With an exhibition showing at the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi from 28 January to 29 March 2020, the French artist Gérard Garouste, born in 1946, reflects on his entire career, and his interest in the great myths of humanity and literature, which he explores through figurative painting rich in symbols.
How did you prepare for this career-long retrospective?
My activity centres around working in my workshop. I am faced with my paintings, and especially with the subjects of my paintings. So what matters to me is my subjects! Any activity outside my workshop is the responsibility of dealers, curators etc. When my gallery owner Daniel Templon told me that he was organising the New Delhi exhibition, I was happy, yes, but I did not get involved with it. He chose the works for this retrospective, while thinking of the Pompidou Centre exhibition scheduled for autumn 2022, which is now in preparation.
Do you have any special ties with India?
I don't travel much but I have often been to India, and I also worked there with my association, La Source, in Madras, where we collaborated with an Indian orphanage. I love everything that makes India: culture, mythology, religions, aesthetics, regions...and there is one theme that always comes up in my painting, which is “The Classical and the Indian”. The Indian in my painting is like the Indian of Christopher Columbus, who believed when he went to America that he had in fact landed in India: these fancied Indians are my personal mythology, and it’s fun to cross-check that mythology with the real Indians. I got a lot of material from the accounts of the first explorers who set out to discover America, who described – supposedly scientifically – Indians with their heads in the middle of their bellies, or who recoiled because their feet were the other way round...it amuses me a lot.
How was the exhibition received by the Indian public?
The Indian public received the exhibition very well because my painting is very figurative, very narrative. It feeds on myths and novels such as Kafka’s The Castle, Goethe’s Faust, the Bible, Greek mythology etc. This atmosphere of legends and tales speaks to both adults and children. While Indians have been doing many abstract and minimalist things since ancient times, they also have a figurative culture: just look at their illuminations!
How do you look back on your career?
Looking at a retrospective like this, I see that my inspirations (Faust, the Classical and the Indian, William Blake, Don Quixote, the Biblical texts) give the impression of a single and same story, a single and same legend, and that I go round and round this story repeating certain details. I am thinking of American artists and their centrifugal dynamics...they are invading the world! I am the opposite: I have a centripetal attitude, a spiral that tends towards a centre, and this centre is deep within ourselves. It comes from the subconscious. Legends of any kind interest me as an appeal from the unconscious. What's good about painting is that it's a bit like the artist's subconscious addressing the audience’s subconscious: there's a kind of subconscious transfer without words that neither me nor the audience can define. One can only imagine its importance.
What works from your career stand out for you?
For me, there is no one picture that is more important than another. It's like asking me to choose which word I prefer from a sentence! I was delighted to see this retrospective, this combination of paintings that works like a tale…as if each painting were a word. The story it tells is mine. Everyone, as the semiologist Roland Barthes said, owns what they see: what I see is no doubt different from what the Indian public sees. You might not like my painting, but I don't think you will be bored by it.
Which painters were important to you at the beginning of your career and today?
I learned nothing at the School of Fine Arts because the masters did not know how to paint! I learned to paint at the Louvre museum, looking very closely at paintings such as Saint Louis, King of France, and a Page by El Greco. For me, the whole pictorial technique can be summed up in a single painting: The Abduction of the Body of Saint Mark by Tintoretto. That's my training! My tastes range from Francisco de Goya to Diego Velasquez to the Dutch, especially Frans Hals. In modern times, I really like the spirit of Georgio de Chirico, which is even more subtle than that of Marcel Duchamp in my opinion.
You often call literature into your work. How do you associate it with your work as a painter?
What counts is to immerse yourself as much as possible in texts, to be inhabited, as I am at the moment by Kafka and Cervantes...to know everything that can surround and represent the writer's character, to understand the work and also the other dimension, that which goes beyond reading.
You founded the charity La Source in 1991 which is aimed at children, particularly children in difficulty: almost 30 years after its creation, how do you view this experience?
In my professional life, two things count: being between the four walls of my workshop, facing the subject – for me, painting is a medium, a tool; art for art does not interest me, but art for something, that is what interests me! – and my association, La Source. This is very important to me, even more important than exhibitions. The future of paintings does not depend on me, but on collectors, museum curators…in short, I have nothing to do with it. La Source is the second fruit of my work as a painter. This association, a real collective enterprise – we have 10 places in France – is tasked with bringing art to children from disadvantaged backgrounds. The idea is not to make them artists, but that they flourish with art. It is a superb adventure, and one that is beyond me, because it is nurtured by all the artists and educators who work at La Source.
In the context of the Covid-19 Coronavirus pandemic, the Institut français wishes to continue offering you portraits, meetings with creators from all walks of life, works and portfolios. We hope these few pages will bring some breathing space back into an everyday shaped by lockdown.
The New Delhi exhibition from January to March 2020 was supported by the Institut français.
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