Contemporary Art Magazine, winter edition, 1995.
I am not an advocate of a return to painting, nor an agent of post modernism, but part of a generation of modernists aware of a heritage, a child of ruins and catastrophe. François Rouan


Françios Rouan is the type of painter that I had always hoped would be at work in France today. With so much of the great painting of our modern epoch having come out of French culture, its language and its way of thinking it seemed natural to assume that there must exsist a painter with an eye on the implications of such a heritage. However during the eighties when the market and the institutions of the art world were trumpeting the return of painting, Rouan was strangely passed over and a younger generation of artists such as Garouste and Blais stole the international limelight as French representatives of the zeitgeist of the time. In retrospect perhaps Rouan was lucky to have escaped the ‘hype’. Although what he still lacks in international reputation is amply made up for by his standing within France. Many would go so far as to say Rouan is France’s most important living artist.
Rouan is an artist who manages to square a circle with a mind that is responsive to the extreme intensities of French thought whilst engaging with painting at its most physical level. He follows a path that many French artists have trodden. It is easily forgotten that Matisse’s progress as one of the most radical sensualists came out of a complex and sometimes painful intellectual inquiry. In the three decades that comprise Rouan’s work there is not only an impressive body of painting but there is also evidence of a rich web of discourse that ranges from the political to the sociological and the psycho-analytic. Such a relationship to ideas and theory in the visual arts is usually seen as the preserve of a more conceptual practice.
Rouan’s early years as an artist coincided with the turbulent time of the sixties. Politics were important to him and events like the Algerian war led him to align his support with the Maoists. Yet painting never became a crude support for agitprop or socially significant practice. He cast his net wider than that with an understanding of the radical political nature of constructivism and the Bauhaus as instruments of an ideal society which seemed within reach. In France around 1968, left-wing and predominately Marxist thought was providing the tools to evolve conceptual models of society within which practitioners such as artists could exercise complex yet strategic positions. An example could be found in the writings of the Situationalist Guy Debord who was even then prophesising the emergence of global capitalism where societies would be dependent upon spectacle and amusement to socialize its members into the emerging opiate of consumerism. It would seem that Rouan at this time responded to such ideas by focusing upon painting’s complex relationship with human scale and the body. His reference though would shadow the ever fragmentary nature of the representation of the human body in a modernist history of painting. Rouan has never engaged in holistic mirror like representation relying on the false comfort of a suspect and nostalgic humanism. Rouan’s painting depicts the body in fragments, as imprints or as traces.
From 1971 until 1978 Rouan went to Rome and painted at the Villa Medicis which is the French equivalent of the British School in Rome. Balthus was the director of the Villa and an unlikely yet warm relationship built up between the two painters. Unlikely because Rouan’s work at the time was uncomprimisely abstract and somber and bore no obvious affinities to the much senior artist. Les Portes, his first major series of works were made in Rome. They have become known also as “tressages” because of the technique employed where strips of canvas are literally woven together. These works relied on subtle plays of elements appearing and disappearing, upon repetitions and the sense of how the smallest element is incorporated into a larger dimension. These seemingly abstract works relied upon the viewer encountering them in an emphatic way. These doors could not be breached if viewed from a perspective that painting was merely an inverse realm of a world of pure transparency. Moreover Rouan has even spoken of how photographing these works was impossible.
It was les Portes that first brought Rouan into contact with Jaques Lacan. He had heard about the problems of photographing them and asked to see them. He ended up acquiring some drawings and a relationship evolved between the painter and the psychoanalyst. What attracted Lacan to Rouan’s work is open to much speculation but Rouan has located the ideas of Lacan’s that interested him. It was the concept of a void which seemed to be the link between the two men. Rouan has pinpointed Lacan’s notion “when one approaches the central void which is most interior to the subject and which we call jouissance, the body tears itself to bits” as being of particular interest to him. Rouan echoes this concept himself when he says “Art finds its necessity when it reaches this capacity to construct a central void that, by means of its very invisibility, manages to indicate the blind spot that is at the center of our thirst for beauty.”
From this vantage point Rouan could examine the modernist epoch not merely as a history of formal developments where the engine of ‘originality’ would push toward an increasingly fragmentary representation of the world and the human body. Such fragmentation could more readily be seen as an aspect of consciousness which concerns truth about the status of the pictorial object rather than just a story of formal innovation. Rouan’s present exhibition Jardins Taboués at the Musée Villeneuve d’Ascq near Lille includes a series of paintings which are meditations derived from two Picasso nudes from 1908 and 1909, one of which is from the museum collection. Picasso in the first decade of this century pushed the figure toward a faceted and stark dismemberment under the influence of African art. The votive power of Picasso’s images of that period challenged the devotion painting to the particularity of appearances. These images mark the departure of painting from pure visuality into a darker possibly more primal, visceral world. Rouan’s return to such motifs in the spirit of a copyist is a type of credo and recalls many other French painters who have staked their colours to artists of the past as way of moving forward.
The exhibition at Villeneuve d’Ascq concentrates on paintings from the early eighties until the present. His paintings generically known as Stücke from around 1988 move like a mood swing toward a series known as the Coquilles which are still in progress. The word Stücke comes from “Shoah” the film about the Holocaust where an eyewitness described the corpses as “stücke”, as inanimate pieces. These paintings are caught within the dynamic of cubist collage and the obscene systematic mass destruction of human beings in this century. Like Keifer who juxtaposed the ambiguity of Wagnerian motifs with the realities of German history Rouan seeks a rhyme and even an ethical discussion between geometric dismemberment and the horror of industrialized genocide.
The atmosphere of the Coquilles strike a different note. Here actual imprints from bodies are made onto canvas in a way that echoes Yves Klien. This relationship of the imprint of the body dates back to a series of paintings made in the early nineties entitled The Taboo Garden. The reference is toward desire and the tabooed zones of the body which are the focus of the imprinted flesh. However another echo is detectable in the Coquilles which opens up another area of discussion about this aspect of Rouan’s production.
The Genius of Venice exhibition held at the Royal Academy, London in 1984 was notable because of the effect one painting had upon a generation of artists. It was Titian’s great Flaying of Marsyas which was then not widely known. Its effect was spell binding. I was a student at the time and visited the painting many times. On each occasion I’d find myself amongst a huddle of spectators many of whom I recognized as other artists. Rouan also visited the exhibition and he too witnessed the gruesome sight of the upside-down Satyr being skinned for losing the musical contest with Apollo. The stripping away of the dark dionysiac skin by the powers of Apollianian measure and rationality struck Rouan as deeply as many others who saw that painting. It has been said that Titian’s image is in essence a breakthrough in a transition between a classic to a modern age. This is perhaps so and it is thus no coincidence that the aged Titain replaced a mirror like and transparent articulation of space for a more opaque surface metered by somber tactile values and uncompromising marks of the brush.
In the Coquilles (literally translated as shells) Rouan prints his own body onto a surface which is submerged in a opacity of marks. In this process Rouan flays his own body. His skin becomes the membrane for a transfer technique which is essentially monoprinting. The density of the surface and the effect of the body marks creates a multiplicity of readings. Exteriority and interiority are equal possibilities in these pictures. They allude to the border condition that painting can so succinctly inhabit. The equation of positive marks and negative body traces cancel themselves out so that the picture becomes a type of void which as I have described before is at the core of Rouan’s thinking. The corporal negative imprints are of the tabooed parts of the body which have become rejected and repressed into an other and that have taken a shroud of concealment. Rouan does not seek to merely reveal that which is normally concealed within something we choose to call an unconscious. His gambit is more a type of hide-and-seek where a quality pops out only to disappear into another schema. The Coquilles in this sense relate directly to the Tressages. The binary game of weaving strips of canvas into a greater fabric was also a type of hide and seek where as much of the painting remains concealed as revealed. The cancellation or abscences within this duality suggest the importance of such a discussion of a psychic void. The other will always remain un-namable. The other will always be displaced by rationalistic systems and remain in shadowland. All that can be hoped for is an intimation of what is at the heart of our condition. A painting can become a place for an encounter with what will always remain a suggestion, an intimation of what is essentially an absence or a lacking. Rouan, as always, amply articulates this;
“Art finds its necessity when it reaches this capacity to construct a central void that, by means of its very invisibility, manages to indicate the blind spot that is at the centre of our thirst for beauty. Dizzying notions that are not given to our experience in the large movable mirror that we call psyche, but in the very picture where the circulation of the soul between life and death leaves its mark, as though in wax - persona - in the breaches where light and shadow split.”
It seems that Rouan is treading a path which curiously links him to an artist like Gerhard Richter. With Richter there is also an awareness that painting inhabits a curious position, that it has become embroiled into an aesthetic of negation due in part (in the case of Richter) to its relationship with photography which took over from painting in the domain of mirror representation thrusting it into the relative instability of abstract, non-mimetic practices. Richter incorporates the endless sense of a switching between the polarities of painterly potentials into his regime. Polarities that move between expression and construction; mimesis and rationality. Rouan inhabits a similar territory except the readings of his work differ. Lacan is significant to Rouan whereas Adorno’s writings can be used to form the backdrop of a critical discussion around Richter’s work. What is important to recognize with these artists is that any discussion about a ‘return to painting’ is not simply a widening of a pluralist context in a type of cultural free-for-all. Another type of awareness is possible. We are locked into a reality where abstraction is not merely the assertion of crass libertine values and figuration is not simply the deployment of dubious ideas of tradition and high art. The truth bound up within this antique activity is maybe not so positive; it is a white cane enabling us to probe a ‘blind spot’ that lays at the heart of us.


Mick Finch, 1995.