I want to make those energies visible
A struggle between two opposing forces
Léa Bismuth: We’re looking at a 1931 painting by Pierre Bonnard, his self-portrait as a boxer. In your work, there’s such an energetic stance, bodies brimming with life, confronting and fighting. Is painting like boxing to you?
Claire Tabouret: That thought has often occured to me. I like the idea of shadow boxing: of a boxer training alone in front of a mirror. That moment of solitude interests me more than the fight itself. Lately, I’ve also been thinking a lot about fencing: when I paint large canvasses, I’m always moving, coming and going. Those are fencing moves: it’s very important to wait before each brush stroke. I find Bonnard’s self-portrait very moving; in it, I also see painting as a space bounded by a frame, and therefore the idea that the painting is like a boxing ring, a territory where something is at stake, a confrontation within a circumscribed space.
LB: Every morning, when you get to the studio, you make a self-portrait in Indian ink. For you, this is a way of entering your territory and also of recording the time elapsed since the previous day, your change in mood and appearance; a quest for your changing individuality… Your face is never the same, that’s why you keep representing yourself tirelessly.
CT: In this face-off, I am my own model. I can’t capture my face in one go, that’s why I do it again every day. Making a self-portrait is like wringing a cloth until the last drop; or reaching the stone in a piece of fruit. You remove the peels, the layers, and in the end, what’s left is the self-portrait. That’s the essence of my activity: a gaze, gazing.
LB: Are these self-portraits connected with your blindfolded figures?
CT: Yes, they too are a form of self-portrait. I was just talking about the painter as a boxer, but I also think of the painter as a tightrope walker, always looking for the fulcrum. Or then, he is blindfolded because he accepts the fact of not knowing, of moving forward into what is invisible. To me, there are two infinite directions, inwards and outwards, everything revolves around this. In my work, there are always two opposing forces, two directions: eyes peering out or diving inwards. To be blindfolded isn’t to be blinded: it’s seeing beyond, differently, it’s seeing something else.
LB: To explain your self-portraits you often speak of water, which transforms our faces every day. But if we think of your work on migrants in boats (2011-2013), it’s your relationship with water in general that seems essential to me, since the sea also transforms beings…
CT: One of my first great shocks was seeing Monet’s Water Lilies at the age of four: I was struck by this immersion into painting. Then, around the age of twelve, in Lausanne, in the Art Brut museum, I had a second shock when I discovered the reconstitution of the room of an autistic child, covered from ground to ceiling with felt drawings on A4 sheets. Again, I felt total immersion, and since then, I’ve always sought out this protective feeling. But it also draws us towards engulfment: I’ve painted flooded houses, and I think the fear of being engulfed is also present in my large-scale paintings of groups, in which individuals resist disappearing into an anonymous mass. There’s always a struggle between opposing forces, between the fascination for immersion and the terror of engulfment.
LB: How do you manage to treat this relationship with immersion within the space of the canvas?
CT: When I do large-scale paintings of groups, for instance, I ask myself the following questions: how do the figures stand up? In which space are they? Where am I, in relation to them? Where are they when they’re looking at me? These questions have often been played out in my life, concretely. I’m thinking of the boat series, which got started at a time when I was trying to find my place within a territory: I was in Marseille, in the spring of 2011, it wasn’t possible for me to be there, I took to the sea because I wasn’t able to stay on dry land. I took the ferry from Marseille to Algiers, I wanted the crossing to last as long as possible, I never wanted to set foot on land again. It was a very important inner journey for me, even if later on, the images I painted weren’t necessarily related to this voyage without a destination. It was a founding moment: if I can stand up straight today, it’s because I am in an unstable space between two shores. That’s my studio. I am on water, on a moving territory, without true borders in the physical sense of the term. And painting becomes an island. The constraint of the frame is similar to the constraint of the island: within it, there is huge freedom, it’s a place where you can fight in the boxing match.
Standing up straight
LB: In your latest paintings of groups, the children are always depicted full-face: what’s the reason for this confrontational frontal view?
CT: These children are looking straight at us, yes. They’re in a peculiar mood: they’re not sad, but solemn and serious. This is a kind of resistance. There is latent, contained violence and anger in these children’s gazes.
LB: Can you tell me how they appeared in your work?
CT: It all started with a box of family pictures I found when my grandmother died in 2012. I’d known of the existence of the box since childhood, but there was a kind of taboo surrounding it. As a kid, I used to rummage in it, but my grandmother always caught me and I never got to look at everything properly. I remembered the attic, with its closet and box of pictures, as a kind of fantasy. When my grandmother died, I looked at them obsessively. I was struck by the pictures of my grandmother as a child, with her brother. I felt the pressing urge to paint them, as though there were an overflow of meaning I had to represent. This quickly turned into introspection because of the family likeness… I realized the connection between my family history and my becoming: even as a child, I always knew I would, I was born that way, I can’t explain it. The children’s gazes express this determination.
LB: So you immersed yourself into your family history, which is also a painful story of absence and secret… Then you decided to expand your sources to photos gathered here and there, on the internet, for instance. But am I right to think that your work has nothing to do with archives?
CT: You’re right, I’m very quick to leave behind the images I use. I’m no historian, I have no memory for names, dates… I’m often asked whether I work from photographs, I don’t think that’s the right way of putting it. They’re a stimulus, a trigger, then painting becomes a palliative to everything I’m feeling that isn’t actually visible in the photograph. It’s obviously not a matter of archives, even if there is an actual iconographic starting point, a class picture for instance. I think that in a few years, I won’t even remember the images I used as a starting point.
For instance, in La Grande Camisole (2014), what interested me was to paint the invisible bonds between figures and bodies, the energies that connected them. We know these bonds are shackles, but also the bonds of emotions and memories. I want to make those energies visible. That’s why fabric folds are increasingly present in my latest paintings. What’s more, these fabric folds turn into abstract, floating, moving surfaces I love to paint. In a way, when I paint the sea, I use similar gestures…
LB: The connection between painting and fabrics is intriguing… When you paint children or build a little temple with fabric you collected one centimeter at a time in Beijing in 2012, you’re essentially operating in the same way.
CT: I think the relationship to fabric is very important and a little bit secret in my work. When I’m looking at image boards on the internet, I’m in the same state as when I was in front of the heaps of fabric I collected in Beijing, I feel the same excitement and giddiness. I just want to dig into this bunch of jumbled, messy trash. Disorder, trash, I like that enormously… I love the idea of being surprised, of not finding an image but rather of being found by it. That’s precisely what triggers my work: I’m always collecting, but I allow for the possibility of discovery. It isn’t organized research in a library, though I can carry out that type of research at the same time, but not for the same reasons. When I work from a recycled image, I shift the selected image onto a canvas and then I lose the source completely. I classify my pictures in boxes as I go along, according to the way I feel about them. They act as a kind of personal archive, with no other guiding rule than the course of my life, like a logbook. Everything gets mixed up, stained. Images yellow. I have an emotional bond with these sources, they grow old along with me.
Rebels and lookouts, fireflies in the night
LB: Let’s talk about your relationship to time, the loss of childhood and death. When I look at your figures in Les Insoumis (2013), I see fireflies in the night, whose light pierces through darkness. How do you work this phosphorescence in?
CT: Exactly, fireflies. You could also think of stones that stay warm because they stored up the heat of the sun all day… It’s that heat that interests me: things that resist cooling off. Phosphorescence is similar. There is an obvious reference to death. Light that resists oblivion. And it’s connected to my way of painting in layers, from light to dark. In my painting, I look for the moment when things topple over. I stop when I’ve found the light of the firefly.
LB: We could also think of moonlight, with its metallic shades?
CT: Yes. A few years ago, I recorded a lot of nighttime lightning strikes, I have over 500 of them on video. I find them both fascinating and terrifying. They’re sublime but they make you want to scream, because you see things you should never see, you gain access to a forbidden territory. When lightning strikes, it lights everything up for a second, there are no shadows. It’s a very peculiar light.
LB: You’ve said your starting point was a phrase by the writer Pierre Guyotat: “It is absolutely impossible to get a child who feels the urge towards poetry, art, to submit. It is an activity that teaches rebelliousness, truly.”1 But what are these children fighting against exactly? Where does their rebelliousness spring from?
CT: Those faces are always telling me something. Rebelliousness is first and foremost resistance. In Les Insoumis, for instance, the children are in disguise, but they are resisting their disguises precisely because they are disguised as children and they can’t stand it. Childhood was fabricated by others, by adults. And then there’s being disguised as a girl or a boy, this binary separation, this choice to make. It’s a matter of resisting slots imposed by the outside world.
LB: Are your two large-scale canvasses, Les Insoumis (2013) and Les Veilleurs (2014), connected in any way?
CT: Often, I’ve got this filmic idea that one sequence leads to another. So in the first sequence, figures appear on top of a mountain and they want to speak. Then, Les Veilleurs (“The Lookouts”) show up bearing arms. Initially, I wanted to make a battle painting, I was thinking of The Battle of San Romano2 by Paolo Uccello, but it actually shows the moment right before the battle. They are still, they’re watching. In the next painting, maybe they’ll be in the heart of the battle. The lookouts are also related to the light of the fireflies we were talking about earlier, the glow-sticks they’re holding look like neon lights, light-sabres. The green tint that bathes the painting is, to me, the most luminous tint yet the least alive. I like this paradox.
LB: Isn’t there a kind of play of words in there? The children are on watch, waiting, but maybe they’re also keeping vigil.3
CT: Probably. All I can say is that I watched over that painting a lot… I spent hours and hours looking at it, without painting. I truly think that places retain the memory of events, and that canvasses are also places of memory retaining the invisible traces of whatever generated them. They are charged up with a period of life.
LB: Can you tell me of your recent shift to ceramics? How did you decide to extract the figures from your large canvas Les Insoumis to embody them?
CT: I conceive my ceramics as a painter. When I’m painting, I seek out characters that become increasingly incarnate as the painting makes progress: I discover them through painting. In this case, they had such presence they had to come out of the canvas. What’s more, I had the intuition of everything that couldn’t be seen; in other words, everything which wasn’t full-face in the picture: the back of the neck, postures from behind or in profile… Modelling allowed me to embody them, as an extension of their personality. I also discovered the enameling technique, which is different from painting. I have to move more calmly, to be more accurate. But since enamel is molten glass, there is an obvious transparency. I applied successive layers on a green underlay, as though I were painting in volume.
LB: Why did you add fabric, like you do with your work on paper?
CT: I wanted to dress them up with fabrics to give them a supplement of reality and a supplement of death. A bit like Degas’ Little Dancer Aged Fourteen4 who has a tulle tutu and a pink satin ribbon in her hair. She’s terribly morbid. Well, the ruffs and hats play on these two registers.
LB: Do you want to keep working with ceramics?
CT: Yes, I want to go on because it nourished my way of painting. La Grande Camisole might never have happened before ceramics. There’s a relationship to volume that makes me think of painting differently. There are more and more invisible elements turning up… I’m sure the glow-sticks of the Veilleurs came from thinking in volume. And now, I’d like to conceive a whole group in ceramics.
LB: To conclude on a slightly ironic note, are you aware that your paintings scare some viewers?
CT: I’m a joyful person, but the greatest part of my life is spent painting, it’s a solitary time that is extremely serious and certainly linked to a reflection on death. I’m not a sad person, but I feel comfortable with gravity. I took a while in accepting it, but sincerely, I feel comfortable with it.
Interview of Claire Tabouret by Léa Bismuth, in her studio in Pré-Saint-Gervais, February 7th 2014
1 Explications, Entretiens avec Marianne Alphant, 2000, Léo Scheer, Paris
2 Three versions of the painting exist and are conserved in the Louvre, the National Gallery in London and the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. The Louvre version: Paolo di Dono, known as Uccello (Florence, 1397- Florence, 1475), La Bataille de San Romano: la contre-attaque de Micheletto da Cotignola, circa 1435-1440 ? (H. 1.82 ; L. 3.17 m)
3 Translator’s note: In French, the word veilleur means both “lookout” and “person keeping vigil” during a wake.
4 Edgar Degas (1834-1917), Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, between 1921 and 1931, modelled between 1865 and 1881. Bronze statue with patina in different colors, tulle tutu, pink satin ribbon in the hair, wood base (H.98; L.35.2; D. 24.5 cm), Musée d’Orsay, Paris.
Léa Bismuth is an art critic. She has been writing for art press since 2006. She is also an independent exhibition curator (Bruissements/Nouvelles Vagues at the Palais de Tokyo in 2013, La Réalité presque évanouie/Abbaye du Ronceray in Angers in 2014).