:: by courtesy of the translator,
As the philosopher I am, I have every reason to be wary of how Pierre Soulages might judge me.
Most of the time, philosophy is concerned with painting in terms of the opposition between the sensible and the Idea, form and concept, Being and appearing. It oscillates between a phenomenology of the image, through the relationship between consciousness and reference, and a rhetoric of forms, through the notion of a language of painting, or even of a conceptual understanding of forms. The opposition between figurative and abstract is a by-product of this view, and, as a matter of fact, Pierre Soulages – a first sign of how little store he sets by critical discourses and classifications – likes to ridicule this sort of labeling as “non-figurative painting.”
The reason for this is, as Pierre Soulages tells us in the well-known, truly fundamental text of his published in 1984:
From very early on, I practiced a kind of painting that dispensed with
images and that I never considered as a language (in the sense
that language conveys meaning). Neither image nor language.
Here we philosophers are, if not dismissed out of hand, at least forewarned. None of our traditional approaches will allow us to have any real access to Soulages. “Neither image nor language”? How can we even begin then? How can we engage in meaningful philosophical discourse about painting?
Feeling wary, then, I decided to guard against rhetorical and interpretative excesses. I’m forgoing – for lack of authority, perhaps – the glorious style of continuous discourse here. Instead, I’m only going to propose a few fragments, nine fragments, actually.
Fragment 1 – Essentially autobiographical
I’m proud to be able to say here that my discovery of the name Soulages and of one of his works dates back to 1951, when I was fourteen and a half.
As my father, Raymond Badiou, was mayor of Toulouse at the time, in June 1951 (seated in the mayor’s box) I attended the first production of the dance drama Abraham at the Théâtre du Capitole, with music by Marcel Delannoy, choreography by Jeannine Charrat, and lighting by Louis Jouvet. I have a perfect memory of the stage sets painted by Soulages: big, black, slightly curved verticals, which I was amazed and very struck by, and which a critic of the time compared to palm tree trunks. That’s the first of the two memories I’ve kept of that now universally forgotten production. The second is of a line, spoken by a narrator in a terrifying voice: “Thus saith the Lord God: I exist!”
This correlation between Soulages’ brushstrokes, which were already black back then, and God’s existence might come to mind if we were to look at things this way: Isn’t the trajectory of the painter’s work, including the stained glass windows that he did for the abbey church of Sainte-Foy of Conques, a resolutely artistic experience, albeit one in full command of its artisanal techniques, whose aim is to be able to say, on behalf of all humanity, “Let there be light!”? Isn’t this how Soulages’ view of the artists of the Chauvet or Lascaux caves should be interpreted, when he says that they ventured into the pitch-blackness of the caves to paint in black a luminous conviction on the walls? And couldn’t it be argued that Soulages’ work creates the discipline of a Sacred devoid of any God?
So, for me, Soulages’s stage set in 1951 represented a sort of ironic humanistic response, through painting, to the thunderous declaration of his own existence by God, who, for his part, used the Word (because God – that’s one of his failings – doesn’t paint). Soulages’ painting forcefully proclaims: “Thus saith creative Humanity: I exist.”
Fragment 2 – On a text by Soulages
We should note in passing how clear and concise Soulages’ texts and interviews are. And how the negations in them (for example, “Neither image nor language”) gradually give rise to affirmation (for example, “A painting is an organization, a set of relationships between shapes, lines, and colored surfaces, on which the meanings we give it are made and unmade.”). In Soulages’ language as in his painting, the apparent refusal, the blackness, the negation, create light and shimmering affirmation.
The sentence that is the crux of this fragment is from an interview Soulages gave to Christian Labbaye in January 1974:
When I paint, the shape, the color, and the material all come to me at once. I don’t work on each of the different aspects of form separately. If I change or add something, I really don’t know whether it’s on account of the shape, the color, the material, the space, or the rhythm they create; rather, it’s on account of the effect of a whole set of relationships on my imagination and sensibility, on what I’m conscious and not conscious of, an effect that arouses the desire either to go deeper, to continue, or to destroy.
This text describes the actual process of the act of painting, and the description is by no means a simple one. It includes five different terms, or factors, that are involved in the activity.
1. There are the basic factors, the possibilities both concrete and abstract: shape, color, and material.
2. There is the way they come to the painter, with the crucial notion that they come to him all together. The act of painting consists in the simultaneous arrival of the shapes, colors, and materials.
3. This simultaneous arrival occurs in the guise of a relationship between the various components. What comes to the painter, in the act of painting, is a set of relationships.
4. This set of relationships that comes, either acts, or has a retroactive effect, on the very creator to whom they come, namely, the painter, the Subject, Imagination, sensibility, the conscious, the unconscious—all of this is seized upon by the relationships that emerge in this Subject’s act.
5. This action determines three possible orientations of the activity itself: to go deeper, to continue, or to destroy.
A description like this sheds light on the very powerful feeling that Soulages’ painting produces in the viewer: the feeling of a self-sufficiency that nonetheless summons one to a surpassing of self. Or, to put it another way, a calmness, a completeness, that is nonetheless imbued with a sort of inherent instability. The viewer’s gaze can also go deeper, continue, or withdraw. But there can be no doubt that the painting itself endures throughout these trials. There is something, specific to Soulages, that remains forever intact, untouched in the instability involved in the experience. Yes, in the contemporary context, where figures of precariousness, of mortal-being, or even of erasure or waste are sought, Soulages, without the slightest remorse, conveys the feeling of, if not eternity, at least of the always-already-there.
Soulages: a perpetrator of the crime of eternity, a “classic,” from whom the contemporary clamor will never be able to wring a single word of regret.
Fragment 3 – A painting. (Peinture 222 x 314 cm, 24 février 2008)
What does it really mean to speak about a painting? What can be said? Interpreted? Described? Are we condemned to shuttling back and forth between formalism and hermeneutics? Here, once again, the philosopher had better watch out. At any rate, it’s not for him to extract the meaning of a painting. Soulages writes:
A painting doesn’t convey meaning, it means […] It’s above all a thing that we enjoy seeing, that we enjoy interacting with, it’s the origin and the object of a dynamics of sensibility.
Soulages is very clear: it’s a thing, not an object.
Let me tell you a little story. More than fifty years ago, when I was taking the philosophy orals that were part of the entrance exam for the École Normale Supérieure, my examiner, Jean Hyppolite, the outstanding translator and critic of Hegel, suggested “What is a thing?” as a subject to me. When he critiqued my performance, Hyppolite, who had a lisp, said, “That’th very good, Mithter Badiou, but in the final analythis, what’th the differenth between a thing and an object?” Even way back then I could have answered: “Take one of Soulages’ paintings. It’s a thing that means, not an object that has meaning.”
Let’s try not to see the large painting 222 x 314cm, 24 février 2008 [see p. 190, bottom] as an object that has a meaning. Soulages is categorical about this. In 1957, almost at the exact same time as Hyppolite was forcing me to ask myself about the relations between things, objects, and meaning, Soulages wrote:
The various aspects of objects and objects themselves are not the reality.
It can obviously be inferred from this that a painting’s reality is not that it is an object whose various aspects and meanings can be inventoried as its own specific properties.
So let’s make an effort to see the painting not as an object whose meaning we can perceive but as a thing that, in Soulages’ phrase, “we enjoy interacting with.” A thing that has come into being via all its various dimensions. A thing that, simply by virtue of looking at it, we can go deeper into, continue with, or withdraw from, just as the painter has done at different stages of his work by virtue of his action.
So this is what I’d say about this painting:
– I enjoy interacting with the powerful intensification created by the juxtaposition of the two elements that are closely related yet different, like a sexuated twinning.
– The unlimited possibilities of the darkness, dense or smooth, deep right from its surface.
– The simplicity of the demarcation, a stunningly precise discontinuity, the result of a placement that looks like it derives from an artful, invisible calculation, namely, the horizontal bar and the diagonal bar, the latter as a crossing out, some giant tiger’s scratch, and the former as a boundary, a division establishing a permanent inequality.
– But the opposite of this simplicity as well: it’s the scratch that is deep and clean and the division that bleeds and is surrounded by complicated shapes, like a fractal curve.
In the end, what I interact with is a radiant duality fashioned by its own impurity. But this is the framework for so many vital experiences! Who among us, whether as friends, enemies, or lovers, isn’t familiar with differences like these, so clear when viewed from afar and yet so obscure when viewed up close?
Fragment 4 –The insistence of painting
It is striking how insistent Soulages is on saying that he’s a painter, intrinsically a painter, a painter now and forever. And that this is how he himself, hewing as closely as possible to the act of painting, explains his pursuit. This is a crucial idea, linked to the fact that this act of painting, in which the material gesture and thought are indistinguishable, is a process that gradually explores its own effects. The statement he makes is one that’s very emphatic, repeated often, and self-evident for Soulages right from the start:
I think I only learn what I’m looking for by painting.
Yet everyone knows that painting today is controversial and under attack on all sides, from soft technologies, reproducible images, ephemeral performance art, installations, wrappings, the secret theatricalizing of everyday life, the mixing of the arts, improvisation, the intrusion of pierced or tattooed bodies, and so many other practices. More broadly speaking, the objection raised is to the idea that an artwork can now take on the form of a thing – a key term, as we’ve seen. In fact, the notion that an artist should want to exhibit a thing whose purpose is to give pleasure, to inspire our experiencing a kind of love, is considered archaic today. The painter must disappear to make way, for example, for the dancer-actor-visual artist-poet.
The ever-so-highly acclaimed Soulages is nevertheless out of sync with his time in this regard. Never forget that, having been born in 1919, he is nearly the only survivor (along with Tàpies, born in 1923) of a constellation of great painters and that he witnessed a magnificent era of artistic creativity following the global cataclysm of the 1930s and ’40s. Let me give you a few reference points in support of this remark. Soulages was much younger than Rothko (born in 1903), Hartung (1904), and Vieira da Silva (1908) when he met them, although the age difference wasn’t enormous. All these artists were less than fifty years old at the time when Soulages first gained enthusiastic worldwide recognition. Soulages was also younger, although only a little less so, than Kline (1910), Manessier (1911), Pollock (1912) and De Staël (1914). But he was older than either Rauschenberg (1925) or Yves Klein (1928). The contemporaries of Soulages I just mentioned are all gone, a lot of them have been so for many years now. But Soulages is here, still here, an invincible witness. His defiant stubbornness has long been on display, to be sure, but is so now more than ever. It is connected, where he is concerned, to an obstinate resistance to any reduction of artistic activity to its context. The context includes schools of art or movements lumped together under a single adjective: surrealist, tachist, expressionist, abstract, conceptual, minimalist, constructivist, cubist, impressionist, figurative, socialist-realist, futurist, dadaist, pop-art, pointillist, ready-made, naïf… And goodness knows what others, in particular the one I’m suggesting we add to this already ludicrous list, namely – and I’ll justify this later – “affirmationist.” Not to mention everything based on the adjective “new,” from new figuration to new abstraction by way of neo-classicism. To tell the truth, this inflation of novelty isn’t something unique to painting. In the late 1970s we ourselves had the “new philosophers.” I can’t say we’ve benefited from it.
Soulages, for his part, never tires of repeating: I don’t belong to any school. This means that his painting, as he sees it, does not come from any coded collective context. This idea is what he was calmly opposing, already in 1951, to a certain Marxist dogma, which had spread even into his immediate circle. The conclusion is all-important, so I will quote it:
Because painting is an adventure in the world, it signifies the world. Because it is a synthesis, it signifies the world in its totality. Because it is a poetic experience, it signifies the world by transfiguring it. This metaphor cannot be undermined or explained by any of the factors to which one arbitrarily tends to make it correspond.
Note the subtle correlations between adventure and signification; synthesis and total signification; poetry and signifying transfiguration, after which we get an irreducible metaphor.
This path – adventure, synthesis, transfiguration – reveals painting to be a process, a totality, and an act of creation. All three of these aspects are affirmative. Painting is not a critique; it is an affirmation. An affirmation in painting, but also an affirmation of painting. An affirmation that, in Soulages’ case, has two features:
– It comes out of nowhere. As I already noted, painting begins with all the relationships that constitute it. So it is not transitive to a context; it is non-contextual right from the start. Paintings that are reducible to their milieu, era, or social context can be of interest only to the historian, because they have become mere documents, symptoms of their times. True painting is trans-temporal; it endures throughout time. This also means that it is accessible to people from all backgrounds. I’m going to argue here that, for Soulages, despite all evidence to the contrary, painting is a popular art, in the following way: it presupposes nothing on the part of the viewer since it requires no prior knowledge of a context. Painting is generic.
– It comes from the dawn of time. Painting, as the prehistoric caves prove, is coextensive with the human race. It has always existed, and therefore, regardless of what certain avant-gardes may claim, it will always begin again.
This explains why Soulages’ paintings are at once self-evident and strange. Their self-evidence comes from prehistory, their strangeness from the fact that, in Soulages’ work, the act of painting decontextualizes the artistic phenomenon as much as possible. Soulages is our contemporary – no one can deny that he belongs to our times – but he is also a contemporary of our origins. That would explain the irresistible impact he produces, regardless of the time or place. Soulages: a perennial contemporary.
Fragment 5 – The pictorial triangle
Another of Soulages’ well-known, key statements:
The reality of a work is the three-way relationship it establishes between the thing it is, the artist who produces it, and the viewer who sees it.
We have already seen how a painting’s reality does not lie in its being an object that conveys meaning but a thing one enjoys seeing. We have also seen how it is the result of a process by which the painter gradually comes to learn what he is looking for, with no pre-existing agenda. The overall reality of a work thus involves:
– a Subject who is looking for something without knowing what s/he’s looking for;
– a thing that results from a process of partial awareness as to what is being looked for;
– another Subject who enjoys interacting with the thing and who therefore finds support in it for what s/he him/herself is looking for.
Soulages would also say something along the lines of: A painting creates a space in front of itself and the viewer is in that space. As a result, the viewer’s movements in the space are part of the work’s reality. The thing is seen from multiple points of view. Therefore, it must itself be a sign of this multiplicity.
The thing can be said to be a mediation between the artist’s partly blind quest and the viewers’ partly aware quest. I think this relationship between blindness and awareness, which presupposes three terms (two Subjects and a thing), explains why the best thing possible is ultimately to show the infinite luminosity that is latent in black. In this sense, Soulages’ ultrablack is indeed the pictorial affirmation of what painting is capable of.
For example, the space created for the viewer in front of the immense black polyptychs is such that his/her movements, his/her walking around, cause the various different lights and colors in the black to change all the time. Thus, the pictorial triangle becomes: the various different ways the painter worked his way through the black; the thing exhibited as an infinite synthesis of the different kinds of light in the black; and the constantly shifting gaze teasing out a part of this infinity.
The pictorial triangle can be defined again, in more philosophic terms, as follows:
1. The painter’s creative experience, through going deeper, continuing, or breaking off, turns the One of the black thing into the repository of an infinite variety of lights-colors.
2. The thing sets out its own particular space for the viewer from which it can be viewed, from which one can enjoy viewing it. This is the being-there of the One of the thing, its exhibition.
3. The viewer introduces his/her own movement into the space and teases out the One of the thing in accordance with the latent treasures of its infinity.
So, yes, we sense and know how true Pierre Encrevé’s words are. Oh, that Pierre Encrevé! He’s so extraordinary. He’s the subtle connoisseur and lover of each one of Soulages’s paintings, of each one of the more than fifteen hundred paintings, just think! I feel as though I’m standing humbly in judgment before him. He’s the chief examiner of the Soulages exam that I’m taking here, at Beaubourg. It was this incredible Encrevé who wrote:
A painting that refers to nothing refers me back to myself, and since it calls for no deciphering, no imposing of meaning on it, it calls for me to constitute myself as meaning.
It couldn’t have been said any better.
Fragment 6 – A painting. 165 x 117cm, 1 février 2000*
In this painting, I see Soulages’ unique operations, taken to their peak, in the painting process. They are so unique that just being able to identify them is an iffy proposition. Generally speaking, the black overlay of the painting is scored, as it were, in the guise of fourteen horizontal bands, the result of which is a violent emotion, as if the black were blocking out a world that can only be seen, so to speak, through the slats in some blinds.
But the surface on which this blocking out occurs is itself enigmatic. It is based wholly on deceptive symmetries. First of all, the division into two suggests a diptych, but that’s only an illusion: the painting is all of a piece. It also suggests a kind of face-off between striations and smudges obtained by “pulling.” But the irregular repetitions on one side and the deliberate disorder of the smudges on the other bring to the surface a kind of chaos in contrast to which it is the violated and defiled white that evokes a peaceful surface, whereas the imperious black is corroded, as it were, by a destructive rust of sorts.
The viewer in the space before this painting feels an emotion that combines discomfort and questioning. What is concealed and hidden from view by a surface at once hypnotic, scored, scratched, and on the verge of disintegration? What is at work in the painting, the philosopher would say, is the subversion of any assumption of Oneness. Here, the pictorial thing overtly displays its incapacity to restrain the infinite it both possesses and contains.
The sanctity of pure whiteness is virtually at work, though, since the dark surface continues to disintegrate on my right and to turn into metallic light on my left.
Thus, every painting by Soulages indicates that it could go on. That is how the painter-Subject is the same as the viewer-Subject. The former cannot say that the activity from which the work derives is definitely finished, nor can the latter say s/he is done with what his/her gaze can discover. As in the prose works of Beckett, who was in a way the creator of the ultrablack of writing, the sole imperative of ethics is: go on.
Fragment 7 – The dialectics of the painting process
At first glance, Soulages’ painting seems monolithic and perfectly self-assured. It is by no means a kind of tormented deconstruction. On the contrary, it seems to be much more a serene construction. It is not heterogeneous or tortured; it is, as Spinoza might say, aquiescentia in se ipso, “at rest in itself.” Its guiding principle is not unconscious fantasy, the horrible, the shrill cry, the Subject’s capitulation or splitting. It learns what it is looking for little by little and, we might even say, relishes this learning. As we’ve all seen, its blackness is light. Gradually, there also develops an ambition for monumentality. The glorification of the ultrablack is consistent with oversized formats, just as it is with the very deliberate transparency of the stained glass windows of Conques. You’d have to look long and hard to find a kind of painting that was as far removed as this from the theme – which came from the likes of Dada and Duchamp – of art as the destruction of art!
And yet, and yet! The fact that black should be light, that it should be color, ought to alert us. As should the fact that the huge One of the painting should be the infinite scintillation of the brushstrokes, which sometimes seem to include an unknown metal in the impasto; that the stability of the whole should be home to a multitude of local instabilities; that the techniques involved should be tearing, savage scratches, deliberate bleeding, the imposing of dripping bands of acrylic paint on the white; that there should suddenly return, like a persistent memory, the deepest blue, at once rival and friend of the black; that the diptychs should be disjointed, or even asymmetrical – all this indicates that a dense, teeming dialectic, like some secret process of affirmative monumentality, is operating within.
With Soulages, the solemn Unity of the paintings is but the arena, or one could almost say the fiction, of an infinitely complex, open network of relationships that the viewer’s gaze gradually discloses. And in the end, these relationships surpass the Unity enclosing them because the gaze, combined with the displacement of the body in space, discovers that they are, quite simply, infinite. And all the more infinite, I’d say, since they are not restrained, or constrained, by either an image or an anecdote, or by any meaning imposed on them, or even by a univocal construction. The calm, monumental unity of ultrablack, which is really like ultramarine then, is the pictorial landscape of a world without borders, and of an infinite potentiality of perspectives and meanings.
Fragment 8 – A painting. Peinture. 222x137cm, 3 février 1990
The dialectical subject matter proposed here [p. 190, top], in its immediate appearance, is the hard-won defeat of the black by the blue. On a canvas with a height of 2.22m [7-3/16' ], the blue, at the bottom, takes up approximately 1.38m [4½'] and the black, only 84cm [2-3/4']. In reality, though, the black seeps into the blue, because it seems as though smooth ribbons of blue were simply falling onto an essential black. But you could also say that a sort of luminous blue contagion, very elusive but nonetheless inevitable, is spreading to the black bands at the top. And so what ultimately comes “together,” inseparably, there, at once revealing and concealing the background and the colors, is a construction of bands displayed against a presumably black, motionless backdrop, like a curtain standing out against the profound darkness behind it.
Faced with these ambiguous reversibilities, the philosopher’s affect can be described – I’m borrowing from Lacan – as follows. A truth, namely, the black of the ultrablack here, can only be “half-said.” You might want to say it’s in the blue, for example, with a remnant of black, but in the final analysis this remnant is equivalent to what it’s the remnant of. And consequently the truth displays the veil, the curtain, above all, which means that it can only be glimpsed. Or, as Soulages says, we learn what we’re looking for only in proportion to what the quest itself reveals of its own means.
A truth is never given, it is always constructed. And this construction, which is always incomplete, leaves the person who comes in contact with it, or participates in it, suspended between the joy of the new and the melancholy of incompletion.
So we can understand why Soulages, who, when his catalogue raisonné came out, was asked, “How do you feel about returning during your lifetime to the works of your youth?” replied: “Well, actually, I don’t like it, I prefer to think about the painting I’m going to do tomorrow.”
Someone looking at one of Soulages’ paintings is no better off: s/he can only stop looking at it because s/he has the urge to look at another one.
Fragment 9 – Comments and philosophical lingo
In conclusion, I’m going to allow myself to shamelessly use my own philosophical lingo. As far as I’m concerned, truths exist; we know what they are. A truth is a unique construction: a love, a mathematical theorem, a popular uprising, or a painting. It begins as an event, a rupture; in short, it begins nowhere, or rather, where it’s not expected. It continues owing to a dogged determination to explore the consequences of this unforeseen upsurge and to construct something out of it. And it comes to an end as something both miraculous and incomplete.
I would say that Soulages’ painting is like an allegory of this construction of truth. He’s aware of this:
I think painting can discover new forms that correspond to a truth.
Painting of this sort comes from neither a sensory referent, nor a conceptual agenda, nor some ideal of Beauty, nor the ambitions of a school. It comes from nothing but itself. It is self-legitimating. It doesn’t know what it’s looking for, but its process involves constructing the possibility of a knowledge. It is the dogged determination to organize the consequences of the first gestures that engender it. And this creates a thing that I’d call a thing of painting-truth, always thoroughly incompletable.
A painting by Soulages, one he himself regards as a success, constructs within the painting a fragment of truth of the painting. That’s why I’m giving myself the right to partly appropriate this great painter: he is, in a way, “my” painter, and this is so even though he owes absolutely nothing to me, while I, on the contrary, owe a great deal to him. A notable survivor, he is a painter in search of the timeless essence of painting. He is a Platonic painter, in the sense that I give that word.
There holds sway, or there once did, a critical esthetic consciousness, hostile to beautiful form, or to form as such, and seeking the anxiety of the form-less. An art opposed to the artwork, an art that aspires to the work’s undoing. An art that dislikes art, that desires non-art, or the dissolution of art into ordinary life. Painting without a thing painted, or painting done not by one but by all. Painting that is done away with by being widely disseminated.
Based on paintings from four hundred centuries ago, Soulages, as opposed to esthetic nihilism, completely reaffirms painting in its perennially new continuity. It is in this sense that he is an affirmationist. In the sphere of the truths of art, this no doubt corresponds to what “the Platonism of the multiple” attempts to express in the sphere of philosophy.
In the text entitled “A Manifesto of Affirmationist Art” (in my book Polemics), here is how I formulated what seemed to me to be the maxims of an affirmationist art:
The art that is, and the art that is to come, should hang together as solidly as a demonstration, be as surprising as a night-time ambush, and as elevated as a star (p.147).
And I remarked that these three imperatives, in the various different contemporary schools of art, were usually separate and distinct. Originality, or surprise, precludes coherence. Coherence, or solidity, doesn’t go with surprise. Surprise, a desire to shock, transgression preclude elevation. You can have the conceptualist demonstration, the surprise of performance art, or architectural or contemplative elevation; you can’t have all three.
Except in the case of some artists, including Soulages in France and, using different, or even opposite, means, Anselm Kiefer in Germany. I say “opposite” because Soulages trusts in pure pictorial form whereas Kiefer needs huge symbolic supports, such as Wagnerian opera, the history of the Nazi extermination, or Paul Celan’s poetry. But the end result, in both cases, imposes the explicit power of a latent infinity.
A painting by Soulages, one of his largest ones, is always monumental, dispersive, and radiant. It demonstrates, it surprises, it shows us the way to an inner star. Because it is an allegory of the way of truths, Soulages’ art, which some regard as little more than a stylish affectation of black, is in fact a consummate art.
And since Soulages made a point of saying that painting is a poetic experience that only signifies by trans-figuring (which is to say: by going beyond figure, beyond any and all figure), I’ll take my final words from the French poet of the 1940s and 50s who most resembles him, owing to the rugged peasant force of his stubborn preoccupation with language: André Frénaud. I’m going to read you an excerpt from the long, magnificent poem entitled “La Complainte du roi mage” [“The Complaint of the Wise Man”], a poem Frénaud wrote while a prisoner of war in 1941. It is the rêverie of the Three Wise Men during a stop on their journey.
Yet during the first campaigns, how delightful the waiting
when with two other dreamers,
by the same star diverted
from their groves, from the serene sweetness of their shade,
we traveled over deserts replenished by our fervor.
O contented, eager wing! Long rainbow breath
in our hearts and the land. O early morn!
When our tents, errant isles, wreaked fresh havoc on
the multitudes pliant to our emotion and awkwardly entranced.
Lord of plenitude… Stranger who approached,
majestic and fleeting as a cloud.
Pierre Soulages! I’d like to say something about you that was inspired in me by the meaning effect on whose account I remain, utterly amazed, in the space your ultrablack painting creates in front of itself: solitary, complete, overwhelming, and surely astonishing. Yes, it can indeed be said of you:
Lord of plenitude… Stranger who approached,
majestic and fleeting as a cloud.
January 22, 2010
This essay was published in a catalogue of the Dominique Lévy Gallery in New York in 2010. It was the translation of the piece Badiou had written for a Soulages exhibition at the Pompidou in Paris. For his forthcoming book Black: the Brilliance of a Non-Color, Badiou revised it, greatly shorten it. We print the longer essay.
*Our apologies for the quality of some of the reproductions of Soulages' work; sharper images could not be found.