUE
Last of all, a 'mastery of technique' is evident in all Visionary works: "Without mastery of technique," Sérane assures us "no solid work may exist - much less a Visionary work of art. For, the greater the originality of the work, the more accomplished its technique must be. An artist may have the most beautiful ideas in the world. But, if he doesn't have the power to express them through a perfectly mastered technique, then it is only his clumsiness that will show or, worse, his impotence. ...
"Of course, perfection of technique must blend with the vision. It is not enough to be fascinated by technique alone. Besides the means (the technique), there must also be the work ( the vision)." (11)
Random agrees with Sérane that a mastery of craftsmanship is essential: "Before being inspired, art is a skill, thoroughly mastered, whether it be etching, lithograph, drawing or painting. Then inspiration can flourish." (12)
VISION AS AN ALCHEMICAL PROCESS
This mastery of technique is necessary because the act of rendering a visionary work becomes, in itself, a process of transformation. Both writers liken art-making to the alchemical process. "Visionary art is alchemical," Random writes, "in the sense that the work is seen by the artist as an instrument for his own transformation and growth - mutation and maturation in one. It is the artist who is made by the work, rather than the work by him... creation is like the quest for the grail: it opens itself up to the Water of Life, which is to say, immortality. (13)
Meanwhile, for Sérane, the alchemy of art is also a quest for Light. "The visionary is on a continuous quest for the secret stone that transforms all the elements...Such an alchemical vision, in its attempt to 'capture the light', has haunted and continues to haunt the imagination of all painters. For them, painting is, above all, an act of faith, an adventure of the spirit where each act of creation dares to transform itself into a collective memory-image. For such artists, art is the attempt to expose the light hidden in all things." (14)
And yet, like Icarus flying into the sun, this blinding light must be sought - even if the artist tumbles back to earth, his wings consumed by the blaze. Sérane expands upon his idea of light, claiming, "This light must be awakened if a work is to ever breathe with life. It is not enough to simply pursue a certain technique, if this ends in the betrayal of dreams. The truly 'visionary' artist is at the mercy of his dreams, for it is they who decide the true moment of their incarnation..." (15)
THE VISIONARY VIEWER
Ultimately, the supreme task of the Visionary artist is to communicate his vision to the viewer, so that the person standing before the canvas may, himself, become a visionary. Sérane writes:
"For the truly 'visionary' artist, the imagination is of the utmost importance because this faculty alone allows us to consciously remember our vision. Hence, the imagination forges a link to that profoundly poetic and orignal dimension, where the work of art becomes authentic and believeable. For this reason, the viewer standing before such a work of art may, himself, have the impression of 'dreaming awake'...
"A strange sensation of vertigo invades his being. The silence inherent in the work induces in him a different sense of time, outside all normal measure. In this sense, the viewer himself becomes a visionary, suddenly aware of the space constructed by the painting and its unique experience of time. From whence arises that precious sense of timelessness which characterizes all the great works of visionary art across the centuries." (16)
And so, the Visionary's attempts will ultimately fail unless the viewer may also access and re-experience the original vision. In a similar way, all these explanations and definitions mean nothing unless we view the works of the artists themselves, and discover with our own eyes their spiritual dimension, timelessness and mastery of technique.
Born in Paris in 1941, he confesses to being largely "...self-taught. I was always at the Louvre, staring like crazy at the pictures there, fascinated by 'how it's done'." (17)
His mastery of technique came about through a genuine desire to present visionary images directly and 'im-mediately' to the viewer, without the painterly medium interposed between the seer and the seen:
"I like my canvases to have an invisible technique - a technique where we can't really make out the 'tricks'. That helps draw me in, so that I believe, I enter into the work. If I see too many clues to how it's done, a part of the mystery disappears."(18)
The artist began exhibiting his work early in life, while still in his twenties. And it was in this way that he met Léonor Fini, with whom he shared a fairly intense relationship: "My greatest friendships have arisen through painting - like with Léonor Fini. It's a very strong link, extraordinary really... But if we were friends, it's because we had a common ground. I wasn't really influenced by her. Certainly, she wasn't influenced by me! It was more a way of seeing things..." (19)
Fini's works from the 60's influenced, to a degree, the young Henricot. Depicted in a heiratic style with underlying geometrical forms, her graceful elongated figures seem to exist in timeless spaces that are dark and densely atmospheric. Henricot's earliest figures also have this graceful quality, but were more stylized and cybernetic, with ergonomic designs on their metallic skins. Sometimes they remained mere torsos, lacking hands to grasp or feet to stand.
Although Henricot is also a painter of ancient ruinous landscapes (of this, more later), he is best known for his shrouded and mummified figures in a state of suspended animation - hovering somewhere between life and after-life. Many of his admirers have commented about this quality in his work.
According to Michel Random, "The works of Michel Henricot illustrate, in an extraordinary way, the vision of an altered state, where a being exists in an intermediary world between life and death." (20)
And, for Alain Bosquet, "the body is situated between wakingness and sleep. Sometimes nude, sometimes wrapped in bandages like the mummies of ancient Egypt, they are plunged into an alternative state of being. Time has no hold on them... they belong at one and the same time to life and to death." (21)
It is, simultaneously, fascinating and disturbing to read that Henri Frankfort, a scholar of Egyptian antiquity, found this same afterworld belief five thousand years ago. "The Egyptians," he writes, "conceived of a transitional phase after death... In this phase, man was conceived as neither dead nor alive. It was a period of suspense..." (22)
Perhaps what is even more frightening is the sense of time in Henricot's paintings. As Random says, "contrary to paradise, where vision suspends time, in this world, where life is in a state of hibernation, each second falls, implaccably, and lasts an eternity." (23)
It is precisely this contradictory quality which characterizes his vision. The figures are neither living, nor dead; neither asleep, nor awake; neither floating, nor weighted down; neither in time, nor beyond it. Instead, we are offered a glimpse into that dimly illuminated half-world where everything exists 'in between'.
The artist himself has recounted a most amazing 'dream', which goes some way towards illuminating his works:
"One night between two dreams, almost awake, I crossed a mountain inwhich there was a grotto of tremendous proportions. Entering it, I saw a passage which forked to the left (the dream possessed a terrible precision). There were stallactites there which resembled gigantic beings conglomerated into a compact mass. It was impossible to approach them because they emanated a terrible magnetic force which repelled all contact.
"I carried on to the back of the grotto where I saw a very small door, just large enough for a ten-year old child to enter. Through an incredible effort, and in the midsts of vibrations of unbelievable violence, I managed to enter the doorway. And I know that, for a few fractions of a second, I had the right to see what I alone must know. I also knew that, once the door closed, I would have to return to the others and convince them that this place really exists. At that moment in the dream, I felt a terrible sadness, because I knew that no one could ever come with me, and that I would only find this place again with the greatest of difficulties." (24)
Henricot likened the task of painting to the task presented in his dream: "The best I can do, to describe my painting, is to relate this dream, since the experience is the same. After each work, I'm aware of having journeyed into a zone unknown to me, where everything is extraordinarily silent and comforting. And, at the same time, it is a violent revelation of the unknown. I also have the feeling that, after each work, a door closes and it will never open again."(25)
Eventually, Henricot's mummified figures entered into relationships with other extraordinary beasts: cerberus hounds, winged erinys or pre-historic pterodactyls. Indeed, these species altered and evolved to the point where their anatomies miraculously expanded and combined. Henricot demonstrates an extraordinary imaginative capacity to meld the ossified structures of man and beast.
In this way, the timeless human figures move back and forward into ancient pre-history or the far-distant future. Regressing from antiquity to the arcane origins of our species, trilobyte fossils reflect the primordial symmetry of our own skeletal structure. Or, as fascinating anomalies in our human evolution, transparent human figures acquire pre-historic wings and miraculously take flight into the endless depths of time.
Though many French Visionaries are relatively unknown outside France, the exception to this rule is Gérard Di-Maccio. As a result of various international exhibitions (Osaka 1992, New York 1998), as well as through sheer talent and ability, he has managed to transcend the obscurity fated to most Visionary artists.
Born in Algeria in 1938 of Spanish and Italian descent, Di-Maccio studied at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, and eventually became a professor of painting there and at various French academies (la Grande Chaumière, Julian). His achievements were recognized early, and awarded with many international prizes.
Beginning in 1979, he exhibited his work at Hervé Sérane's Galerie Râ along with Sibylle Ruppert, Yves Thomas, Klaus Dietrich and Alain Margotton - forming one of the most recognized groups of loosely-associated Visionaries in Paris. This trend lasted for two decades, culminating in a large and well-attended exhibition of the Visionaries in Japan. But, in 1998 the association collapsed and Galerie Râ folded.
Since then, Di-Maccio has made his home in Tunisia while exhibiting his works internationally - including 'the largest canvas in the world' (27 m x 9m) in Carthage and Geneva). He also continues to teach in Carthage, where he opened a cultural space for exhibitions and events in 1998. He still exhibits in Paris and, to date, his latest exhibition was held in February of 2002 at Galerie Jardin des Arts.
Di-Maccio's more classical Visionary works manifest a timeless world inhabited by floating enigmatic figures: weightless, hairless, nude, with black unseeing eyes and expansive Blake-like gestures. Meanwhile, their bodies are overgrown or tatooed with strange organic and skeletal forms - undersea growths, seashell motifs, even precious stones.
In Di-Maccio's own words, "These beings constitute the epitome of our humanity. That's why they may be imagined without hair, almost like cybernetics. They exist in the border-world between life and death, naturally frozen into certain positions, with gazes that conjure up our distant memories." (26)
The growth-forms accruing to Di-Maccio's figures also extend to the surrounding architecture, which has a Moorish complexity, full of designs, arabesques and esoteric patterns. Indeed, the surroundings may also become mechanical, giving rise to darker feelings, such as the modern fear of imprisonment in an endless machine. Yet, his architecture denies all placement in a recognizable style or epoch:
"When I create my figures, I try to avoid situating them in any definite time or space. That way the things of everyday life cannot intervene, or situate them in any distinctive epoch." (27)
And he goes on to admit: "The beings that appear in my imagination are naked and timeless. Yet, I have to give them a certain identity and situate them in a civilization." (28)
Most consistent and unusual in his work are the falling fragments of stone or plaster, which complete the composition, adding counterbalance and movement. The artist has a preference for faint and hazy colours - sepia, ochre, or azur blue - and tends more towards symmetry in his otherwise dynamic compositions. Most of all, his work may be characterized by its energy, which appears equally as fluid or stilled.
As Di-Maccio says, "Certain archetypes definitely exist - there are certain universal forces. To this extent, a certain equilibrium should be established in the painting, to evoke a deeper sense of tranquililty." (29)
An undeniable affinity exists between Giger's and Di-Maccio's worlds, as if the former were as dark and haunted as the latter is light and ethereal. Their parallel worlds appear in a pale half-light where colours dissolve into the faintest of hues. Though Di-Maccio's early work appears airbrushed, the artist, in fact, harkens back to the classical techniques of the old masters:
"I think we can revive classical techniques of Renaissance painting, and use them to express more contemporary ideas. When I paint, I use classical materials. First, on canvas or wood, I prepare a foundation in water-based media, then I go over it with glazes and varnish." (30)
Nevertheless, the use of airbrush can be noted increasingly as his work has progressed. This has brought about a more 'transparent' quality in his figures and an almost monochrome approach to colour. Indeed, his latest works tend more towards black and white with only the faintest of colours. Still, each step in the painting's development contributes to its evolution as a unified whole. Indeed, "I approach the canvas" he says "as a totally integrated whole." (31)
His painterly output in Paris came to their climax in his largest and undoubtedly most ambitious work, the eighteen canvases that combine to form 'the largest painting in the world'. At least, this is what the artist has called it, though Di-Maccio (like Beksinski) never titles any his paintings. Perhaps it would be more correct to call it 'the largest world in a painting', for here Di-Maccio has gathered together many of his Visionary themes and pre-occupations, and presented them in one coherent work.
Since his resettlement in Tunisia, his works have expanded in several directions simultaneously. On the one hand, there are the translucent female nudes, some still inhabiting his Di-Macciesque universe, others now seen through erotic French texts in transparent Gothic characters. These also possess an oneiric quality, as several momentary expressions are frozen in time, one beside the other (as if the model had moved her head in a photographic series of 'freeze-frames'). Then there are the exotically camaflauged fauna, of tigers and zebras, with emphasis on the evocative spot and stripe patterns of their fur.
There is no doubt that these works lack the cohesive worldview that was once present in the Visionary works from his Parisian period. The timeless quality is gone, and has been replaced by a series of photographic moments. His once-isolated and unique universe has been invaded by animals and nudes which are more mondane than ethereal. His superior technique is still in full force, but the visionary quality of the earlier works has strangely disappeared.