From the Archives: Jean Fautrier Paints a Picture, in 1955

Jean Fautrier, photographed by André Ostier in 1954.


With a Jean Fautrier retrospective currently on view at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, we turn back to ARTnews’s December 1955 issue, which featured a profile of the French painter. Part of the magazine’s “Paints a Picture” series, this entry, written by the French critic Michel Tapié de Céleyran, traces Fautrier’s production process, which notably subverted the notion that painters created original works. (Fautrier, a leading figure in the Tachisme movement, often created what he called “multiple originals.”) Tapié’s essay follows below. —Alex Greenberger

“Fautrier Paints a Picture”
By Michel Tapié de Céleyran
December 1955

Fautrier is particularly cognizant of the unfolding cycle in the evolution of a painting. He graduated at a very early age for the Royal Academy in London, trained in all possible varieties of trompe l’oeil without having been taken in by them. From 1926 to 1931, he went through a prolonged phase during which he explored the most profoundly tragic expressionis possible in the medium of paint. These pictorial means he always kept under control, never allowing them to handicap the explosive intensity of his content. He was able to express himself through traditional still-life themes: flowers, objects, animals ready for cooking and other familiar subjects which became in his hands strange vehicles for imagination. It was during this period that he encountered André Malraux, who persuaded him to work on illustrations for the work of Dante. Of these only the first lithographic stones exist—large, informal color masses that showed, thirty years ago, a distinctly new approach. After a long interval of complete, self-imposed withdrawal, he reappeared with the documentary evidence of inhumanity in his Hostages of a complex war. This is a series of remarkable paintings, in which the sense of tragedy lies at the limits of the infinitely subtle, elaborated with a clarity born of long experimentation with the possibilities of vision. The public, which with the exception of a few passionate devotees was in 1945 still quite unprepared, proved so unreceptive that from that time on until 1953 Fautrier painted nothing else new. During this interval, however, he concentrated first upon the unusual “replicas” and then on the disconcerting “multiple originals,” intended for an age in which ideas evolve faster than do human powers of human perception. But I shall return later to these two series; for with them Fautrier has proposed an art of the future.

Knowledgable of illusionary effects, of magic tricks of the paint medium, of the limits of their powers and the effectiveness of their subtlety; knowledge of the thousand different combinations in which such effects can be arranged—either in the work of other artists or in the course of his own researches while producing his “multiple originals”—such is the technical equipment at Fautrier’s disposal. If one considers the little painting reproduced here, whose subject is Fruit, the motif of some thirty works of his present period—he made approximately the same number of versions of Hostages or Women, the themes which preoccupied him around 1945—it too might excite almost the same comment as one of his “multiple originals.” No matter how subtle, how disconcerting may be the overtones of these works, in which the mysterious and the rational exist side by side, with Fautrier we are always in the domain of method pushed with cold calculation almost to the absurd—using that term with all due respect, for it is one which surely admits of no mediocrity.

He has elected to use technical procedures which are outwardly the most difficult: he manipulates the ineffable without anarchy, and by the intensity of his content makes it the bearer of a message which is quite at the opposite pole of all the customary methods of academic “blot-painting.”

Jean Fautrier, Les trois têtes (The Three Heads), 1954, oil on masking paper on canvas.


Fautrier begins by preparing the canvas itself in this way: Very carefully he glues together several thicknesses of pure rag paper; by the time the work has been completed, these have become as completely incorporated with the painting material as the fossil is with the rock that enshrouds it. Extremely thick white pigment is applied forcefully with a knife. The oil is absorbed by the rag paper leaving the pigment in very thick high relief. I once saw Fautrier destroy several works which he had decided not to put into circulation after all (he remarked with a certain cynicism, “I have already done too many like that”); and I know how much strength he had to exert in order to tear up those glued surfaces turned almost as hard as stone.

Now with a light glaze of oil and turpentine he draws for the first time the stroke which delineates his motif: hostage, transcendent human figure or, as in this case, some fruit defined with unusually generalized vision, something like that which certain modern logisticians have taught us to explore for the wonderful enrichment of the realm of perception.

This initial indication of Fautrier’s disappears at once, however, under another thick impasto of white applied with various implements such as knives, trowels or spoons. Yet it remains there, and will never cease to direct the work and the artist who elaborates it. When the thick surface, violently agitated at will, is to his liking, he quickly seizes a spatula or a thing brush, as the case may be, in order to draw his subject over again. He does this not as one might deal in the abstract with a fully developed concept, but in the closest tangible relation with an object which the magic of creation has brought into being and imposed above all others. This in turn disappears once again—perhaps many times—in the course of the artist’s manipulations: onto the surface of the thick white bed he drops, from some height, chalky pastel dust in rose or pale blue, or in darker shades spaced farther apart. Sometimes he even superimposes other strokes drawn in the extremely thinned-out glazes. These signs do not necessarily coincide with the one incised in the impasto, but are introduced with a richness of opposing forces that has more in common with building procedures than it has with the contrapuntal relationships of a somewhat outmoded classical norm. The interplay in the passage from one surface to another becomes increasingly complex as Fautrier applies additional layers of pigment—always taking into account the imperatives of the initial guiding stroke, as essential in the depths as for the realization of the object, which in the last analysis will suggest no more to us than a pictorial achievement.

The success of these procedures can be multiplied as often as desired through this system of “multiple originals,” as Fautrier likes to explain. Fautrier is so skilled in carrying out his procedures each time in exactly the same way that, for the photographs here reproduced, he first preferred to complete his work without recorded evidence. Then, having decided that this interpretation of fruit was completely successful, he went through each of the successive phases for the photographer separately and in reverse! This is a somewhat astounding feat in an era when pragmatic anarchy has led to a new order at the opposite pole from any procedure that is susceptible of precise definition.

Jean Fautrier, L’encrier (de Jean Paulhan) [The Inkwell (of Jean Paulhan)], 1948, oil on masking paper on canvas.


But for me this is the lesson of Fautrier. His works reflect a technique which outwardly appears to be as strongly motivated by chance as those of the majority of pioneers of that “other” art, whose tenet is to live passionately. But this extreme freedom is closely linked to a knowledge of the craft of painting carried out as meticulously as if it were one of the traditional techniques which had long been matured and practiced, brought to maturity and put into practice. Faturier is, historically speaking, the first European to have embarked on another kind of artistic venture. He has not only mastered a technique which is fraught with perils but well suited to the expression of the ineffable (the very essence of the present goals of painting). But by painting into circulation what he has called “multiple originals,” he has also stated and resolved a problem essential for the genesis of the work of art.

I have already spoken of the “replicas.” About 1946, Fautrier realized with a certain bitterness how few laymen grasped the essence of his art and decided to paint no more. But with his knowledge of techniques—not alone those of both traditional and modern painting, but also of the mechanical and craftsmanlike possibilities of typographic, photographic and lithographic imposition, and an awareness of the opportunities afforded by switching the order of their successive operations—he organized the mass production of reproductions of works of art, with unusual accuracy. The works were rendered as if they were real objects, reproduced on canvases stretched upon frames, with all the textures, thicknesses and variations that exist between the mat and the varnished surface. Artists themselves were so deceived that they did not know whether they were confronted with the work of their own hands, or a replica.

One day, Fautrier amused himself by reproducing one of his own works, probably as a joke, so that his friends would be unable to say which was the original and which was the “replica.” But it is a dangerous game, a joke that raises the whole question of what constitutes a work of art and the notion of other possibilities compatible with it. It may offer such a wealth of possibilities that launching it upon an uninformed public might upset the work applecart (and, first of all, that sentiment quite extrinsic to art itself which has to do with ownership). Or it might set off a general reaction of revulsion on the part of artists and collectors alike—both feeling frustrated, or in any event threatened, in their general habits.

Fautrier takes this point of view: Why confine oneself simply to the act of making a replica of a painting when, with full knowledge of technical processes and possibilities afforded by combining them, it would be possible to work out a group of operations which when brought together yield a new work, the authentic outcome of all this conceptual series? Such a work would be created with as much freedom and immediacy as a unique original would be, but with the added advantage that as many duplicates could be put into circulation as one might desire (thus obviously overthrowing both the usual practices of the art market while fantastically enlarging the number of potential collectors). And what possibilities for experimentation would be offered the artists! On a canvas, if the background or the prime coat of paint has turned out successfully, how carefully one must proceed with each step thereafter, in order to preserve intact this initial success! But with the multiple original, there are no such limitations. If a stroke requires improvement, or a certain thickness presents an obstacle, no matter: one has at one’s disposal the same perfect first ground, as often as one may wish; and so on for the next step.

Ordinarily, both art lovers and artists should have been satisfied; paradoxically, they have up to now generally manifested mistrust and hostility. It is true that it took several decades before the important contribution of Dada, for instance, was recognized, and for a long time it was regarded as inconsequential.

So Fautrier goes his way, the pioneer of an art oriented toward the future. But for André Malraux, he is the great painter of our day; and according to Jean Paulhan, he has initiated “the painting of the obscure and the irrational.” It is amazing that with such power the artist elaborated from start to finish a most rigorous method.

Confronted with the work of this noted recluse, I offer two key-phrases to be pondered. The first is a saying of Paul Gauguin: “One must not seek what encompasses one’s eyes, but what lies at the mysterious center of thought.” The other, a very recent one, is a statement of the philosopher Stéphane Lupasco: “He who controls Contradiction controls the World.” The contradictory magic of Fautrier’s message has an invocational force carried to a power which only the spirt can attain.

Translation by Helen M. Franc.

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