When admiring a reproduction of Peyrolle's paintings, the viewer may, at first glance, mistake them for 'phantastic photographs'. And indeed, so accurate and technically perfect is his brushwork, that these large hyper-realist canvases may trompe l'oeil or 'trick the eye' into believing their visions are a reality.
But, more than that, the angles, colours, degrees of focus and reflections speak of a painterly sensibility educated by photography and cinema - and then transcending them.
According to Peyrolle:
"The more fantastic you want to be, the more realistic you must be. A painter can only create a poetic or visionary image with those things that already exist. Hence the need for photography and cinema, as references. Meanwhile, painting must, in its own way, keep apace with photography and cinema by incorporating their ways of seeing... (32)
"There are certain 'codes', certain ways of seeing in photography which interest me, and which I appropriate for myself in my painting. But photos are simply a way of recording things. Artists must then use the photographic elements to make a genuine work of art. Finally, it is the artist who accomplishes the overall atmosphere and scenography." (33)
And he adds cautiously:
"Hence, they eye must be educated, first of all, through the history of art. The memories we hold of certain paintings are very important. We are the last link in a long chain in painting's evolution. With each work we create, we must revive that memory - through the art of painting itself." (34)
In fact, Peyrolle's work reflects his fascination, not only with images from popular media, but also with old masters like Dali, Vermeer and Böcklin. He has meticulously researched Dali's hyper-realist techniques, learned all of Vermeer's optical secrets, and immersed himself time and again in Böcklin's imaginary world.
"We are loaded with the accumulation of images from our culture's past," he says. "All the great artists of the past have arisen from those who preceded them. And so, we must proceed by way of the greatest painters - like Poussin, Vermeer, Velazquez. A painter must find his inspiration, not in nature, but in other painters." (35)
Still, the pivotal question remains. Passionately, Peyrolle inquires "How can I conduct myself as a painter, given the state of painting at this time in history? How can I create, for this century, the most beautiful cosmogony possible?" (36)
The answer - for him at least - lies in the mystery of the memory-image. With eyes wide open to the immense sources of imagery offered by modern media, he has responded nevertheless with the soul of a Romantic poet. For he has found in each image that captivates his eye the resonance of a more personal memory. His art, Peyrolle remarks, is "...the result of many memories converging." (37)
Solitary and melancholic by nature, the artist has plumbed the depths of his own past and painted the resulting memory images in a language mixing modern photography with eternal masterpieces.
"I have a rather dark and hopeless vision" Peyrolle admits, "nostalgic and melancholy. But I speak of those events deep in the psyche of man." (38)
His works, when taken accumulately, portray the gradual awakening of a human being as he passes from birth, through childhood and youth to maturity, old age and death. But how can an artist portray memories of these fantastic events, without resorting to symbols?
"My feeling," Peyrolle says, "is that the fantastic must emerge from the atmosphere... I don't like it, when an artist illustrates an idea according to 'the codes' of fantastic art - like painting a skull to show the idea of death.... Instead, our feelings are evoked through atmosphere, setting, textures - through the overall scenography of a painting. For me, that approach is much more magical. " (39)
A clear example of this is offered by his majestic work Tramonto. Here, the artist attempts to evoke a memory that has long been buried in our unconscious: the memory of our own birth. And yet, he does not do this by painting a symbolic image of that event, such as a new born baby or Christ child. Rather, he evokes the feelings of disorientation, pressure and release through the painting's atmosphere and 'overall scenography'.
In speaking about Tramonto, Peyrolle has said: "I would say that it is a very confused echo of our birth trauma. That birth involves a passage, a very traumatic passage. The strange quality of the sea resembles the intrauterine state. In fact, as a reference, I used a photo which shows the surface of the water when viewed from below, from underwater - and then turned it upside down. So, this underwater-above-water creates an atmosphere of confusion, where unconsciously we feel very disoriented and closed in. I wanted this feeling of enclosure so that we could then re-experience the moment when the water breaks. Like the red sail, the amniotic sac enveloping the child is torn, and the passage from a foetal state into consciousness begins." (40)
Another example of this approach is offered by Marcus Manilius Falls from the Capital. Despite its ornate title, this painting evokes another forgotten memory, another 'event deep in the psyche of man'. But in this case, it is our loss of childhood, which becomes a fall from innocence:
"Quite simply, this is a fallen angel. I gave it a long 'prix de Rome' title because I wanted to annoy the artists of the avant garde. Perhaps the painting can also be understood as an image of childhood. But this fallen angel is not really 'cursed'. Rather, he suffers a loss of innocence. The rebel angels suffered a great defeat: they lost their primordial innocence - the power to rise to heaven. So here, we see how the violent sky rejects him. He's lost his power of spiritual ascent, and now tumbles downward. In that sense, all humans are fallen angels. Yes, that is what birth is - the fall of an angel! From the moment we are born into this world, we are fallen..!" (41)
It is in this sense that Peyrolle's poetic vision, though richly evocative of human life, is also melancholic. In this regard, the art critic Pierre Rival has written:
"The nightmarish visions of Pierre Peyrolle are those of a man who, having witnessed the frightening spectacle of the 20th century, has found refuge within an all-encompassing melancholy. The images, signs and symbols which populate his canvases (and his works are far from empty...) constitute no known cosmology. Instead, we are able to recognize merely a few fragments of Western culture. But these are, in the words of Mallarmé, "the still stones fallen here from some dark and unknown disaster." - Pierre Rival (42)
Such a profound melancholy and modernity is also present in the next painting, which evokes the move from childhood to youth, when a young man must confront the feminine for the first time in his life.
This step was allegorically portrayed in classical painting through the myth of Perseus and Andromeda. In the more heroic versions of this confrontation, the brave warrior Perseus defeats a sea monster and saves the virgin Andromeda, who is chained to rock near the sea. For, through this test of bravery and skill, the hero may carry off and marry his beautiful maiden.
But in Peyrolle's modern re-telling of this classic myth, Andromeda is chained in the cheap decor of a Beverly Hills swimming pool, and her hero is a love-blind Oedipus:
"I could have called this Hollywood scene 'Freud in Disneyland'. But, in fact, I was thinking of David Lynch's films when I decided to portray Andromeda as someone who would never be saved... (43)
"Over all, it expresses an extreme despair. I was motivated by the relationship between Oedipus and a kind of feminine ideal. I gave Oedipus the mask of a deposed king who cries tears of blood - probably because the mystery of femininity remains an insurmountable obstacle for him...(44)
"Confronted by the woman he cannot have, this deplorable little Oedipus behaves almost sadistically. Meanwhile, the lightshow and twilight atmosphere offer a vulgar and idiotic serenade to the impotent hero deprived of his lance." (45)
And so, in the case of this particular work, dormant Oedipal memories are evoked as we pass from childhood to youth, and our feminine ideals are tragically lost in a glitzy haze of Playboy bunnies and Hollywood starlets. Confronted by these enticing images charged with sexuality, the young hero is overwhelmed and eventually overcome: he impotently surrenders his manhood.
From the foibles of youth, the artist passes into adulthood and maturity. In Pierre Peyrolle's case, this involved a move away from France and towards Italy, where he worked as a designer in the theatre, spending some seventeen years in all in Venice. In his large-scale work Venetian Celebration, he tries to capture the celebratory yet melancholy atmosphere of that city's haunting carnival with its masked celebrants and baroque scenery. Life is a play, waiting for the action to unfold.
And indeed, this painting is like a play with some very telling scenography. The masked celebrants are gazing down at a Venetian canal. Hanging over one doorway is a red curtain which evokes the torn sail from Tramonto - Peyrolle's personal memory image for birth. But there is also a gondola in the water which may soon debarque for the island in the distance. That distant isle is the cemetary of San Michele, which initially inspired Böcklin to paint his masterpiece The Isle of the Dead. The unknown occupent of the gondola may either return in his memory to the birth-doorway, or approach the distant isle with its doorway unto death.
Peyrolle's fascination with the history of art is most patently manifest in his 'Homage to Böcklin' series, where he has approached the notorious 'Isle of the Dead' no less than three times.
His first 'homage' combines Böcklin's classic composition with a series of striking images found in photographic sources. The three men who desparately push their barque away from the Ile of the Dead are, in fact, three Italians from a 1966 photo of Florence innundated by flood waters. Meanwhile, the third (and final?) version is more 'painterly' in conception. Each evokes a different response to the imminent event of death.
"In my first attempt," Peyrolle admitted, "the figures return from the red rocks more or less in a state of panic. That is to say - they want to live! In the last version, the waters are calm and the barque is totally immobile - it doesn't advance at all. The main figure stops because he's perplexed. What lies on the other side?" (46)
In the last homage to Bocklin, entitled Basileus and Principessa, the mystery of death and the afterlife is evoked through the painting's atmosphere. The barque moves by its own volition towards the blackened hole in barren rocks. Even Böcklin's trademark cypress trees are missing. This sterile stone amid placid seas is illuminated by a stunning twilight. There are no obvious symbols of Heaven, Hell, or the afterlife journey. Instead, there is only the atmosphere of that twilight sky.
"The sky is indeed important" the artist says. "because it is immobile. Those fluffy clouds which we only see at twilight don't move at all. They create the impression of stillness, of time eternally stilled." (47)
And so, that sense of timelessness, first mentioned by Sérane and also manifest in Henricot's and Di-maccio's Visionary works, re-appears here in Peyrolle's glorious but melancholic meditation on the afterworld.
His second 'homage to Böcklin', entitled Dante at the Tomb, is a work apart (and, as we shall see, more strongly related to his magnificent painting The Tomb of Esmeralda). Here, the island is neither a bright red crystal nor barren rock, but a cypress forest overgrown with dense vegetation. The lone figure of Dante, dressed in red, stands before the tomb of Beatrice. A sad memory lies at the source of this work: the mourning of the death of one close to the artist.
And so, as the painter passes from maturity to old age and even death, his works commemorate other memories, other 'events deep in the psyche of man'. In this case, it is 'mourning the death of one's beloved'.
This sad and plaintive theme resurfaces in The Tomb of Esmeralda, which "...portrays the death of a close friend who was an actress. We spent many summers together on an island to the north of Sicily. There, the sands of Stromboli are black because of the volcanic activity - just as you can see in my painting. The theatre on the left, quite simply, recalls her life as an actress. Rather unusually, she wanted to be cremated. Since she died on the island, they had to bring her body by boat to the mainland." (48)
The memories of her boat journey and her cremation co-alesce in the stunning image on the right of a boat fast afire on the water. The only spectator to the event, impassive yet attentive, is the dog stretched out on the watery shore. In many of Peyrolle's paintings, a clear fascination with the elements is present - earth, air, fire and water - all intermixed. And here, once again, the atmosphere and scenography elicit our fear and anxiety in the presence of death.
According to the art historian Dominique Brème: "After ten years of reflection, gazing into the oceanic mirror that surrounds the enigmatic island of the dead, Peyrolle has depicted his own slow journey along life's path - a journey that is half actual (since he cannot deny life's passage) and half symbolic (since the artist lives eternally through these works)." (49)
Peyrolle's fascination with Isle of the Dead further compelled him to organize the exhibition: Hommage à l'Ile des Morts. Here, Visionary artists from France and abroad were invited to display their own obsessions with Böcklin's island. From within France, an immediate response came from Ljuba, Halingre, Thomas, Trignac, Druillet and others. From abroad came two works apiece from Fuchs and Giger, as well as a reproduction by Dali. All these artists had been mesmerized at some point by Böcklin's disturbing image and rendered it in accord with their own unique vision.
It is just these enigmas that underlie all of Peyrolles' works. Their imagery - often brazen and shocking - struggle to reach beyond our consciousness and uproot from the unconscious depths those long-repressed memories which stem from life's greater conflicts.
And yet, once exposed to the light, we learn that these personal memories are shared by all, as universal and timeless. Armed with an amazing technique and a head-full of images from our culture's distant and modern past, the artist will continue to provoke us with just those images.
NOTE: Certain passages from the texts on Henricot and Peyrolle will also appear (in a different form) in the chapter The Mythic Imagination by L. Caruana in the forthcoming book Eyes of the Soul, edited by Philip Rubinov-Jacobson for RRR publishing.
SEVEN VISIONARY LANDSCAPISTS:
CAT, THOMAS, UGARTE, TRIGNAC,
HENRICOT, MARGOTTON, POUMEYROL
Many of the finest visionary artists in France today have dedicated themselves entirely to the genre - largely forgotten - of landscape painting ('le paysage'). And yet, these are no ordinary landscapes. Moving beyond Altdorfer, Friedrich and Martin, they present visions of a post-apocalyptic or pre-paradisical world.
To speak of genesis or apocalypse is to assume a western linear view onto time, where the thread of history unravels from beginning to end. But, it is just as possible that the flood we see in so many of their works may be an ever-recurring deluge where, in eastern fasion, the world is repeatedly destroyed and re-created in an endless cycle.
Although these Paysagistes Visionnaires offer us panoramic visions of Paradise regained and Nature renewed, huge stone edifices and the fragmented remains of our industrial society may still be glimpsed here and there, reminding us that the present, in comparison to immensity of Nature's timeless cycles, is nothing more than a fleeting moment.
Certainly, that is the case with Roland Cat. Born in Paris (Neuilly sur Seine) in 1943, he has often depicted just such a deluge, as well as the world which resurfaced at its end. Typically, an aerial perspective reveals a sublime view onto Nature where ruins may remain but man is strangely absent. In his place, a lone animal roams through overgrown grass, inviting us to view the creation through a more innocent, indeed, natural eye. One of Cat's works, simply entitled, The Eye, emphasizes this more innocent 'animal' view onto the creation (and why do the words 'animal' or 'bestial' sound prejorative in our language?) The animal beholds the sad catastrophe with neither commentary nor judgement.
Cataclysmic events abound in Cat's work - not just floods, but exploding volcanos (Visage 1981) and even a return to the Ice Age. In The village (1976) an entire town is covered by glaciers, with only the church tower remaining above ice. In another expansive canvas, a destroyed city is viewed from underwater as dolphins swim past (En dessous 1980). Elsewhere, railroad tracks end in the midsts of a barren landscape, while a steam engine is frozen for all time in a snowy landscape. The cataclism is forever present.
And yet, the end of the world may also become a return to the beginning. In several works, prehistoric animals re-appear - dinosaurs, pterodacyls, mammoths - which roam freely through panoramic landscapes, where the last vestiges of civilization may also be glimpsed. (le recapé 1974)
Despite this pessimistic view onto humanity as a whole, Cat reveres the enduring beauty of Nature and its endless variety of animal and vegetable forms. Like Dürer, he will lovingly render each blade of grass around a mushroom or each hair of a rabbit's fur. Essentially, his are Romantic landscapes, with dynamic compositions full of counteracting movement - clouds swirling in contraposition to arching mountains; storms breaking in the heavens; thunder, rain, and lightning hurling down.
Over a series of canvases, the artist has repeated certain motifs, developing his own visual language. He is obsessed by strange juxtapositions, as when a small bicycle is leaned up against a huge mushroom, or when a lone animal wanders through a vast landscape. The repeating motifs of mushrooms, children's playground slides, and abandoned trains evoke a sense of nostalgia, and a longing for infant memories now forgotten. In the words of Jean-Marie Benoist: "Through the persistence of certain motifs, and through the stubborn subtlety of his details, Roland Cat evokes the same strange revery arising equally from memory, childhood, and hallucination." (50)
In his own insightful analysis, Michel Random observes that "Roland Cat is the painter of a large oeuvre equally fantastic as it is visionary... He likes to evoke annihilated metropolises and the state of things after the deluge when the planet recovers, bit by bit, its true inhabitants - not man, but the animals. In short, a new Eden where man is absent, even if nature has changed and pushes forth mushrooms the size of monstrous trees. This, and the last remaining symbols of a consumer society: the car, the train, the armchair, the plane, giant cranes all cast about here and there. In the distance, cities and houses still impose their fantomesque architecture. In this sense, the works of Roland Cat gives us a particular chill: man no longer exists and his absence is frozen still for all time, even if nature remains beautiful and attractive." (51)
One of the artist's strangest motifs is the unmade bed, which appears repeatedly in the most unusual of contexts - in the midsts of ruins (le construit et le défait 1981), sliding into a pond (le lit defait 1980), underwater (le sommeil 1980) and in a grotto of stallectites and stallagmites (le refuge 1981). The bed evokes the Romance motif of 'the love grotto', where two lovers may find refuge from a world in confusion and decline.
As Bernard Esambert suggests in his commentary on Cat's work:
"At least one thing is certain: Roland Cat must be viewed with the eyes of a child who believes in the supernatural, however disquieting the images may seem. We are led into intimate spaces, into bed chambers which echo with the hope of our own survival. Though ambiguous and fantastic, these images and reflections may nourish, in each of us, a note of hope or dispair." (52)
Finally, in Cat's work there is the recurring theme of a stream running through the ruinous landscape, suggesting that all is not lost, and that, in life, some sustenance and hope remains. This stream, as will be seen, becomes a leit-motif in the works of many Visionary Landscapists.
In his Visionary Seascapes, Yves Thomas (born 1937 in Saint-Pierre sur Dives and living in Paris) also evokes a world outside time - after the apocalypse and before the next creation. But now, the world is still awash with the flood waters of a new beginning. Typically, the ruins remain, but are immersed in swirling waves that cleanse as well as destroy. Meanwhile, in the heavens, a light appears, offering the possibility of a new creation, though this hope remains uncertain.
At home in both large and small formats, the artist can render a view that is grand, epic, and panoramic in one work, then switch to a more close-up and intimate view in another. He renders atmosphere, mist, and light in a manner unparalleled by living artists. "It is not the idea that is important, but the painting itself," (53) he explains. In his works, the swirling clouds, thunder, and waves express states of the soul which words cannot reach.
Having mastered the Seascape, Thomas has turned toward the telluric in his most recent canvases - investigating cliffs, chasms and canyons. These reflect, as accurately as possible, the actual stone formations of the Grand Canyon. "You have to respect the canyon as a living example of Nature," (54) he said, having just returned from an eye-opening journey through America's last 'valley of visions'.
But the artist's own sensitivity to composition, atmosphere and light are ever present. And, as a faint reminder of his earlier seascapes, a single stream may be seen running through these otherwise barren craggs and cliffs...
In the landscapes of Jean-Pierre Ugarte, time now shifts to a post-apocalyptic world where massive stone structures offer silent testimony to epic cultures long-since destroyed and forgotten. Though a powerful light may illuminate these massive ruins, an overall sense of defeat prevails. Here too, falling water or meandering streams hint at the hope of new growth, new life.
Ugarte was born in 1950 in Bordeaux and presently works in Pau in the Pyrenées.
His vision is admirably evoked by Michel Random when he describes: "...a world suddenly petrified and fossilized, an ancient human metropolis of gigantic, rigid massess and immovable, hostile blocks. These cubic cliffs of black concrete appear in strong contraposition to the rolling landscapes where an all-powerful nature progressively invades and reclaims its territory.
A striking contrast emerges between power and desolation, where neither humans nor animals persist. Like a burial shroud, an ochre light envelops this vision of the end of the world. Is this fantastic realism or a vision of the near-future? Beware of such visionaries, since they risk becoming the accurate forecasters of the future."(55)
For the artist himself, the landscape is "...not so much a description of a place, but of a state within my own soul." (56) In the case of all these artists, we must remember that their works evoke 'the interior landscape': a territory explored behind the eyes, and only in a state of vision. These images are not only timeless, but take place in the infinite depths of the mind's interior. Like dreams, they explore spaces that extend ever further inward:
"The foreground of my works are well-defined," Ugarte says, "but the more we advance towards the back, the more the forms are lost in the light. These images are interrogations into who we are and where we are going." (57)
This journey into the interior takes place temporally as well as spacially. To evoke lost civilizations is to pursue, in Ugarte's words "the ephemeral side of man in relation to that which he builds - and which endures even beyond himself." (58)
Man builds in order to shelter and protect himself. But, after the catastrophe, his buildings continue to stand as strange reminders of his all-too-present absence. Without knowing it, he has built his own tomb and gravestone - though no one is left to read their strange inscriptions.
And so, Ugarte's words: "The notion of lost time in my works seeks to depict that which we ourselves cannot understand." (59)
Where Cat, Thomas, and Ugarte have rendered their panoramic visions in paint, Gérard Trignac has turned to the forgotten art of engraving, much in the manner of Piranese and Doré. Born 1955 in Bordeaux, his studies in architecture led him, ultimately, to a darker vision of our constructions, where brick and stone ominously rise up and equally collapse through disuse and neglect. Humans still inhabit these ruins, yet their presence is minute and their place may soon be evacuated.
In another series of engravings, we walk the streets of a post-Apocalyptic Paris, just able to recognize its more famous monuments among the ruins. In many of his works, Trignac demonstrates an unusual fondness for monumental architecture. But these massive edifaces, like Ugarte's huge stone bunkers, have fallen into disuse and decay.
For many years, Trignac has exhibited his works at Galerie Michèle Broutta in Paris. This unusual gallery has specialized in engravings, particularly Visionary engravings, for over thirty years. Among some of the finer French Visionaries presenting their work at her gallery are Dado, Yves Doaré, Erik Demazières, André Bongibault, Mohlitz and Jacques le Marechal (some of whom will be presented in part II of this article).
In the case of the next three Visionaries, we move from the outside world to the interior, from mountainous vistas to caves, tombs, grottos and sewers. And yet, a mysterious light from above often invades these dark spaces, illuminating the ruins and infusing the dusty air with rays of consolation.