At 100 years of age, “the world's greatest living artist” proves he is still the authority on matters black and light.
At the age of 100, Pierre Soulages continues to name his canvasses by their dimensions and dates, having produced over 1,700 paintings, engravings, and sculptures in his lifetime.
Described in 2014 by French President François Hollande as “the world's greatest living artist,” the European Master of post-war contemporary art continues to be a reference.
With an oeuvre covering more than 1,700 paintings, engravings and sculptures, Soulages’ works have gained unparalleled magnitude and recognition over the years, and the ultimate accolade was an exhibition dedicated to him at the Louvre museum to celebrate his 100th birthday. Following the same trend, starting on April 19th, the Espace Lymia in Nice will host Pierre Soulages, La puissance créatrice, giving art enthusiasts a glimpse of 72 rarely seen works.
Galleries also look to promote and praise this exceptional genius, and it comes as no surprise that Opera Gallery will feature some of his most prominent artworks. In February last year, Opera Gallery Monaco opened an exhibition dedicated to a trio of masters—Jean Dubuffet, Hans Hartung and Pierre Soulages. This show featured a carefully curated selection of works from all three artists. Following the success of this exhibition, and to establish itself as an expert regarding all things Soulages, Opera Gallery opened another show featuring Soulages and Dubuffet in Geneva, tying them to their Ancient Arts inspirations. Through innovative scenography and unprecedented perspective, Opera Gallery has managed to be recognized as one of the leading experts on Soulages’ œuvre.
Yet just how did the son of a horse- drawn cart maker become the first living French artist to sell a work for more than $10 million, when his “Peinture 186 × 143 cm, 23 décembre 1959” went for $11 million (€9.2 million) in New York on November 15, 2018?
Born on December 24, 1919, in Rodez, northeast of Toulouse, Soulages headed to Paris at the age of 18 to prepare for the entrance exam to the École nationale supérieure des beaux-arts (National School of Fine Arts). He was accepted but was less than convinced by the quality of the education and declined admission.
Before returning home, he took advantage of his time in the City of Light, visiting the Louvre and exhibits by established Modern artists such as Cézanne and Picasso, who broadened his artistic horizons, which up to that point had been based on painting in traditional forms of figurative art.
However, his newfound knowledge of art would be dampened by World War II. The artist was enlisted in 1940 and demobilized the following year. When the Occupation reached Montpellier, where he had fled, Soulages began a clandestine life to avoid the STO (Compulsory Work Service), during which time he completely stopped painting.
After the war ended, Soulages returned to his art. He settled in Paris with his wife Colette Llorens. His artwork began to reveal a new, darker tone, and move closer to gestural abstraction, perfecting his technique using a combination of charcoal and walnut stain, a material traditionally used to stain wood. These works attracted immediate attention, a contrast to the colorful, semi-figurative painting and geometric abstract works that made up most Post-War art.
Two years later, his work was exhibited in Paris and across Europe, notably the “Französische abstrakte malerei,” the first Abstract Art show in post-war Germany, featuring several French artists resident in Paris, including Hans Hartung, also featured alongside Soulages at Opera Gallery Monaco.
Peinture 162 x 130 cm, 13 novembre 1969, oil on canvas, 162 x 130 cm - 63.8 x 51.2 in
In 1949, the Lydia Conti gallery dedicated a solo show to Soulages in Paris, which led to group shows in New York, London, São Paulo and Copenhagen. He was part of Advancing French Art (1951) and Younger European Artists (1953) at the Guggenheim Museum in New York and of The New Decade at the New York Museum of Modern Art (1955).
Fame found Soulages during the 1950s, more so in the U.S. than in France. The most established museums and art collectors purchased his artworks, including the Phillips Gallery in Washington, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Tate Gallery in London, the Musée d’art moderne in Paris and the Museu de Arte Moderna in Rio de Janeiro.
In 1979, he exhibited his first mono-pigment paintings, based on the reflection of light upon different qualities of black surfaces. This pictorial light born from the difference between two types of darkness would later be referred to as “noir-lumière” (“black- light”) and “outrenoir” (“ultra-black”).
For Soulages, the 1980s were a poetic experience, an invitation to meditate further and experiment in technique and materials. From 1987 to 1994, he created 104 stained glass panels— non-pigmented, pellucid glass that respected the variations of natural light—for the Sainte-Foy-de-Conques abbatial church. In 2007, the Fabré Museum in Montpellier, home to many European Masters, dedicated a wing to the artist’s “outrenoirs,” and in 2014 the Musée Soulages opened in his home town of Rodez, where the artist and his wife had generously donated nearly €7 million to the city over the years. The museum features Soulages’ largest collection in the world but also a space dedicated to Contemporary Art.
Today, Soulages is featured in more than 110 museums across all continents, with more than 230 paintings. He is the first living artist to be invited to exhibit works at the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg and the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow.
Even at age 100, Soulages continues “to awaken spirits to what is artistic creation in general.” He shared the secret to his success with Le Figaro in 2018. “I have been and I remain a marginal.”
As part of their permanent collections and temporary shows, Opera Gallery Monaco and Opera Gallery Group exhibit a number of Soulages’ works.