Widely exhibited during the 1960s and held in the same private collection for the past half-century, Peinture 146 x 114 cm, 6 mars 1960 is a beautiful and monumental painting by Pierre Soulages. A dark field of tar-black oil paint is combed across the upper half of the canvas in broad, horizontal brushstrokes. In a brilliant instance of his scraped raclage technique, Soulages has incised the still-wet black with bold drags of a homemade spatula, pulling back curtains of dark pigment to reveal a bright, theatrical blaze of blood red beneath. In the painting’s lower half, framed by a ground of off-white, a dance of horizontal and vertical black forms sets the composition in formidable, calligraphic balance. The force and drama of the painting is inescapable, and its variety of tones and textures astonishing. Its sonorous darkness conjures the chiaroscuro warmth of a Rembrandt; the choreography of scraped and marbled paint anticipates the dragged veils of colour achieved two decades later by the German master Gerhard Richter. From the black’s glinting opacity – pushed into liquid banks at the brink of each slash – to the glowing, almost glassy zones of red, Soulages exploits the full potential of oil paint, celebrating what he has called its ‘physiognomic’ qualities. Soulages paints not as a philosopher, narrator or ideologue, but as a painter. Never aiming to communicate his emotions or states of being, he does not record gesture or movement in his brushstrokes. He instead arranges contrasts into a single, charged surface that is to be apprehended in its totality. Replete with the timeless grandeur of the prehistoric and Romanesque art that inspired him as a youth, Peinture 146 x 114 cm, 6 mars 1960 epitomises the unique immediacy, assurance and power of Soulages’ practice.
This work dates from the peak of Soulages’ use of the raclage technique, a high point in a career of remarkable, single-minded consistency. He had first made unified linear compositions in 1947, realising in them the guiding principle of his art: if a line did not record the duration of its making, time was brought to a standstill, and movement transformed into dynamic tension. He experimented with chiaroscuro effects and dark, interlocking beams of paint throughout the 1950s, and was by 1960 creating complex, translucent colour in his works through scraping away layers of pigment. ‘The years 1957-1963’, writes Pierre Encrevé, ‘particularly illustrate one of Soulages’ characteristic techniques in the double treatment of the surface: that of scraping, or, if one prefers, transparency through uncovering. On the prepared canvas (primed in white), he applies a layer of paint covering part or all of the surface, upon which he superimposes, while the paint is fresh, one or more layers of different colour. He then uncovers a part of the background using the same soft-bladed spatulas that he more often loads with black paint … A subtle mixture of the different layers’ colours is created, each time surprising for the painter himself; infinite variations of colour are discovered on the canvas; new luminosities, and unexpected colour intensities through transparencies of black … these mixtures, these disappearances-reappearances under the blade-scraped veils of black where the “transfigured” colour acquires a presence of a very particular emotional intensity’ (P. Encrevé, ‘Le noir et l’outrenoir’, in Soulages: Noir Lumière, exh. cat. Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, Paris 1996, p. 30).
This ‘emotional intensity’ is at its most vivid in Peinture 146 x 114 cm, 6 mars 1960. Painted in the airy rue Galande studio that Soulages moved to in 1957, the work witnesses an artist at the height of his powers. Although he was yet to receive major acclaim in France, Soulages was enjoying huge success in New York. He had visited the city in 1957 and became close friends with Robert Motherwell and Mark Rothko. In 1959, the prices paid for his works by his dealer Samuel Kootz had doubled for the second time, and in July that same year Rothko visited him and his wife in Paris, where they threw him a party at the studio. While Rothko was never a direct influence on Soulages’ work, Peinture 146 x 114 cm, 6 mars 1960 bears some of the imposing vertical impact of the American painter’s floating bars of colour, and Soulages was certainly animated by the lively exchanges they shared. The work’s rhythmic, inky pulses of black on white also have echoes of Motherwell’s Elegies to the Spanish Republic. Peinture 146 x 114 cm, 6 mars 1960 displays Soulages at his most energised and daring, pushing his work into a bold and tumultuous chromatic dance. Beyond its dynamic relationship between colours, the work’s interplay of rough, smooth, vertical and horizontal textures also shows Soulages exploiting his material’s myriad interactions with light to ever greater power and contrast, filling the surface with life and anticipating the ultimate, breakthrough simplicity of the all-black Outrenoir canvases he would commence in 1979.
Born in Rodez in southern France in 1919, Soulages was captivated as a boy by the region’s menhirs: enigmatic, carved standing stones dating to the late Neolithic era. He was indignant when a teacher derided the simplicity of the stark carvings in Sainte-Foy de Conques, a famous Romanesque abbey church close to his hometown. The experience of standing beneath this 11th-century building’s huge barrel vault was what first inspired Soulages to become a painter; in 1986 he would have the honour of designing its new windows, for which he developed a new kind of glass with variable translucency. Just as inspirational were the 20,000-year-old cave paintings of Lascaux, discovered in 1940, and, later, the even older cave art found in Chauvet en Ardèche in 1994. Soulages’ own palette – as in the present work – has scarcely deviated from the rich, elemental reds, blacks and ochres used by the ancient artists who worked in the darkness of the caves. For Soulages, such rough-hewn creations are far more moving than the most elegant mimetic accomplishments of Classical art. He is impressed by their fervour and intensity, their desire to escape the fleeting.
Soulages’ journey to a successful painting is not always easy. ‘I paint by crisis,’ he says. ‘Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. If we know exactly what we are going to do before we do it we are not artists but artisans’ (P. Soulages, quoted in S. Heyman, ‘Pierre Soulages: Master of Black, Still Going Strong’, New York Times, 20 May 2014). If a work is failing, it is incinerated. Only when he feels that there is something in the work that the viewer can respond to does Soulages persist, pausing between each stroke as he pursues a unified and dynamic whole. The great physical strength required to apply his swathes of paint must be charged with total assurance. Peinture 146 x 114 cm, 6 mars 1960, with its remarkable clarity, unity and resonance, is a masterpiece of Soulages’ method. It has the natural, unquestionable structural beauty and monumentality of a tree, its spatial relationships and tensions laid bare in boughs stripped dark against the sky. Concentrated, ageless, serene and primal, it aims to provoke as profound and engaged a response as a blood-red beast on a prehistoric wall, the graceful darkness of Conques, or any other art of true power and mystery.