Galerie Nathalie Obadia is delighted to present Roger-Edgar Gillet’s work for the first time. The artist (1924-2004), a painter of the Second School of Paris, followed a singular trajectory, embracing, at first, the lyrical abstraction of the 1950s, before turning to an expressionistic figuration akin to that of Eugène Leroy, Jean Fautrier, Paul Rebeyrolle and Zoran Mušič.
An exhibition of Roger-Edgar Gillet will take place in parallel at rodolphe janssen in Brussels.
In collaboration with the Estate, the exhibition at Galerie Nathalie Obadia presents an emblematic group of Roger-Edgar Gillet’s figurative paintings from the early 1960s all the way through to his mature, late 1990s works. Attesting to his absolute engagement with painting, this exhibition sheds light on an artist who was on the fringes of the avant-garde and who left a very personal mark on the postwar artistic landscape.
A graduate of the Ecole Boulle, Roger-Edgar Gillet first worked as a decorator before dedicating himself to his painting practice, which he pursued for half a century between Paris, Sens and the region of Saint-Malo. After meeting critics Charles Estienne and Michel Tapié, theoretician of informal art, the artist turned to abstraction in the early 1950s, a period of time when the movement was booming. His work was exhibited by Galerie Evrard in Lille, alongside paintings by Georges Mathieu, in 1952; and he was also given his first solo exhibition at Galerie Craven in Paris, in 1953. The following year, Roger-Edgar Gillet was awarded the Fénéon Prize, followed by the Catherwood Prize in 1955, which gave him the opportunity to spend several months exploring the United States and visiting many of the great American collections. His encounter with El Greco, by way of the gaze of Cardinal Fernando Niño de Guevara at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, left him deeply moved and played a decisive role in his shift toward a figurative art, where portrait took center stage. At the turn of the 1960s, knowing he was ready to move away from abstraction, the artist progressively embarked on this new aesthetic adventure with an open mind that was untethered to the dictates of fashion. After having shown for many years at Galerie de France, which also represented Hans Hartung, Pignon, Alechinsky or even Maryan, he joined Galerie Ariel, founded by art dealer Jean Pollak who believed wholeheartedly in his work and represented him exclusively as of 1964.
“Everything happens as though the artist’s hand dreamed of a world on the verge of erasing itself with all its comings and goings.”*
Even though Roger-Edgar Gillet turned toward figuration with the desire to “reconnect with the gaze,” at first glance, a number of his portraits seem to be deprived of this, much like many of his contemporaries (“the gaze enters the bodies”). Each work sheds light on the precise moment when the subject emerges or dissipates, as is evident in the 1991 portrait where three knife slashes erase a face—which prompted the artist, who had discovered Francis Bacon in the 1960s, to say that he “tyrannized the portrait.” A fine tension between abstraction and figuration is at play in his work, through the thick pictorial matter from which silhouettes emerge and a scene materializes. In a similar spirit to Eugène Leroy, Roger-Edgar Gillet shows a primordial rapport with the painterly gesture, which, from inert matter, draws out the representation. Treated expressionistically, the paint takes on the appearance of a paste, molded, squashed, worked, mistreated with an assuredness that reveals the essence. There is also a question of light, which, in a muted palette of natural hues, ochres, browns, burnt umber, blond, beige, emerges from the figures that detach themselves from the depths of a dark background in a nod to Flemish primitives, or, conversely, plunges these silhouettes into shadow with a chiaroscuro that recalls Jean Fautrier’s work. This indecision of the line, in its struggle with the primordial amorphousness, is echoed also in Georg Baselitz’s famous metaphysical nudes.
“A carnivalesque parade, at once tragic and farcical, of figures whose unlikely appearances remain true to reality, bursts forth from the body of the paint, like strange tumors.”**
An ironic and biting vision of humanity emanates from this powerful germination, bringing to mind Daumier’s caricatures and study of behaviors, as well as Belgian painter and printmaker James Ensor’s disquieting crowds. Distant descendants of Dutch group portraits, Roger-Edgar Gillet’s irreverent compositions feature bigots (1975-1976), church folk, magistrates performing their duties (1971-1981), “Philosophers” and a whole gallery of characters who weave the framework for a type of human comedy. The somber and caustic mood of a number of these canvases reveals an assumed affiliation with Francisco Goya and, in particular, with his Black Paintings, part nightmare, part satirical visions of religion and society: we find the same twisted, amassed, grotesque faces in a chromatic palette that brings side by side darkness and light. Bursting forth from the impastos, the human figure, with its substantial deformations or malformations, resembles a bizarre bestiary, which is not surprising when we know that the artist’s first attempt at figuration was imaginary animals that looked like insects, coleoptera.
Western painting permeates Roger-Edgar Gillet’s work more or less consciously. In fact, very soon after his return to figuration, it is through religious subjects that the artist pays tribute to old masters, like Titian, whose work he examined attentively. The canonical scenes, crucifixions, entombments, punctuate his pictorial production, marked in 1963 by a very large Last Supper for which the first portraits of the Apostles served as preliminary studies. Certain profane themes, such as La Piscine (1970), appropriate, with a certain dose of humor, classical masterpieces, such as, in this case, Ingres’s Turkish Bath. The world of live spectacle is the subject of numerous paintings and, for once, of an approving gaze, echoing, here too, a long pictorial tradition.
Roger-Edgar Gillet digs into the material, scrutinizes and strips man naked with a caustic eye. And so he always returns to deep nature, with regards to painting, gesture and material. Following a trajectory that summarizes and interrogates a whole era, the work of Roger-Edgar Gillet is there, beyond the borders separating abstract from figurative, classic from modern, proposing “a total existential experience of painting.”***
* Anne Tronche, R.E. Gillet, Centre national des arts plastiques, Paris, 1987
*** Gérard Gassiot-Talabot, R.E. Gillet, Centre national des arts plastiques, Paris, 1987