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THE VISIONARY REVUE
Fall 2004

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VISIONARY ART IN FRANCE
PART III

MICHEL HENRICOT

      Though Henricot is best known for his mummified figures, he has also dedicated a significant part of his oeuvre to the genre of the landscape.
      "My landscapes could be the dwelling places for the beings I paint," he says. "They are stoney landscapes, excavation sites, and subterranean places which I gradually bring to light." (60)
      Typically, Henricot paints barren and desolate places, like stone mausoleums on the edge of the desert. Quadrangular tombs are cut into rocks, abandoned passages are guarded by desert hounds, and the lengthening shadows of the setting sun are obscured by sandstorms.
      These shadowlands are so pervaded by death that one of them (simply entitled Landscape) depicts a distant mountain range in the shape of a human skull in horizontal profile (a veritable Golgotha or 'the place of the skull'.)
      "I don't like to paint anything vitally new or alive," Henricot declares. "I prefer things that are rusted, eroded and petrified. They are like journeys into some dark underworld or I-don't-know what other strata of the earth. But I absolutely need these ancient places which, in a sense, are timeless." (61)
      To journey into one of these paintings is, in a sense, to wander into the desert or the valley of the dead. And indeed, Henricot has sought out these places for inspiration:
      "I've been to the desert quite a few times. It's a an extraordinarily magical place where we can dream. We're not distracted by anything. There's the horizon, the sky, the dunes - and that's all. So, we can imagine whatever we want there." (62)
      After a life-long fascination with Egyptian culture, he also visted the Valley of the Dead for the first time in 2003. "When I went there a few months ago, it seemed all quite familiar to me. But, as I penetrated into the furthest depths of the temple, into the 'naos' (sanctuary), I felt some truly extraordinary things." (63)
      Although his landscapes are inspired by photos and memories of these places, they gradually alter and evolve as he works upon them. Like the crust of the earth itself, the paintings are built up layer by layer, with occasional cataclisms as levels are rubbed, eradicated or scrated away.
      "I don't have the impression of 'creating' something when I work," Henricot has written, "but rather, of slowly bringing a pre-existing thing to light through a gradual process of discovery. In other words, a kind of archaeology..." (64)
      Through his unusual manner of painting, these subterranean landscapes are slowly excavated, and their inner mysteries unearthed.

ALAIN MARGOTTON

      In the 1980's and 90's, Alain Margotton (born 1948 in Argenton sur Creuse) exhibited alongside Di-Maccio, Ruppert, Dietrich and Thomas in Hervé Sérane's Galerie Râ. But, his appearance among these luminaries was not easily accomplished. As Hervé Sérane recalled:
      "I discovered the works of Alain Margotton in 1983 during a group exhibition in Belfort, some four hundred kilometres east of Paris. It was immediately clear to me that the man was genuine. Without doubt, he lived in an interior world which he timidly attempted to manifest.
      "But the drawings at this exhibition were not at all visionary, and suffered from a tendency towards 'illustration'. Still, they bore testimony to a mastery of technique and immense authenticity. I invited him to come and discover the paintings of Gérard Di-Maccio, Klaus Dietrich and Jean-Paul Landais.
      "In the span of a few moments, he was terribly moved by all these artists. But his discovery of Di-Maccio's large-format paintings was so overwhelming that he stopped drawing for several months! He felt he was too insignficant...
      "I did my best to encourage him, urging him to take up the work once more. And soon after, he brought me a drawing which was absolutely fabulous. I had witnessed the birth of a great Visionary."
(65)
      After his associations with Sérane ended and Galerie Râ folded, Margotton retired to an old house in Saint Thibaut (l'Aisne) at the extremities of Paris. He now pursues his visions there in undisturbed solitude.
       These visions include dark caverns with twisting passages or misty landscapes where ships lie in ruin. Rocks, driftwood, and petrified trees are omnipresent. An organic quality may infuse his rock formations, suggesting that these telluric entities once had a life of their own. Yet, all that remains, as some sign of past life, are the negative imprints of fossils encrusted on their surface. Life once dwellt here, but in a past that is far and remote.
      The artist himself notes that "I could have been an archaeologist. The objects that I've sculpted suggest an archaeology of the imagination... For as long as I can remember, I have always refused to put in my works any element that could be identified with the present." (66)
      Among the few periodicals dedicated to Visionary art in France is Laurent Bramardi's Rose Noire magazine (now defunct). In Bramardi's view, Margotton's work displays "...an endless fascination for Nature itself and its mineral carapace. Man and his clumsy body are rarely present - at best hidden, sometimes, in the rugged pocket of a rocky impasse. These are the traces of a fossilized embryonic life which are found in his drawings, or in the small objects collected here and there which repose today in his studio, placed among his own sculptures." (67)
      Margotton's working methods are unique insofar as he will load his canvases with multiple layers of paint, moving progressively into uttermost blackness. But then, in white or lightly-coloured crayon he will highlight, adding silhouettes and gently suggesting touches of light that glow luminously in the darkness.
      Quite recently (May 2004), Margotton had an exhibion on rue Mazarine in Paris which demonstrated a continuing fascination with these methods and themes. But, his work has now evolved to include human figures, often cast into sharp chiarascuro through their dark and deeply-textured environments. The lone figure may be an aboriginal hunter or a more haunting image of a crouching woman gauzed and veiled. The latest works, though a remarkable advance, remain true to his earlier vision.

JEAN-MARIE POUMEYROL

      Poumeyrol shares with Margotton a fascination for the interior landscape, where dimly illuminated grottos resonate with the remains of past epochs. And yet, his barren and abandoned spaces are often redolent with signs of the artists' own lost memories.
      In his early works, Jean-Marie Poumeyrol was recognized as a master of erotica, combining hallucinogenic and macabre imagery in an unparalleled manner (for example, Sabbat. This and other erotic works will be presented in Part II). But, in his maturity, the artist has displayed a marked fascination for landscapes, particularly the enclosed spaces of sewers, industrial waste and disposal plants. Yet, the amazing accuracy and finesse of rendering which enlivened his early works has not left him and, if anything, only increased with age.
      Poumeyrol was born in 1946 and studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Bordeaux. Upon graduation he already had a four year old son to support, and so began his illustrious career as a teacher of mechanical draftsmanship (his students learned to draw screws, bolts, etc).
      This occupation was mercifully cut short when he was released from the educational system. In fact, art teachers had to pass tests given by the board to determine if they were skilled enough to teach drawing. At the same time that Poumeyrol's erotic works were first seeing print and sought out avidly by collectors, he failed his art teacher's exam - being given an 'F' for nude drawing...
      Encouraged by this failure, he dedicated himself to painting and drawing full time, eventually creating a large body of erotica which have marked him ever since (along with Sibylle Ruppert) as one of France's greatest artists in this domain.
      A self-portrait from this period reveals the artist as ambulant and a dreamer - travelling in a train compartment encumbered by photo snapshots of his more personal memories. In essence, the artist's working methods are well represented by this image: his preference for the 'in-between state' of revery and melancholy:
      "As long as I can remember" Poumeyrol writes, "I have been faithfully accompanied by boredom. These sad and useless moments, like a pleasant emptiness, have invented those strange chimeras which continually wander into my visual memory. With time, this uncommon state between memory and imagination has matured into a kind of contemplation, and I have become a great connoisseur of solitude, prefering that boredom which accompanies all my wanderings into a world delicious, extravagant and vain." (68)
      Despite the lucrative gains to be made from erotic art, the painter gradually moved beyond the female form, finding a greater fascination in the interior spaces devoid of nudes:
      "Over time," he writes, "the women in my erotic works became more discreet and eventually disappeared, leaving only the faintest traces of their presence. Those interiors, no longer occupied by living beings, offered me in their stead a mysterious emptiness which invited all possibilities. A few remaining clues suggested their darker dimension.
      "From this moment on, I became fascinated by a series of rooms guarding their secrets. This metamorphosis in my work allowed me to explore man's most primitive fears and anxieties: distress, obsession, solitude, darkness, enclosure, the passage of time, abandonment and death." (69)
      A fine example of this new genre of work is his 1983 painting Hope. The slanting sunlight across the wall reveals an empty chamber where someone has been hard at work, building a model ship from balsam and glue. Erotic photos, reminiscent of Poumeyrol's own early works, are taped against the wall. It is only when our eye wanders towards the barred door that we realize the hidden protagonist's sad predicament, and why the sailboat offers him such a desperate and futile 'hope'.
      From a series of 'chamber works' such as these, Poumeyrol moved on to darker enclosures where any sign of humanity had long since left. Only the changes of the seasons, such as his 1994 series The Wells of Daylight, offer faint signs of movement, life and transformation. Here, movement comes from the different lights of the seasons that pour into the well.
      Liberated entirely from the human form, Poumeyrol exalted: "I could explore caves, passages, depots, shelters, garrets, pantries, attics and all hidden places... Wooden doors, their locks unchained, swung open to reveal stained kitchen sinks, enamalled gas heaters and even a bed with dishevelled sheets in a narrow alcove.
      "These labyrinthine places were lit by small openings whose cruel light unmercifully exposed the objects within. Through these openings we could also make out the building's surroundings - the vague terrain and industrial wasteland, the swamps and distant rooftops - all these 'landscapes' blanketed by snow or autumn leaves in the golden light of day's end."
(70)
      At present, Poumeyrol lives in Pau in the Pyranees, not far from Jean-Pierre Ugarte (indeed, the two have often exhibited together). His perspective has evolved once more, and his latest works offer more open spaces such as fishermans' huts and shorelines.
      At first glance, these may not seem to be 'visionary' at all. But, when considered in the context of his oeuvre, undeniable signs of continuity are present. The sailboat, for example, which the prisoner of Hope left half-built in his cell now appears on the open waters, a reality undreamed of.
      And the artist himself continues to wander the shores, seeking those signs which trigger his own lost memories:
      "After wandering long and alone" he recently wrote "through mysterious interiors, I managed to emerge into the outside world. Once again, a rich flow of memories revealed to me new paintings. I rediscovered in my mind those spaces which had fascinated me once before.
      "These were born through a series of quick sketches, or else, from drawings made from memory (a little uncertain perhaps) where certain details survived with almost photographic precision. The passage of time makes the memory more selective, discarding all excess in order to reconstruct the most essential and meaningful."
(71)

Over time, a younger generation has emerged with a less nostalgic and more hopeful vision of the cosmos. The watery stream, as a rare sign of hope in the apocalyptic world of Cat, Thomas, and Ugarte, may have finally found its fertile ground in the present generation of Visionary Landscapists.

THE VISIONARY LANDSCAPISTS:
THE YOUNGER GENERATION

GREGOIRE MASSONNEAU

      Such is the case with Gregoire Massonneau, a young painter from Vichy. His landscapes, particularly his Cathedral of Clermont-Ferrand triptych, evoke the dark apocalyptic vision of Cat, Thomas and Ugarte. These images suggest that man's spiritual striving, like all attempts to build, must fall ultimately into disuse and decay.
      But, a more timeless quality also underlies the rise and fall of all civilizations. According to the artist:
      "I prefer to depict buildings like cathedrals and pyramids, which are ageless, and seem to defy time. In my work, there are no direct references to times or epochs. I have often discussed this with Ugarte, who I consider to be my 'master' in many ways, and he has always said to me 'do not try to tell a story.'" (72)
      Massonneau avoids the temptation to deliver a simple and direct message. And so we are left to wonder exactly - what has happened in this forlorn and desolate wasteland? Whatever the tragedy that may have broke in the past, the future at least is offered some signs of renewal:
      "There isn't any vegetation in my landscapes, nor human beings. We don't really know what has happened - is this after a cataclism? After the great deluge? Meanwhile, there is a small stream of water in my paintings, like cleansing waters, offering us signs of life that may return." (73)
      And so, the stream of hope, which meandered through the last generations works, continues to fertilize new ground. And, through the latticework of the ruined roscace, a diffused light appears in the heavens. This light is charged with significance, offering a strong contrast to the ruins in shadow:
      "The most difficult task is to master light, ambiance and atmosphere," the artist admits. "I'm trying to express a feeling, rather sombre or melancholic perhaps, through the light in my painting. That light comes from afar, from the furthermost background of my paintings. Meanwhile, in the extreme foreground there are those dark shadows, creating a strong opposition. The light that shines from the background offers, perhaps, another indication of hope." (74)
      And so, despite the sad state of these ruins, a serene beauty underlies the image, offering us intimations of re-emergence. Perhaps some transcendence of man's barren earthly and spiritual state is made possible through these images.

CHRISTOPHE VACHER

      In the works of Christophe Vacher, a primordial world appears once more, but now it is full of mystery and expectation. Though his earlier works may be dark and foreboding, he eventually pursues a more Romantic view of Nature - expansive, overpowering, sublime. And so, the negative apocalyptic view of the last generation is replaced by images of regeneration .
      This is eminently clear in his painting Rebirth, where new stones rise up from the volcanic gyre of the old, like a telluric cathedral mounting and ultimately piercing the heavens. The earth itself is capable of renewal and self-transcendence.
      This message of hope may be coming from the earth itself. It is for this reason that menhirs floating in one of his panoramic landscapes are called 'Messengers'. These floating rocks are a recurrent theme in many of Vacher's works. And, if they are indeed menhirs, then the monoliths may also be stony reminders of Man's presence, persisting across the ages. In this sense, it is Man himself who has sent this message, reminding us of Nature's eternal power.
       When queried about his fascination for rock formations, the artist replied "One day, I started to have an urge to paint this, and it never left me. I would probably say that they symbolize sacred spirits (or The Spirit), personified by the ultimate symbol of matter: rock. Their appearance was definitely inspired by the medieval feeling - both Celtic and Roman - of my hometown area." (75)
      Christophe Vacher was born in Auvergne (Issoire near Clermont-Ferrand), a mountainous area of France where many Roman ruins and Celtic remains are preserved. His art is strongly inspired by the landscape and architecture of his homeland. But, the images that appear in his imagination are just as likely to emerge through music:
"I prefer to search for inspiration in a mix of reality and local legends, and mostly in music... Most of my images don't come from processed thinking - even though the process involves thinking at some point - but rather from a sudden burst of imagination, or some kind of vision." (76)
      Even as a child, certain images and sounds combined in his imagination; signs that resonated with a deeper significance - though he would not understand their meaning until much later:
      "When I was seven, my parents had a record of Dvorjak, Symphony 9: Symphony of the New World. I used to listen to it all the time. On the cover, there was a picture of the Grand Canyon. For some reason, the music and the picture stuck together in my mind and - although I didn't know exactly why - became a symbol of my distant future." (77)
      In 1996, Vacher left France and moved to California, where he worked for Disney as an animator and background artist. "It's not that easy to leave everything behind, to change your Life and dive into the unknown... it costs a lot, emotionally and psychologically," (78) he remarked.
      Until recently, the artist divided his time between animation and easel painting - working for Disney while having shows as a gallery artist at such venues as Galerie Morpheus. And indeed, these two pursuits combined to a degree, since a cinematic feel is undeniably present in his painting - though Vacher makes it clear that "my style has also been shaped by contemporary artists like Sandorfi, Beksinski, Ugarte and Les Visionnaires in France." (79)
      But, after eight years in California, these European influences have expanded to include more American painters, such as the Hudson River school. In Vacher's own words, "I have broadened my horizons in art and discovered many different styles and schools, from the Realists, Pre-Raphaelites, Romantics, Orientalists, Symbolists or Visionaries in Europe, to the Hudson River school, American Realists, American impressionists and Plein Air painters in the US, not to mention all the generations of great American illustrators." (80)
In his painting, this change in sensibility is increasingly evident. Mount of the Immortals or Swept by the Wind are cinematic in scope, but also share with Ugarte a cloudy grey atmosphere that is omenous and foreboding. Meanwhile, Vision of the Lake and Mistress of the Winds share certain affinities with the Hudson River school in their rosy dawn atmosphere, promising new beginnings. This is only natural as the artist absorbs influences from the land and the artists who have interpreted it visually.
      Yet, those 'generations of great American illustrators' are also starting to have a determinate influence on Vacher's growing vision. As we shall see in Part II of this article, graphic novels and comic book art have an immense popularity in France (where they are called BD - les Bandes Dessinées). And certain BD illustrators, like Moebius and Druillet, will be considered here as Visionaries. But the title of 'illustrateur' remains an extremely prejorative term in the mouths of many French artists.
      For them, an illustrator is not a true painter, because he renders his subject through hard lines or strong colours while ignoring other important painterly qualities such as light, atmosphere, and mood (qualities which many French Visionaries have mentioned here time and again). The illustrator's image is designed for immediate impact, multiple reproduction and mass taste. It is not a timeless work of art destined for a gallery or musuem, where its unique appearance must be felt face à face, since it defies all attempts at reproduction.
      All of this is important because Vacher's work manifests the tensions of an artist who sees great artistic worth in illustration, yet also wants to preserve the painterly qualities of the older traditions. As Vacher himself has remarked, "I think classical influence (like Alma-Tadema, Sargent, John Waterhouse or Lord Leighton - to name just a few) is really a direction I'd like to take, but still depicting modern imagery, keeping a foot in Fantasy." (81)
      And yet, a painting like Mistress of the Winds would be dismissed by many French Visionaries as illustratif. They would dislike the British Pre-Raphaelite influence of the mistress with her flowing robes. She manifests much too clearly what the landscape itself should evoke more subtlely. Meanwhile their American counterparts would hail it as a great work (as indeed, they have when it was selected for the cover of the illustrators' annual, Spectrum).
      And the same is true of The Source. The gentle stream which meandered through the works of other French Visionaries was often present, but never emphasized. Here, the stream comes to the foreground while the landscape gradually recedes into the background. And it could be argued that, over time, the landscapes which were so important to the French Visionaries are gradually moving into the background of Vacher's art.
      In this way, Vacher's work higlights some of the interesting tensions that exist between French and Anglo-Saxons, as well as between the Old World and the New. He is in a unique position, and those tensions will hopefully unite in his works rather than divide and polarize them. But, Vacher's art is also uniquely his own - expansive, refreshing, alive - and will continue to manifest his own, broadening and ever-renewing vision over time.

FRANCOIS SCHLESSER

      Finally, in the landscapes of Francois Schlesser we move beyond the horizon of the earth and into the stars themselves. The earth, whose many secret places offered such fascination for other landscapists, now becomes an invisible speck amid the myriad of stars and planets.
      In the endless expanse of outer space, these galaxies swirl, cluster or explode, forming incredibly huge patterns of light in the heavens. Most emblemmatic of Schlesser's vision is the swirling vortex, where the multitude of astroids find cohesion and unity in an invisible source of blinding light.
      "My painting is a celestial symphony which we do not hear but see," the artist says. "It's like music for the eyes." (82)
      Just as a Romantic may lose himself in Nature, so does Schlesser see the cosmos as a space in which we may selflessly immerse ourselves: "Painting is like a magic-mirror which reflects the infinite. The less the personality leaves its traces on the mirror, the more the infinite reveals itself." (83)
      And yet, the artist has written about certain mystical experiences where, on the contrary, the self has expanded to the very limits of the universe. These experiences evoked memories and re-actualizations of his own childhood:
      "I remember a world which could communicate the mysteries of life to me. This world was 'my world' - the world of my inner child. It was a world which guided me to those places where I had to go - where joy was at its peak. I felt the planet and its multitude of life. I became the world all by myself. I became everything - even the infinite, if I wanted to. Then, I returned to myself, that marvellous little child who spoke with the snails, the stones and the sand, breathing a universe of a thousand marvels." (84)
      Such experiences have returned to the artist during certain rare moments. And it is in these experiences that we find the ultimate inspiration for his his works.
      "Then came the accelerations," Schlesser recalls. "I quite liked these accelerations, particularly when they came by surprise. They came, above all, when I was happy - hundreds of millions of stars exploding inside of me and everything accelerating. That moment, I understood everything that I needed to know - immediately - and as intimately connected to happiness itself... I remember the indescribable joy of knowing the essence of all things. All became clear to me during those illuminations. I understood that all things we call 'real' are a part of the totality. And when it slowly dissolved, I found my everyday joy once more. But my happiness now transcended itself - for I had come to know the heavens." (85)
Schlesser's words remind us that the landscapes or starscapes seen here are, in truth, 'inscapes' - the interior landscapes that we all may see and explore through the visions behind our eyes. Through his ecstatic visions, the artist has reached beyond the limits of earthbound sight, and expressed in the light of distant galaxies that supreme joy which expands to all corners of the universe.

END OF PART I

      In Part II of this article we will examine the Fantastic artists working in France today, such as - Claude Verlinde, André Martins de Barros, Jean Bailly, Marc Halingre, Monica Fagan, Ellen Lorien, Jean-Pierre Alaux, Judson Huss, Christian Lepere and Gil Bruvel. We will also cross France's borders to investigate Swiss and Belgian artists like Erik Heyninck and Juri Siomash.
      Meanwhile, those artists who have explored the grotesque, erotic, hallucinatory and macabre will not be forgotten: - Sibylle Ruppert, Jean-Marie Poumeyrol, Lukas Kandl, Ljuba and Dado. This naturally leads us to les Hors-Marginaires, certain 'marginal' visionaries, many of them forgotten today: Nicolas Kalmakoff, Robb Julen, Jean-Philippe Couprie and Jacques le Marechal. As well, a few Outsider artists like le Facteur Cheval and Robert Tatin will be considered. We will even explore, briefly, les bandes dessinées (comic book) artists like Druillet and Moebius.
      Finally, the highly polemicized and controversial situation of Visionary art in France will be discussed: the various galleries, organizations and groups whose efforts to promote this kind of art have met with so much resistance from other organizations and even the state.
      I would like to take the time here to thank some of the people who have helped with this article: Gregoire Massoneau for his interview with Ugarte and his shared enthusiasm; Jacques Noel of Un Regard Moderne for digging out long-lost monographs amid the piles of books in his shop in the Latin Quarter; Laurent Brimardi of Rose Noire magazine for difficult-to-find information; and especially those artists who have invited me into their studios to discuss and look at art late into the night: Michel Henricot, Pierre Peyrolle, Yves Thomas, Claude Verlinde, Lukas Kandl, André Martins de Barros and Ellen Lorien. To Florence Ménard a special thanks for help in translations et pour un esprit commun qui transcende toutes les limites.