PEELLAERT AND BRUEGHEL COME TOGETHER AT REFRESHING "JOIE DE VIVRE" EXHIBITION

Guy Peellaert's Strawberry Fields (The Beatles), from Rock Dreams, 1970-1973.

 Jan Brueghel's  The Wedding Dance , c.1600.

Jan Brueghel's The Wedding Dance, c.1600.

According to the philosopher André Comte-Sponville, the elusive notion of "joie de vivre", that fleeting sense of elation at the simple fact of being alive and present to the world, can be conjured even in the darkest of circumstances. 

And so it is armed with a courageous flair for the counterintuitive that the Palais des Beaux Arts in Lille is defying the prevailing gloom with a large-scale exhibition surveying the various representations of happiness—or rather, those "fugitive moments" of happiness—in art, from Antiquity to the present.

The exhibition, organized with the Grand Palais and supported by loans from some of the world's most prestigious institutions, brings together a hundred works and nearly as many renowned figures of Art History. From Frans Hals to Renoir, or from Rodin to Murakami, the curators have chosen to develop a highly subjective theme-based progression instead of trying to chase the idea of happiness through the ages. This proves a wise approach, perhaps ideally suited to convey the kaleidoscopic, deeply personal nature of "joie de vivre". Thus, a first room is dedicated to the sun as a Western symbol of hedonism, and the radiant, enveloping light pervading Edvard Munch's 1907 Bathing Men (from the painter's Impressionist period) is presented alongside Roy Lichtenstein's minimal-pop Sunrise, an almost abstract optical explosion of blue against yellow from 1965. 

 Edvard Munch's  Bathing Men , 1907-1908.

Edvard Munch's Bathing Men, 1907-1908.

 Roy Lichtenstein's  Sunrise , 1965.

Roy Lichtenstein's Sunrise, 1965.

From a room devoted to games to another invoking laughter or the exalted body, it is an emphasis on eclecticism that informs—and never quite overwhelms—this selection, bringing together wildly varying artistic forms with a curatorial focus that achieves a near-perfect balance between whimsy and relevance. At the heart of the exhibition, museum director and chief curator Bruno Girveau, unburdened by the hierarchies of the past, sheds light on unexpected links between Jan Brueghel and Guy Peellaert, two seemingly irreconcilable sides of the Flemish pictural tradition, separated by over four centuries and brought together in a room highlighting the theme of popular feasts in Northern Europe. Brueghel's delightful Wedding dance (1600) taking as its subject the jubilation of peasants momentarily abandoned to dance, finds a striking echo in Peellaert's Strawberry Fields, an airbrush-painted photomontage from 1970 in which the Beatles are shown outrunning the personifications of conservative England that are pursuing them, arms and legs stretched into an exaggerated motion reminiscent of folk dance, as if propelled by a contagious outburst of joy and freedom.

As Peellaert was starting work on the Rock Dreams series, this particular painting—ultimately discarded in favor of the hyperrealistic treatment that characterizes the series—was inspired by the sense of rapture that permeated the films of Richard Lester, who in the mid-1960s had directed the Beatles in several films based on a succession of short musical sequences that foreshadowed the advent of the music video. By combining the evocative powers of both music and visuals, an intoxicating new art form would be born, one hinted at throughout Rock Dreams, which aimed to create "music for the eyes" at a time when the printed image still had the ability to carry meaning and capture minds. In that perspective, a welcome presence in the exhibition is the famous "unauthorized" dance routine from the Fatboy Slim music video for the song Praise You, directed guerilla-style by Spike Jonze at the turn of the Twenty-first century, in which a group of formation dancers perform a strangely ecstatic dance routine to bemused crowds in the foyer of a California cinema.

By ignoring traditional art-historical approaches and juxtaposing a wide range of temperaments, "Joie de Vivre" fulfills its ambition : to ignite in the viewer, albeit for a brief moment of contemplation, a hint of that evasive emotion. Beyond time, place or medium, artists may not have provided a definition of happiness, but the best have revealed its universal nature.

"Joie de Vivre", until January 17th 2016, Palais des Beaux-Arts, Lille.

 Pablo Picasso's 1922  Two women running on the beach  graces the "Joie de Vivre" poster.

Pablo Picasso's 1922 Two women running on the beach graces the "Joie de Vivre" poster.

IN MEMORIAM : CHANTAL AKERMAN AND A "RENDEZ-VOUS" WITH GUY PEELLAERT

 Chantal Akerman behind the camera in the 1970s

Chantal Akerman behind the camera in the 1970s

Another day, another untimely death in the vast constellation of onetime Peellaert collaborators. The artist and experimental filmmaker Chantal Akerman passed away on October 5th of an apparent suicide, at age 65.

Ms Akerman, like Peellaert a Belgian-born artist who had emigrated to Paris in her twenties and was greatly inspired by the New York art scene of the late 1960s, created a series of groundbreaking, slow-burning films delving deep into the feminine psyche, starting with the classic Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975) and its intimate exploration of the daily life of a lonely widowed housewife.

That film, along with several more released in the 1970s, marked the invention of a new cinematic vocabulary with its slow-burning depiction of time and its eerie capacity to convey a woman's inner life. It turned Akerman into a feminist icon and a cult figure of independent cinema. Over the years, she had remained an enduring inspiration to such maverick filmmakers as Gus Van Sant, Todd Haynes or Michael Haneke. 

In 1978, almost three years into the making of the Las Vegas, The Big Room series, Guy Peellaert at the request of Akerman collaborated on Les Rendez-Vous d'Anna (The Meetings of Anna) by creating the film's poster, his first since 1976's Taxi Driver. Anna follows the restless wandering of a woman director (played by Aurore Clément) as she embarks on a promotional journey, and Peellaert used his signature painted photomontage technique to depict Clément standing in a train wagon, motionless and staring obliquely into the distance, lost in thought. 

The original artwork, of which no picture remains, was thought to belong to Akerman herself, but the filmmaker in 2014 revealed that she had never owned it, and that the piece likely has been the property of the Seydoux family, which controls the Gaumont and Pathé studios.

Les Rendez-Vous d'Anna and Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles are available on DVD as part of the prestigious Criterion Collection : Chantal Akerman in the Seventies.

Guy Peellaert's film poster for Chantal Akerman's Les rendez-vous d'Anna, as it appeared in the streets of Paris in 1978.

From the Guy Peellaert Archive, a preparatory composition for Les rendez-vous d'Anna, dated October 2nd, 1978.


IN MEMORIAM : GUY BÉART (1930-2015)

 A tribute to Guy Béart in  Paris Match

A tribute to Guy Béart in Paris Match

The legendary singer and songwriter Guy Béart passed away on September 16th, at age 85. The reclusive and self-effacing Béart was among the last survivors of the golden age of "chanson française" and had written songs for the likes of Juliette Greco, Yves Montand and Maurice Chevalier.

Described by his actress daughter Emmanuelle as "an anarchist and iconoclast, pure and simple" Béart could be linked to Guy Peellaert in one surprising way : upon his arrival in Paris following the release of The Adventures of Jodelle in 1966, the Belgian artist accepted an early commission from Béart and created his very first record cover with Guy Béart Chante l'Espace.

In keeping with the Jodelle style, Peellaert used a background of vivid flat colors, contrasted with a thick black line drawing which he used to depict a streamlined portrait of Béart. In 2013, the Estate initiated a search to track down the original ink drawings in order to have them photographed. Alas, after months of trying to locate the works in the vast, unruly archive he kept in his fortress-like mansion in the Paris suburb of Garches, the singer was forced to give up the search as his health began to deteriorate. 

Who knows when and where these early pieces might turn up... 
 

Guy Béart Chante l'Espace, by Guy Peellaert (1966)

The B-side of Guy Béart Chante l'Espace.

A TRIBUTE TO PIERRE STERCKX, AUTHOR OF "THE JODELLE STYLE"

pierre sterckx

It is with great sadness that I learned of the passing of Pierre Sterckx, the great teacher and art critic I had the privilege of collaborating with on the 2013 English-language reissue of The Adventures of Jodelle

Sterckx was renowned for his unparalleled expertise on the work of Hergé : he had developed a close friendship with the creator of Tintin from the mid-1960s, and had been instrumental in sharpening the Belgian cartoonist's eye for modern art. Sterckx would go on to publish a dozen reference texts on Hergé, deconstructing his work with a fresh perspective—who else could summon Gilles Deleuze or Roland Barthes while discussing the composition of a strip from The Blue Lotus ?—and becoming a de facto authority in the ever-expanding cult of Hergé. 

But perhaps more importantly, Pierre Sterckx had been able to parlay his wide-ranging curiosity and remarkable talent for intuitively connecting seemingly ill-matched references into a unique position on the rapidly receding border of art and bande dessinée. He has written extensively on Magritte, Holbein, Vermeer and art writing itself, and was in a league of his own when harnessing his encyclopedic, self-taught knowledge to enlighten us on the so-called "low art" of bande dessinée.

His free-spirited approach to art historical theories made for interesting curatorial achievements. In the 2009 exhibition Vraoum! at the Maison Rouge in Paris, he revealed deep-rooted links between 50 masterpieces of the "9th art" and contemporary artists such as Takashi Murakami and Wim Delvoye (a personal favorite). That same year, he brought together Jean-Claude Forest, Guido Crepax, Paul Cuvelier and Peellaert in Brussel's Palais des Beaux-Arts for a tribute to the sexual liberation of the "Sexties". 

Quite tellingly, I could think of no one else to pen the lead essay on the Jodelle style that was to open the archival section of the remastered 1966 Peellaert classic—a daunting task requiring the ability to put the poorly documented work in context and navigate its maze of influences and ambivalent references. From our first meeting at Café Beaubourg opposite the Centre Pompidou, I knew he was the right person for the job when, bursting with characteristic enthusiasm, he told me how he had been among the first to purchase a portfolio of Warhol's Marilyn silkscreens from the Sonnabend gallery when the conservative Parisian art world didn't yet care (he had had to sell it way before it reached the financial heights of today, much to his chagrin), or how he had run into trouble with the school where he was teaching after devoting a class to the Adventures of Jodelle, back in the 1960s when the book was banned and considered mild pornography—it turns out Belgium was even more conservative than France ! He also delighted me with stories of Hergé's admiration for Peellaert's radical upending of the traditions of belgian bande dessinée, a flattering endorsement I knew nothing about.
Hardly a week after that first meeting, his essay was completed and I found myself having to edit a boisterous flow of inspired observations, comparisons and connections, eventually resolving to keep it as intact as possible. After all, that was pure sterckxian raw energy. And poor Kim Thompson, the beloved editor who presided over Fantagraphics, was left to translate it all into English... No small task indeed.

You can download a PDF version of Pierre Sterckx's The Jodelle Style here.

Sterckx was to pen another essay devoted exclusively to Pravda, but following our decision to freeze that project in the wake of Kim Thompson's tragic death only a few days after the release of Jodelle, we shall never have the pleasure of reading his musings on Peellaert's iconic character.

His most recent contribution, a short yet insightful introduction to Christophe Quillien's Art et BD, is being released this week in France, but his final and crowning accomplishment is likely to be Hergé's Masterpiece, billed as the definitive monograph on the art of Tintin and published in English by Rizzoli this coming September. 

THE ORIGINS OF PRAVDA AND COCA-COLA

Guy Peellaert's Pravda and Coca-Cola, 1968.

As part of a flurry of projects marking the centennial of Coca-Cola's "Contour" bottle, Assouline is publishing Kiss the Past Hello, a new coffee table book compiling an eclectic mix of images and art inspired by the enduring design icon. The wide-ranging iconography encompasses prototype sketches, vintage ad campaigns as well as recent contributions from leading graphic designers. Perhaps ironically, it is the more ambiguous, uncommissioned works from the original Pop artists (Rauschenberg and Warhol in particular) that provide the most dignifying aura of permanence to the Coke bottle. In testament to early Pop Art's power of subversion, a sly critical undercurrent continues to permeate these works in spite of the book's understandable efforts to absorb them into a largely promotional discourse.

Appearing here alongside a 2014 commission from Neville Brody is Pravda & Coca Cola (1967), arguably the most familiar incarnation of Guy Peellaert's countercultural heroine. Displaying his signature mechanical flat color patterns and sinuous draughtsmanship, the artist depicted his inscrutable character, an allegorical figure of self-reliance and emancipation, holding a Coke bottle as a totemic symbol of consumer society and the proliferation of images in the modern age. Originally created as a street poster advertising the October 1967 issue of Hara-Kiri (the French satirical monthly in which Pravda was first serialized), the image was reprised several times throughout Peellaert's life, notably gracing the cover of Pravda in a more streamlined style when the serial was compiled into a book in 1968.

At the height of the Cold War, Peellaert's character (named after the elusive pursuit of the "Truth" but also after the official publication of the Soviet Communist Party) was holding an object synonymous with American imperialism and the language of advertising : deceptively simple, Pravda & Coca Cola is a classic example of Pop Art's ambivalent gaze, caught between fascination and criticism, seduction and manipulation, eluding a straightforward stance and exhibiting a puzzling objectivity as it leaves the viewer grappling with layer upon layer of meaning. 
A little-known fact about Peellaert's absorbing image is that it was conceived in reference to Gustav Klimt's Nuda Veritas ("The Naked Tuth"), a painting whose daring eroticism shocked the conservative establishment of Vienna at the end of the 19th Century, when Klimt and other avant-garde artists broke with traditional institutions of fine art and named themselves the Vienna Secession. Realized in the early days of the movement, the 1899 painting depicts a red-haired, full-hipped woman standing in defiant frontal nudity and holding up a small mirror to the viewer, as if to invite self-examination. Klimt was subverting the pictorial tradition of the allegory of Truth portrayed as a nude female figure, harkening back to the Renaissance. At the turn of the century, and after Klimt's paintings had been rejected from several institutions, the notion of Truth was turning into a reflection on the artist's integrity, as evidenced by the quote from German poet Schiller inscribed at the top of the painting : 'If you cannot please everyone with your actions and your art, you should satisfy a few. To please many is dangerous.' 

Gustav Klimt's Nuda Veritas, 1899.

These uncompromising words must have resonated powerfully with Peellaert, a maverick artist destined to operate outside the realm of the art world's institutions, who professed to work "for just a handful of people whose opinion is the only one that matters." He had studied Klimt's elaborate murals as part of his training in Monumental Art in the early 1950s, and with Pravda & Coca-Cola he reinterpreted the rebellious nature of Nuda Veritas for a new age of social and political upheavals inevitably feeding through into art theory : after the 1960s—and Warhol in particular—could art ever be the same again ?


CHARLIE HEBDO : PRAVDA IS FREE !

 "Allez..."

"Allez..."

Born in the pages of Charlie Hebdo ancestor Hara Kiri in 1967, Pravda was inspired by the quest for absolute freedom.

It was while working within a close-knit family of brilliant, censorship-defying satirical cartoonists—alongside Georges Wolinski, who would remain a lifelong friend—that Guy Peellaert created an indelible character capturing the ideals of their shared sensibility : emancipation, independence of Thought, individual expression, and laughter in the face of the dark forces of religious fanaticism.  

Long may endure that sensibility. Je suis Charlie.

 

In Memoriam : Joe Cocker by Guy Peellaert

Guy Peellaert. Joe Cocker and Leon Russell. From Rock Dreams (1970-1973).

"Punish me, oh master, for I have sinned." While Dracula slept, his servant strutted and cavorted and took the castle for his own, to bray like an ass, roar like a wounded bull. But then came dark and all was changed : the Count emerged from his slumbers, with eyes of flame, and Clovis went cringing, cowering back into his corner.
—Nik Cohn

Diamond Dogs revisited : an interview with Orson Peellaert

Guy Peellaert's preparatory composition for David Bowie's Diamond Dogs (1974)

On the occasion of the 40th anniversary of David Bowie's Diamond Dogs, Paris-based scholar Enrique Seknadje has created a tribute page about the making of the classic 1974 concept album, long under-appreciated but recently reappraised as one of Bowie's most personal and influential works.
After writing a thoughtful piece for Le Nouvel Observateur in which he shed light on the prophetic nature of Diamond Dogs as an accelerator that precipitated the death of rock 'n' roll, Seknadje has conducted an interview with Guy Peellaert's son, who discusses the legacy of the artist's iconic painting of David Bowie and reveals its many inspirations. 
For access to the full interview [ French], please visit Diamond Dogs Revisited.

In Memoriam : Alain Resnais and Guy Peellaert, the Gershwin Frieze

Guy Peellaert, The Gershwin Frieze, 1991. Click image to enlarge.

With the passing on March 1st of Alain Resnais at age 91, yet another star in the decidedly far-reaching constellation of Guy Peellaert friends and collaborators has fallen. While the director of such indelible films as Hiroshima Mon Amour and Night and Fog is being honored as one of France's greatest filmmakers, this is also an opportunity to reminisce about Gershwin, a major project that brought Resnais and Peellaert together at the dawn of the 1990s. 

In 1991, Resnais embarked on a documentary short on the life and legacy of American music legend George Gershwin, making a return to the genre and format that had launched his career in the 1940s (Van Gogh, Guernica...). An explorer of trailblazing editing techniques, Resnais had Peellaert's acclaimed title sequence for "Cinéma Cinémas" in mind when he approached the artist and commissioned him to create a monumental painting to serve as the cornerstone of his entreprise. Resnais's camera would pan the imposing 33-ft work —realized in Peellaert's "Big Room" technique using a complex photographic base painstakingly reworked in pastel—  to reveal key scenes from the composer's life and introduce testimonials from personalities including Martin Scorcese and Adolph Green. 

The Gershwin Frieze was completed in late 1991, and was displayed in the entrance of the Palais de Tokyo after Resnais finished shooting Gershwin. The Frieze became the catalyst for Peellaert's "Monumental period" during which he produced several large-scale works fueled by a lifelong fascination for American cinema, a bond the artist shared with Resnais and which the filmmaker emphasized in a short film about the making of the Gershwin Frieze, recalling the days when, as a young man in the 1940s and 1950s, he had taken countless trips to art-house theaters in Brussels that specialized in rare American films shown in English (French cinemas had a much smaller selection and most films were dubbed). It turned out Peellaert, a native of Brussels, had spent his formative years in the same venues, absorbing the same films that were to become Hollywood classics.

A complete archive on the Gershwin Frieze will be made available when the new site launches.

 Guy Peellaert and Alain Resnais examine details of preparatory sketches for the Gershwin Frieze in Paris, in a still from the documentary short on the making of the Frieze by Gilles Nadeau.

Guy Peellaert and Alain Resnais examine details of preparatory sketches for the Gershwin Frieze in Paris, in a still from the documentary short on the making of the Frieze by Gilles Nadeau.

Guy Peellaert (right) in his Paris studio, at work on the Gershwin Frieze with an assistant in 1991.