Martial Raysse is a grand old man of the French art world, remembered fondly by his compatriots for his early work as a member of the Nouveaux Réalistes movement, when he beat Andy Warhol to the Pop Art scene. And few French art lovers have forgotten that his 1962 painting “Last Year in Capri (Exotic Title)” pulled down the highest price ever at auction for a French artist when it sold for €4.8 million at Christie’s London in 2011.
Raysse is also valued for his wit and way with words. Still something of a force of nature at 87, he was present at the opening of “Martial Raysse: Recent Works” at the Musée Paul Valéry in Sète, leading journalists and visitors around the show and giving talks and interviews.
After making his name as a New Realist in the 1950s and then moving to New York City for several years in the ’60s to participate in the vibrant art scene there, however, Raysse made a highly contrarian move, giving up his practice based on installations of plastic objects with an anti-consumerist message and humorous appropriations of classical art (see the Ingres-inspired “La Grande Odalisque,” from 1964 and “High Voltage Painting,” 1965). Instead, he started painting in a classical vein, a move many of the most radical early-20th-century artists, including Picasso and de Chirico, had made after World War I. “I had to stop quoting other artists,” says Raysse. “Pop Art was too easy for me.”
Raysse’s artistic about-face was less successful than those of his predecessors, however, and he pretty much fell out of favor, even in France. At the opening of this exhibition, he said that when negative criticism would get him down, he would say to himself, “Courage, Martial!” (the name of a 2021 self-portrait) and plunge back into his work.
Everything has meaning for Raysse. He defines painting as “a set of images with the function of intervening in the individual psyche. All these images have a profound meaning, and their different elements all contribute to this meaning. Symbols and archetypes are required for painting to tell a story.”
As he likes to say, Raysse is “first and foremost a poet.” “My poetic emotions are transposed into images, a little like developing a photo. … Painting interests me because it is a wordless language…. a universal language.”
Some of the paintings in the exhibition show a marked penchant for generic-looking pretty young women, often naked amid a group of clothed figures, which have a dated look today. Far more interesting are some of his large-format allegorical paintings, often peopled with society’s outcasts, like “Poisson d’Avril” (“April Fool’s Day,” 2007), in which a group of overexcited and rather terrifying masked fools dance around the central figure of a pretty young woman (unmasked but hiding her face behind her hand) in a slip of a sky-blue dress. The floor is littered with toys and a mysterious bright-purple case that looks rather like a bowling-ball bag (small objects and animals at the feet of the main figures add interest to many of his paintings). This “ubuesque” work, as one critic called it, like many of Raysse’s other colorful paintings, is an expression of the weird, sad side of life, tempered with a touch of joy.
Two very recent paintings at the end of the show – the very grim “La Peur” (Fear,” 2023), inspired by his memory of the day the Gestapo came to arrest his father, a member of the Resistance, and the rather more cheerful “La Paix” (“Peace,” 2023, pictured at the top of this page) – illustrate Raysse’s determination to counter-balance the tragic with the joyful, although the muddied colors and sour expressions on the many figures in the latter work dampen the purported message of jubilation.
Raysse certainly sees the joy in life, but in his paintings, tragedy more often seems to win out. Courage, Martial!
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