The only other artists to have been given such Louvre shows during their lifetime were Chagall and Picasso: As the French painter turns 100, he is celebrated through a retrospective at the world's largest art museum.
Painter Pierre Soulages has lived through many historical changes in the past century. The artist, who celebrates his 100th birthday on December 24, has met all the presidents of the French Republic, from Charles de Gaulle to Emmanuel Macron. Georges Pompidou made him a knight and François Hollande awarded him the Legion of Honor Cross.
As one story goes, General de Gaulle, who was chairman of the provisional French government from 1944 to 1946, told him at a meeting shortly after the end of the Second World War that French painting was "sick." Soulages answered him in military jargon: No, it was not sick, he said, but rather "under attack. We need to defend it."
Forging his path into abstraction
Born in Rodez in southern France in 1929, Soulages belongs to a generation of artists who reinvented abstract painting in Europe after the Second World War. Like many artists of the time, in the beginning he tried to tie in his painting with the avant-garde tradition of the beginning of the 20th century. This included a radical break with representational painting. Since his first exhibition in 1947, when he was 27 years old, Soulages has used the color black — which, strictly speaking, isn't a color at all.
In Occupied France during World War II, figurative painting of bucolic landscapes was promoted as propaganda for Nazis' ideals.
The end of the war gave the next generation of painters, including Soulages, a blank slate and an invitation to break with tradition. Soulages rejected representational painting and came up with unique methods of making his abstract works, such as laying the canvas on the floor to apply paint while standing.
Soulages followed his own path into abstraction, which is also reflected in his choice of materials, such as tar and walnut stain, which was easier to get after the war and cheaper than oil paint. He also used household items, squeegees and scrapers, bidding farewell to the classical tools of the trade.
Many of his works do not have titles but are named after the technique used, dimensions and the date of execution. The artist does not want anything to influence the innocent perception of the viewer.
In 1948 he wrote: "A painting is an organized whole, an ensemble of forms (lines, colored surfaces) on which our interpretations emerge and fall apart."
Pierre Soulages' dark canvases were quickly celebrated around the world, from New York to Paris. In 1979, after painting for more than 30 years, he entered a new phase of his work and started with a completely new style he called "outrenoir," which translates to "beyond black" or "overblack."
Painting with the light
Why black? Soulages has often had to answer this question during the many years of his career. "I don't paint with black, but with light," he said in an interview with the German-French television channel ARTE. But Soulages seems to have had an interest in black from an early age. As a child he painted a picture with black ink and called it a snowy landscape. When his sister laughed at him, he replied that he only used the black to bring out the white better.
Black also played a role in his wedding. When he married his wife Colette in 1942, both bride and groom wore black to the ceremony, which took place at midnight in the church of Saint Louis in Sète, France.
The Louvre in Paris is honoring the painter with the retrospective titled "Soulages at the Louvre," opening just a few days before his 100th birthday. He will be the third artist to have a a solo show at the museum during his lifetime, joining Marc Chagall and Pablo Picasso. Masterpieces by Giotto and Ucello were even moved to make room for the French artist's monochrome paintings.
Soulages still spends every day in his studio painting. He doesn't worry about death, as he said in an interview with French newspaper La Dépêche du Midi: "Je me fous de ma mort, tant que mes toiles vivent." In other words, he doesn't care about dying, as long as his paintings live on.
"Soulages at the Louvre" can be seen in Paris from December 11, 2019 to March 9, 2020.