rue meurt d'art
“A human is not built from the bottom up but from the inside out.”
How did you become an artist?
I wanted to go to art school, but it seemed impossible for a young man from a military family. So I had to start by studying law, before finally being able to study plastic arts at the University of Vincennes after my service. It was an experimental faculty that mixed people from different backgrounds. We could paint the whole building from floor to ceiling, inside and out! I remember in particular a large fresco created with other students, including an Argentinean, an Iranian and a Breton. After these studies, I took courses in academic drawing in the 18th arrondissement of Paris, with an extraordinary master engraver, Mr. Marrage. I took six hours of classes a week with live models. I continued this intensive rhythm for three years, leaving with a great mastery of drawing.
However, your artistic career did not start at that time.
I started by painting contemporary furniture without much success, because at the time it was mostly reserved for wedding chests! Then I started to work in trompe l’oeil and mural decoration to feed my family. In total, I painted nearly four hundred decors in bistros, restaurants, hotels, or for large companies such as Peugeot or Euromarché. In particular, I took part in the creation of a three-hundred and sixty square metre wall with a dozen other painters. However, I felt that these huge walls were too imposing in the urban universe, without people being able to choose them.
At what point does your transition to the street occur?
I was painting paintings in parallel to my work, thinking about the possibility of human-sized creations, like those of Ernest Pignon-Ernest. So I turned to characters who appealed to the collective memory, particularly film actors.
Thus, it was in 1991 that I placed my first pieces in my town of Colombes, acting anonymously to watch people’s reactions. At the time, street art was not yet very present, and the public was wondering about the identity of the author of these creations. My first street work was a jazz musician, whom I gradually accompanied every two or three months by companions. This group ended up forming an orchestra of all the great jazzmen of the 50s and, by posing the last two, I brought in a quartet who played a piece from each of them.
Technique and inscription in a place
What is your work process?
I use a photograph that I adapt and rework. My portraits are mostly realistic, monochrome or sepia. If monochrome is sometimes used to illustrate the past, this is not always the case: the blue dresses of Rita Hayworth in Gilda, or of Ava Gardner in The Assassins, above all, allow me to call out to the passer-by. This use of blue, which is recurrent in my work, comes from my admiration for the painter Jacques Monory, who painted blue monochromes throughout his career. In fact, it is to pay homage to him that I ended up creating my own shade of this colour.
Contrary to many collages found in the street, yours are particularly resistant to weather conditions for a long time. How do you manage to make the ephemeral perennial?
I think it’s a question of technique: unlike many artists who paste prints, I only display originals painted on polyester canvas, varnished with polyurethane. Thanks to this, some of my collages are still in place after twenty years, allowing the ephemeral to last. But the maintenance of the work also counts: the edges must be well glued, and come back regularly over time to avoid damage. Watching your works age is an amazing process: so, after a while, I take them off to hang them on a white panel and transform them into paintings. The buyer therefore has a painting from a studio that has lived on the street. My portrait of Toussaint Louverture thus began to live in Colombes, before travelling to the 20th arrondissement.
What are the differences between your street work and your workshop work? Série noire allows you for example to work on the material.
For me these works are complementary. My street work is targeted, whereas in the studio my research paths are often more traditional. The origin of Série noire is an exhibition of Soulages that we attended with my wife. It’s an interesting work, which is not completely abstract because I always leave a small character that keeps the presence of the human, sometimes mixing blue and black.
You’re also working on a series of female portraits.
It’s a series of large portraits of women, sometimes inspired by famous paintings like Courbet’s, which represent emotions. I choose for models women who are outstanding in everyday life. For example, I asked a singer of Spanish origin with phenomenal energy to embody Courbet’s Folly. With these 1.6 metre high canvases, the aim is to create a strong visual impact on the viewer.
CHARACTERS COMMITTED TO A COMMON MEMORY
How do you choose your characters?
The choice of character is personal, whether it’s someone I admire or someone whose story resonates with our times. For example, Perec is a writer who is precious to me and Rimbaud is in my opinion one of the greatest French poets. The appeal to this collective memory, through well-known characters, makes it possible to reach the public. It is also a way to put a face to these names, because not everyone knows Perec: in this case, the collage will allow him to really “take flesh”. When the name is not indicated, it is the sentence that, most of the time, will guide people to its author.
Your collages often refer to the fight against inequality: Toussaint Louverture and slavery, the Elles series and gender inequality, migrants and exclusion.
Politics, be it anti-racism or questions of tolerance, is at the heart of my work. What is happening to migrants today is a humanitarian scandal. How can one of the world’s leading powers remain incapable of welcoming people who are in extreme poverty? My action, on a very small level, helps to keep all this in mind.
Your work also has a historical and political dimension, such as the work around the Paris Commune.
I am passionate about politics and, as an artist-citizen, I consider that my artistic action also has political aims. By taking part in the life of the city, I express a judgement about what surrounds me. I believe that an artist has the right to be involved, that this can be felt and seen. I consider that the Paris Commune is a historical moment of extreme importance for France and the world, although it does not have its rightful place in the books and in the depths of History. This first popular revolution shows that, when they have a voice and participate in the exercise of power, the people have a lot of imagination: the free crèches and canteens, for example, date from this period.
On another level, I like to work on the little-known history of cities. For example, I discovered that there had been a black mayor in Paris (Severiano de Heredia, President of the Paris City Council from 1 August 1879 to 12 February 1880), but nobody knows! I intend to do something about this ignored figure.
Are you looking for a link between the character and the place of the collage?
As far as possible, I look for a match, which can either come from the figure depicted, like this mayor I’m thinking of, or from the place, like Brassaï Square, where I want to organise something. The street itself can be a source of inspiration, but it can also come from meeting artists that we imagine to be part of the show. Everyone brings their own ideas, like a tribe that’s always open and people come together.
While your characters often make a statement, the vagabond asks himself: “A lost yesterday, a tomorrow with no future… So how to be?”.
This vagabond is Bernard Pouchèle, a writer from the Lille region whose texts were imbued with mysticism. During my first collage in the city, I was looking for a character likely to resonate with the migrant. He is an interesting being by his assumed choice of wandering. I found it very difficult to find a phrase to associate with him and that’s why we find this question, which for the moment was also mine in relation to this man.
Since you paste originals in the street, how often are you able to produce a new work?
I first choose the wall by walking a lot in Paris with my wife. I like the squares, because they are quiet places where people rest. Once I find the wall, I look at which character or story fits best. Then follows a process of maturation during which I look for photographs and attitudes to work from. I then create my character, before looking for the phylactery that will accompany it. I glue about two figures a year, in Colombes but also in Paris, especially in the 18th arrondissement where I had my studio.
first world war
The First World War is an important topic in your work.
I have taken a special interest in that war because I happen to have a grandfather who died in it. It made a deep impression on me: my grandmother, a war widow, had a portrait of this man, whom no one talked about and whom I didn’t know. The memory was so painful that he was you. This portrait is inscribed at the foot of Henri-Karcher Square. Its installation was very symbolic, because among the great-grandchildren of this man, there are now Franco-Germans.
The collage of the other soldier shows the extreme violence of the precise moment of death. Like Capa’s photo, this broke man is still alive and already gone. My third installation was at the East Station, the place from which many soldiers left. It consisted of testimonies of people who took part in the war, brought by their current descendants. I collected twelve of them and made a portrait of these men and women, together with their letters. Their descendants read these texts at the time of the skirmish.
It is a more intimate work on the anonymous and forgotten of the Great War.
This war of 14/18 was first made by anonymous people, people whose only name is on a monument. I think it is necessary to pay tribute to these forgotten people, who suffered and died in the war. This approach has enabled me to see the closeness that exists between these men and us: in the end, one hundred years represents only two or three generations! Some of the readers of the Gare de l’Est had known the people mentioned. Other accounts illustrate the absurdity of the war in the current context: one of these accounts came from an Alsatian, enlisted in the German army, who died officially for his country both in Germany and in France.
Sharing with the public
Sharing with the public during the hanging is at the heart of your artistic approach.
Indeed, what interests me is not only the collage, but also the event it can generate. So I started to glue in public, unlike many street art artists who act in secret, using musicians, actors or circus artists as well as myself. The hanging became a moment of sharing and encounters. It is amusing to note that during such an action, passers-by stop and ask themselves questions. It is also a way to show what an artist is, without any particular aura or reserved scene. Artist and audience are thus on the same level, without separation.
How do you work with other artists to organize these events?
I like to work with other artists to mix forms of expression. For example, I did a small show with a singer and a director who wanted to popularize opera. In particular, we toured in very popular neighbourhoods, in front of a very heterogeneous audience who were not used to this type of music and yet they listened and adhered! I also set up the Trans’Arts Nicolet with a pianist in the 18th arrondissement. During a weekend in May we bring in artists who express themselves in the street, in partnership with the town hall. The Nicolet street is symbolic because it is the meeting place between Rimbaud and Verlaine. On a building with blind windows, I pasted a portrait of each of them and for the third edition I will add a portrait of Verlaine’s wife.
What relationship with the public is formed on these occasions?
These events show people that Art can go off the beaten track. Parisians are thought to be jaded because culture is readily available. However, events such as the Trans’Arts Nicolet prove that when an event is organised at the foot of their building, they are happy and curious. While hanging Verlaine, a window opened and a young man appeared offering to read a poem he declaimed in front of about fifty people. These are those magical moments of sharing. Although the owners are never asked for permission, most of the time they are very happy, because the work integrates their universe. The inhabitants are very surprised to see that passers-by come to photograph their building, and it becomes a kind of pride to live there.
Finally, transmission is also important in your work as a painter.
I gave classes for five or six years in a social and cultural centre, in so-called “sensitive” neighbourhoods, with about twenty students. I believe that when you have know-how, it’s important to be able to pass it on to people who don’t necessarily have access to it. It’s a form of commitment. The course was made up of young people, but also of many retired people of very modest origins, some of whom had never touched a pencil or a brush. There is a real discovery of pleasure for these people who sometimes didn’t allow themselves to think they could draw, because everyone can create.