PIERRE SOULAGES is a national treasure in France. Last month a painting of his from 1960 sold at auction in Paris for €9.6m ($10.7m), making him the country’s most expensive artist; François Hollande, a former French president, has said he is the greatest artist alive. In 2009 the Pompidou Centre hosted a vast retrospective of his work on the occasion of Mr Soulages’s 90th birthday. This year, to celebrate his 100th birthday on December 24th, the Louvre is bestowing an honour upon him that only two contemporary artists—Pablo Picasso and Marc Chagall—have so far received: a solo exhibition.
Mr Soulages is thought to have created around 1,700 paintings over the course of his seven-decade career, but “Soulages at the Louvre” displays only 20. The earliest work on show, “Brou de noix sur papier” (pictured), was made in 1946; the latest—three long, rectangular paintings with horizontal groove—were completed a few months ago. The exhibition, though small, illustrates both the coherence and diversity of his work, with a particular focus on his idiosyncratic approach to the relationship between dark and light.
Black is the artist’s defining colour (it has earned him the moniker, “the master of noir”). Mr Soulages has been fascinated by it since he was a child, and has described the colour as “very active”, with shades that are “never the same because the light is always changing it”. For his acclaimed “Outrenoir”, or “Beyond Black”, series, which he commenced in 1979, Mr Soulages applied inky paint in thick layers using spoons, squeegees, rakes and bits of rubber, or made his own tools to achieve a particular effect. Once he is finished scraping, digging and etching, he appraises the work. The artist is a perfectionist who burns canvases if he is not completely happy with them, says Alfred Pacquement, the co-curator of the Louvre show.
Mr Soulages grew up in Rodez, a small city in southern France. Since 2014 it has also been home to the Musée Soulages which, with 400 works, is the largest collection of his art anywhere. Seventy-seven years ago he married his wife Colette, whom he met at art school in Montpelier (she is only a few months his junior). Their nuptials had an artistic sensibility: they exchanged vows at midnight, dressed all in black. The couple has lived between Paris and Sète, Colette’s hometown, for more than half a century.
Mr Soulages’s fame in his native country is assured, but internationally it has been more fickle (even though his work is held in the collections of hundreds of museums all over the world, including Tate Modern in London, and the Guggenheim and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York). In the early 1960s Mr Soulages was celebrated in America as part of a group that included Mark Rothko and Franz Kline; he was the top artist for Samuel Kootz, a gallerist who championed Abstract Expressionism. Kootz put on eight shows of Mr Soulages’s work during the 12 years he represented him, but after Kootz closed his gallery in 1966 Mr Soulages’s reputation faded.
Dominique Lévy of the Lévy Gorvy Gallery in New York, who now represents the artist in America, is on a mission to make Mr Soulages’s work more appreciated there. She feels he is in the same league as Rothko and that his art deserves to fetch similar prices. (In 2012 Rothko’s painting “Orange, red, yellow” was sold at auction for $87m.) In 2014, in a show co-hosted with the Galerie Perrotin, Ms Levy exhibited 14 of his recent works—Mr Soulages’s first exhibition in America in ten years. Ahead of the Louvre show, Lévy Gorvy presented “Pierre Soulages: A Century”. That also brought together 20 of the artist’s works, with paintings from the 1950s and 1960s that were either first exhibited in America or are part of American collections.
The show at the Louvre demonstrates why Mr Soulanges’s art is worthy of such attention. His career has been one of astonishing creativity, producing works with a unique appreciation of light, texture and form. “What’s my secret?” Mr Soulages reflected in 2014. “I just keep thinking about the painting I’m going to do tomorrow.”
“Soulages at the Louvre” continues in Paris until March 9th 2020