The city is our common apartment
“The painted walls are paintings in the background of this communal apartment, made for everyone, for anyone.”
An image maker
You refuse to call yourself an artist, to call yourself an image maker. What differences do you make between the two?
I hate the word artist, which I think is pretentious. I always tell this anecdote, typical of what Art was in the past and what it has become: Donatello, an Italian sculptor, is in Padua, when he receives a new commission from members of the Church. He apologizes and says he can’t because he has to honour a commitment in Rome. He then proposes his pupil to them, telling them that he is as good as he is, but that he is a little more expensive because he is slower. For me Art was made in spite of everything like a gift, the artist was paid because he had to eat. Today, the Art market has taken a bad turn, causing inflation on the name: I don’t know what Basquiat is worth, but I don’t think it makes sense to see his works, like those of Cy Twombly or others, selling for several million euros. That’s why I want to be an image maker and not an artist: I don’t want to be part of this speculation in any way.
I paint both painted walls and paintings for private individuals. There is a fundamental difference between the two, because the painting is addressed to a spectator, to someone who wants to see it, whereas the painted wall is addressed to the passer-by. It’s not made for people to go and see it, on the contrary, it’s the painting that pulls the passer-by’s ear and says: look at me, I’m here.
What place does composition have for you in a picture? I think back to your sentence: “Composition is essential, but not because it creates a plastic harmony. It is essential in an emotional sense. »
Composition also has a literary place. I always take as an example the fact of painting a portrait: if the head is in the middle of the painting it has a certain meaning, but if you take the same head and place it in a corner the whole atmosphere is transformed, because it is now part of a decor, without dominating the whole. Thus, the composition makes the history of the painting. It’s not a question of geometry, it’s hogwash, because there’s nothing formal about it: it’s purely literary and intellectual.
Could you come back to the making of the Piéton des Halles in 1979?
When the Forum was built, there was a big blind wall, hidden today by buildings, to be painted, knowing that it wouldn’t last. So I had to find something very cheap and that’s how I had thought of the famous Piéton des Halles, a man with his shadow walking in the middle of the wall. A real Parisian pedestrian.
What does it change to represent a human-sized character in the nature of the interaction?
I can’t answer that question. When you do a portrait, the head will be much larger than the original character’s head. For the Piéton des Halles, the question of scale was important. I had painted at home and glued it on the spot, and I had to move a hundred meters away to realize what the effect was. I realized that at the normal scale – 1.80 metres – the pedestrian looked much smaller and disappeared. That’s why this character, who looks quite usual, is actually a giant of 2.80 metres.
Some of your paintings bring together family members and artists: why mix the two?
To bring them together, so that they know each other. So that my daughter-in-law can get to know Dostoyevsky. In a painting in Vitry I had mixed people from my family with Russian writers. It was not without reason, because the avenue was called Yuri Gagarin. Russia is a homeland of the heart, because when I landed in New York there was a large Russian diaspora from France, from where they had been expelled, with Stravinsky, Nabokov, Pitoëff. I even ended up getting by in Russian.
In that respect, Etienne Marcel’s wall is a bit autobiographical. At the bottom of the stairs there are musicians, but my father is a composer and I was immersed in this universe as a child. The traveller goes up the stairs with his suitcase, towards a little girl who holds out her arms to him, the next generation.
Is this also a way of wrenching them away from the passing of time?
It’s probably the fundamental research of all artists, to leave a testament, a trace of the past as deep as possible. Without that one returns to the animal, anhistoric state. But we have conquered – or lost – something about animality, which differentiates the animal from the human species. Speech first, history above all. That’s the main reason why we make stories. So they don’t die, basically. To leave a trace behind.
On the trompe l'oeil
What are the differences between the decor and the decoration?
We prefer the word décor, because the word decoration is very much linked to a form of architecture. Decoration is very important and embellishes architecture, for example through caryatids, but is aimed at specific places, buildings or churches. Conversely, what we do as urban artists is not to decorate, but to discuss. Rather, it’s about decoration in the sense of a natural setting, the setting of the city.
It’s also very easy to misunderstand this word “trompe l’oeil”. It means exactly what it says: trompe l’oeil. When you get close to it, you can see that it’s not true, but from a distance you’ve really been fooled. So when I represent the portraits of Rimbaud or Victor Hugo at Chanteloup, they are not trompe l’oeil at all, but tributes to these artists.
You say the painted wall is not meant to embellish but to provoke a speech.
To enrich the urban fabric through a dialogue, a discussion, so that the city does not get lost. Some cities in the United States are in the process of being lost, because all that remains is a business centre and a large residential suburb. So there is no city life at all: you go to work and drive home because the two places are too far apart. This dissolution of the city is, in my opinion, a disaster.
The relationship of a painted wall with its environment is important because people in the neighbourhood will live with it every day.
Eventually the inhabitants will become relatives of this painted wall. It becomes like an acquaintance. At the Defense Department we realized this danger, so we intermingled residential buildings with office towers, which works quite well. During the daytime, we see people walking around, going to restaurants… I am against the separation of cars and pedestrians, which again tends to turn the city into a bedroom, instead of being a place where there are also deliveries. Bicycles – possibly motorcycles – must also be allowed to circulate. Let the urban fabric be full – even of inconveniences!
Could you come back to the difference between mosaics and ceramics and its use at La Grande Borne and Vigny?
Ceramic is a form of paint that is baked in an oven and is therefore fixed by heat. The mosaic is made of small tesserae that are assembled to form an image. I made mosaics in public spaces at La Grande Borne and Vigny. The cladding of these houses was made of coloured glass paste because the public offices of HLM did not want to deal with restoration every ten years. I then proceeded by prefabrication: we put the glass paste in a mould and then poured the concrete over it. I drew pictures with it so as not to leave it monochrome. These creations contributed to the first steps in the reuse of mosaics in public space, and street art.
about urban art
How do you look at street art?
I’m very much in favour of it, and I’m even surprised that artists, who are gaining notoriety, are not able to make a living from it. There was a very questionable initial period, with incomprehensible writings and critical messages. It wasn’t very good, because it gave the impression of communitarianism, of a secret community. You can write things if they make sense, but you can’t use the letters to communicate to a cenacle of insiders.
What do you think of the ephemeral aspect of creations in urban space?
This ephemeral aspect is present but not sought after. I deeply hope that my creations last indefinitely. The mosaic contains elements that, if the glue is not bad, can last for thousands of years. Like any façade restoration, a painted wall can be redone every fifteen years. There is a model, it is not like a painting, it does not need the hand of the painter. The main activity for the realization of a wall is the drawing, which requires more time and reflection, it is not the color. Paintings have a material that allows the colour to really be part of the skin, but for the painted wall there is no skin, only the design. The sense of touch does not intervene, there is only the sense of sight. When these walls give the impression of disappearing, it is the colour that goes away, but the drawing remains. The renovation is therefore much easier than the first draft, and when Etienne Marcel’s wall was retouched all the elements were still present. Thus, a painted wall is ephemeral in the same way as any building facade, but potentially imperishable.
Many street artists today consider that putting works in the street can brighten it up.
To enliven, the word is not very good. It’s mainly to arouse interest and provoke discussion. Many young people walk around with a tablet in their hand and no longer have any connection with the urban landscape. It’s a new and dangerous thing, which ends up locking us into a virtual life instead of a material one. In this respect, the city should be seen as one big apartment. The painted walls are paintings in the background of this common apartment, made for everyone, for anyone.
They are considering putting the museum on the street.
Maybe they think that, but it’s completely different: the museum is made for people who go to see, with spectators who go specifically to it. Street art is made for the passer-by who doesn’t go there at all for that, but to go and buy bread, and who is pulled by the ear as he comes across a work.
Why is this traveler theme so important to you?
I was born in Rome, Italy, in 1925. My father, after having produced me because that’s what men do, left his wife to come to Paris, where he was immediately adopted by Diaghilev and the Russian ballets, Poulenc and the French musicians. Mum, who was trying to get her husband back, frequently came to Paris with this child. Thus, I learned to speak two languages, and I don’t know which one is my mother tongue: it is both Italian and French. I used to take the train continuously from Rome to Paris, before I experienced a longer Roman period until 1938 and the total fall of Italy into the Nazi camp with anti-Semitic laws. Rieti is probably a name of Jewish origin, and we had to leave Italy. So we stayed in France until 1940 and the arrival of the Germans, before leaving by boat to New York, where we stayed all the time of the war. There I learned English, joined the army, married an American, had a child. After the war I came back to France, passing through Italy again. I’ve been here for over fifty years now.
The boat and the suitcase are two recurring motifs in your work.
In Marseille, there were large sailing ships entering the old port. These things only exist in books now. They are recurring objects from that part of my life that ended around 1957 with my definitive establishment in Paris. I remarried, had a daughter, even my American son came to settle here. Nevertheless, I lived in the United States until I was thirty-two years old and this had a strong influence on me. You can’t live in a country for fifteen years without being profoundly changed. The language has also made its mark and I now speak English as well as French. Sometimes I even find myself thinking in English, which has become my third language.
You write the following sentence about vagrancy: “A vagrant is a vagrant even when he has managed to find a place to live. Vagrancy is a vice and a passion from which one is never free. »
The trip can be imposed, it can be done in spite of oneself. On the contrary, wandering is a love of travel, one undertakes it because one loves to travel. It’s not that I want to go somewhere, it’s the very fact that the landscape changes that attracts me. That’s why the plane is a bad means of transport: it puts me right away where I want to go, but by ignoring the journey, making it disappear. For me, travel was the train window, from which you could watch the cows and windmills go by. It can sometimes be unpleasant: to go to Italy we would stop in the night at the customs in Modane, without understanding why, hearing voices. But it was all part of a real journey.
What place does literature occupy in your work?
There is no such distance between painting and literature. There’s a lot of things written in the city, like street names. I’ve campaigned a lot for these plaques, especially when it comes to writers, to carry something written or said by the person, and eventually his portrait. It’s not an embellishment: you could explain in a few words who Raspail was and what he did. Nobody knows that he was a doctor and a member of the Convention. We are then faced with a two kilometre long boulevard with an unknown name. Etienne Marcel, the murdered merchant provost, has a subway station and a street in his name. I would not bet on how many people among the two million Parisians know it.
Can music be related to painting?
It is not part of the urban scenery, at least classical music, which seems less related to mass phenomena than popular music, which is more related to dance and song. Mondrian, Kandinsky or Klein tried to make musical painting, without realizing one fundamental thing, which is that music enters the memory and can be sung again: you don’t sing a painting again.
You also say: “What is serious is not really serious and what is serious is never serious”.
People may discuss stock quotes very seriously, but it is not a serious subject, while children playing together and laughing may not seem serious when it is the formation of their lives. These two terms are very often mixed up, but one has to be very careful with the vocabulary. I always advocate thinking out loud – even if it means being the fool that you are anyway – because in doing so you have to find the right words. If we think without speaking, if we are content to know what we want to say, we are making a mistake with regard to those who need to hear us. This is fundamental, on the one hand so that we are not misunderstood; worse, so that we do not misunderstand ourselves. Naming something well makes it possible to think about it, to go through it, and therefore to live it well.
Is this impoverishment of language an impoverishment of thought?
I wouldn’t say that. I don’t know if computers are a destroyer of language – or of thought, which would be worse. It’s too early to answer that question. What is certain is that we have access to more information. Is information a culture or not? Because it is culture at its core when we talk to each other, when we understand each other, when we make friendships, when we love each other.