Eugène Leroy and the Fle(mi)sh Figure

“Hey, Junior! Here’s your chance to reenact the creation of planet earth!”

Jonathan Lasker ¹

Eugene Leroy, "Nu" (1995-2000). Oil on canvas, 57 1/2 × 44 7/8". Courtesy Michael Werner Gallery, New York, Cologne, Berlin.

French Flanders, the lowlands along the Belgian border stretching between the cities of Lille and Dunkirk, is the favorite locale of film director Bruno Dumont. In movies such as The Life of Jesus (1997), L’humanité (1999), Flandres (2006), and Hadewijch (2009), all shot at least in part around the small town of Bailleul, 30 kilometers west of Lille, he relentlessly delves into the seemingly baser side of ordinary local characters, only to expand his investigations to a broader level, that of our common limitations and fate as humans. His films are a 21st century reformulation of Gauguin’s famous 1897 title: “Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?” Dumont’s movies are memorable in many respects but primarily because of his critique of conventional filmic codes, such as his insistent use of nonprofessional actors, and of the intense emotional questions they raise for the viewer. With their deep local ties and the unfolding of a regionalist context into an uncompromising worldview, these movies are an obliquely appropriate introduction to the work of Eugène Leroy, another resident of the French northern region, who could easily have appeared as a character in one of them. A painter of mostly semi-abstract figures in the Flemish expressionist tradition and a humanist in the vein of the late Rembrandt, on the occasion of his recent centenary his work was the subject of three concurrent exhibitions in Tourcoing, Lille, and Paris.

At first glance, Leroy (Tourcoing, 1910 – Wasquehal, 2000) is an unlikely candidate for such official and market consecration. He spent his working life almost entirely in the semi-reclusion of the French provinces, shying away from Parisian and international art trends. Just as for Louise Bourgeois (1911 – 2010), with whom he was occasionally paired as the “grand-old artists” of their generation, official recognition came so late in his life (when he was well into his 70s) that it took even those who knew his work beforehand by surprise.

Having spent most of his life a few kilometers from the Belgian border in the small town of Wasquehal, nestled within the triangle of the old industrial cities of Lille, Roubaix, and Tourcoing, he has often been called a man of the north, a label he vehemently rejected because of its regionalist overtones. He saw himself instead as the opposite, an internationalist ignoring all arbitrary national and regional borders, as a man from an exceptionally complex cultural and geopolitical area. If it has taken a little longer than usual to set the stage for our story, it is precisely because of this peculiar mix of regionalism and internationalism, and of the inherent difficulty in separating the one from the other.

Regionalist, Leroy was indeed, but mostly in the sense of belonging to an art tradition historically and geographically rooted in Flanders, a coastal territory on the North Sea, straddling today’s borders of northern France, west Belgium, and southern Netherlands. This tradition is that of oil painting, a medium invented, or rather brought to technical perfection by Jan van Eyck in 15th-century Bruges, to magisterial prominence by Rubens in 17th-century Antwerp, and closely associated with the very identity of painting since Rembrandt in Amsterdam. Flemish painters’ relation to the medium runs deep. In comparison, the tradition of Flemish expressionism is a fairly recent affair. It began as an offshoot of Scandinavian and German expressionism in the 1920s, its most illustrious ancestor being James Ensor in Ostend. At first an iconoclastic movement characterized by a rejection of social and artistic conventions, it fast became a bastion of conservatism in the ’30s and ’40s, as it refocused on the traditional values of the artist’s ties to the land, as exemplified by the work of Constant Permeke in Belgium. Nonetheless, whether in northern France, Belgium, or the Netherlands, the heritage of Flemish expressionism was still very much alive in the ’50s and heavily contributed to the context in which Leroy’s work was first framed. In the late ’70s in Lille, for the art student I was at the time, the paintings our art history teacher made still bore the stigma attached to that recent past. My fellow students and I, lacking the maturity to see beyond the latest international art trends, were partly blind to his work and did not expect it to transcend what we perceived as a strictly regional discourse.

But an internationalist he certainly was as well and, in a way, his slow success tells the story best. Discovered by German painter Georg Baselitz in the ’60s, actively supported by Belgian curator Jan Hoet, and ultimately signed by German dealer Michael Werner in 1983, his critical success has been widespread since the mid-’80s, with countless press articles, regular retrospectives, and major essays by French heavyweight critics Bernard Marcadé, Eric de Chassey, Denys Zacharopoulos, among many others, and most recently a finely perceptive in-depth study by philosopher Paul Audi. One is tempted to speak of a “Leroy phenomenon,” and one in pressing need of being examined.

If Leroy’s work finally emerged to art-world attention with the neo-expressionist wave of the ’80s, which saw in him a badly needed precursor, his work was erroneously related to that of other painters of the time, mostly German, such as Baselitz, Kiefer, and Richter. Even if a late discovery is no longer a rare occurrence in our revisionist times (the recent examples of Raoul de Keyser in Belgium and Carmen Herrera in New York come to mind in this instance), one cannot help but ask: why did it take so long? The Neo-Expressionist moment was certainly a welcome agent in the unexpected unearthing of Leroy’s work, but was essentially based on a misunderstanding. Leroy did not have an ounce of irony, nostalgia, or meta-discourse in him. He achieved wide recognition in France only after the German and American art worlds had given him their blessing. Why was he mostly invisible in his own country until so late in his life? Was it all bad timing?

Besides the inordinate amount of time it usually takes painters to mature, one scenario seems likely: Leroy came of age at the same time as Abstract Expressionism, and with the indiscriminate bashing of French painting that ensued in New York, with the general misgivings towards the figure at the time on both sides of the Atlantic, with the widespread inferiority complex that developed in the French art world after World War II as a result of the sustained American effort to establish supremacy over the market, it is unlikely that his work could even have registered earlier on international radar screens, especially if it had been introduced as a French product. It took the clout of a German dealer, and the American fascination with German painting in the 1980s, to make Leroy’s work perceptible at last. But even if there was a postmodern interest in his work, as signaled by a short essay on the artist by Jonathan Lasker, Leroy undoubtedly shares more with Giacometti than with Kiefer or Richter, hence the fallacy of projecting a postmodern grid onto his existential work. At this juncture, it is hard not to suspect in this latest flurry of exhibitions a somewhat embarrassed attempt by French officials to finally catch up and to make up for earlier inaction and lack of collective vision.

In a remarkable show of consistency, his work changed very little over the last 50 years, during which he charted his own course with utter disregard for contemporary schools and movements, national or international, and this helps explain his late recognition. Primarily a painter of the figure, his most striking formal characteristic was the extravagant paint build-up of his grounds, usually surrounding the ghostly presence of an erect, almost archetypal, silhouette. Leroy would seem to have taken the well-known precept of Willem de Kooning—another artist originally from the lowlands—that oil paint was invented first and foremost to paint flesh, to extremes. The Flemish expressionist tradition helps explain his generous use and thick application of paint only to a certain extent. Upon closer inspection one notices that the impastos are usually thicker around the figure, in what one would think of as the background. There is, in fact, a significant transfer in Leroy’s paintings from the corporeality of the figure in the flesh to the body of the “tableau” as object, the presence of the accumulated density of hundreds of thick daubs of paint, itself a byproduct of the open-ended search for the out-of-reach truth of the figure’s presence: a transfer from the spiritual human presence to the material presence of paint on the picture plane, thoroughly examined by Paul Audi in his fascinating book:

Flesh is what the body shares with life; for Leroy it is also what the body shares with painting, to such an extent that if one of his landscapes presents—and I say presents, not represents—the flesh of the world in its very “figurability,” this only happens by way of a dis-identifying presentation. It is the image of the world that becomes flesh, that incarnates itself, that incorporates itself to us, that becomes us²

As a contemporary of the Abstract Expressionists (Franz Kline was also born in 1910, Pollock in 1912) and of existentialism, he remained much closer to the aesthetic ideals at work in Rothko’s paintings (whom he admired), for example, than to the histrionics of visual accuracy so expertly deployed by figurative painters 10 years younger, such as Lucian Freud or Philip Pearlstein, even though they militantly advocated for a return of the figure, which also seemed to fit his program. In a fairly atypical trajectory in his formative years, and contrary to most painters of his generation, he avoided both Cubism and Surrealism and never fully embraced abstraction or renounced the figure. This is what sets him apart from others of his generation, but also because he always gave precedence to human content over the rhetoric of style and insisted on the practice of painting as an act of faith.

With the passing of time, it is now clearer that this transfer process became the actual subject of his work. His relentless efforts in reworking his paintings for years bring to mind Samuel Beckett’s famous: “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.” In this instance, the figure’s essence escapes into the substance of the tableau. The substance itself can be seen as a residue of the quest for the essence, the figure slowly devoured by its overbuilt background reminding us, in a way, of a Giacometti sculpture being “mauled” by the space around it. I vividly remember Leroy emphasizing to painting students how physically and emotionally drained he was after each of his own studio sessions, a sign of the never-ending battle with the impossible task at hand. In contrast with the spectacularized impastos of Bram Bogart—a slightly younger Dutch/Belgian contemporary—Leroy remains focused on his subject and never lets the seduction of the materials get the better of him. The build-ups are achieved over long periods of hesitations, corrections, scrapings, and additions, rather than as an overinflated gesture.

Much has been made of Leroy’s peculiar studio routine, especially toward the end of his life. Surrounded by his drying canvases, he would ask a young nude female model to remain with him in the studio, not necessarily to paint her in a particular pose as Matisse or Bonnard might have done (he was wary of the anecdotal side of a pose and tried to avoid it as much as he could), but for a sheer physical presence next to him while he was painting, and for its influence on his perception of his subject. I suspect that the model in his studio may have played a kind of talismanic role to ensure that his intuitions about the painterly transfer of the figure’s presence to the canvas were kept in line by the presence of the “real thing.” More prosaically, it probably had much to do with the particular studio setup that Leroy had arrived at in his quest for the right light in which to paint: he hated chiaroscuro and developed his own strategy for backlighting (contre-jour), using a full-size mirror that reflected light from his large window back to him behind the model. In Leroy’s own words: “I can’t live without the model’s presence…It is not a question of style or method…It is only a matter of contact with life, with the tenderness of life and its humble day to day.”³ A sculptor friend of mine recently reminded me of Charles Gadenne’s same imperative need for the constant presence of his model in the studio, whether she was posing for him or not.4 Although it may strike us as politically incorrect today, it is useful to recall that, even as vestigial remains from past academic practices, the presence of nude models and their active participation in studio life was a fairly banal occurrence in Leroy’s time.

The Tourcoing Fine Arts Museum, rebaptized “MUba Eugène Leroy” on the occasion of a substantial gift of works from the artist’s sons to the collections, presented a full-fledged retrospective of his career. As one entered the naturally lit main gallery, one could not but be struck by curator Jan Hoet’s installation: 18 major vertical paintings of the same height in Leroy’s trademark autumnal tones, dating from 1960 to 1998, are aligned on a long wall painted bright blue, an expressionist statement in its own right by the curator. But even if this viewer found the installation a bit contrived, it served well to emphasize the remarkable consistency of theme and format in Leroy’s work through the years. A tour of this retrospective takes us for a backward stroll down the lanes of history through the eyes of a northern expressionist, starting with contemporaries like de Staël in the early ’50s and going back all the way to Rembrandt, by way of Soutine, van Gogh, and Munch. This stroll through history quickly turns into a meditation on the nature of the very act of painting, with Leroy making copies throughout his life of masterpieces such as Velázquez’s “Las Meninas” in 1935 or Giorgione’s “Concert Champêtre” in 1990. In this visitor’s opinion, the highlight of the exhibition was the four seasons’ room, where a quartet of large vertical paintings from 1993 was paired with their small horizontal preparatory studies of the same year. The powerful impetus towards the figure that underlies so much of his work seemed to be the clearest there. The small landscape studies were turned into vertical images when fully realized, Leroy transforming in that instance even landscape into figures in a manner reminiscent of traditional 17th-century allegories.

A smaller exhibition at the Palais des Beaux-Arts de Lille emphasized the intimate as a significant trope in Leroy’s work, reinforcing his connection to the themes of 17th century Flemish and Dutch interior scenes and depictions of the painter’s immediate surroundings. For this viewer, experiencing the intense tactility of the painter’s touch, which brought the eye ever closer to the painted surface, also led to its own silent intimacy with the paintings while listening in on their visual dialogues.

In Paris, the Galerie de France presented a group of paintings from Leroy’s last decade. They displayed a newfound freedom within his own aesthetics, justifying Audi’s claim of a qualitative leap in Leroy’s work at the end of his life. Thus Leroy’s name is added to the short list of painters who accomplished the unexpected feat of raising the bar again for themselves, despite reduced physical capacities and lack of time, as we saw Hans Hartung do in another recent show in New York.5 In Jean Bazaine’s concise words: “In painting, youth will only be granted to the most deserving of old geezers.”6

Leroy revered Rembrandt. I have fond memories of our class trip to the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, listening to him in front of “The Night Watch.” Back then Leroy thought that, had he been living in our times, chances are that Rembrandt would have become a movie director rather than a painter. In turn, in front of Leroy’s last paintings, I thought that this might possibly be as close as our generation will ever get to Rembrandt. 



EXHIBITIONS DISCUSSED IN THIS ESSAY:

Les dernières peintures d’Eugène Leroy, Galerie de France, Paris, France, October 7 – December 4, 2010

Exposition du centenaire, MUba Eugène Leroy, Tourcoing, France, October 10, 2010 – April 10, 2011

Eugène Leroy, l’intimité, Palais des Beaux-Arts, Lille, France, October 9, 2010 – January 10, 2011



1 Jonathan Lasker. “Falling In Lava,” in Complete Essays, 1984-1998 (New York: Edgewise Press, 1998).

2 Paul Audi, Le regard libéré d’Eugène Leroy, (Paris : Galerie de France, 2010), 21-22.

3 Audi, Le regard, 27.

4 A sculptor of the same generation as Eugène Leroy and a friend from his early days, living in Dunkirk, France.

5 Hans Hartung, The Last Paintings 1989, Cheim and Read Gallery, 2010

6 Jean Bazaine, “La jeunesse en peinture sera donnée aux vieillards les plus méritants,” in Exercice de la peinture (Paris: Seuil, 1973).

Contributor

Gwenaël Kerlidou

Gwenael Kerlidou is a French painter living in Brooklyn. He was a student of Eugene Leroy at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts de Lille in 1975-76.

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