The painting Peinture, 21 novembre 1959 just fetched £4.3 million, or $6.6 million, at Sotheby’s in London on Wednesday, June 26th. Black can be a source of light. Pierre Soulages has been working on this since his very first works, where he was already using out-of-the-ordinary surfaces like glass and paper. The painter’s sources of inspiration include cubism and cuneiform writing, like in his painting Goudron sur verre 45,5 X 76,5 cm, 1948, where the brush’s movement seems to be a reference to Japanese calligraphy. Even when he was small, Soulages was obsessed with light. At age eight, he drew a snowy landscape in ink on a white piece of paper. A gesture filled with emptiness a priori. However, he would later say: “What I wanted to do with my ink was to make the paper’s white even whiter, brighter, like snow. That’s at least the explanation that I give for it now.” The colors in works by Cézanne and Picasso, exhibited at the Louvre at the end of the 30s, would be a revelation for him.
After the war, he returned to Paris where he entirely dedicated himself to painting. Using the husks of nuts, he focused on working with black. Refused at the Salon in fall 1946, he exhibited his works rather at the “Salon des Surintendants” a year later. Fellow painter Picabia warned him: “You’re going to make a lot of enemies for yourself.” Amidst the colorful paintings of other artists, Soulages’ works, as dark as night itself, are admittedly arresting. At the master’s hand, a canvas’ white indeed becomes black, but only to better underline the passage of light across its surface. In Peinture 220 X 336 cm, 14 mai 1968, Soulaegs covered the surface of his painting in midnight blue with determination and vigor. But it’s the whiteness of the painting that you notice, as it seems to infiltrate the gaps between these large strips of dark blue that it pierces with its brightness.
In 1979, a single event would happen that would leave its mark on the painter’s work. Soulages strove to work with black for hours, to no avail. Frustrated, he left his workshop for a few hours. He was in for a shock when he returned. “The black had invaded everything, to the point where it was as if it didn’t exist anymore.” He would call this experience “l’Outre-noir”, “black that, ceasing to be, becomes an emitter of clarity, of secret light”. His paintings then became monopigmentary, still with the goal to work with the variations of light reflections on the different states of the surface. While light is by definition opposed to the material, Soulages questioned this philosophical principal by bringing light out of black paint. By working with diverse materials like oil and resin, the painter creates brushed striations, furrows, collages, each one giving off a unique reflection of the light, such as in the painting Peinture 290 x 654 cm, Polyptique, janvier 1997. Soulages works not only with the reflection of light, but also of the regard. The light can be perceived as black, grey, or brown depending on where you situate yourself. In addition to painting, Pierre Soulages created 104 stained glass windows for the abbey church of Conques between 1987 and 1994. He was also one of the founders of European TV channel Arte. The Pierre Soulages museum will be inaugurated in Rodez, his home town, in 2014. 500 works of art spanning his entire career will be put on display there. He may have defined “l’outre-noir”, the absence of color, but the master seems to create luster from this absence. Soulages proves it: nothing can be opposed to light.