A native of northern France, Jean-Michel Meurice is one of the most important French artists of the last fifty years. After a childhood spent between Lille and Béthune, he stu- died painting at the École des Beaux-Arts de Saint-Luc fine arts school in Tournai. His works were first exhibited in Lille in 1962 at the Groupe A gallery. The following year, he participated in his first collective exhibition in Paris, where he presented La Barnum (1963), its powerful stripes of colour captured the attention of Pierre Soulages with whom he be- came friends. During this same period, Jean-Michel Meurice directed a series of short films on contemporary artists (Pierre Soulages, Zao Wou-Ki, Bram van Velde, Sonia Delaunay, etc.). These first films marked the start of his long career working in television and directing documentaries. Comprising both paintings and films, the oeuvre of Jean-Michel Meurice stands out in the artistic and cultural history of the second half of the 20th century and the early 21st century.
An avant-garde painter of the Supports/Surfaces movement starting in the early 1960s, Jean-Michel Meurice has built up a constant, vigorous oeuvre over the years. His rigour learnt from the study of history is complemented by the vital energy of colours and the freedom of spaces open to new forms. An extensive traveller, his oeuvre is based upon a deep understanding of Asian, African and Middle-Eastern arts. This familiarity and knowledge, associated with a heightened sensitivity placing the pleasure of painting at the heart of his approach, has led Jean-Michel Meurice to unceasingly explore new sys- tems of creation, with the goal of lending full expression to colour.
Jean-Michel Meurice also began his film career in the 1960s, directing television documen- taries. With the objective of showing painting in action, he brought his camera into the stu- dios of such artists as Bram van Velde, Simon Hantaï and Pierre Soulages, and later Pierre Alechinsky and Vladimir Velickovic. Film-making has also been for Jean-Michel Meurice a means of exploring the political and historic issues and themes of the contemporary world.
From 1985 to 1989, he supervised the creation of the French cultural channel Sept, which would become Arte in 1991. He shared this audiovisual adventure with the channel’s other founders: Pierre Bourdieu, Michel Guy and Georges Duby.
After the rich insitutionnal sequence that has brought the four museums of Dunkerque, Béthune and Le Touquet to draw an extensive retrospective of Jean-Michel Meurices’ work, Galerie La Forest Divonne has deciced to bring up a focus on his work from the early 1980’s to nowadays. Some thirty years during which the artist has both extended his creative voca- bulary, taking back to drawing and « arabesques », in the shape of flowers and leafs, and developped his formal experimentations in the usage of shower curtains and survival blan- kets, amongst numerous other daily items which bring to him both pattern and colours. The exhibition in Brussels will articulate around two major groups of artworks : the Ara- besques and the Ipomeas.
I always give great thought to my paintings before starting. Like a battle that one has to see coming from up above, so as to organize the various sequences, before diving wholly, blindly into the fray, with as one’s sole perspective the dogged desire to escape victorious – in other words, alive. It’s a reflection made up of concentration (to pursue the same metaphor, a concentration of one’s forces), and the forces are art books, reproductions, close-up photos that I take of works during my travels and that are like sketches, for they serve as notes corresponding to something that speaks to me in these works, they ask questions or offer luminous visions.
(Jean-Michel Meurice, 1985)
In the early 1980s, Jean-Michel Meurice changed his manner of painting, basing his work on the im- print of a leaf used as a stencil. After twenty years of painting colourful horizontal bands, the plant form allowed him to revive his use of the arabesque and regain a certain freedom from the paint- brush. Rather than representing any aesthetic motif or design, the leaf shape constitutes a new sign for his pictorial writing. It serves as a tool for building a system for diffusing and organizing colour in space. Alongside the planetree, fig and bamboo leaves, the presence of stapler or paint- bottle imprints demonstrates that his choice of stencil shape is of only secondary importance. The leaf is in fact but a pretext for creating infinite modulations of the melody of colour.
Like a calligrapher, Jean-Michel Meurice could also have opted for a letter of the alphabet, or a num- ber. Whatever the particular configuration of the sign, the work’s goal ever remains the expression of colour. In the first works of this series, the arabesque of the leave’s contour interrupts the linearity of the coloured bands structuring the background. Little by little, the repetition of vegetal signs covers the coloured grid of the background, until the vegetal signs themselves are masked.
Starting in the mid-1990s, the leaf shape becomes less and less clear. The stencil allows Jean-Michel Meurice to spread out fragments of colours delimited by the spaces set aside in white. The vegetal sign “in reserve”, via the absence of any filling up with colour, is revealed by the background. Once again, shape and substance are one. While in the previous colourfully striped canvasses the artist painted the entire surface, here the essential is not painted, but rather revealed by the paint. Colour creates its own form, just as Matisse sketched by directly cutting out colourful gouache-painted papers.
However, while Jean-Michel Meurice traces abstract signs out of pure colour, use of the stencil dis- tances the artist’s movements, his technique. The leaf acts as a medium intermediary between the artist’s desire and his creation. With each movement of the brush on the paper/stencil, the painter blindly, haphazardly traces the interlacings of multicoloured arabesques. It is only by removing the paper/stencil from the surface of the canvas that the colour is finally lent structure, form. Jean-Michel Meurice sums it up thus: “I blindly paint what I foresee”.
In the late 2000s, Jean-Michel Meurice gave up the stencil and its limitations and returned to free- hand painting, creating expansive arabesques representing corollas of flowering ipomoeas, mor- ning glories and dragon’s mouth orchids. He originally made sketches of these simple flowers as a relaxing exercise for his hand in between works belonging to his previous families.
Now, on largeformat canvasses, the flower corollas open, fully expressing their haloes of colour. In the earliest works of this series, the flowers are painted in reserve on a coloured background. The white line sketches the contour of the petals, while vertical bands of colours mark the canvass surface. The interplay of contrasts between the curving flowers and the rigid vertical lines accentuates the fluid movement of the arabesques. This contrast of forms seemingly serves to affirm the regained pleasure and emotion of the artist, who at last lends full expression to the “free song” of drawing.
The addition of coloured paper, via cutting out and gluing, to the fanciful design echoes his earliest works created in the 1960s using rhodoid, vinyl and aluminium foil. The presence of these ready-made colours and motifs reinforces the vigour of the drawing’s soft, fluid line that now freely cuts its own shape from out of the colour.
In the same spirit as the first works of the Supports/Surfaces period, JeanMichel Meurice also uses media of polyester plastic. The flowering ipomoeas are thus painted on large shower curtains whose printed motifs captured the painter’s attention. Dotted with corollas of colours, the works become palimpsests of signs and colours. The stripes, shells and flowers printed in series sing together in concert, with the painter’s arabesques, the vitality of the drawing and the vividness of the colour. The line of the corollas and the colour of the petals are new signs of the artist’s ever renewed search for pure colour and its absolute intensity.
The various works of this fifth family also serve as an opportunity for the artist to summon all the various techniques constituting his oeuvre: cutting-out-andgluing, plastic sheeting, stripes, vege- tal signs, bands of colour and aluminium foil. This regained unity illustrates the coherency and permanency that have animated the oeuvre of Jean-Michel Meurice for over fifty years.