Born in Rodez in 1919, Pierre Soulages is the greatest living French painter, celebrated for his radical body of work which explores the multiple possibilities of light offered by the colour black. Alongside Georges Mathieu and Hans Hartung, he was one of the pioneers of lyrical abstraction, which emerged in Paris immediately after the war.
Soulages began to paint at a young age. He was influenced by the wall art of his native region and by Romanesque architecture, such as the abbey of Conques, whose stained-glass windows oriented him towards the question of light, which would become a constant dimension of his work. Admitted to the Beaux-Arts in Paris at the age of 20, he quickly gave up his training,
which struck him as too conformist. Before returning to Rodez, he had time to discover modern art and the painting of Cézanne and Picasso, which made a great impression on him. Having gradually encountered abstract art, he subscribed definitively to it at the end of the war, when he returned to Paris and devoted himself to painting.
From 1947, Soulages began to make use of walnut stain. Applied using the tools of industrial painters, this fluid material produced a powerful contrast with the whiteness of the surrounding paper. The compositions are made of networks of brown lines with a sober, stripped-back appearance. Presented for the first time at the Salon des Surindépendants in 1947, these innovative works attracted attention and praise from his peers, but also from the critics. One of them was chosen in 1948 to appear on the poster of “Wanderausstellung französischer abstrakter Malerei,” the first German collective exhibition devoted to abstract art since the end of the war.
Soulages’ painting bears no relationship to reality. As he conceived it as early as 1948, his painting was “an organisation, a set of relationships between shapes (lines, coloured surfaces, etc.), on which the meanings which we give it are made and undone.” No representation of the world, no signs, no symbols, but the presence of the world, still and silent, rooted in matter. Recognised early on as one of the pioneers of lyrical abstraction, whilst producing a singularly different body of work, Soulages fully inscribed his painting in the debate about abstraction’s relationship to reality, which shook up the post-war artistic scene.
In 1949, his first solo exhibition was held at the Lydia Conti gallery. His career was launched and soon blossomed beyond national borders, especially in the United States. Supported by James Johnson Sweeney, he took part in the travelling exhibition “Advancing French Art” in 1953, the “Younger European Artists” exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in 1954 and “The New Decade” at MOMA in New York.
After these decisive years, which saw him become one of the leading figures of the avant-garde, Soulages continued his pictorial quest and explored new directions. Alongside his black compositions on light backgrounds, new compositions appeared where black was combined with other colours. The palette remains deliberately limited but produces immensely subtle harmonies between contrast and transparency.
1979 marked the beginning of the “Outrenoir” series, the most famous of the Soulages’ career, and undoubtedly its culmination. The black colour henceforth completely covered the surface of the canvas. Using tools that Soulages invented himself, the pictorial material was applied in thick layers and in successive passages to create different surface states, flattened, streaked, stripy, textured, a whole vocabulary of materiality that structures a space with an undeniably sculptural dimension. On this entirely black surface, light springs forth and is proposed in all its variations to the eyes of the person who looks at it. Henceforth inseparable, black and light come together in the Soulages’ painting, which carries within it a universal mystery that never ceases to raise questions.
In 2014, Soulages’ work was celebrated by the opening of a museum in his hometown following a major donation. On the occasion of his centenary in 2019, the Louvre devoted a retrospective to him during his lifetime, a tribute and privilege that only Marc Chagall and Pablo Picasso had received before him. More than a hundred public collections around the world include Pierre Soulages’ work, amongst which the most important are the Centre Pompidou and the Musée d’Art Moderne in Paris, the Tate gallery in London, the MOMA and the Solomon R. Guggenheim in New York.