“The contemporary is he who firmly holds his gaze on his own time so as to perceive not its light, but rather its darkness.” Giorgio Agamben
“The social role of the painter? To show the beauty of the world in order to encourage people to protect it and prevent it from falling apart.” Martial Raysse
“It has been said about my change of course: ‘Martial has gone back to painting.’ This is false. I have barely arrived. You have a blank page in front of you and you're in exactly the same situation as in the Middle Ages. Nothing has changed.” Martial Raysse
2015-1958 / 1958-2015: to run history backwards, not in order to unwind the thread of time and go back to the source, but to compare the different periods, that is the intention of the exhibition that Palazzo Grassi and the François Pinault Foundation are devoting to Martial Raysse.
The aim is to look both forward and backward, by taking an approach to Martial Raysse’s work that is not chronological, but examines it from a contemporary angle, in other words in the light of its most recent developments. It is our conviction, in fact, that his latest work changes the way we look at what came before it, and brings greater depth by raising again the question of the place of painting, as well as that of the artist. As Giorgio Agamben has brilliantly put it, “[t]hose who are truly contemporary, who truly belong to their time, are those who neither truly coincide with it nor adjust themselves to its demands. They are thus in this sense irrelevant. But precisely through this disconnection and this anachronism, they are more capable than others of perceiving and grasping their own time.”
Martial Raysse is one of the few artists for whom tackling the history of “great” art head on is what really matters, and this has been the case since the outset. Whether by distance, through humor or by trying to copy the masters, in accordance with the principle expressed by Eugenio Garin that “to imitate […] is to become aware of oneself in relation to another.” This is how he served his apprenticeship and throughout his life we can see, as if in the background, not just the history of art and the masterpieces of the Renaissance, but also the most banal aspects of daily life—from the aesthetics of the chain store to the tedium of little things.
Unlike in the Renaissance, when artists had to accept certain constraints, particularly in the treatment of religious subjects and portraits of rulers, Raysse has worked all his life to keep his independence. He proposes a humane kind of utopia and represents the life we all lead in a way that suggests he is trying to restore our hope in our condition. His taste for the representation of women goes beyond sexual attraction or classic beauty; he is fascinated by she who is Unknown.
In his history paintings, he proposes that we take a critical distance from what we may see or believe. He explores mythological subjects, as in L’Enfance de Bacchus [The Childhood of Bacchus] or Le Jour des Roses sur le Toit, and uses them to speak of conspicuous consumption, of his distance from politics (Poisson d’Avril and Ici Plage...) or of his desire to laugh at the foibles of his time (Le Carnaval à Périgueux).
Painter, sculptor, draftsman, but also poet and filmmaker: so many necessarily reductive terms with which to attempt to define this multifaceted and unclassifiable artist whose work spans the second half of the 20th century and continues, even today, to surprise us with its idiosyncrasy.
By creating an ongoing dialogue between the works, the layout of the exhibition offers a new perspective on Martial Raysse’s career while highlighting the artist’s incessant toing and froing within that corpus.
The exhibition also reveals the enormous amount of effort that has gone into that body of work, which, above and beyond the creation of “beautiful things,” sets out to propose a sort of philosophy of life. Through his radical use of color and freedom of treatment, Raysse presents to us the beauty of the world, the need for each of us to be involved in it, the responsibility that each of us has for others and for the community.
We wanted the exhibition to cover every aspect of the artist’s work: from his small sculptures, which range from simple figures to games played with himself, through the drawing as work of preparation and his films that he uses to convey his libertarian ideas, to the pictures that make up his latest work. We have also punctuated the exhibition with works that are in a way self-portraits, reflecting the incredible demands the artist has made on himself and the loneliness he has had to endure in order to move forward in his work. The most recent works offer insights into those of his youth and make plain their radicalism, while causing a genuine visual shock. By the use of bold colors and pure pigments, Raysse offers a different perspective on the world—the “hygiene of vision” he developed in the 1960s—and thereby teaches us to see, “for being modern means above all seeing more clearly.”
Let us end with the artist’s own words: “I’ve always thought that the purpose of art is to change lives. But the important thing today, it seems to me, is to change what surrounds us on all levels of human relationship. Some people think that life is copying. Others know it is inventing. You don’t quote Rimbaud, you live him.”
Curator of the exhibition