Gérard Garouste at the centre Pompidou in Paris

Gérard Garouste, Pinocchio and the dice game, 2017, Oil on canvas,160×220 cm, Private collection

Born in 1946, Gérard Garouste studied at the Beaux-Arts in Paris. After working as a set designer and decorator, he decided, in the early 1980s, to pursue a career as a painter, in the classical sense of the term.

In this period, he invented two characters; the Classic and the Indian who are like two facets of an individual. The Classic is Nietzsche’s Apollonian, which refers to an idea of order, stability and measure, whereas the Indian is the Dionysian, fiery, elusive and unstable.

The classic, années 70, Oil on canvas, 79x66cm, Private collection

He revisits the history of art in his own way, is interested in Greek mythology, different genres (portrait, still life…) and the great painters (Tintoretto, Greco…). In spite of these references, he creates his own personal and unclassifiable style on huge canvases.

Adhara, 1981, Oil on canvas, 253×395 cm, Private collection

Adhara is one of the stars of the Dog constellation. The two figures, one blindfolded, the other walking with a dog, undoubtedly refer to the figures of the Classic and the Indian

The arsonists, 1982, Oil on canvas, 251×295 cm, Museu Coleção Berardo

Three characters seem to be preparing a destructive plot. The twisting of the limbs and the serpentine lines, which give the impression that the decor is on fire, are reminiscent of the mannerist style of Greco or Tintoretto. Garouste also takes from the Spanish Golden Age the use of large dark backgrounds.

Sainte Thérèse d’Avila, 1983, Oil on canvas,200×300 cm, FRAC-Artothèque Nouvelle Aquitaine

In this work, commissioned to celebrate the fourth centenary of the saint’s death, the painter shows that it is still possible, through painting, to retranscribe ecstasy, that phenomenon halfway between pain and pleasure.

Orion, Maera and the mirror, 1984, Oil on canvas, 240×170 cm each panel, Private collection

In this diptych, Orion, the giant hunter of Greek mythology, is depicted as a Roman emperor with the dog Maera (who, like Orion, will be transformed into a star). But if the dog is represented inverted in the second mirror panel, Orion seems to have been absorbed.

The hanged man, the vase and the mirror, 1985, Oil on canvas,250×500 cm, Budapest, Ludwig museum

The boat, the fisherman and the red pants, 1984, Huile sur toile, 200×260, Collection De Carbon

Gérard Garouste discovers Dante’s Divine Comedy, which gives rise to a new series of works. By exploring the journey of Dante and Virgil through the different circles of the Underworld, his painting moves towards a form of abstraction.

Phégyas, Dante and Virgile, 1986, Oil on canvas, 200×235 cm, Paris, Centre Pompidou

This painting evokes the passage of the Styx, the river of the Underworld. The characters are painted in broad strokes and take on a ghostly appearance. The work refers to a painting by Delacroix on the same theme.

Eugène Delacroix, The boat of Dante, 1822, Oil on canvas, 189×241 cm, Paris, musée du Louvre

He is also interested in the different levels of reading of the Bible and draws from it huge canvases. It is the series of « Indiennes »

Indienne (The fall of angels 2), 1988, Acrylic on canvas,215×704 cm, Private collection

At the end of the 1980s, Garouste imagined La dive Bacbuc. It is a circular, monumental work, painted on both sides. For the viewer, the inner side can only be seen through eyelets, which places him in the position of a voyeur. The work is inspired by the world of Rabelais and retranscribes its vitality, humor and triviality.

From the 1990s, the painter became interested in the Jewish exegetical tradition and learned Hebrew. The question of the interpretation of texts which, according to Talmudic studies, offer a multitude of different readings, finds an echo in the subjects addressed by Garouste. He now borrows from the Bible or from Cervantes’ Don Quixote, in light of the thesis that the author may have been a Jew who was forcibly converted to Christianity.

Entre chien et loup, 1995-1996, Oil on canvas 81×100 cm, Private collection

The theater of Don Quichotte, 2012, Oil on canvas, 200×260, Private collection

The characters of Cervantes’ book form a tragi-comic parade, in which the painter has represented himself as a diabolical jester just behind the angel who speaks into the ear of the donkey.

The dog mask, 2002, Oil on canvas, 92×73 cm,

Garouste has made several self-portraits. Here, he represents himself in a landscape with a dog mask, which he carries under his arm. The dog, guided by its nose, refers to intuition. The painter’s feet, pointing backwards, underline the refusal to follow a single path and invite wandering.

In 2005, the painter created a series of works on the theme of the donkey and the fig. He noticed that, in Hebrew, there is a consonantal proximity between the two words (donkey and fig) and that they are related in the Talmud. This observation triggers numerous associations between donkey and fig as well as numerous disgressions around the donkey, the artist’s favorite animal.

The donkey and the fig, 2005, Oil on canvas, 235×200 cm , Private collection

The blind booksellers, 2005, Oil on canvas, 270×320 cm,

This painting puts into image the words of Saint Augustine concerning the relationship of the Jews to the Holy Scriptures. The Jews would be the depositories of the books that announce the coming of the Messiah. But they would not have been able to understand him. They are like blind booksellers who distribute books they cannot read.

Alma,2005, Oil on canvas, 270×320 cm, Private collection

In 2007, Gérard Garouste began a series devoted to his childhood. In it, he recalls his conflicting relationships with his father, a furniture dealer who, during the war, had to recover the property of deported Jews.

Le coup de l’étrier, 2007, Oil on canvas, 270×320 cm, Private collection

This painting refers to the violence of his father, a psychopath capable of threatening his wife by putting a gun on the table because she was holding the ewer by the neck and not by the handle.

The artist also evokes his psychic instability, which marked the 1970s and early 1980s.

Chartres, 2007, Oil on canvas, 270×320 cm, Private collection

After a long period of respite, a new crisis occurred in 1991, to which this painting directly refers. Guided by an uncontrollable impulse, the painter found himself in the cathedral of Chartres, in the famous labyrinth, where he interrupted a wedding, broke candles, made a mess and was interned.

Déviation, 2010; Oil on canvas, 114×195 cm, Private collection

In the mid-2010s, Garouste began a new series: Zeugma. In Greek, the term means « link » or « bridge ». It is also a figure of speech consisting of omitting a word or a group of words whose repetition proves unnecessary.

The Warsaw bridge and the donkeys, 2017, Oil on canvas, 220×160 cm, Private collection

The last series is devoted to the work of Kafka.

The banquet, Triptych, 2021, Oil on canvas, 300×270 cm each panel

The Banquet is the major work in this series. It refers to many keys of reading: the feast of Purim, with its confetti, which celebrates the feast of Esther, the character of Kafka, the painting of Tintoretto devoted to the harvest of the manna etc. ….

This article is just a quick overview of Gérard Garouste’s abundant work, which has been so magnificently exhibited in 120 paintings at the Centre Pompidou. His painting, rich in numerous references, contains a multitude of symbols and levels of reading that can be confusing. But in front of his paintings, it doesn’t matter if we don’t understand: the main thing is that the paintings intrigue us and make us ask questions.

The painter elaborates a game of which he constantly reinvents the rules. Because, like all artists, he is a formidable liar….

Pinocchio and the dice game

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