Gérard Garouste: painting between madness and the quest for knowledge

[28 Jun 2010]


Gérard GAROUSTE is one of those artists who appears to have resisted the ebb and flow of artistic fashions and intellectual trends by continuing to express himself through ‘traditional’ painting.

Since the 1970s, when conceptual art took the ascendancy over figurative painting, he has used his brushes to depict a distinctly personal mythology and has not hesitated to search for inspiration in ancient scriptures and literary classics.Whereas so many artists seek to break with the past, Gérard Garouste re-interprets the Bible and he has even learnt Hebrew in order to gain a better insight into the Torah.In constant pursuit of the truth, he is wary of translations and seeks original sources of scriptures like the Bible but also classics by Cervantès and Dante.

His erudition translates into a wealth of symbols and allegorical references which he introduces into paintings of himself, his family, his friends (his wife Elizabeth, his son Guillaume or his friend Philippe STARCK for example) and his interior chaos.
Behind the visual lure of his works there is a complex and often literary interpretation that leads to the threshold of madness. Louise BOURGEOIS, who died on 31 May, used to say that art allowed her to tame her demons by getting to know them. For Louise, creativity was a guarantee of mental health by allowing confrontation with reality, whereas madness represented a kind of escape. Gérard Garouste experienced this kind of escape over many years, haunted by family secrets that destabilised his reason. Indeed, his chaotic personal life, interspersed with long periods of manic-depression, is candidly described in his autobiographical work entitled L’Intranquille. Autoportrait d’un fils, d’un peintre, d’un fou (Unsettled. Self-portrait of a son, a painter, a madman). For ten years Garouste was unable to paint, overwhelmed by his mental condition. From an art market perspective, demand for his work has suffered from a certain unsettledness that was somewhat counter-productive. For example, when he met the important art dealer Leo Castelli in 1983, a promising future in North America seemed possible. But, he was unable to produce a sufficient volume of work to satisfy the demand and although the Castelli network did provide the artist with a degree of international momentum, the shortage of paintings prevented a real breakthrough in the United States. Today, his market is almost exclusively French.

Although considered one of the best painters of the French contemporary art scene and despite his collaboration with Castelli, none of his works has ever sold in a New York auction room and only three paintings have sold in London, between 1995 and 2000 (for between €17,000 and €26,000). Garouste’s auction record is therefore very modest compared with those of his foreign peers: €59,000 for a large self-portrait painted in 1984 entitled L’homme à la veste verte, which was sold by Cornette de Saint-Cyr in October 2003. Other figurative painters of his generation fetch substantially higher prices on the back of a veritable international demand. The French artist Robert COMBAS holds a record of €85,000 for Les amoureux des bancs publics which sold at Pierre Bergé & Associés (Brussels) last April. YAN Pei-Ming, who has adopted French nationality, generated a 7-figure dollar record in June 2008 at Christie’s London when his Pape fetched £880,000 riding on the wave of rapid inflation that swept through contemporary Chinese art. The Belgian artist Luc TUYMANS also holds a 7-figure auction record for a painting entitled Sculpture. This record was set in New York on 11 May 2005 at Christie’s, as was that of Martin KIPPENBERGER, a German artist born in 1953 and whose untitled self-portrait fetched more than €2.6m on 12 May 2009 at Sotheby’s. In London, the South African artist Marlene DUMAS holds an auction record of €2.3m since her The Teacher (sub a) was offered at Christie’s on 9 February 2005 and the British artist Peter DOIG has a record equivalent to €7.7m since February 2007 (White Canoe, Sotheby’s, London).

At a time when painting is back in vogue, the fact that Gérard Garouste is not particularly well-known represents a genuine opportunity for art collectors with limited budgets. It is still possible to acquire one of his oil paintings at auction for less than €10,000 (Composition, fetched €9,000 on 3 June last at Sotheby’s in Paris) and a gouache drawing for less than €5,000 (his Deux personnages fetched €3,200 at Cornette de Saint-Cyr on 6 April 2008) or a bronze sculpture for between €6,000 and €10,000 The artist, who has a distinct preference for large formats, also produces etchings and drawings (some measuring 1 metre) that change hands for €250 to €500 on average.

He recently gave a large retrospective exhibition at the Villa Médicis in Rome (Le Classique et l’Indien, 14 October – 3 January 2010). Apart from that event, Garouste has not had a one-man show outside France for more than 10 years. His works do nevertheless figure among the collections of several museums in France (notably the Pompidou Centre in Paris) and abroad, with works in museums in Japan, Holland, Portugal, Italy, Hungary, Germany and in the famous Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York.

At 64 years old, Garouste’s demons have calmed down considerably. Henceforward, he plans to allow more lightness into his work and to produce more cheerful paintings. A new creative phase is about to begin…