Painting of the Day

4 Jun

Pierre Soulages, ‘Painting, 23 May 1953’ 1953

Painting, 23 May 1953. by Pierre Soulages (born 1919). Oil on canvas, 1953. In the collection of the Tate, London.

Notes from 1001 Paintings You Must See Before You Die:

Pierre Soulages was a member of a group of artists practicing Tachisme. This style concerned mark-making and was influenced by the calligraphic art of the East. Their work was spontaneous and dynamic, expressing the physical procedure of painting as much as the resulting image.  Soulages began to experiment with abstraction in 1947, using long, strong brushstrokes of black paint against light backgrounds. In the 1950s, his work became more energetic and forceful. He said that abstraction, for him, is a means of exploring his imagination and own perceptions: as he works, he is guided by inner impulses to produce certain forms, colors, and materials. It is not until they are on the canvas that he can see instinctively what he ultimately wants to create–an intuitive approach resulting in balanced, rhythmic works. The title of this painting refers to the date it was completed. Smooth, almost slick slabs and swathes of rich dark paint overlay each other, creating a latticelike network of flat bands that dominate the image. The sweeping brushstrokes are reminiscent of oriental scripts with their gestural and energetic calligraphic shapes and the strong marks emphasize the process of painting. Despite the small size of the canvas, the shiny black paint commands attention, intensified by the small gleams of white or occasional light colors glinting through the darkness. Soulages stated that he includes no references to the visual world and any resemblance is accidental–his paintings are meant to be powerful entities on their own.

Additional notes from

The title of this painting refers to the date of its completion. Soulages began experimenting with abstraction in 1947, using heavy brushstrokes of black paint against a light background. This calligraphic style was to become increasingly vigorous and gestural throughout the 1950s. Soulages has said that for him abstraction is a means of exploring his imagination and inner experience. In 1950 he explained: ‘I work, guided by inner impulse, a longing for certain forms, colours and materials, and it is not until they are on the canvas that they tell me what I want’.

My comments:

I had never heard of this artist nor the style that he works in until I happened to come across this painting in 1001 Paintings You Must See Before You Die. It seems like a rather obscure artist and style, but it’s quite beautiful and the process that Soulages uses to make these paintings raises some interesting questions. First of all, it appears that Soulage relies heavily on his instincts and the subconscious to create his style of artwork. This makes me wonder if anyone would actually be able to learn how to paint the way that Soulages did. People make replicas of classic artists like Vermeer and Rembrandt, because their work is not as based on the workings of the mind as the work of Soulages apparently is. So it seems like it would be quite difficult to make a powerful replica of Soulages’ work. Perhaps a skilled reproduction painter could mimic every brushstroke and create something that looks the same on a superficial level, but I wonder if the lack of spontaneity that would be there in that reproduction, a deficit that is integral to the process of making the original painting, would be evident in the reproduction just by looking at it. I wonder if it would look similar, like a wax model is similar in appearance to the real person it is based off of, but ultimately look lifeless and devoid of spirit?

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