2002 - Jean-Louis Pradel (art historian and art critic)

Grataloup's radiant palimpsest

Grataloup is an artist who sides resolutely with pleasure, and who has not gone through the mandatory stage of paying one's respects to art's dissection theatre. He does not analyse painting into nuts and bolts in order to reveal its mechanism. Nor has he turned it into a field of application for elementary Maoist dialectics, of the kind that raged among his friends from Supports/Surfaces wmhen the order of the day was to recite torrents of binary oppositions in the effort to separate signifier from signified as form from content. Instead, Grataloup threw himself heart and soul into painting, striving to deposit on painting the mark of a privileged relationship between nature, memory and perception.

Grataloup spent May 1968 in the aristocratic shade of the Villa Medicis, having recently been awarded the Prix de Rome. There he carried out his first frottages on the old stones of Ostia Antica, in the company of Anne and Patrick Poirier, who used his grain and volumes when they embossed their first prints. These practices flouted the nihilism ambient at the time, and its tabula rasa paintings that sought relevance in the avant-garde strategy of the first three decades of the twentieth century, a century that was to be reinvented from scratch shortly threafter. Instead, Grataloup's meticulous, painstaking taste from imprints strove to retain something of the memory of places and objects. 

Such works are like exercices in revelation, their light and form springing from the very density of the graphite-powder, a material which naturally fastens and concentrates on the least irregularity. They are rudimentary reconciliations with randomness and obscurity that the artist is duty-bound to convey with lucidity . It is to them  that Grataloup is answerable when, sketch book in hand, he sets out to explore the open daylight in the vastness of nature.

From his first frottages, which are infinitesimally attentive to traits barely visible to the naked eye, to the drawing up of the first calpel-engraved maxtrixes within the details of enlarged drawings (then relayed photographically onto paper or cardboard wich are, in turn, treated with frottage or stencil), the artiste summons at once the alchemy of perception and the complexity of the world, allowing an awareness of matter to be formed.

For thirty years, Grataloup has been exploring the roads that lead to the summit of his art. This require spirit, breadth of vision and a solid obtinacy to disregard the beaten track and ignore the pre-conceived avenues promulgated annually by current trends and fashions. This lofty neglect, in which a certain arrogance competes with an inordinate taste for substance, has resulted in a great pictural oeuvre inhabited by majestic storms in which the artist stuns us with his ability to converse on intimate terms with subjects that are immense and boundless.

Ever since his first personal exhibition in Paris in 1973, Grataloup's art has summoned the live forces of colour and of nature. At a time when modern art had begun to yield to contemporary art-an easy, sometimes accommodating prey for business methods that are happy to reduce it to a branch of the entertainment industry- Grataloup raised the tone of the debate by creating forms that could plausibly act as props for living and for dreaming. 

The course thus carved out by Grataloup goes against the grain, disturbing many of the norms set up by the legitimating authorities for contemporary art to comply with. Those authorities indefatigably narrow the field of conemporary art down to an academicist respect for know-how that pledges its allegiance to the technologies of exchange and communciation, in complianc ewith the all-powerful catechism of merchandisation. At the same time, the religion of art for art prospers with its chapels, its cathedrals, its high masses and its petty casuistic accommodations that so delight its clergy, whose power to judge is rivalled only by its power to manage and strengthen its own prerogatives. 

Far from the stale hallways of his confined artworld, Grataloup stands out in the open, braving the elements and the harsh pleasures of staying upright with his feet solidly on the ground and his head in the stars, in defiance of the downward levelling movement and its idle flatness, which becomes fatal once it succumbs to the black hole of the all-powerful present.

The sacred time when animals conversed with all that animates the earth is never forgotten by Grataloup. The metamorphoses in his paintings are played off against the memory of a primitive union between words and things, establishing a locus that combines a form of representation devoid of history with a music of silence that can stand up to the world's excess of reality. Yet, Grataloup must also be in possession of some kind of high-precision tuning fork and measuring device, without which he could not have met the impossible challenge presented by the sound and fury of the world.

He has succeeded in occupying a point that is halfway between the void and the echo, between two kinds of reality : the reality of the painting and that of the world which is "its own cause" and which ceaselessly repeats the question "Why is there something rather than nothing" ?

Grataloup has situated himself at equal distances from tow forms of prejudice : that of the conventional theme (still life or landscape) and that of the grammatical analysis by a painting of its constituents. No dissection theatre here, as we said ; instead, a territory defined by the pradoxical scarring on the painting's surface of an artistic code whose mould is deliberately taken in situ from the mountainside, from praires and from waving cornfields. Just what it takes to switch on the colour on the painting's surface.

The domain that Grataloup incarnates and reveals to us has little to do with the conventions of landscape painting : it dismisses mimetic naturalism without conforming with abstraction. However, abstraction has no trouble re-emerging in his work when it is required as a mater of internal necessity. So much so that this artist knows his Kandinsky by heart : "Colour is the key ; the eye is the hammer than strikes it ; the soul, an instrument with a thousand strings. As for the artist, he is the and which, with the help of a given key, obtains the right vibration in the soul.

 "In his 1993 monograph on Grataloup, Jean-Louis Ferrier is right ot situate the artist with respect to a line, traced in concerning the Spiritual in art, which goes from Goethe's theory of colour to Rudolf Steiner's theosophy. There is present here a "spiritual turn" that is too often neglected by the "progressive" Vulgate in favour of the formalistic, rectilinear traits of an aspeticized art, smooth as the décor of a deserted theatre from which all ambiguity and doubt, all the flesh and impetus that underlie appearance in art and give depth to visual creations, have been expelled.

The singular place that Grataloup has carved out for himself on the allegedly "open" scene of contemporary art stems from his sovereign ability to resolve the most intractable conflicts. To the conflicting winds that blow in the vicinity of other artists of his generation -Pierre Buraglio, Joel Kermarrec, Jacques Poli, François Rouan or Claude Viallar, with whom he has rubbed shoulders since his apprenticeship in the atelier Chastel at Beaux-Arts in Paris- Grataloup opposes the kind of tranquility found at the eye of a cyclone. From that vantage point, he is in the process of constructing an astonishing pictorial edifice.

Because of his ability to hail the renewals of figuration and of abstraction as the most relevant contributions of hard-nosed materialistec experimentation in art, and as a conceptual thinning-down of that tradition, the painter's extensive workshop has bugun to look like a caravanserai on tis way up an impossibly demanding route. The visual effectiveness of Pop Art, the extraordinary intake of air that comes xith Land Art and Earth Art, the host of achievements due to Action painting, Colour Field, All-over painting or Minimal art, are all present in Grataloup's workshop.

There is there, however, none of the disparity of a Spanish inn : the only such establishment that Grataloup recognizes is the prestigious Casa Velasquez, where he made friends with Millares, Serrano and Villabla in the mid-sixties. 

The workshop at once strikes one as the laboratory of an alchemist's great plan, one that picks up where Rimbaud's rebellious utopia in "Alchimie du Verbe" left off. His early workshop was a cramped place, granted in 1967 by the Cité des ARts, where he could share his fervour with Serge Gainsbourg, Robert Malaval and Vladimir Vélickovic. It was a kinf of devil's cauldron in which the precious magic potions for the prospective creations were concocted. The Rome period was decisive. A central part of the Grand Tour, it provided an unprecedented spectacle of fusion : from classical antiquity to Bernini and on to Fellini, where the decorative becomes a device in the service of the total work of art, majestic and desperate, as such invigorating Baroque storms always are, turning death itself into a mere metaphore, and the sea into the Navevas's plastic sheeting". 

On returning to Paris, Grataloup moved to a bigger workshop in the vincinity of the Observatory, under the shadow of the dome of the Val de Grâce-a programmatic map in which the cosmos brought together one of the classical period's most accomplished orchestras of mystical expresssion. Grataloup's associations multiplied and were punctuated by exceptional encounters, such as the meetings with Francis Bacon and Michel Leiris. His workshop became a locus for the knowledge accumulated under the auspices of the good fortune that smiles on life's chosen people. 

Today, at Chevreuse near Port Royal logic was forged, Grataloup's symbolic, functional, warmly convivial residence, designed and constructed with the architect Denis Sloan, is a brilliant expression of the kind of coherence that a process of constant revisions and improvement can achieve. Rainbows and aurora borealis meet naturally here, as do the extravagant interlacings of a lifetime of frienshisps, in which so many initiatory journeys intersected, allying method with desire, oneness with profusion. 

The work as well as the place itself, here and now, testify to the richness and generosity of the pictorial phenomenon created by Grataloup, who is a Promethean and Apollonian catalyst for such diverse experiences. His painting is like a fire that burns and consumes the wildest and most secret energies, once again enchanting our perception of the world. His pictorial landscape is diametrically opposed to those that result from the tactical allegiances and ephemeral effects of  fashion. It incites us tirelessly to set out in all directions at once, producting magnificient, supernaturel effects through its familiarity with immanence and transcendence. The viewer is subjugated by this aesthetic achievement, byt the ways it incarnates a sharp awareness of the unknown and creates a vision of searing passageways that span across great distances, towards what is boudnless in thought.

Sunlight and night suffuse this work. The eclipse of the sun, which crossed France at noon in the summer of 1999, is also present. Mountains, deserts and oceans, the inventions of boudnless space, are omnipresent. So are the enigmas of minerals, of plants and of those meteorological marvels that confirm the thoughts of Bachelard : "Forms reach a state of completness. Materials never do. Matter is the schema of indefinite dreams".

There are explicit autobiographical references : the fatal fall into a crevice of the Bosons Glacier in 1998 ; a recent reference to healing at the grotto of Massabielle  where pilgrims follow in the tracks of Bernadette, who drank muddy water and ate bitter grass there, wild watercress since driven away by the crowds of pilgrims. 

There is also proud and daring tributes to the masters, in a future perfect mode that seals the act of painting and its prospective melancholy : the impressionists'shattering irruption  onto the scene with fragments from the sun's discontinuity : Caspar David Friedrich, mounted on the promontory of dreams, reconciling unbridled romanticisim with the most sagacious symbolism. There is a tribute to Leonardo : his paradise of vegetal decoration, designed for the Sala delle Asse at the Sforza Castle in Milan, is found among the skyscrapers of La Defense in Paris vie centuries later, in 1989, whre it decorates a 30-metre-hig ventilation shaft with the intertwining foliage of three trees. 

Much of the disturbance and fascination generated by Grataloup's work comes from the kind of candour displayed in this work : without using any chiaroscuro or visual depth, he simply inserts a rod of silver, gilded or painted metal, like a precious vector that has all the clarity of a ray of sunshine diffracted by imaginary stained glass. The rod is a charged sign of the struggle made manifest by the tower of La Défense, that gigantic anti-sculpture swept by the three primary colours, the painter's raw materials : red, yellow and blue. Those colours form the base and the summit of the struggle led for the last thirty years by this forgotten soldier of a war allegedly over since 1969, when, in Bern, Harald Szeemann turned the page and refused to exhibit but simply deposited-beacause the time had come "When attitudes become form". Yet, if, institutionally, painting had become a closed case, today that defintion of painting is being challenged by events. The minor revolutions and epic annual reports of art continually pushed painting to the background for more than thirty years, but today, this disrepute is beginning to fade on all sides. Before the acceleration of means of communication, production and promotion, at a time when the territory of art is in full expansion, the need is being felt to re-establish ties with the temporality inherent to painting, with its impertinent way of being out of line with time. 

Against the generalized zapping, painting's freezing of the frame seems more indispensable than ever ; indeed, it has become urgent. At a time described by Habermas as being "crazed with massacres and stunned by inventions", the factulty that painting possesses for inhabiting space and time is beginning to revive.

Grataloup's painting, like the "comfortable armchair" that Henri Matisse liked to offer his viewers, is the surest way to undo the confinement of consciousness by money, the merchandisation of the body, the fact that violence and exclusion have become unremarkable events, the generalization of pornography and voyeurism by the media. There is a correspondance between the masterful way in which this artist's work copes with tumult and the stubborn way in which ravages are sustained by Afghanistan, where the ancient route of lapis lazuli for the Mary's cape used to pass, extending to the Far East along the Silk Route of that same cape's silk. In one of those mysteries by which the world's culture finds its foundation in an extraordinary fusion of time and space, the alliance of Scythian, Indian, Chinese, Korean and Japanese art joined to the quintessence of Hellenistic art brought tot those regions by Alexander, conferred a face, a body and a smile on the Buddha.

Grataloup's art gathers together and crystallizes disparate nuggets and framents in defiance of all accepted hierarchies (I remember the artist's pleasure in recalling the evenings he spent in the company of an American recruit calle Elvis Presley during his military service in Berlin), constitues a salutary focus of energy where pleasure never ceases to be a deepening of thought. Impressionism inaugurated an area of ruptures, throwing the subject and object of painting into question with its chaos of brush-strokes and with the emergence of the reserve technique. This opened an incurable wound in the continuum of the canvas but also in the history of art, where a dizzying correspondance was established between the painted and the non-painted, comparable to that which exists between the said and the unsaid in oral poetics. 

With the help of post-modernity, this era is being followed by one in which art is reconciled with itself ; and Grataloup's painting gives us the measure of this era. His work gives vision a vantage point, like those "great speechless landscapes that will spread far and wide" and which, nonetheless, speak of what is to come, conjugating freedom of space with a premonition of temporal destiny. They take the eye from what Julien Gracq has called the "inertia of the landscape mineralized by noon" to those oracular transprencies of morning and evening, when the time has come to set up one's tent, and the contemplation of a vast expanse sharpens that blessed gift of clairvoyance designating the recovered eternity of an Orient suddenly so close that, under our very eyes, it converses with the infinite".

Jean-Louis Pradel