As an artist, Georges Mathieu is not in fashion – not even in France. In spite of his last Paris retrospective in 2002 at the Jeu de Paume, this self-taught artist (born 1921), who to this day claims to be a royalist, is better known for his feats of media publicity (live painting performances for galleries, museums and television) and for selling out to the establishment. Among other things, we can thank him for the fresco at the Maison de la Radio (the building that houses France’s public service radio broadcaster), posters for Air France, the design on the face of the old ten franc coin and the logo for the television channel Antenne 2. This doesn’t even include the countless stamps, medals and designs for treasury bond notes he inundated France with in the 1970s and 1980s. Influenced by the paintings of Wols, Atlan and Hartung, Mathieu took on the role of chief protagonist and instigator of Lyrical Abstraction, which as early as 1947 contrasted itself to the Geometric Abstraction movement. He has long stated, in fact proclaimed from the rooftops, that he was the progenitor of the “drip” technique, which is generally attributed (correctly so) to Jackson Pollock and Max Ernst. He has also claimed paternity for “tubism”, the technique of applying paint to the canvas directly from the tube.
By 1948 and already well-acquainted with American art as a result of his job – at the time he was director of public relations at the American maritime company United States Lines – Mathieu had come up with the idea of setting European Lyrical Abstraction against American Abstract Expressionism. The exhibition ‘Véhémences Confrontées’ (Opposing Forces) at the Nina Dausset Gallery did not happen until 1951, but the following year he had a show of his own paintings in New York for the first time, at the Stable Gallery, run by Alexandre Iolas. His relationship with American painters became embroiled in complicated games. “When I returned to the United States in 1957,” observed Mathieu, “I felt a certain coldness towards me. I was in California with the woman who would later become my wife. We were on the road from San Francisco to Los Angeles when I got a phone call from my gallery owner, Sam Kootz (of the Kootz Gallery), urging me to come to New York specifically for the preview of my show, which of course I did. He asked me to paint a few canvases during my stay, not in public but four levels below the ground floor in the Ritz-Carlton basement. I later understood Kootz had been forced to yield to pressure exerted on him by American painters who were jealous of me, who did not want people to see me painting or, equally, take any photographs of me. In this way, they could ensure I would not sell any work. Nobody saw me paint and only a few clandestine photographs of me were taken and used in the book 50 ans de création (50 years of creation). I understood from that point onwards that I provoked a hostile response in American painters.”
Mathieu’s use of this crude scenario to construct an explanation for their behaviour is symptomatic of the clear loss of influence experienced by European art during the middle of the twentieth century. His position as an eminent and original painter continued none the less. He also foresaw a number of practices that became the norm. In 1957 Allan Kaprow put on his first art “happening”, and in 1958 Yves Klein exhibited his first experiments with “Living Paintbrushes” and “Anthropometry”. However, Mathieu’s main contribution to the history of art remains undeniably his technique of live painting in public. In 1954 he painted a 6 metre canvas, La Bataille de Bouvines (The Battle of Bouvines), for the 10th Salon de Mai (the 10th May Salon); for journalists of Life magazine, he painted Les Capétiens Partout! (Capetians everywhere!) live at gallery owner Jean Larcade’s chateau in St Germain-en-Laye; in 1956 he produced his first 12 x 4 metre canvas in just twenty minutes on stage at the Sarah Bernhard Theatre in Paris called Hommage aux poètes du monde entier (Homage to all the world’s poets). The following year in Japan, during his Shirokya Gallery exhibition, he completed 21 canvases in public, including Bataille de Hakata (Battle of Hakata), measuring 2 x 8 metres, as well as a 15 metre fresco. It is worth noting that the Gutai group of Japanese artists also created a live work in a similar spirit to his art during this time. Moreover, in their 1956 manifesto, its members acknowledged their interest in the techniques of Pollock and Mathieu: “Concerning contemporary art, we respect Pollock and Mathieu because their work seems to embody cries uttered out of matter, pigment and enamel. Their work is about merging with matter using techniques that are particularly reflective of their own individual personalities. More precisely, they put themselves at the service of matter in a powerfully symbiotic way.”
His speed of execution very quickly became his signature style. He took 40 minutes to paint his Hommage au Connétable de Bourbon (Homage to the Bourbon Supreme Commander), a 2.3 x 6 metre canvas completed at Vienna’s Fleischmarkt Theatre and accompanied by an electro-acoustic piece of music composed by Pierre Henry for the occasion, Arrangements for Georges Mathieu. His televised performances were some of French television’s biggest attractions in the 1950s, equalling those of the other great TV showman among artists, Salvador Dalí. In 1959 he painted the 2.5 x 6 metre Le Massacre de la Saint-Barthélemy (The Saint-Bartholomew’s Day Massacre) in less than half an hour, accompanied by the jazz drummer Kenny Clarke. Mathieu needs the public to paint a picture, and sees an erotic communion in the process. “The most important moments are clearly when I paint in public. In fact, this process, without me being aware of it, works in a mediumistic way to heighten the concentration of the situation. As a result, concentration is the decisive element that separates this type of art from all other art the West has known over the past twenty centuries… It is the joy of communion with the other. A little like what happens in love. What defines love is this tension between two beings with a shared focus. If it were just a simple attraction between two people, it would have none of the grandeur.”
Georges Mathieu is a “painter of battles”, quite literally, because a number of his works refer directly to historical battles (Bouvines, Brunkeberg, Hakata, Korea), but also because, above all else, he is an artist who considers his paintings as an authentic scene of battle. Each time he paints, a genuine confrontation occurs between himself and his canvas, where rituals of martial art, dance and trance all come together. In this respect, his commentary about the public and live creation of his 3x6m L’Entrée de Louis XIII et de la reine Anne d’Autriche dans Paris à leur retour de Bordeaux (Louis XIII and Queen Anne of Austria entering Paris, on their return from Bordeaux), in the courtyard of the Chateau Courances on 22 May 1960, is eloquent:
As the great French painter [Mathieu talks about himself in the third person] began to prepare the background of his canvas, it began to rain, with water running down the painting’s surface faster than he was able to spread the oil across it. When a thunderstorm broke out as the canvas was raised up and placed in the centre of the chateau’s courtyard, people began to worry he would give up. As a result, a wave of anxiety rippled through the crowd, who had come from 50 kilometres around to attend the event. Filmmakers, photographers, art-lovers, painters, art dealers, aristocratic women, old men and children – all doubted the Master would be able to continue his work. Umbrellas opened but no cameras were loaded. Unperturbed by the rain beating down, Mathieu mixed his colours and made use of his arsenal of thirteen mixing trays, 27 paintbrushes and 842 tubes, placed around his canvas. He impassively emptied his large aluminium receptacles as they overflowed with water. The canvas’s red-coloured background, lashed with diagonal patterns of rain, began to run. Having taken 40 steps back, he then returned slowly to the canvas and made his first sign upon it, to the amazement of all. With hair plastered to his face and soaked to the skin, he went to get a white anorak, which he put on. Then he waved his paintbrushes around as if they were swords, squeezed his tubes of paint, and leaped, jumped and charged around, performing a sacred dance for an hour. Soon, the skies cleared and the sun came out from behind grey clouds, shining its gold rays on his flamboyant canvas of a million hearts blazing miraculously! Louis XIII entering Paris!
We see here a kind of panache as part of the performance, which in turn comes within a hair’s breadth of being ridiculous. Mathieu was never frightened of the ridiculous, and this is no doubt part of his power. He always accepted his own extravagances, while his subjects are all related to traditional “history”. The paradox is his ability to be both reactionary and revolutionary at the same time. And so this lover of “Eternal France” is also the friend of Lacan and Bataille, even Claude Lévi-Strauss, Henry Miller and Nabokov. Nor was he afraid of getting involved in the most acute philosophical and epistemological discussions of his day. “I pride myself on having denounced the determinism of de Broglie and Einstein, putting my faith in Heisenberg and Pauli, siding with Lupasco against Bertrand Russell, with the Orient against Greece, with Plotinus against Plato, with Saint Augustine against Aristotle, with Leibniz against Descartes, with Saint Martin against Diderot and with Joseph de Maistre against Hegel.”
Georges Mathieu is not in fashion. He has without doubt ended up as the archetype of the over-the-top, excessive artist, unashamedly challenging the media trivialities and commercialism of his age. But in terms of his own grandeur, his role as “the artist as symptom” is not the least of his achievements.