Les artistes selectionnés - Prix de dessin 2021

Daniel et Florence Guerlain

Françoise Pétrovitch 

Interview- Marie Maertens

While you were showing me your drawings in the studio, you mentioned that you work on them on the floor. Do you always execute them in this way?
Is this also due to the liquid consistency of the watercolour?

Absolutely, especially as I don’t want to show too much running of the colour, but on the other hand I have less distance with the work being made. I don’t correct either, which means I accept the drawing as it happens. I accept the element of chance that might appear, but I don’t accept it if I don’t like something about the drawing’s presence or even its structure. If that’s the case, I will rip it up. I often work in series and lately I started from Arnold Böcklin’s Isle of the dead, but also from an island in the Jean-Jacques Rousseau park at Ermenonville. I was impressed by the fact that it can only be seen from afar, without being able to reach it and that nourished my imagination. For this series, I built from a seam at the level of the horizon and from the reflection of the water, allowing me to superimpose two separate worlds and make them collide.

During previous writings, you specified that your work is quite intuitive. Nevertheless, do you make sketches in preparation for the big watercolours?

Yes, but they are very minimalist. Sometimes, there are only four strokes but that’s enough for me. I like to let the moment suddenly appear. I position myself more in terms of mental maturation leading to the rapid realization of my gesture. I am in the present and I would have the impression of spoiling things if I tried to prolong a sketch. I don’t play with that frustration but rather I nurture the pleasure of realizing and making the drawing. Recently for example, with stretched out and floating characters who may disturb the viewer and make him ask himself whether they are lying … between the living and the dead… 

This depiction makes us think of the Pre-Raphaelite paintings, in particular Ophelia by John Everett Millais.

Yes, there is that horizontal movement of a body sinking into water. In my work, there are a lot of questions about absence and disappearance as well as a being’s inner character… these are well and truly subjects treated by the English painters from that movement, even though I don’t look at them as much as all that, although I do admire old master, classic and modern paintings.  

For that matter, art critics have connected your work to the 19th century, in particular the work of Edvard Munch and Edouard Manet. But in your framing, I also find separations in the style of Degas…

Edgar Degas was the first painter I loved when I was younger. He was the one who most impressed me, particularly in his relation to photography or to the living model, but also in his relation to the body as he depicted only everyday gestures but caught in the moment… His work demonstrates great power without demonstrating force. He was a very cultivated artist and, finally, someone who is not so easy to appreciate outside of the snapshots present in his subjects – for instance the dancers – but which he never insisted on. He really highlighted perfect contrasts of black and white and conceived the most masterful monotypes and etchings.  

As you have reminded us, you work in series allowing you to develop specifically the formal qualities in your works. Does the chosen medium create a difference in how you perceive them?

My subjects can unfold over very varied temporalities, going from twenty drawings on one series, to five or fifty on another… They run their course quite naturally, when I feel bored or they have a repetitive effect… they can emerge from short moments of time or over several years. I don’t think in terms of mediums, in particular for works on paper. Essentially, I work like a colourist with very few lines within the expanse of the surface. Consequently, I ask myself painter’s questions, such as do I work again on the unfinished or blank areas in order to bring back the light?

Do you practice drawing regularly?

Yes, almost every day, I implement it very lightly, but I go easily from one medium to another. Even when I devote whole days to painting, drawing is always present. Anything to do with ceramics or sculpture is made more in outside studios, in particular for enamelling and baking. Everything circulates whereas, before, I had patterns only reserved for paper. Today, something might emerge in painting that I am going to reuse in a series of drawings or vice-versa. I adore this fluidity which poses the big question of the subject, a question that in spite of everything remains important in figuration. It seems to me that, for my part, I touch on very cinematographic scenes, as for example with my smokers. They are portraits which are not really as such, or they symbolize the image of a carefree youth. At the same time, they can reveal themselves to be politically incorrect, especially in a big format…

But the figure and the human body are omnipresent since you began…

I have always treated what is human, or more globally, a feeling of a being’s inner character or slightly fragile presences, diluted in the background, even perturbed by an animality… But if we go back to the example of the islands, they echo the landscape, in the end one of the great subjects in painting. In fact, I consider that there isn’t really any theme, even though I can see that I am depicting neither an object nor an urban element. Just like I execute very few big drawings, so that we find ourselves as close as possible to things. Being as close as possible is probably my real subject. I am face to face with the onlooker and am focused on a gesture or a detail. I have trouble working on themes with numerous scenes or actions. I remain focused on pictorial questions, without encumbering myself with symbolism. Just like Pierre Bonnard, who could paint a fragment from his window and seize the pleasure of seeing, of capturing the colour, the light or the moment. All of this is realized without too much storytelling or by adding some perspective, like a narrowing of the space.   

We you already thinking about all these notions when you began your corpus in the 1990s?

No, because at the time I worked a lot on school notebooks or postcards written on the back. I have always needed an existing support. I don’t know if this was a fear of the blank page… but I had to look for another preliminary realization. Then, I distanced myself from that and formats became bigger. Colour also imposed itself more forcibly, whereas I had less interest in powerful tonalities and granted myself less freedom.  

Did you look at the generation of artists who were around you, for example the Free Figuration movement.

Yes, it was totally their era, after Narrative Figuration and with the Italian Trans-avant-garde that I liked a lot, particularly Sandro Chia. We experienced a period of great pictorial freedom that I haven’t really found again. It was bursting out everywhere, also making way for humour and the possibility of elaborating numerous experimentations. But I wished to remain within my line, especially as I had not studied fine arts, so I was a little bit on the sideline. I made do with it. It was not due to these movements that figuration became an evident factor in my work, but it seemed to me impossible to produce it in any other vein. Nevertheless, by working also on purely formal considerations, I position myself somewhere between figuration and abstraction. 

Are you sometimes inspired by photos?

I have been able to work using models, especially my children or their friends, or from snapshots but without any particular quality. They are little moments from life that I catch. I never draw from a photo and the result has nothing to do with the colour or atmosphere emerging from it.  

The animal world that you also often recount seems imbued with symbolism and mysticism, a little bit like Kiki Smith. Do you like the tale-telling universe?

It’s true that a lot of collectors appreciate our two works, even though I think that this artist is a lot more mystical that I am. Furthermore, contrary to her, I am not a fan of medieval or other such tales. I don’t read them, but as people very often talk about them to me, they must be somewhere in my subconscious… However, I am very fond of women’s writings and literature, for instance writing by Marguerite Duras, Nathalie Sarraute, Christine Angot or Joyce Carol Oates.

Do you have the impression of being part of a feminist work?

I think questions like that may emerge, but I am neither an activist nor a militant. I have no commitment to a group or a collective… but I am sensitive to it and, of course, being a woman, things will come out. But they are more in the psychological or even domestic field, as my work is situated to a great extent in what is concrete. For instance, a monkey is recurrent in my drawings, as for several years I have been interested in the works of a researcher at the Institut Pasteur. Specialized in research into Aids, she studies the green monkey, which does not develop this virus. We also work together with the association Organoïde, founded by Fabrice Hyber and the Institut Pasteur. Lately, I have also depicted a dog from small sketches made at the Maison de l’armateur at Le Havre, which I used for sculptures rather than for paintings or drawings. This is an initial motif which can lead to metamorphoses with hybrid animals. These forms hatch spontaneously and are not really about the fantastic, although albeit they are not realistic…

Leading to an impression of strangeness, recurrent in your work. This attention paid to the singular, did it become obvious to you?

Yes, totally, because I don’t consider that my work has a psychoanalytical dimension. I prefer my universe to be more universal and global, and that it speaks to people, as I am not into introspection. The analysis may come in a second phase, for instance, this deer conceived with several horns demonstrating the idea of galloping power and of a masculine identity encumbered by its own authority. So, yes, I can allow myself an implicitly feminist language… 

You seem to construct your work around a kind of dichotomy, with notions like the feeling of absence confronted with presence…

Yes, there is always something “against”. I like it when there is ambiguity, when we move forwards or backwards. It is always at the limit of the two. In all my forms, we can discover the figure or its shadow, presence or absence, the fact of whether there is meaning or not, white opposed to black… But there again, the elements are suspended, while evoking real things. For example, my black paintings are linked to the passing of someone close, so I am talking about disappearance and death. But I do not conceptualize ideas before carrying them out. I let gestures set themselves in motion and even perturb me. That allows me not to know what is going to happen, because I love the swings and swerves of the moments when we falter…

Marie Maertens 
October 2020