A WHITE SILHOUETTE TO LIGHT UP THE STREET
Jérôme Mesnager receives in his sky blue workshop in Montreuil. He is in the middle of composing a large-format painting, a revival of The Raft of the Medusa by Théodore Géricault, painted on light-coloured wooden boards that seem to directly evoke the legendary boat. As always, his work features his famous character of the White Body, first painted at the beginning of 1983 during a day in a disused place organized by the Zig-Zag collective. This slender White Body, “symbol of light, strength and peace” to use the words of its creator, has been running for more than 30 years on the walls of Paris. Here, we find in its slender gesture that of Géricault’s freedom-loving sailor trying one last time to call out to the open sea.
His workshop evokes the atmosphere of a slice of Parisian life cut off somewhere in the mid-80s and ending at the turn of the millennium. Renaud can be heard, as well as the first albums of La rue Kétanou a little further on. A bottle of orgeat syrup is placed on the table. The traces of several artists are present on the walls. This is where Jérôme Mesnager’s white man comes from: from the creative enthusiasm of the 80s, from the collectives of artists working together, and from a never-ending taste for freedom. It is with this spontaneity that the artist welcomes those who come to meet him today.
Training and first steps
You were a student at the Boulle school: could you tell us more about your training and how you became a painter?
The Boulle school is a school where you learn the furniture and wood trades, but also decoration, cabinet making and interior architecture. There are also very good courses in drawing, art history, modelling… This is a great way to develop artistic awareness while learning a skill. I think it’s important to have knowledge of techniques like these in order to be an artist. It allowed me not to be bored on the benches of the traditional school.
Before creating the figure of the White Body you already painted a lot, especially more abstract figures. Was it a search for reference points?
I used to paint abstract paintings, in fluo or composed of paint projections, with a focus on colour. We were in the 70s and I was inspired by artists like Robert Malaval and Yves Klein, a generation of painters in which rock and comic strip culture rubbed shoulders with a more intellectual one. When you start in Art you go towards the things you like: for me it was to go towards comics and pleasant paintings. It is in this universe that the White Body could appear.
You then realize performances in which you are disguised as a ghost, which will later lead to the birth of your character.
Around 1981, I was invited with friends to a festival in Avignon. There were a lot of artists and a large audience for whom it was necessary to make things in motion that could be seen. The action was as important as the finished painting. At the time of the Figuration Libre there was a large canvas at each opening that everyone painted together. It was a tradition that we find a little bit with street art, when several artists painted the same wall on the same day. It wasn’t a traditional exhibition, people came to watch us paint: the performances appeared in that context. I arrived disguised as a kind of ghost, a white man already, but alive. I would paint my body in white and we would perform our actions in factories and other disused places, mainly marginal and underground places. There were a lot of them then that no longer exist today, like the Michelin factory in the 17th arrondissement of Paris.
The White Body
In 1983 you painted your first character, in what context was it?
It was on the occasion of an event with the Zig-Zag collective in the savannah, which brought together dancers, musicians, sculptors… We settled on the small belt, at the level of the rue Belliard, near the Porte de Clignancourt. There was a space that was disused but visible from the street. Unlike closed places, passers-by could see us. That’s why I preferred to make my man in white paint. I had chosen this colour because the wall was very dark and the place very badly lit. I needed something bright. It’s the same as in the catacombs. As soon as the light from the lamp meets white, it makes a flash, like a fluo. White in a dark place is anything but natural. As the event was public, there were a few journalists, so the memory of the moment was preserved through the images. Afterwards we continued for two years these Zig-Zag days, before I continued to paint my White Bodies on my side. It’s important to remember the appearance of something. When I painted it, I realized that this character was a good sign to move forward because it allowed me to represent a lot of different situations.
What are your sources of inspiration? One thinks in particular of Renaissance paintings or mythology.
I very quickly thought about the interpretation of old paintings, so that I could wink at the history of Art with my recognizable character. I like Rodin and Michelangelo very much. The sculpture is an interesting model because the marble body shows another form of representation of the White Body. It shows me that I can suggest volume and it interests me to be able to work on both the second and third dimensions.
Of this white body you say that it is a symbol of light, strength and peace: if it represents freedom, this figure is also imbued with dream and poetry.
The White Body in the street is a symbol of peace; it runs, is free. It focuses on dynamism, movement, life, love, and by the same token freedom. That’s kind of the lesson Ben taught about street art: the simpler it is, the more effective it is. In large group exhibitions you have to recognize right away who painted what. That’s how I was taught the history of art: in Beaubourg you can immediately guess what was done by Miró, Rothko or Dalí. The lesson of the elders is that you have to let the public know right away what you do and who you are. Moreover, you have to be able to produce works ad infinitum, keeping this particular recognizable sign. This identification technique was a small recipe for recognition at the outset. It allowed me to start a career later on, without having to do another job that takes time and energy.
You paint on different types of supports such as wood, walls and canvas: how do you make the connection between them?
It depends on the support but also on the context. In the street you have to go fast. I can’t get into things that are too complicated, especially because it’s impossible to erase to correct a mistake. You have to be directly good, the risk of skidding is more important. On a canvas, thanks to the background colour, it’s very easy to correct yourself: you just have to take back that colour which is a wonderful eraser. There is a right to make mistakes on canvas that you don’t have in the street.
Little by little the White Body has become an icon of Urban Art, one of the few figures easily recognizable by passers-by. Do you think its minimalist aspect gives it greater visual strength?
Some artists still amplify this minimalism like M.Chat or Invader, who have figures that are immediately recognizable. But I think you have to be careful not to go too far and stay in the field of Art. Behind the painting it is life that is at stake and it is crucial for me to always be enthusiastic about painting. The day you get bored, you have to stop, it’s over. In this perspective, if I set myself the goal of painting larger formats, it’s also to give myself new challenges. You always have to seduce and re-convince your public with something new. The White Body is never always in the same place, nor exactly the same.
Painting and memory
You paint the White Body in a multitude of places around the world, including places steeped in history such as the Great Wall of China. How do you choose these places? Is it a way to inscribe your character in time?
When I paint men in front of the pyramids, I inevitably have the feeling that my painting echoes History, as in this case Napoleon’s famous phrase. This resonance also gives value to the photography that will result from it. In tourist places painting does not last, it is more ephemeral. Photography will then be the representation that will outlive painting itself, this is its greatest strength. On Internet I can put on line the pictures of the walls that are important for me. There are some that I painted on thirty years ago, but whose image still stands out thanks to photography. Sometimes the painting itself survives for a very long time: for example, we celebrated the twentieth anniversary of mural painting in rue de Ménilmontant.
It is interesting to come back to the heritage of the Corps Blanc. Historically, this shadow projected on the walls refers to a sometimes dark past. One can thus think of the bodies trapped in the ashes of Pompeii, or the shadows of Hiroshima fixed by the explosion of the bomb. Symbolically – and it takes all its meaning when you paint in French Guyana – the White Body also refers to the prison and slavery.
My approach being rather positive, I prefer to imagine it as a kind of ghost! However, in certain places the weight of memory is obviously very strong. In the bagnes of French Guyana one obviously realizes the tragedy of the history of the place. I painted a Prisoner Body, a ball and chain attached to the foot, to engrave the memory of the place, telling myself that if one day they removed the remains of the prison, all this past would disappear too. It’s true that the work I did there is marked by a certain amount of suffering. But I had gone there determined to paint in those places.
The shadows of Hiroshima have always been a reference for Gérard Zlotykamien. But Ernest Pignon-Ernest’s first works were black silhouettes, posed on the Albion plateau, which was a nuclear test site. He acted in the manner of the people of Greenpeace today, to challenge and reveal the tragedy of this silhouette, a direct echo of those of Hiroshima.
In your autobiography you highlight the Parisian art scene of the 80s and 90s. This period seems to be enlightened for you by some great figures, such as Jean-Pierre Le Boulch or Robert Malaval.
Jean-Pierre Le Boulch lived on rue Hélène, he was a neighbour. He was fascinating, one of the first real stencil artists with an incredible technicality. In my opinion, his current reincarnation is an artist-worker who pushes the idea of stencil very far. Jean-Pierre Le Boulch ran a magazine, Chorus, with people like Arman, César, Ben or Fromanger. It was the period of Figuration narrative. Robert Malaval was a very important painter who has had no equivalent since then in pure rock painting. More than references to music, his style evoked an era: the rock spirit, in painting, there hasn’t been that much of it.
Could you go back to the creation of the Ménilmontant zoo in the 90s?
I had met Nemo one or two years before and we had already painted more than a hundred walls together. The idea of the zoo was born in 1996 from our meeting with Mosko & Associates. We planned to paint a vacant lot that was separated from the street by a fence. The Mosko’s only painted animals and Nemo already had the hippopotamus and the tiger among his stencils. As we didn’t want to put a man I had to make an elephant and penguins. People liked it until one day a cinder block was raised to hide the zoo. Then all this was finally rebuilt. Once again, we still have the photographs. We can still enjoy them because those paintings were doomed to disappear anyway. But for the life of a neighborhood, these vacant lots that become squares or imaginary zoos are poetic. After the year 2000 we saw the appearance of street art, with a madness of the large format that is becoming widespread and globalized. One wonders if there will soon be room for the eyes to breathe.
You name as many events and people as you can in your autobiography as if not to forget them; these achievements in disused places also mark a certain nostalgia in relation to the memory of these places which are likely to disappear with the reconstructions.
I also did this book to remember myself. One forgets quickly. One sometimes has the impression of looking with nostalgia at the album of a disappeared Paris, as with the photographs of Robert Doisneau or Willy Ronis. This social aspect is precious. In its own way, a rotten old street is a kind of diamond.
You are part of a long line of artists who paint in the street. How have you experienced from the inside the changes brought about by the art market within Street art?
It’s the public that has evolved a lot. They first accepted, then liked street art. It also corresponds to the arrival of the Internet. People are going to go and photograph the walls, take pictures of themselves. There’s something Pokémon about this hunt for images. “I’ve seen this wall, I’ve photographed it before. “Since street art is ephemeral, whoever has the image of it got it before the painting was erased. So you can see a race for points, like Invader does with the treasure hunt of his hidden murals.
What is the question I didn’t ask you?
We haven’t talked much about school walls. I think it’s nice to paint for children. I have often had the opportunity to paint playgrounds, such as the one in a school where I was a child. The child is an audience to come, a viewer. He has a power of observation that adults often don’t have. He really looks at what I do, with an interested eye, without thinking about selfies, Facebook, or price. He’s only interested in what is represented.