“I like the authority of black, its seriousness, its obviousness, its radicalism (…) Black has unsuspected possibilities”, said the artist, one of the few to have had the honors of the Louvre during his lifetime.
“It’s a very active color. You put black next to a dark color and it lights up,” he said in an interview with AFP in February 2019.
Tall, always dressed in black, Soulages never cut the link with his native land, Aveyron, while painting elsewhere. He was a man of loyalties, to himself, to the landscapes of his childhood, to the large plateaus, to his artistic quest for light.
For more than 75 years, he has tirelessly traced his path, attracting recognition from cultural institutions and the art market, which has made him one of the most highly rated active French artists.
One of his paintings from 1961, corresponding to his red period, sold for $20.2 million in New York in November 2021, far exceeding a previous record.
– Museum in Rodez –
In May 2014 – he was then 94 years old – he had the rare privilege of attending the inauguration in Rodez, his hometown, of a museum entirely dedicated to his work.
Soulages was born on December 24, 1919 in a modest house from the beginning of the 19th century. His father, a coachbuilder, died when he was only five years old. He was raised by his mother who ran a fishing and hunting tackle store.
Very early, Soulages disdained “pretty watercolor colors” and painted in ink trees in winter, bare branches, snow effects.
During a school visit to the nearby Sainte-Foy de Conques abbey, the teenager had a revelation in front of the beauty of this Romanesque church: he would be a painter.
Pierre Soulages was admitted to the Beaux-Arts in Paris on the eve of the Second World War. But he skipped classes, preferring to train in Montpellier.
In 1941, he met Colette Llaurens there, whom he married a year later, provided with false papers to escape the Compulsory Labor Service (STO), which forced young French people to work for Germany.
Pierre and Colette are inseparable.
In 1947, the young painter moved to Paris where he was noticed by Francis Picabia who encouraged him, as well as Fernand Léger. Abstract painting was then popular. But it is red, yellow, blue. Soulages, he chooses to work with the humble walnut husk, used to tint the wood, and house painter’s brushes.
In the 1950s, his paintings entered the most prestigious museums in the world such as the Guggenheim in New York or the Tate Gallery in London. He meets the main representatives of the New York School, including Mark Rothko who becomes his friend.
– One hundred stained glass windows –
The large canvases from the 1950s to the 1970s testify to the painter’s work on chiaroscuro. Black asserts itself in a relationship with other colors such as red or blue, in particular thanks to the technique of scraping.
In 1959, Soulages had a house-workshop built on the heights of Sète, facing the Mediterranean, where he had always lived for the past few years. He also had two workshops in Paris.
The artist, who prefers to work flat, switches to “outrenoir” in 1979: while he is struggling on a work entirely covered in thick black, Soulages realizes that he has just taken a step by streaking it.
“I was beyond the dark, in another mental field,” he said. “The pot with which I paint is black. But it is the light, diffused by reflections, which matters”.
In 1986, the State placed an order for more than 100 stained glass windows for the abbey church of Conques. They were inaugurated in 1994.