Pierre Soulages
Biography and Abstract Paintings of French Exponent of Tachisme.

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23 May 1953 (1953)
Tate Collection, London.
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Pierre Soulages (b.1919)


Roman monuments and the engraved dolmens and menhirs from the region of Rodez were the first artistic works to capture the attention of Pierre Soulages. When he was 18 he discovered modern art at an exhibition of Cezanne and another of Picasso, while on a visit to Paris. During the war he worked on the land near Montpellier, and returned to Paris in 1946 to take up painting. In 1947 his work was shown at the Salon des Surindependants. Withdrawn into himself and rebelling against outside influences, he soon developed his own powerful form of abstract art, which attracted attention at his first one-man exhibition, at the Galerie Lydia Conti, in 1949. This solo show gained him a reputation as one of the top young 20th-century painters, and a key exponent of Tachisme - the French gesturalist style of Art Informel - a European variant of abstract expressionism pioneered by the New York School. Key works by Pierre Soulages include: 23 May 1953 (Tate, London); 6 August 1956 (National Gallery of Australia, Canberra).

At the start of his career he often painted on paper stained with walnut juice, petrol or oil. From the beginning he discovered a means of expression that reflected his temperament, and thereby made a clean sweep of pictorial tradition. His abstract paintings, typically consisted of vigorous but sombre brushstrokes. At first he worked entirely in monochrome black and white (he was known as "the painter of black"), but later added muted blues, greys and browns. The primitive power of his compositions reflected his deep affinity for the prehistoric art of his native Massif Central region. His imagination brought a new three-dimensional structure to the picture, in which the impression of line in space is essential to the deliberately calligraphic effect. His pictures often actually resembled enlarged hieroglyphs or Chinese characters. See also Jean Paul Riopelle (1923-2002), whose work was also calligraphic in nature.

Soulages soon resorted to the palette knife, then to the spatula, and finally to the rubber sole of his shoe, in place of the brush. This technique, in basing the three-dimensional effect on the act of painting itself, gives to every canvas the appearance of a monolithic whole, and recalls certain methods of Chinese art that Soulages instinctively adopted, guided by the needs of his own sensibility. Soulages designed the sets and costumes for Heloise et Abelard by Roger Vaillant (1949), and for Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory (1951). He also practiced fashion drawing.

In 1952 he took up etching and, in 1957, lithography. It was also in 1957 that he won the Grand Prix for painting at the Tokyo Biennial. In the course of his evolution as an artist he has considerably softened the severity of his composition. If he always has in the forefront of his mind, the format and central pivot of his canvas, he also stresses the effects of depth and rhythm, sometimes by the simple contrast of black and white, sometimes, although less commonly, by the use of such colours as blue and green. Soulages is represented in galleries throughout Europe, notably in the Musee Fabre, Montpellier and the National Museum of Modern Art, Pompidou Centre, Paris; as well as in many American collections, including the Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim Museum in New York. He also designed a set of stained glass windows for the abbey church at Conques (1994). In 2001, Soulages became the first living artist invited to exhibit at the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, and also at the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow.


Art Informel

Other notable European exponents of Abstract Expressionist Painting in its main forms include: Serge Poliakoff (1906-69), Maria Helena Vieira da Silva (1908-92), Alfred Manessier (1911-93), Wols (Alfred Otto Wolfgang Sculze) (1913-51), Nicolas de Stael (1914-55), Asger Jorn (1914-73), Georges Mathieu (1921-2012) and Karel Appel (1921-2006). Other painters who made contributions to the movement include the American painters Mark Tobey (1890-1976) and Sam Francis (1923-94), as well as the St Ives colourist Patrick Heron (1920-99).

Other famous exponents of avant-garde art in France during the 1950s include: the Art Brut collector Jean Dubuffet (1901-85), the asssemblage artists Cesar (Cesar Baldaccini) (1921-98) and Arman (1928-2005); Pierre Alechinsky (b.1927), and the conceptual artist Yves Klein (1928-62). See, for instance, Yves Klein's Postmodernist art (1956-62).


• For more about abstraction, see: Abstract Expressionist Painting.
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