Audio recording of Jean-François Lyotard, lecture at the théâtre de l'hôtel de ville, Le Havre, April 1991
Looking at the Real
Let us for a moment give in to the temptation of ordering the wild proliferation of contemporary visual works by classifying them according to the kind of tricks they play on reality. Some, it is said, represent it with scrupulous fidelity, others are devoted to showing its inconsistency. The realist painter shows it as it is, the fictional painter shows how little reality there is.
Such a dichotomy, much too broad to guide the “reading” of works on its own, has, moreover and above all, the flaw shared by all simple oppositions. The two gestures, the one of posing and the other of deposing reality, are quickly confused by their effects. It is enough to show reality to de-realize it, it is banal to recall it. Regardless of how faithful it is, the representation of the thing is not the thing; it even turns the thing into one of its possible representations. The audio-visual engineer in telecommunication today speaks of the transmission of the sonorous or iconic messages in “real time”, that is to say, without delay. It would be interesting to ask, at least for images, what their transmission in “real space” would mean. This notion would realize the slogan “as if you were there”, the wish of ubiquity. The engineer’s rule is that the transmission of a situation must be as faithful as possible. That is what realism is. But the latter’s counterpart is the epistemological principle that the situation itself is only considered to be real if someone who wants to refer to it has the means to do so and, thanks to them, acquires a uniform certainty of the reality of this situation. These are the means of its transmission through reliable devices. It is then this very transmissibility of the situation that “constitutes” its reality. That is what fictionalism is.
The problem of managing the proof of reality in “real space” releases an almost pornographic desire, the one of not excluding any detail from the situation. The omission of the slightest element robs the transmitted image of all probative value. Realism requests a meticulous care, a maniacal suspicion, those of an investigation magistrate. The painter uses this obsessive motive to expose a reality that is freed of all uncertainty. The result is excess in the presentation, an excess of presentation that denies
the viewer any hesitation.
In the 1960’s-1970’s, the paintings of one of the most famous “hyperrealist” artists, Richard Estes, provide a definition of this “more real” and doubtlessly less realistic space than the one given to the gaze in visual perception. The scene is empty, strange, open to incident, to accident, to nothingness. It is frontally framed, at eye-level. It often depicts a glass wall that reflects another scene outside the field. One can clearly read the names and the announcements written on or behind the display cases mounted at the entry of concert halls. Those that the pane reflects backwards are easily deciphered. The entire space is readable, all of its parts, whether they are represented directly, transparently or reflected, are given beyond doubt.
The clarity of everything resists and allows a detailed and complete inspection of the field. The artifices of traditional figurative painting are systematically neglected – I mean those through which it tried to match the properties of the visual field – rendering its sphericality through the curves of perspectival lines, the shaded values that portray aerial perspective, the chromatic treatment of the objects’ outline upon which the relation of the background form is negotiated, and others still. The space is firmly “Euclidean”, the effect of depth is obtained reducing the size of the figures according to scale, the tone is local, the light source is punctual, the propagation of lighting is linear. The specular images on the windows are no less real than reflected things and the latter are presented as much as the ones that are directly displayed on the painted scene. For its part, the latter does not have more consistency than the one that is reflected. Estes’ painting’s sole reality is the reality of any real object. The reality of a specular image, the world is a system of mirrors.
One could have seen the effect of the extension of photographic and cinematographic techniques on the art of painting in this de-realizing hyperrealism. It is said that the camera’s norms are imposed onto the natural dispositions that structure the visual field, particularly the norm of restoration and the postulate of monocular vision coming from geometrical optics. Perceptual reality is, so to say, absorbed and converted by
the conditions of its reproducibility. Accordingly, this manic optician’s realism selects the motifs that, by their form, are best suited to its sterilized vision, industrial products, buildings, the urban space. The fractal unction of so-called natural landscapes does not lend itself to this treatment. Not long ago, someone on a walk stopped to embrace the panorama of sight before sinking into it, as Diderot does in the landscapes of Vernet or Lorrain. In the secret of their shades, the gods attended to tragic and delicious intrigues. The gaze allowed itself to be enchanted. Instead of this erratic suspense, hyperrealist painting takes snapshots of implacable moments. A visitor casts a quick glance on a familiar but strange road and files it away.
With Estes, one would say that the art of painting is at once fully subordinated to the norms of photographic reproduction and at the same time surpasses them. In the secular conflict between painting and photography, the former borrows from the second the homogeneous, empty and rectangular space that one attributes to the first “perspecteurs” and that standardizes the functioning of the camera. And the brush shows that it can do better than the optical machine. The cliché of painting is always less “good” than the painting, the work that is painted on the basis of a photo has more “presence” than the latter.
And yet this is a superficial reading since the procedures of reproduction have not ceased to become more complex and refined. They withdraw from the so-called “Cartesian” model of vision and devote themselves to restoring the essential phenomenological properties of the perceptual field: the intermittence of vision with cinematography, the stroboscopic movement animating the visible, the diffuse and composite chromatism, the curve of the field, the blur of its backgrounds and margins. If one wants to determine what is at stake in the treatment of reality by the excess of exactitude or geometrical accommodation that de-realize it, one must look beyond the presumed technological conditions for a true passion of thinking. It is futile to invoke the printing, on the art of painting, of a mode of being and knowing that is structured according to communication and informatics and that treats the meaning and reality of data as a digital code. First of all, the analogical is far from being eliminated, it rather returns in front of the scene. But above all, the socio-technological explanation is inaccurate as a principle. What is artistic in visual (as in other) works consists in a gesture whose space-time and matter of vision are self-sufficient. The context can at most provide an occasion for this gesture. Still, it would only be discovered after the fact. And this is not even the rule. Considered as such and not as cultural object resulting from a community and addressed to it, the work is always an unforeseeable event. It cannot be deduced. The gesture that it contains is always a paradox, a sort of twisting of the “data” of visual sensibility in colour, duration and extent. Visual art, beginning with the art of painting, has always been and will always be alert to the inexhaustible power of the visible that exceeds what is given in ordinary vision and that the painter invokes against the obvious.
As for the question of reality that concerns us here, contemporary painters definitively receive the inherit techniques and arts of vision in their tradition that compete with painting, photography, cinema, video, the image of synthesis, photo-electric effects. But the greatest work from which painters benefit has come, as always, from visual thinking. In all visual arts, as in painting, the avant-gardes subjected the “reality position” of the visible object to one of the most severe criticisms that Western art has ever known. Merleau-Ponty analysed Cézanne’s doubt concerning the visible. This doubt was spread over a century, it took a thousand of forms, it attempted a thousand hypotheses on the essence of the visual. The questions that the old master respectfully asked the Sainte-Victoire mountain are multiplied, annoyed, irritated. What is seen was called as trivial and deceptive in the name of what could still be seen. The catalogue of modern painting is the protocol of all affronts that visual thinking can make against the evidence of the visible. But realism must also be suspected. Although it is more humorous than others, it no less doubts the reality of the real.
One must most certainly distinguish many kinds of realism. Those that followed romanticism and gave “pompous” works in France or Russia, to name one, testifying to the very real reality of fin-de-siècle imperialism. The works narrate the warm bourgeois intimacies, the sadness of hovels, the bistro where the “dangerous classes” knock themselves out, they paint the artist as exquisitely damned, the dragon or the hussar promising the empire, the woman of the world and the girl of the half-world, the childish and cruel native. These images are realistic because each of them bluntly declaims, in its own manner, be it eulogistic or contemptuous, an entire reality subjected to the command: become rich.
Totalitarianisms, at the middle of our century, still appeal to the power of narration in order to inculcate in the masses the condition of their exceptional gesture revealed by Big Brother. After some hesitation, the imagery of fascism, Nazism, Stalinism is limited to edifying scenes, more symbolic than those of the official art since the narrative that supports them belongs less to history than to myth. That is how this realism acquired a slightly different meaning than the one it had. The classical or neo-classical account of heroic figures encourages the spectator to give them meaning and act them out. It is less about making something recognisable than about realising: realism of realization through transference. The photo and the film are more favourable for this than painting, which is always suspected of deviation and decadence. Dictatorships have great trust in the effect of reality inherent to the images produced by industry, provided that the chief photographers and the directors respect the ideological line.
Third example. After the great naked and spasmodic works of American lyric abstraction and the Paris School, where the inner anxiety tosses and turns the visible in all directions in order to free it from the straitjacket of ordinary exterior experience, hyperrealism in America and the new figuration in France return to the triviality of the real. Immersed in the society of abundance, the artists interrogate the supremacy of objects and their consumption. How can the work in general, the work of knowledge, of freedom, of beauty, beginning with the painted work itself, escape the necessity of its reification as a consumable object? Can what is called “creation”, the inscription in the visible of the invisible gesture that brings about the artistic event, resist the norms of political culture and cultural market where the value of works expressed in monetary terms is determined in function of their ability to perform a social function? This motif of the gaze’s alienation is found, in most of the artists at the turn of the 1960’s-1970’s, in sometimes divergent aspects and according to heterogeneous problems. To only mention a few European paintbrushes working in France, this convergence is seen between Cueco, Adami, Monory. Even Buren, who rejects the easel, does nothing but question limits, all limits within which the work must be confined in order to be called a work, that is to say, recognized as a culturally consumable object. As it is known, Buren contents himself with highlighting these limits with strips of paper or striped canvasses and by offering them with humour to a gaze that is too anesthetised to grasp or even see the gesture’s critical import.
I am not saying that Buren was, therefore, a realist. But he does question the presentable and the consumable aspect of reality, as do the neofiguratives, incidentally. Their means of doing so are, without a doubt, completely different. Instead of directly using the industrial product, photography, photogram, design, poster, advertising sequence, cartoon, to denounce the abusive power over the gaze, he tries to set the eyes free in situ by revealing the frames that orient and limit vision. He tries to make seen what “makes see” according to the rules of exhibition, from the moment the optical box focuses the gaze to the preservation through display and the museum. The melancholy of someone like Monory feeds on the visible signs of an impossible freedom, the anger of Buren is unleashed onto the way that cultural reality mutilates vision.
When I was introduced to the works of François Lapouge, thanks to excellent photographic reproductions, I almost made the mistake of falling prey to tautology. The photos that reproduced the painted works suggested that the latter owed almost everything to the photo, the way it was focused, framed, coloured, lit, even its motif, and that the photographs perpetuated the brush’s challenge to the camera oscura. But Lapouge’s realism is neither Monory’s neo-figurativism nor Estes’ hyperrealism. He certainly has the latter’s implacable light and the former’s nostalgia. However, the question that Lapouge asks of reality concerns neither a freedom that is alien to it, nor a background that an entirely immanent or secularized specularity, a game of reflections without remainders, would lack. It seems to me that Lapouge’s anxiety has more to do with the real that the most obvious reality conceals a secret that, in the visible, is removed from vision.
Lapouge’s perspectives are not the decorations that are offered as backgrounds or frames for the deployment of intrigues to come or those that are lost. It is not that the human and it histories are lacking in bourgeois homes, cities, harbours, roads, rivers, shores, domestic animals. The human has always been at work, he built, he organised and arranged things and spaces for use and jouissance, he named the villas. He narrated, he told his story. The works that Lapouge paints are testimonies to this. They are the traces of thousands of narratives. But it is as if they were deserted, left in the great sun, like monuments. One understands that men and women did all of this. They are not there. The slightest carton on the façade of a residence in Houlgate announces the fact that there was some event of circumstance and intrigue involved in the edification of the house. The Indian name alone is like a funerary inscription, the house is a last sojourn, it abides by itself without one abiding in it. It does not lack sense but actuality, which is also called reality.
This bears on all the presented objects. Exposed in a full force to the great light of the West, the proof of their being-there is brilliant. But this brilliance comes to them from heaven. On their own, they are not there, they are elsewhere, maybe. In this way they are monuments or, again, facades. Offering its manifest presence to the view, the facade announces and opposes to it another, withdrawn, inaccessible presence.
It is thus the tradition of doubt that is perpetuated in Lapouge’s realism, in spite of the self-assurance of the account. In this equivocal and unique movement of offering and refusing reality, there is a singularity whose analogy one is tempted to find in certain traces of realist writing in literature. Things are said plainly, history is told in the third person, one does not know to which voice to attribute the narrative. Who speaks in Madame Bovary? Who paints in Lapouge’s Untitled? But the analogy stops there. The question that is asked in the paintings (I mean the oil paintings) is not so much the one of the narrative subject as it is of the reported object.
Doubtlessly, the evasion specific to realism always affects two major axes of the narrative at the same time: its destination and its reference. Since one does not really know who speaks to whom, one also doubts what is at stake in it. Yet Lapouge does not incorporate the viewer in the uncertainty that a narrative voice, coming from nowhere, impresses onto reality. On the contrary, the latter’s painting is firmly outlined and it is addressed bluntly to the common gaze. See what you see, he tells us, it is like this.
It is only through the insistence on highlighting the commonness of the visible that the object to which the painting refers, and that is wellknown and recognizable, is led to make a sort of faux pas. It comes a bit too close to the eyes. This small excess of presence is obtained through processes that are all-in-all simple and undistorted: a palette (at least an oil one, I repeat it) that leans towards brighter shades, the slightly maniacal precision of the drawing, the eye for detail, the harsh lighting, all the plans equally focused, the motifs and frames chosen in function of the principle of “monumentality”, and always a harsh chromatism, even for greys, where it is recalled on the margin in the brute form of the colour spectrum. It is surely neither Lindner’s, nor generally pop art’s, colour, it is this excess of brightness that light gives to the tones of the Western countries between two gusts of wind. Hence, a surplus, but a realistic one, a natural excess.
The gust of wind and the rain have shut the towns, the houses and the landscapes in on themselves. They take shelter in their intimacy, sure of their good existence and bowing down, while outside the things are disordered. Thus it is, that with the same speed that winds and waters have swelled and been unleashed beneath the black belly of cumulus, the latter run further away inside the ground. The canvas with the blue background that their dissipation finds so dry it could crumble, is stretched over the scene. The sun throws itself on the motif. Things uncover themselves, they move towards the light and touch it. This phototropic rage is the rage of the Atlantic. Lapouge seizes the moment when walls, roofs, and trees open in response to the imperative demand of brightness. The ocean thus paints high in colours. There is nothing but realism in that.
But the splendour opens the monuments only through their facades. Attracted by the returning light, the appearances shed their timidity. Yet they leave behind them, through a kind of divide, the secret that will never be exposed, their shadowy underside.
The painter thus grafts the implicit position of the object of desire onto the exact display of a climatic instant. The demand that one feels, to love, to recognize, to be happy, or the address to others, to some others, the painting fully clarifies. It turns them into its fetish, like the sun “swallows” the facades again in one gulp. But the clarity of this address throws the shadow of a doubt onto its object: what if it were not worthy, unreliable, if it were not everything that I know of it? The request has the sense that it lacks its object through the very fact that it seizes and appropriates it. It releases its hold at the moment when, wanting it completely, it thinks it has it in its grasp. To see absolutely, the painter’s desire for this pierces reality with the infinite flight of the real.
This desire to see everything, to have and to show everything, in its hardness, is in every gaze and drives it to despair. The painter infuriates his eyes so that his hand can retrace and bring the reverse side of things back into view. One speaks of voyeurism. But it is only a perversion that tries to blind the infinite of desire by offering it appearances to consume. The clairvoyance of the painter pays no heed to the spectacle.
It could be said that Lapouge is a minimalist, surely not in the sense of the School, but in the fact that he strives to render the outrageousness that he imposes onto reality almost imperceptible so that the real only minimally leaves its trace in it, in a slight excess of tone and line. Perhaps this modesty culminates in the watercolours. The split between apparent reality and the retreat of the real is barely sensible in them.
The illusion must be almost perfect and reality is the perfect illusion. If the illusion were not perfect, it would not attract the request and love. It would provoke mistrust and anxiety, as do the great abstract works that are, deep down, much more accessible and sincere than the realists’ and also more naive. But the reality of appearances must stay there, the object of visual desires, where desire is usually trapped. One paints visible reality in order to awaken the invisible real in it.
Lecture at the Théâtre de l’Hôtel de Ville de Le Havre, April 1991 [published as « Au regard du
réel » in Misère de la philosophie, Paris, Galilée, 2000, 223-234].
Translated by Vlad Ionescu and Erica Harris
The face of things
Monologue of the Viewer
Looking at his work, I tell myself: the painter arranges his supports, he frames and covers them and he tells everyone: you will see what you see. He paints what everyone sees. They are all enchanted to see what they see again. They learn that they really see what they see since the painter, the one who sees, sees as they do; they recognize their things, they find themselves again in him. They enter, cast a glance and say: Well, it is X, it is Y, it is Thing Street, it is a house on the boulevard What-do-you-call-it. They are all happy. Art is popular, the people is an artist.
Maybe painting must still resort to the democracy or the demagogy of the gaze in order to be accepted. It must make one easily ignore its calling, which is to do away with the familiar. It must blind the gaze. It highlights the object, brings it closer, lets it consume the eyes. Even the most fanciful painting, one that makes the people of sight laugh. People have the right to laugh. They sense that the painter makes fun of the world. We saw this with Picasso. The mocked world remains visible and still fascinates.
But maybe every painting, even the most frank, is ironic about the world. It sparks a suspicion. Which idea is it? asks the intimidated people. These houses, these old villas, these photos, these corners of harbours and streets, we pass them every day. Why does he want us to pay attention to them?
Shouldn’t he give us something to dream about instead? Paint the things that one is not really able to see? Forces, dreams, elsewhere. Maybe what he does is ultimately bad: blinding us with idle, daily things. Maybe it is fundamentally mean. It is as if he said: here it is, there is nothing to see other than what you usually see.
I said: painting, in order to be accepted... But it must be even more serious. Maybe it is a kind of despair. One is a painter because one despairs of sight. Anyway, sight will never see more than what it can see. Even very abstract things; after all, one also sees them. Sooner or later they will be recognized. The painter turns sight back onto itself, it folds it a hundredfold, so to say: it only that, we never see more than this. The melancholy of what is called, you know, reality, the melancholy of repeating it in painting.
Intimidation and fear originate here. What if we went blind at the end? But the darkening of the eyes, when it is manifested with the intransigent and obvious lucidity of someone like Lapouge, reminds us that the eyes suffer from being so weak. The painter shows us this: you see all that you see, you see almost nothing, you would have to see more. That is not seeing something else, seeing more objects; it is seeing what it means to see better than you do.
Façades without make up, rigid awnings, tautologies that cut off speech, drawings made out of hard lines: the face of the world, looked at and affronted by dint of its evidence, robs the “why” of its authority. It’s not that the display of this façade hides or effaces something. On the contrary, it clarifies everything as much as it can. But the more the painter displays the obviousness of things and their influence on sight, the more it leaves unexplained the power of the visible. He shows how one cannot look away. But he does not know the reason for this servitude. In any case, it is nowhere else than in the façade.
In a long tradition, still lives display domestic objects in their domesticity. They colour them with the desuetude that threatens them according to the tradition which is the sister of Vanities. Daily life and death belong to the domus. Objects are domestic just because they domesticate sight and gesture, as if the former knew more than the latter do. Everything that Lapouge paints, the windows, the roofs, the houses, but also even the shore or the tree on the pond, is silent with this domestic knowledge that dominates the useless authority of sight.
Second letter to the painter
You do not doubt at first sight. I am struck by the obviousness that grounds your works. Clear, set in the spotlight, articulated according to the inflexible nature of the line, wrapped in reds, blues, harsh yellows to the point of exhaustion. You do not doubt, you exaggerate the fact of being-there. Everything that is seen imposes itself on us as if it looked at us in the face and said: here I am, I am what I am. Façades, awnings, cornices, shells of chic villas, cows, roofs, windows, waves, streets lined with poplar trees, flowers, ships and ponds, your objects give themselves indubitably, free of any suspicion. A horizontal or an oblique line bars oils and watercolours. It forbids the question. Even these very suspicious objects, photos, photograms, reproductions, archetypical representational work, simulacra due to imagination, framing, lighting, editing, images of what is not there (like your paintings), your brush sets them up in the solid solitude of what is there.
I say: solitude. Your objects have the consistency of things. They are reserved. I hear no narrative, no retort, no drama for which they could serve as decor. They sometimes make me think (as far as format is concerned, those of the five Studies for “Le Havre” , for instance) of Città ideale from Urbino, a background curtain, one imagines, for plays yet unknown. Even the hands that hold the photograms or the windows that frame film pictures remain neutral and abandoned. Your objects do not allow any sequence to follow them, be they Romanesque, criminal, lyrical, or tragic. Nothing happens. The seagull glides on Sainte Adresse, unmoving in a blue nothingness. Azure would be too agreeable.
You lay down drapes on villas (Untitled, 1989, 1990), you highlight cows at the trough with a sample of photo colours (Untitled, 1989), you spread screens to crush, at sharp angles, the enclosed façade of a notary house (Le Havre V, 1990), or to support the flight of a Romanesque tympanum in a low-angle shot (Untitled, 1990). The eloquence of the process deepens the silences, the silence of a bourgeoisie that says nothing about its private life, the rumination of voiceless muffles, the aphasia of a spirituality forbidden to secular discourses, but elsewhere, the arrogance without qualification of a modern or postmodern building, the tacit exchangeability of black and white on the wall of a café at the meeting point of two roads (respectively Drawing and Indian ink on Bristol board, 1987; Drawing and Indian ink on tracing paper, 1988).
You only ever say one thing, that is, that it cannot be said. This looks us in the face and does not speak, but rather suffocates us. Those who complain or congratulate themselves about your realism allow themselves to be deceived. Reality is talkative, it is woven out of thousands of little stories, it is human, it is intriguing. Do you not have a trick?
I am not saying that your reality is inhuman. There are signs everywhere that the human is not far away. He made these houses, these films, these ports, and these roads. He cultivated these gardens, picked these flowers, husbanded these cows. He built. But he remains apart, around it, like a prowler who is only evoked to make one notice how much things escape his grasp and his speech.
Your objects have the reality of things. They are real, but they belong to the reality of desire. They are obvious and inaccessible. The human is only present in your work as divested of the object of desire that penetrates the domestic spectacle.
You paint the west of France in full sun under a recalcitrant sky. I admire the fact that, under your brush, these two different motifs, one charming, the other cruel, unite: the fortuitous evidence of fiercely visible realities, the irresistible evidence of objects of desire. Desiring is not demanding. The human allows himself to expect some gratification from using houses, havens, windows that open onto pleasure gardens. He asks to be welcomed and pampered. He asks them for respite, rest, a sweet exchange, almost an interlocution. You offer them to him and you deny them from him. These objects do not belong to him. He is dedicated to them in a way that is not negotiable. Le Havre catches one’s sight like the facade in Untitled (1983) grabs the hand that draws and desires it. Demand and the vanity of the demand. The facade lures the gaze and denies appropriation.
The seer does not doubt the visible because the visible does not doubt the seer’s gaze; it has captivated it. But as you paint this influence, you need to distance it in order to restore it. Such is, I think, the gesture that haunts your work. Presented to the invincible immediacy of sight, it evokes clairvoyance, a view on the invisible. A blurred gesture, doublevision: that is subjugated, but that folds over itself to witness these impediments.
Let us say that you paint monuments, even when it is not monuments that you paint. Objects that evoke that the object lacks. “Cenotaphs” would be saying too much, it would be too sepulchral. Besides, do we know if the monuments are empty? In your case, they are all warm and dry in the sun’s rays, they are almost happy about being shown. Their night is on the inside, behind. In the simplicity of the waves marbled with foam and the seagull’s wings, inside the innocent facades, on the smoothness of clichés, that’s where a secret is kept.
No one knows anything about this secret. Monumentum means what thinks of being careful. You watch out. But for what? What must we think about? You don’t know and I don’t know either. Thus the secret. It is not a history, a secret that must not be told. It is only this, that we still know that there is something we no longer know. The object of desire is forgotten in this way, at night in full light. Thus America has infiltrated your Normandy. Not the America of Liberation or the one of riches. But the America of Hollywood through the photograms of Cinéma (1983-1986) and the Indian rivers through the cartridges of Américaines (1990). Minnehaha, I thought I knew which stream it is in Minneapolis that winds between the wooden houses, under the grey and white birches, north of the Great Indian Plain. But the name that is engraved in the limestone of the Pays d’Auge and read by the sun of Young Girls in Flower evokes an exile. An American woman turns up here that remembers over there. Now Houlgate-Balbec takes over the watch and keeps vigil over the lost river. The stranger comes to house his episode in the familiar. But the episode is not talkative. Who will say what about this name and how it got here? The episode does not tell a history, it makes itself a monument. The polishedwater of your watercolour keeps and looks at the secret.
Repentance of the chronicle writer
I decide to chronologically order the reproductions that he has sent me for two years. As always, organizing by period makes sense. One must distrust it. It would only be the hypothesis of an investigation.
Let’s go back to the “screens”. They are all found in the oils from 1990: the chromatic stallions, more or less imaginary, that emphasize the tondi of the Etretat and the pond and the square formats of Le Havre IV, the architectural measurements that adjoin the hens, the screen that falls on Le Havre V or that masks the tympanum in Untitled of the same year, the colour of satin or a crushed-velvet curtain that droops in front of the bay-window in Untitled, also from 1990. But already in 1989, the photochromatic sample decorates the cows at the trough, a pale linen drape envelops a brick villa’s turret.
In the year 1990, there is a profusion of watercolours. But all escape the system of screens. If now we set up the chronology of oil paintings, we find motifs that perform the same function, one that is analogous to the various screens of 1990: show-hide. In 1989 it is hands or an open book that, in the foreground, present photographs or photo-engravings on the background of the facade in Cinema 3 and 2. Or, in the same year, a camera hanging from the side of a tourist’ silhouette, that is half outside the frame, on a country road. The seagull around which the roofs of Le Havre I (1987-1988) turn seemed to me to belong to the same system: it organizes vision, it designates the object, it brings it to its secret. These motifs are always brought to the foreground by this annoying effect of displaying the background by placing themselves before it.
Continue the research of this set-up to its beginning and we find the hands of women in the same position in 1983, female nudes in 1982, film or documentary images laid into the windows of villas in 1982 and 1981, the detail of a photo of Freud sitting in front of a façade decorated with flowers in 1980, a woman serving coffee on the seashore in 1979.
As a result of this short inquiry, the preceding must be corrected in the following sense. The obviousness of things is spontaneously achieved in watercolours and inks. It does not need to be signalled by screens, which are also its markers, as they do in oil paintings. The latter only seem to relinquish this evidence with difficulty, the painter resorts to a kind of index of exposition. The inquiry shows a transformation in the nature of these indexes. First, they are made of flesh, of feminine flesh. In 1990, they are signals of optical colour. The analysis of the spectrum of light replaces the woman in the giving of evidence.
I do not think that the issue for Lapouge has ever been to show that representation is not reality. The problem is not at all the one of the simulacrum. It is peculiar that the first markers come from sexual difference and not colour-difference. Women interpose their breasts, their hips, their hands between the gaze and the object. They insert their request and call upon the gaze’s request.
One must observe, in the same sense, that the paste of the screens, the first as much as the last, is worked on, moulded, petted. It displays its materiality. That is true of the back, the buttocks, the thighs, the belly, the breasts from 1983, but also of the chromatic stallion of Le Havre IV, or of the screen of Etretat from 1990. This account, reserved to what we call the indexes of exposition, contrast the ascetic severity of objects that these indexes designate. On one side, Eros’ flesh, the flesh of the visible, to which the oil lends its ductility, that calls for love and is open to the gaze. Behind it, the obvious thing, clean as a whistle, shut, keeps quiet.
Between the two elements, the relation seems impossible. The indexes only index the thing as long as they are not bothered by it or even refuse it. The hand gesture in both Untitleds from 1983 only solicits the facade by challenging it. The seagull of Le Havre I (1986-1987) turns the roofs around
it because it cannot be bothered by them.
The index’s flesh solicits the covetousness of seeing and tries to satisfy it. But, in doing so, it throws the gaze back in the direction of the expressionless thing that asks nothing of it. The chronicle of Lapouge’s oil paintings points out that, eventually, profuse flesh gives way to the chromatic analysis of the components of natural light in order to ensure that the request is reinitiated on the path of desire. Vision demands clairvoyance by means that are less and less tasteful. As for the last works that I know (Interior I and the diptych Untitled, 1991), they corroborate the observation that the water of watercolours achieves the immediate and cruel evidence of things without recourse to an index. Why?
In the catalogue of the exhibition at Le Havre, Théâtre de l’Hôtel de Ville, 6-27 April 1991
and Fécamp, Centre culturel du Palais Bénédictine, 1-30 June 1991.
Translated by Vlad Ionescu and Erica Harris
First letter to the painter
Dear François Lapouge,
I don’t know you except for the ten “Sans Titre” (“Titleless”) and two triptychs, “Cinema” and “Le Havre” of which you have sent me photographs.
They are flawless. I started looking at them before reading your letter and I wondered who took such perfect pictures. Soon I understood, but too late: you had already fooled me.
Art critics talk about “defending artists”. You will have to defend yourself because you deceive. It will be said that you are old fashioned because of the conspicuous insistence of your photographic style. Painting nowadays favours so-called subjective expression: thick paste, wide and heavy touch, neo-conventionalist chiaroscuro, symbolism, embellishment and pattern. Duchamp would have spoken of the turpentine revival.
Looking at your pictures I said to myself with a relief: here at least is someone who has not given in.
This is what I consider you to be: a painter with a sharp line, clear-cut colours, straightforward lighting, and who hates approximation with a sort of fanatic quest for the obvious. An exact world fully exposed in the light of the sun, rigorously focused.
I don’t know you, but I do know this light, and I am writing to you because of it. It is the light of the West of France (different from the Flemish or the Iberic) over the sea and the nearly towns, between gails. I am not saying that it is an exceptional light, it is a singular light, and it happens to be one that is important to me.
The point is not to know whether one originated from “there”, it is neither geo-political nor geo-pictorial, but whether it is linked to events that have a peculiar presence, peculiarly registered as moments of absence in the official prose.
That can be seen anywhere, but this one is a light which is not raw but vivid and fleeting. It is not as horizontal as the light of the North, of Scandinavia, nor as vertical as that of the Mediterranean.
Gone is the rain that cleanses our sight. It has been dried and forsaken by the wind. A gull flies to and fro, a little sail on the water. A mere point between two bricks of a wall of a 1900 villa, comes out so clearly that it denies your eye. You capture a moment of brilliance.
Those who say it’s too obvious to not understand the sudden relief brought fast by a blue patch between clouds swept by the north wind.
Such an awareness dates back to the 19th century, when corrupt citizens came to cleanse themselves on the coasts of the Channel and the Atlantic. Because your snapshots require these totally artificial houses where Paris borrows from the houses of Normandy, Brittany and Vendee so that the sudden light, which naturally belongs to them, can be set and captured on borrowed walls. That is called a holiday-making resort. A way of living developed by the Romans who were bored with Rome a long time ago.
This is where the art-critics lie in waiting, watching for this overbrightness. In their glossaries and “art history” books, they call that neo- or hyper-realism. They will say that it dates back to the 60s or 70s. I believe that it could be felt around the first century of our era, that it can be felt when men provoke the nature they are losing.
The “Parisians” are there, behind or in front of your half-closed French windows, your 1930 pediments, your tourist beaches, your coast roads. They bring their worries there. They pose wearing waistcoats, daydreaming of slightly undressed or very naked mistresses. They oppose their clichés to your illumination, they prefer them. They establish themselves within the empty air they stir, which is what they seek but cannot find.
Ladies’ hand pour out tea for them, hand them Hollywood photogrammes, but they don’t see them, they see that one argues, one criticizes, one has people killed and one represents.
But a gull at noon gliding over a street in Le Havre like the hand of the wind and turning the buildings and the business upside down is a witness that belongs to you only.
I like your simple strictness, dear Mr Lapouge, it is called exactness. And though you are faithful to the west’s exposure to the light, you know it is fleeting. But such an illumination, somehow, does not pertain to measurable time.
Jean-François Lyotard, March 1st, 1989
Catalogue of the François Lapouge exhibition, Théâtre de l’Hôtel de Ville, Le Havre,
Translated by Hege Smith and Marc Gaudry