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The creative force of Soulages / Text Léopold Sédar Senghor

In something we Africans got #10
Léopold Sédar Senghor
November 1974
English Text  /  Melissa Thackway

Some twenty years ago, I met Soulages for the first time.

While I was writing an article about him in 1958, I wondered how his painting would evolve. Knowing his rooting in his native land, I knew that the painter’s line, his style, would evolve but I did not know how. It is not by chance that in my article, I called him in turn a « painter-architect », « painter-poet » and « painter-musician »; he appeared to have exhausted the number of combinations possible in his austere universe.

There are artists, like Picasso, whose genius is to endlessly create and destroy. Soulages is of those who, as James Johnson Sweeney demonstrated, deepen the world they have created, who make it flourish by multiplying their model to recreate and vary endlessly. « Endlessly », I say, until death, with which all major artists are confronted their entire life; to prevail against it. That is why, embracing Soulages’ entire oeuvre, I wish today to try, once again, to define it by tracing its evolution.

Pierre Soulages was born on 24 December 1919, in Rodez, in the province of Rouergue. Before the shock of his painting, I, ever curious about ethnicity, immediately, wondered whether he was Celtic or Mediterranean, and if Mediterranean, whether he was Ligurian or Iberian. On reflection, it matters not. What in fact struck me at the Art gaulois exhibition held in Paris in the 1950s was the rhythmic force of this art, which belonged, paradoxically, to both Black art and Mediterranean art pre-the Indo-European invasion. Paradoxically, but correctly so, because the similitude is the effect of the power of the emotion, which animated Gallic art, Black art and Mediterranean art, whether this were Egyptian, Iberian, Ligurian or of the Cyclades. 

In all events, from the start, Soulages turned away from mimêsis physéôs: from the « imitation of nature ». Right from high school, he rooted himself in the at the same time Celtic and Mediterranean native land; he refused to imitate. If he painted trees, he chose them in winter, with their dark branches, and he deformed them, and made them even darker. 

The painter’s true oeuvre dates back to 1947. It was then that he began to shed the linear drawing of his early works, that overly expressed anecdote.

It was no longer a matter of lines, of temporal narrations, but of visions that seize you, from deathly blows to the large coloured blocks. For several years, Soulages’ paintings took the form of vast vertical or oblique dark forms on a white background. From the light of time, he transitioned to that of space. How and by what means? That is what I would first like to describe.

From 1947 onwards, then, Soulages’ paintings become abstract: a play of oblong, predominantly black coloured blocks. The black is deep and glossy, so black that it often seems blue, like the skin of the Serer. Not all the forms are black, however. They are sometimes brown: Siena earth, brick, mahogany. They remind me of wood: less often of polished wood, masterfully oeuvre, but rather living wood, sculpted by usage and weathering. And, on a light background, these forms impose themselves on/compel us, like the signs of a sacred writing: those of destiny.

Yet, these signs are works of art that speak to our sensibility. They rouse emotion in us. And all the more so as they are informed, mastered by a great artist. It was said that he applied flat blocks of colour. He himself spoke of « summary and direct brushstrokes. » One must not always believe what the painter, the poet says. Let us observe him at work in silence; better still, let us look at his paintings of the early years. 

In addition to black, he already, as I have said, used other colours, or more exactly other tones, particularly browns. Even in his blacks, he introduced an infinity of nuances ranging from black to white, which allowed him to express light and its effects. It is thus that he often gave the dark forms light shadows, which, by enhancing their sense, transformed them into signs. It was above all in his always light backgrounds that he played on tone, and these range from silver grey, almost white, to bright yellow or light brown. It is about contrast and harmony at the same time; about melody.  

The other periods

The second period of Soulages’ oeuvre lasted from 1950 to 1955. The backgrounds became darker, generally keeping the same grey and brown tones. However, blue backgrounds began to appear, along with others comprising two juxtaposed tones: brown and blue, brown and yellow, and so on. At times, white rays cut across them, like comets or shooting starts. At the same time, the forms are less sharp, the signs less like writing. It was not unusual for the forms to become thick impasto flows. Beneath the emergence of this dark lifeblood, Soulage’s world transformed, giving rise to another period.  

Thus began the painter’s third one: « Towards 1955, the sign tends to disappear and these brushstrokes juxtapose, multiply. From their repetition, from the relationships that are thus established between these forms that are almost alike, a rhythm, a rhythmic of space is born. »

« Juxtaposition », « repetition », « similitude », you will recognize these words that I have often used to characterize Black, Celtic or Mediterranean rhythms. Let us take a painting from this period, divide it into two halves (right-left, top-bottom). We can see that they present a parallelism of form, or even colour, but are free, asymmetric. 

For, the renewal that marks each period, is not only in the forms; it is also in the colours. Soulages, who multiplies the painter’s means through his instruments – he does not hesitate to borrow those of the labourer – has broadened the range of his tones by scraping the layers of paint. Previously, he gave us forms that appeared to be taken from living nature, subjected to time and weathering: old wood, mossy stones, rusted metals. Now, on dark backgrounds, they became often prismatic forms of nuanced, mineral, transparent colours. 

Pierre Soulages, 13 avril 1960
Pierre Soulages, 17 February 1960

It is thus that during this third period, from 1959 onwards, the accent is placed on the tone, I mean on nuance. Striking effects result. In the painting 13 April 1960, the black forms transparently reflect, the stridence of a red background. Sometimes, the painting suggests a dreamscape. Thus, in the painting 17 February 1960, appear in the distance, behind the black forms in the fore, what look like white sails, gilded by the setting sun. Elsewhere, in a 1961 painting, we appear to see an iceberg floating before us with, in the bottom-right foreground, a black form that is echoed, in the top-left background, by another form of the same black, only bigger.  (…) Full version of the text in Something we Africans got issue 10.
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Speech given by Léopold Sédar Senghor at the inauguration of the exhibition devoted to the French painter, on 29 November 1974, at the Musée dynamique in Dakar.
Published in Ethiopiques. Revue socialiste de culture négro-africaine, n°2, 1975.  Text reproduced with the kind authorization of Mr. Moustapha Niasse, President of the Board of Directors of the Fondation Léopold Sedar Senghor, of Professor Amadou Ly, Editorial Director, and of Professor Cheik Sakho, Magazine Editor. With thanks to Mr. A. Raphaël Ndiaye, Director General of the Foundation.

in something we Africans got issue 10
                                                               Léopold Sédar Senghor
November 1974
English Text  /  Melissa Thackway