• gerard van weyenbergh

Essai: What is an artist painter

If the artist painter is no longer just a maker of images, what has he become? His own caricature, his own self-portrait? A figure of stillness in a changing world?

It is a profession that still weighs, in our societies, where a profession's notion is blurring, a particular weight.

Yet the painter, for a long time, is no longer the sole maker of images.

The anthropological function of the painter

When Brueghel paints his Tower of Babel, none exists: the form he invents, this mental shell, instantly becomes decisive. But painters have been deprived of this inaugural gesture for a long time. No doubt they tried to invent others: Rembrandt painted a carcass, Monet the smoke of a train, Lucian Freud a sink, or the mismatched view of a backyard - a sort of response to the ideal cities of the Renaissance.

However, the choice of subject experienced a long decline in the twentieth century: the merchant of images became above all a merchant of mud, from the desperate tire tracks of Soulages to objects stuck in the serigraphs of pop art: the mud of pictures, rather than still pictures.

The painter had become a critic rather than an image-maker. In the head offices of banks as on the walls of psychoanalyst's offices, we started to hang pictures on the walls only to show that the tyranny of images no longer duped us.

So the ideal painter, except being abstract, had at least to paint badly enough: the more you saw the mud, the less you saw the image, the better it was. Ideally, the mud should even reflect on him a little: in an increasingly sanitized world, a world that looked more and more like an image, the painter had to remain an archaic figure: from the ogre, Picasso to the bear Bacon, whose workshop-den, reconstituted by archaeologists, ended up being exhibited next to his paintings, the painter ended up essentially representing himself.

There are two theories on the self-portrait: it would be both the portable demonstrator of its technical capacities and the suspicion, as in Rembrandt or Van Gogh, of an existential crisis.

The two theories, today, are also valid: we live the golden age of the painter as a self-portrait, because the painters we want are essentially caricatures of painters, and at the same time, their technical capacities, weakened by a century which saw the general triumph of technique everywhere, except in painting, are at their lowest: the existential crisis is brewing.

A Swiss in the slums

Would the profession of painter be doomed? Fortunately not, because there is another history of painting in the twentieth century, less triumphant, but less destructive.

I got the confirmation when I went to see rue des Beaux-Arts, the beautiful exhibition dedicated to a forgotten Swiss painter, Jürg Kreienbühl. Almost a genre painter who had the misfortune, or the genius, to paint during the second half of the twentieth century. And who, not only was technically exceptional, but also possessed a genius of the subject.

His most striking paintings are showing the construction of La Défense seen from the surrounding slums. Its interiors, as beautiful as Dutch interiors, are those of the Algerian workers of the area.

His France is that of the eponymous liner beached in Le Havre's refineries; his water lilies are slabs of suspended hydrocarbons. His still lifes are stacked boxes of Cassoulet William Saurin.

And when we see him, suddenly, in the reflection of a TV, we say to ourselves that this is it, a painter.

A painter is perhaps a figure of stillness in a changing world. It is no longer the things that pose for him; it is he who tries, because his technique quite simply requires it, to pose in front of them. And whether a shanty town is placed in front of a factory or towers in front of a cemetery, it is he who holds, in his increasingly confident hand, less his brush than the only pendulum of time - the measure of permanence and the impermanence of things. © France Culture