26 Jun 2011

Marc Desgrandchamps' painting

There is an major exhibition currently showing in Paris, at the Musée d'Art Moderne, of the work of a contemporary French painter called Marc Desgrandchamps. If this makes you want to see it, it will continue through the summer until September 4th. I first noticed his work at a smaller show of then recent work, a few years back at the Centre Pompidou. I was struck by it then and was glad to get to see this current show, which is bigger and more retrospective in its scope.

Desgrandchamps was born in 1960 and has been active as a painter for about 30 years. The earliest works in this show date from the late 1980's and have that strange, clumsy look to them of the neoclassical period of Picasso, with a touch of Roualt and bad Matisse. I find them ugly and derivative. For me, his painting takes off as from about 1993, at least judging by what is shown in this retrospective show.

Below is one of the paintings from this period. I couldn't find an image of my favourite work of his in this style, but this one is pretty good. It is a large diptych and introduces what is one of the recurrent themes in his subject matter: the seaside and bathers. Or, more exactly, female bathers usually seen from the back or the side in front of the sea with its horizon. This painting is one of the most litteral of the ones in the show, but these themes will be treated in the years to come with more ambiguity, using transparent colours, often with blues and greens dominant, as in the first painting shown on this page.

As time goes on, Desgrandchamps' use of colour becomes more subtle and his way of working with the suject matter increasingly allegorical, with multiple references to other paintings, movies or personal souvenirs. Often these are superposed in the same painting, and, as the colours are transparent and the paint very liquid, the runs of paint give an ethereal, evanescent quality to the subjects, as in this painting below where not only the women walking in the street are translucid, but the person with the running shoe seems to have vanished altogether!

These paintings rarely have titles, so the enigmas they contain remain unresolved, and it is up to us to do our part by looking and feeling and associating, back-tracking into our own echos of the painter's memory. I like the fact that they are not titled, both for this reason and as it means that some gallery goers do not spend all their time reading the titles and little or none looking at the paintings.

Desgrandchamps does preparatory sketches for his works, but the actual paintwork obviously takes him on a particular journer each time and accidental events crop up through this. The devil is often in the detail, which is sometimes obessive: for instance he clearly has a thing with flip-flaps as most of the women in his paintings seem to wear these.

Horses are another frequent presence (see the first painting here) and he declares in at least one painting his admiration for Stubbs, the English specialist of horse painting, by writing his name (mispelt) on the canvas.

Desgrandchamps is also an accomplished draughtsman and one of the joys of this show is to be able to see some of his graphic work, which includes drawings, lithographs and some interesting collages which operate like a commentary on his paintings. Most of the paintings are big and use oil on canvas, but there is the occasional smaller one, like this gouache.

Take a look also at my article on the more directly figurative work of the American painter Eric Fischl

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