The Chair of Icarus

by Jean Attali

The first feeling is that of a red background, which is forthright and light although it only partially covers the bareness of the canvas. The bright tone of the background undertakes from the very start the value reversal which bestows the colors of shadow and earth - the so-called natural colors - to the figure floating in the centre of the painting. On this red background glitter flakes of whitish matter, which appear to have fallen from above the frame. As for the figure, before one can even clearly make out its outline and its substance, it takes the shape of an irregular rafter, or perhaps of a vague mountain profile: it is a mass sketched like a faraway landscape, masked or lightened by an atmospheric foreground of milky fog. The painted shape is as if suspended above a large section of raw matter.

The shape appears little by little. The impression of landscape emerges from a simple cabinetmaking piece and its organic force, from the initial print of an anatomical subject. The subtle shift between the styles of a still virtual iconography gives the finally delivered image its efficiency, its power to allude and to penetrate the mind. Originally, this painting was but an exercise in speed, one of those which strengthen the hand and the dexterity of the painter. Yet, the factual and ordinary rough sketch hurriedly rose to the level of the pictorial myth and of the allegorical image. On a first fragment of the body, Philippe Guérin painted a carved piece of wood, a foot from a Louis XV chair, and traced its curve and its volute. By repetition and superimposition of the sketch line on the browning antique, the curved wood became human leg and foot. An ambiguous thigh replaced the seat of the chair, the whole leg around the bend of the knee took on the edge of the seat and gave flesh to the style of the ornament. Then, the inclination of this shape and of this bend from the axis of the canvas, and a rocking motion, like a chair being knocked over, have concentrated effects of thickness of flesh, of density and of gravity on an area which is nonetheless empty and bare, where the painting disappears and lets the unadorned canvas speak. Eventually, one does see a leg and the outline of a calf, and the clarity of an ankle, but the figurative evidence which comes to light is that of a surviving image, subsisting despite the evanescence and the obliteration of matter. The matte complexion of the painting given by the hide glue used here rather than oil, the absence of varnish which confirms the rejection of shine, of any lighting device, underline the tension of the subject, the visual economy, the painter’s discipline. In this relative dryness, despite the blazing red background, emerges the impression of a simple rough sketch, but one which would allow the game of pictorial reminiscence. Not to say that these were desired or searched for themselves: the gesture of the painter is rather sucked into billowing currents which carry with them all the images of art, which disentangle, through history and sometimes against it, the thread of memories - colors, shapes, legends and fantasies together.

The leg is barely floating: in fact it is lingering. Feelings of pleasure and of loss of the self emerge from this spread out thigh, for the eye of the voyeur. The probable posture of this body, represented by the bend and the flesh naked to the hip, is that of someone lying on a bed, leaning on one elbow, of rest or of embrace. The nakedness of this barely painted figure sustains the invisible part of the image, and stages a silent drama of supposed abandonment to the double dizziness of ecstasy and death. The red of the painting reminds one of the shirt of the laborer which illuminated the landscape of The Fall of Icarus by Bruegel the Elder. The milky flakes, like a mantilla thrown here on the leg rather than on the shoulder, revive the feathers scattered by the wind, fallen from Icarus’s wings, and the foam of the sea of the moment when the body sinks. The bent leg is that of the drowning man of Bruegel’s painting (Museum of Royal Arts, Brussels), or that of the acrobatics of Dedalus’ son of Peter Gowi’s painting (the Prado, Madrid).

Jean Attali, March 2011
Translation: Catalina Onofrei

Exhibition’s catalogue - Painting : Alive ! - 2011, Sichuan Museum, China


by Claude Barraud

Quite a while ago, I bought Philippe Guérin's painting called "Annunciation".

My own inclination in "reading" this painting is from right to left, which should come as no surprise in China, where vertical ideogram columns, in painting, print or otherwise, are traditionally read from right to left. Nonetheless, explicit interpretations of a beloved painting remain fraught with difficulty and deceit; such a painting indeed strikes too much of an immediate and instinctive feeling to be easily analyzed. To make it easier, I thus decided to use this obviously narrow "reading" prejudice, so as to convey my own limited understanding of the painting; such a "trick" helps hiding the human failure at describing our perceptions and my own lack of imagination.

The Annunciation is the Christian celebration of the announcement by the archangel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary that she would become the mother of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. The Annunciation has been a key topic in art in general, particularly during the Italian Renaissance, the eponymous painting from Leonardo da Vinci being its most famous representation.

Yet, it is rather the progressive creation of the Woman that is on display in Philippe Guérin's painting. Was she born from one of Adam's ribs or from a nearly mineral tree? She reaches her ultimate posture on the left of the painting, but is then the division of her body in two parts the proof of a planned pregnancy? What about the huge blood drops that pierce through her evolutionary stages, as if they were to instill human life into her? Is the Holy Spirit using the light grey breeze that goes up towards her buttocks, then bringing new life into her?

There is however no need to call upon the Catholic or Orthodox religions: the painting "speaks" and conveys its message by merely human, not godly, means.

At the beginning, there is a nearly mineral tree trunk, and this trunk is then being transformed into a standing woman. The human genitor was therefore born "up and standing", and also split in the middle in two parts that are bonded together just by a reproductive organ. Beyond the Darwinian evolution of species, the link between mineral and plant and between plant and the human animal points to the (re)production process, without which life would be impossible. The steps in-between, with their lascivious curving of vertical lines, display the hypnotic strength of sexual activity.

Pollen grains, that are the carriers of sexual desire, horizontally cross this evolution. Their shapes and sharp red hues let us know that reproduction is not only a life requirement but should also be lust, and that the pleasure induced by sex is not exclusively the outcome of the necessity for life to be pursued. Nowadays, some biologists and anthropologists do think that the genetic variety of species is only possible because love and sex pleasures do happen on their own merits, without the systematic will to create life. Indeed, even for plants and flowers, we talk about the gardener's "green hand".

Just after the initial stone-tree, it is possible to see the living spirit in the form of the sap that is evolving along each evolutionary step: a smooth grey volute is going down and then up, dispensing itself and finally dissolving into the human body. This spirit is permanent: plants think as well as any animal, and we, human beings, are just their heirs, complete with an unavoidable and unfortunately added consciousness. But why is only the stone-tree devoid of such spirit? It is said, though, that there are nights when you can hear the stones cry.

After so many questions, I am suddenly puzzled. My enthusiasm for this exuberance of life had blinded me from the enigma that the geometric and clean design of the painting is now "yelling" at me.

Why are "extremities" hidden: roots and top, feet and heads? Are we really thinking and conscious "human" beings on this planet? Or, forgetting the brain as the repository of the soul, did our mind fool us by imposing the evolution and reproduction constraints as the mere requirements of our own existence? Or is it hell, and are all our senses and consciousness just a delusion subordinated to the overarching need to reproduce and survive?

Finally, what is this emptiness at the left of the painting? The pollen grains, carrying sexual desire, are still moving, in smaller numbers though. But we are no longer there: is it the end of our evolutionary process? Is it the proof that we have no vision of our own future? Or are we just creating, and in charge of, our own hopeless and void ultimate fate?

I keep wondering about all these issues and questions each time I watch "Annunciation" by Philippe Guérin? I have no solutions or answers, for the simple reason that my brain will never be able to investigate all the glades that are being offered by this unendingly amazing painting.

Claude Barraud, March 2011
Translation: Catalina Onofrei

Exhibition’s catalogue - Painting : Alive ! - 2011, Sichuan Museum, China