Peinture 195 x 130 cm, 28 juillet 1953
Hung in the same collection for over sixty years, Peinture 195 x 130 cm, 28 juillet 1953 is a seminal work by France’s greatest living artist, Pierre Soulages. Soulages created this dynamic painting at an essential moment of his career as he was entering his stylistic maturity. In the present grand-scaled work, Soulages introduced a sense of vigorous movement that is anchored by a powerfully structured composition and permeated by a compelling sense of inner light. Employing gestural brushstrokes in subtly layered hues of black, white, gray, and brown, he defined diagonal planes that are oriented upward and to the right with subtly interrelated curves that establish counterpoints of visual rhythm and rhyme. A resolutely non-representational abstraction, the dramatic luminosity of the canvas enlivens the painting and underscores the artist’s lifelong exploration of darkness and radiance.
In April 1953, Soulages addressed the Conférence au Collège philosophique in Paris, conveying the complexity of his thoughts regarding his process and conception of space: “I can only learn what I am looking for by painting. Space, of course, is bound up with this experience, but in a way that, because it does not comply with a pre-established theory such as perspective, it is impossible for me to foresee, since it is so connected with the poetry that I want to see appear on my canvas, and that is the result of all the other elements in the painting.” The present painting notably exemplifies both the artist’s experimental approach to defining pictorial space and the poetic sensibility that he brought to his art.
The year 1953 was pivotal for Soulages, a key moment that brought him into maturity as an artist and offered his work considerable international recognition. Over the course of the year, Soulages painted eleven vertical canvases in a grand scale of 195 by 130 cm. Of these eleven, only nine are extant. (Two of the eleven paintings have been lost—the artist chose to destroy Peinture 195 x 130 cm, 21 août 1953 in 1957, while Peinture 195 x 130 cm, 25 juillet 7 août 1953 was burnt in a tragic fire at the Museu de Arte Moderna do Rio de Janeiro in 1978.) Approximating a human scale, these two-meter-high paintings can be counted as the most ambitious in this era of Soulages’s work. Of these, six that he created over a productive four-month period between mid-April and early August 1953 are defined by bold vertical black brushstrokes intersected by either diagonal or curvilinear strokes and a complex sense of spatial layering. Soulages used the same palette for these six works, adding brown, ochre, and white (and in one case red) to accentuate and define the effects of black pigment that has remained the defining element of his oeuvre, continued through the present day with his Outrenoir paintings. With their use of brown and complex layering, these paintings revisit the Brou de noix works that Soulages had created with walnut stain in the late 1940s.
As Pierre Encrevé, a longtime confidant to Soulages and editor of his catalogue raisonné, has noted, these eleven large vertical paintings from 1953 were pivotal to the artist’s development and international recognition at the time. He painted them despite reservations from his Parisian dealer Louis Carré, who had urged him to produce canvases of medium scale for commercial considerations. Fueled by his desire to create large-scale paintings that offer a great visual impact, these works would lead to Soulages’s break with Carré, and were pivotal to launching his international success, as they were quickly acquired by prominent institutional collections worldwide. Of these six grand canvases, Peinture 195 x 130 cm, 28 juillet 1953 remains the only painting in private hands. The remaining paintings are held by leading museums, including Museum Ludwig, Cologne (Peinture 195 x 130 cm, 14 avril 1953); Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York (Peinture 195 x 130 cm, mai 1953); Tate, London (Peinture 195 x 130 cm, 23 mai 1953); Centre Pompidou, Paris (Peinture 195 x 130 cm, 2 juin 1953); and the Museu de Arte moderna do Rio de Janiero (Peinture 195 x 130 cm, 25 juillet–7 août 1953, lost to fire in 1978, as mentioned above).
Chronologically the first of this group, the Museum Ludwig’s Peinture 195 x 130 cm, 14 avril 1953 is the only one that includes a saturated red, which the artist embedded in a dense thicket of black brushstrokes accentuated by a perimeter of white that acts as the painting’s ground. The next three canvases, which Soulages painted from May through June, share an architectonic structure of black brushstrokes in vertical, horizontal, and diagonal configurations placed over defined passages of white, brown, and ochre. Comparing these works, one can observe how the artist developed his approach to these grand paintings. In the Guggenheim’s Peinture 195 x 130 cm, mai 1953, the Tate’s Peinture 195 x 130 cm, 23 mai 1953, and the Centre Pompidou’s Peinture 195 x 130 cm, 2 juin 1953, Soulages used a related compositional schema of black lines, allowing him to experiment with differences in value and hue and the resulting sense of inner light that is key to these paintings. Together, these canvases engage with the limited palette and spatial effects of Picasso and Braque’s Analytic Cubism, adapting the lessons of early twentieth-century modernism through the nonrepresentational gestural approach to which Soulages was committed.
Comparison between Peinture 195 x 130 cm, 28 juillet 1953 and the other paintings in this group is illuminating. When creating the present work, Soulages opened up the composition and dispensed with the network of vertical and horizontal brushstrokes, substituting curved lines for the straight strokes of the earlier paintings. These innovations resulted in a composition that is uniquely dynamic; its varied brushstrokes hold the surface of the canvas while the layered planes of its composition simultaneously suggest a sense of depth and imbue it with a radiant inner light. As Encrevé has noted about each of these paintings, “in the large format, the dispersion of light contributes to its monumentality and interiority.” Indeed, the sense of monumentality and interiority in Peinture 195 x 130 cm, 28 juillet 1953 makes it a standout work within Soulages‘s oeuvre. The visual drama of light and darkness may be understood in terms of chiaroscuro—the classical term for “light-dark.” The way in which Soulages evokes a sense of inner light with both drama and economy of means brings to mind the example of Rembrandt in particular, though Soulages’s painting remains strictly non-representational.
Painted by Soulages with a bold new confidence, these grand paintings from 1953 draw from his artistic development over the prior six years. From 1947, Soulages began creating works on paper with a walnut stain, attracted by the medium’s materiality, depth of hue, and possibilities for layered effects of transparency and opacity. He also began to employ unconventional tools, including scrapers, sponges, and house-painting brushes, and a piece of rubber he placed on a strip of wood that he called a lame, or blade. In this group of large-scale paintings from 1953, Soulages drew upon these earlier works on paper from the late 1940s, pulling from their gestural approach as well as their transparency and layered space. Of particular importance as a precedent was Peinture 193,4 x 129,1 cm (1948–49), a work in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York. With this earlier painting, Soulages expanded his work to the same grand scale to which he would return in 1953. Critically, in Peinture 195 x 130 cm, 28 juillet 1953 Soulages revisited his use of curving lines found in MoMA’s painting, giving both paintings open and dynamic compositions.
The period from 1948 through 1953 was also essential to Soulages’s critical and institutional recognition. In 1948, he was the youngest artist to be included in Grosse Ausstellung französischer abstrakter Malerei, a major traveling exhibition of French abstract painting that toured seven cities in Germany; one of Soulages’s walnut-stained canvases illustrated the exhibition poster. The same year, James Johnson Sweeney, then a former curator from the Museum of Modern Art, visited Soulages’s studio in 1948, and would soon thereafter introduce the artist to museum director Alfred H. Barr and other key members of the American art world. Sweeney would go on to become a champion of Soulages’s work.
The year 1953 saw increased international success for Soulages, with profound effects on his career, particularly in the Americas. He participated in the second Bienal de São Paulo in December, joining what is widely remembered as the most important edition of the event. Also opening in December 1953 was Younger European Painters at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, an exhibition curated by Sweeney—then the newly appointed director of the Guggenheim. Writing that the European artists included “were asserting themselves in a way they had not for the past thirty years,” Sweeney exhibited Soulages’s Peinture 195 x 130 cm, mai 1953 alongside works by artists such as Alberto Burri, Hans Hartung, Georges Mathieu, and Jean-Paul Riopelle, and would acquire the painting for the museum.
From his first exhibitions in New York, Soulages’s work was positioned as a counterpart to American Abstract Expressionism, as seen in Painted in 1949: European and American Painters (1949) at Betty Parsons Gallery and Young Painters in US and France (1950), a group exhibition at Sidney Janis Gallery organized by Leo Castelli. In Young Painters in US and France, Soulages was paired directly with Franz Kline. The comparisons between Kline and Soulages have remained persistent, given that both artists worked in gestural modes in a predominantly black palette. Although both Kline and Soulages employed calligraphic gestures to create an architectonic infrastructure in their paintings, their emphases differ. Rather than privilege the gesture of the loaded brush for its own sake, Soulages regarded gestural brushwork as one component among other means to create a unified composition. As Soulages would later state: “The gesture doesn’t matter much to me. What does interest me is what this gesture produces on the canvas: that painted trace on the canvas, which has its own, unique physiognomic properties because no one touch is like any other. This touch, this trace, have real specific qualities, a certain outline, a length, a thickness, a materiality. . . . When you see a big brushstroke running across three meters of canvas, you can feel the action in which it originated. But that gesture is embodied in the canvas and what interests me is not the action but its pictorial embodiment.” This understanding of artmaking differs from the ethos of the New York School and differentiates Soulages’s work from that of Kline and his American compatriots.
The extraordinary sense of inner light, planar organization, and differentiation of space through subtle use of color and tone in Peinture 195 x 130 cm, 28 juillet 1953 also calls to mind the work of another master of the New York School: Mark Rothko, who was Soulages’s friend and colleague. Like Rothko, Soulages avoided descriptive titles for his works, believing that these would detract from the purely visual experience involved in perceiving his paintings. In addition, Soulages’s creation of large paintings that use the impact of scale to envelop the viewer offers another similarity to the work of Rothko, who claimed that “To paint a small picture is to place yourself outside your experience, to look upon an experience as a stereopticon view or with a reducing glass. However, if you paint larger picture, you are in it. It isn’t something you command.”
Peinture 195 x 130 cm, 28 juillet 1953 played an important role in defining European contributions to contemporary painting in the United States, particularly in the Boston area, due to its first owner: Lester H. Dana. Dana was an avid collector of international vanguard art, and a trustee of Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art. The Institute’s director Sue M. Thurman described him as “an artists’ art collector” who sought out the artists he collected and got to know them and their work well. Along with Soulages, Dana acquired important works by Francis Bacon, Alberto Burri, Sam Francis, Adolph Gottlieb, Georges Mathieu, Matta, and Zao Wou-Ki, among others.
Following Dana’s acquisition, Peinture 195 x 130 cm, 28 juillet 1953 was included in three important exhibitions presented by the region’s most progressive arts institutions in the early 1960s. In 1961, it was exhibited in A Century of Modern European Painting, the inaugural exhibition for the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts—an institution that would quickly establish itself as an influential voice that promoted contemporary art in the United States.
In 1962, Peinture 195 x 130 cm, 28 juillet 1953 was featured in a Soulages exhibition at the Massachusetts Institute of Art, the first dedicated survey of the artist’s work in the United States. As the earliest work included in the MIT exhibition, the present painting defined a starting point for Soulages’s oeuvre within the solo presentation. Introducing the artist by stating: “His work has been exhibited widely and has been considered a significant part of contemporary art—included in most museum collections and private collections,” the exhibition text further noted that “Critics have described Soulages’s latest work in terms of bold, dogmatic strokes or ‘planks’ of paint that structure the canvas space.”
Later in 1962, Peinture 195 x 130 cm, 28 juillet 1953 was exhibited at Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art in a memorial exhibition of the Dana Collection after the collector unexpectedly passed away. Together with another painting by Soulages from 1955, the present work was shown with a selection of contemporary American and European art that marked Dana’s well-informed and adventurous taste. This exhibition—held 58 years ago—marked the last time the present work was publicly on view until the current presentation.
In addition to his relationship with postwar American art, Asian art had a profound influence on Soulages. The painter had great respect for the painting and calligraphic traditions of East Asia. Early on in his career, he made the connection between his work and the ideographic forms of Chinese calligraphy, noting: “I made line combinations which struck the eye of the beholder as a large form, a large sign which you could take in at a glance and one fine day I realized that the drawings I was doing were reminiscent of Chinese characters.”
The connection between Soulages and his Asian contemporaries has proved to be a mutually rewarding one. This manifested itself most profoundly in his relationships with two Chinese artists who made their careers primarily in France: Chu Teh-Chun and Zao Wou-Ki. Soulages was especially close to Zao, with a strong sense of comradery and respect for one another that was maintained throughout their lives. Zao moved from China to Montparnasse in Paris in 1948, and soon befriended Soulages. The two would spend time with one another in the United States, meeting in New York in 1957 and journeying across the States and Hawaii over the course of 1957, before traveling to Japan. Soulages would introduce Zao to his gallerist Samuel Kootz, leading to Kootz’s representation of the Chinese-French painter in the United States, with six exhibitions held from 1959 through 1965.
In 1992, Pierre Soulages would be awarded the Praemium Imperiale for painting by the Japan Art Association. Two years later, Zao Wou-Ki would receive this prestigious honor. Soulages’s achievement has been recognized in Asia, notably with a 1984 retrospective at Seibu Museum of Art, Tokyo, and a 1993 retrospective that traveled to the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Seoul; Fine Arts Museum, Beijing; and Taipei Fine Arts Museum.
Lévy Gorvy is honored to bring this rare painting to Hong Kong. A vital and important work in comprehending Soulages’s career, Peinture 195 x 130 cm, 28 juillet 1953 also provides important context for the gallery’s exhibition of Outrenoir paintings. As an artist who is still actively painting at age 100, Soulages—a figure that philosopher Alain Badiou has described as “a perennial contemporary”—has offered an extraordinary continuity within his work.