Pierre Soulages

Painting 304 x 181 cm, 9 December 2007


Not on display
Pierre Soulages born 1919
Acrylic paint on four canvases
Overall: 3070 x 1816 mm
Presented by the artist 2017


Early on in his career, Pierre Soulages determined that the titles allotted to his works should provide the data of their size and day of completion. This is true of Painting 304 x 181 cm, 9 December 2007 2007 which belongs to the sequence of large-scale outrenoir (literally ‘beyond black’) works that he started in 1979. From the outset in the 1940s, Soulages was fascinated with the potential of black, something that would become the key element of his career. In the outrenoir paintings he modified the density of black by the use of complex textures. Painting 304 x 181 cm, 9 December 2007 is made of a stack of four horizontal canvases each exhibiting a different textural treatment. The top panel presents a duality of long striations running across its width and a flattened plane below. The two middle panels are restrained. The upper one has a matt finish. This is off-set by the silky sheen of the third panel, which seems to have been begun by subtle vertical strokes smoothing the paint surface. The lowest panel of Painting 304 x 181 cm, 9 December 2007 is the most textured and thus echoes the very top of the composition.

Soulages began to use acrylic paint in 2004 and its characteristic of drying fast had a determining impact on the speed at which he could work on his canvases. According to Pierre Encrevé, the author of the artist’s catalogue raisonné, the painter only began to explore drying substances that could achieve a matt finish in 2007, so that the second panel of Painting 304 x 181 cm, 9 December 2007 is one of the early wave of paintings including this distinct property. Developing from preconceived sketches, Soulages works standing over his long thin canvases laid flat on the floor. Each panel is prepared by his assistant with a paste of black acrylic paint appropriate to the anticipated weight that it must bear. The striations in the top panel are achieved by the artist cutting into the thick wet paste with the corner of an implement of his own devising, made of a flat blade mounted at the end of a long handle. The densely laden paint on the lowest panel has been worked with another long-handled instrument, this time a brush, with customised short bristles, that has been dragged through the sticky paste. Photographs of Soulages at work with such implements show him manipulating them easily with one hand (Encrevé 2015, p.45).

Painting 304 x 181 cm, 9 December 2007 belongs to a sequence of works of similar dimensions. Despite their unitary nature, however, they are conceived as a whole and component parts are not exchanged between works. Unsuccessful works are destroyed. Intrigued by the French tradition of standard proportions of canvases for different genres – portrait, landscape and marine – Soulages has developed his own preferred proportional combinations. As he moved to a new gradeur in the later 2000s, Painting 304 x 181 cm, 9 December 2007 was the first work to be made on these proportions. Comparable works include the slightly taller format of Peinture 324 x 181 cm, 12 février 2005 2005 and Peinture 324 x 181 cm, 17 novembre 2008 2008 (Encrevé 2015, nos.1305 and 1417 respectively), both of which are more energetically textured than this work from 2007.

The materiality of the works governs the way in which light falls and is reflected, generating the complexity of their impact on the viewer’s perception. Photographs of Soulages’s outrenoir paintings serve mainly as records of one aspect of their complex play of light, as the black paint absorbs and reflects colour from its surroundings. In the official photograph of Painting 304 x 181 cm, 9 December 2007 the matt surface of the second panel reads as definitively black, allowing the sheen of the adjacent surfaces to read as pale grey (Encrevé 2015, p.238). This gives some sense of the experience before the physical object, as any movement determines the shifting fall of light and the sympathetic reflection of local environmental colours. Quoting the artist, historian Isabelle Ewig has remarked: ‘They catch the light, refuse and modulate it; black is stripped of darkness to become a source of light “born from the canvas”.’ (Isabelle Ewig, ‘L’outrenoir ou le fonctionnement de la peinture’, in Pierre Encrevé and Alfred Pacquement, Soulages, exhibition catalogue, Centre Pompidou, Paris 2009, p.95, quoting the artist from Pierre Soulages, Noir lumière: entretiens avec Françoise Jaunin, Lausanne 2002, p.117.)

Although Soulages’s work of the twenty-first century has developed far beyond its origins in the 1940s, certain continuities may be identified. Belying the apparent restrictions of his concern with black, it has passed through many distinct phases. Soulages has long held an interest in the cave paintings of southern France where hunters and hunted were depicted on the rough walls of darkened caves. The works that ensured his early prominence, such as Painting, 23 May 1953 (Tate N06199), relied on the trace of individual gestures that can be related to this prehistoric precedent as well as a contemporary interest in calligraphy. His concentration in the 1950s on the action of the informel, held in common with contemporaries such as Hans Hartung (1904–1989), has since developed into a concern with the matière – the matter of paint itself – found in the outrenoir. This is evident in the refined technique in which the trace of movement continues to play a significant role. The factual titling declares the painting as an object in time and, in this sense, there is no allusion to meanings beyond its physical presence. There is, however, a simultaneous defiance of this physicality as the work enables a perceptual experience of light that lies, as the artist would have it, outside the materiality of the object itself. The paradox of black being the source of light yields the considerable variety in Soulages output over a long and distinguished career.

Further reading
Pierre Encrevé and Alfred Pacquement, Soulages, exhibition catalogue, Centre Pompidou, Paris 2009, reproduced p.277, no.97 (dimensions given as ‘4 elements of 76 x 181 cm’).
Pierre Encrevé, Soulages: L’oeuvre complet; Peintures: IV. 1997–2013, Paris 2015, pp.210, 238, reproduced. no.1379 (dimensions given as ‘1 element 71 x 181, 1 element 81 x 181, 1 element 71 x 181 and 1 element 81 x 181 cm’).

Matthew Gale
June 2017

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