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Saturday Art: France’s President Names Greatest Painter?


Soulages works at ArtParis06

(Picture courtesy of Arnaud at

The tension that pervades France’s government has caused President Hollande to declare a Greatest Painter in defense of his own world view. That artist paints almost entirely in black. Parallels with the divided U.S. government scream to be voiced.

Political commentary has followed the French president’s announcement, much of it bewildered about artistic choice.

I wonder how many of you have heard of the French artist Pierre Soulages?

Probably not a lot. I’ve lived here nearly 20 years and I was only vaguely aware of the man. Apparently, though, he’s the world’s greatest living painter.

We have that on the authority of none other than President Francois Hollande, who was recently down in the southern town of Rodez opening a new museum to display the master’s oeuvre.

One other rather important thing you need to know about Soulages, who incidentally is now in his mid-90s. He only ever paints in one colour. And that colour is… black.

Well, that’s not entirely true. At one point he did occasionally use some blue. But then he evidently decided that was a concession too many to chromatic convention. So since 1979 everything he has done has been in variations of sable, coal, pitch and jet – or as he calls it, ultrablack.

I think the idea is that if you look beyond the stripes and swirls of the all-consuming black you emerge in a new artistic world, and start seeing light, in the black.


Most people are going to look at the agglomerations of black streaks and striations, and frankly they’re going to have a laugh.

I am not saying they are right to laugh at the paintings. For all I know these are genuinely innovative, challenging ways of analysing modern reality.

What I am saying is that most people, the non-elite, aren’t going to get it. And it’s with most people – the voters – that Hollande and the rest of the Paris political elite have long since parted ways.

Black is dramatic, but probably not the way most of us see our best expressions appear. In a world full of rancor, it may be dominant. Looking at new perspectives has no harmful effects, though, and perhaps Hollande has added dimensions that are helpful in seeing how our politics affect our lives and those of others.

(Picture courtesy of Quentin Verwaerde at

Soulages painting at Soulages XXIème siècle, au musée des Beaux-arts de Lyon, hiver 2012.

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Ruth Calvo

Ruth Calvo

I've blogged at The Seminal for about two years, was at cabdrollery for around three. I live in N.TX., worked for Sen.Yarborough of TX after graduation from Wellesley, went on to receive award in playwriting, served on MD Arts Council after award, then managed a few campaigns in MD and served as assistant to a member of the MD House for several years, have worked in legal offices and written for magazines, now am retired but addicted to politics, and join gladly in promoting liberals and liberal policies.