Published  05/10/2022

Gérard Garouste

Gérard Garouste

The Centre Pompidou provides a primer to one of France’s strangest living artists, whose sometimes inscrutable, often bawdy work brings mannerism into the modern day

Gérard Garouste, Pinocchio and the Dice Game, 2017 (detail). Oil on canvas, 160 x 220 cm. Private collection. © Adagp, Paris 2022. Courtesy Templon, Paris-Brussels-New York. Photo Bertrand Huet-Tutti.

Centre Pompidou, Paris
7 September 2022 – 2 January 2023


You would have to be brave to ask Gérard Garouste (b1946) to paint your portrait. The French artist, now the subject of a retrospective at the Centre Pompidou, turns people into the contorted creatures of a medieval bestiary. In The Shepherd (1998), the titular subject has a giraffe-length neck and a body dotted with eyes. In The Antipode (1999-2000), one character’s head is stretched out like a deflated balloon. We are in a world that sits somewhere between Rabelais and Kafka, with a dash of prog-rock-album cover art and the MindMaze from Microsoft Encarta 95.

Not long ago, this work would have seemed out of step. But recent years have witnessed the rise of numerous painters – Kati Heck, Christina Quarles, Dana Schulz and Tala Madani, to name but four very different examples – who have returned to the grotesque, as well as those, such as Salman Toor and Michael Armitage, whose work seems to depict something between reality and fantasy, present day and myth. 

Gérard Garouste, The Three Masters and the Fatted Geese, 2017. Oil on canvas, 200 × 260 cm. Artist’s collection. © Adagp, Paris, 2022. Courtesy Templon, Paris-Brussels-New York. Photo Bertrand Huet-Tutti.

Garouste is a well-known figure in his homeland. He has produced paintings for the Élysée Palace and the curtain at the Théâtre du Châtelet. His 2009 memoir, L’Intranquille, was a national bestseller. In 2017, he was elected to the painting section of the Académie des Beaux-Arts, France’s more arcane analogue to the Royal Academy. La Source, the art education association he set up in 1991, which provides disadvantaged young people with the opportunity for artistic expression, has branches in 10 departments. But although he has exhibited widely – a survey, Gérard Garouste: The Other Side, opened in New Delhi in 2020 – he has achieved a far lower profile internationally. This retrospective, therefore, serves as a summation and an introduction to his work.

Gérard Garouste, Don Quixote’s Theatre, 2012. Oil on canvas, 200 × 260 cm. Collection Hervé Lancelin, Luxembourg. © Adagp, Paris, 2022. Courtesy Templon Paris-Brussels-New York. Photo: Bertrand Huet-Tutti.

And what a strange oeuvre it is. Thematically, Garouste’s world sits between symbolism and surrealism, mingling classical myth and literary reference with nightmarish scenes from the unconscious. Stylistically, he harks back to mannerist masters such as Tintoretto, Bronzino and El Greco. In their individual ways, these painters shattered the harmony and balance of the High Renaissance with disjointed bodies, exaggerated features and unexpected perspectives. Giorgio Vasari criticised Tintoretto for his “fantastical, extravagant, bizarre style”.

Garouste takes this critique as an aesthetic mantra. Some of his early canvases feature popular Renaissance characters, such as a praying Saint Teresa. Others extend mannerism to the grotesque. The Fly (Portrait of Guillaume) (2003-04), turns Garouste’s son into a malformed monster, with an elongated neck, back-to-front feet and an enormous left hand and arm. Conventional perspective is often hurled to the side, though Garouste almost always paints figures in a recognisable scene, anchoring his worlds in the visible world.

Gérard Garouste, Balaam, 2005. Oil on canvas, 270 × 320 cm. Musée national d’art moderne, Centre Pompidou, Paris. Gift, the Société des Amis du Musée national d’art moderne in 2006. © Adagp, Paris, 2022. Photo © Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI/Philippe Migeat/ Dist. RMN-GP.

When Garouste was a student at the tail end of the 60s, figurative painting seemed a lost cause. Duchamp’s revolution, tarried a little by abstract expressionism and others, had galloped across the world. Oil on canvas seemed old hat. On graduating, Garouste hung up his easel and turned to design. He created backdrops and lighting for Le Palace, a nightclub in a former theatre, and worked with his wife Elizabeth on the decor of the attached restaurant. He co-founded a theatre company, the Compagnie du Pallium, for whom he designed masks and costumes.

Garouste committed to becoming a fully fledged painter as the 70s became the 80s, and the medium began to enjoy its neo-expressionist revival. But the impact of the theatre continued to hang over his work. Characters from the plays crop up in his painting. These include two figures, the Classicist and the Apache, that exist within every person, a recasting of the Apollonian-Dionysian divide between thought and instinct, reason and madness. 

This distinction seems to mean a lot to Garouste. He has experienced manic depression and several fits of delirium, necessitating stays in psychiatric hospitals. Can something creative be salvaged from mental illness? Garouste’s answer is a resounding no. The apparent chaos of his work contains a logic of its own. His most bizarre images are often drawn from literary works and biblical stories. Many of his grotesque contortions appear again and again, suggesting that they have a meaning known only to the artist.

Garouste does not spare himself. Mask of the Dog (Self-Portrait) (2002) depicts him as a Quasimodo-esque hunchback. Elsewhere, he appears as a jester, a donkey’s bottom and a head from which protrudes an arm. In Véronique (Self-Portrait) (2005), he takes the role of an odalisque. He holds a mirror to his exposed female genitals, which in reflection become a pair of testicles. The title is a reference to the biblical figure Veronica, who handed Christ a cloth to wipe his sweat and was rewarded with a true image of his face. 

Gérard Garouste, Chartres, 2007. Oil on canvas, 270 × 320 cm. Private collection, Paris © Adagp, Paris, 2022. Courtesy Templon, Paris-Brussels-New York. Photo Bertrand Huet-Tutti.

Here, Garouste seems to question the truthfulness of pictorial representation: the ability visual stimuli have to make us believe they are true (I find it unfortunate that he has used gender to do so). He also revisits his own psychological trauma. In Chartres (2007), he appears as an upside-down man, his head peeking out of his left shin and his torso turned into a whirlwind of arms clutching candles. This references a 1991 episode where he interrupted a wedding, upset candles and caused general havoc at the famed cathedral. 

If there is a calmness in this storm, it is Garouste’s engagement with Judaism, which began in the 90s. His wife, Elizabeth, is Jewish. Garouste himself converted to the faith in 2014. It also relates, as recounted in L’Intranquille, to Garouste’s childhood trauma: his abusive father was an antisemite and collaborator under Philippe Pétain’s Vichy regime, who confiscated and sold off the furniture of deported Jews. Garouste learnt Hebrew, a language so ancient that to read it is to interpret. And many of his more interesting paintings share a similar ambiguity. They ask one to reconcile the earthly and the mystic, the sacred with the profane. It is not a challenge that will appeal to everyone. But to those who accept it, Garouste’s work provides much food for thought.

Click on the pictures below to enlarge

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