Martial Raysse

This retrospective of the works of Martial Raysse afforded an opportunity to see his new, large-format allegorical paintings in tempera, one of which, Georges et le Dragon (George and the dragon, 1990), was shown at last year’s Documenta. The show also brought together his Nouveau Réalisme and Pop periods (1958–69) with works from after 1970, following his break with the art market and his retreat to the country to do work in traditional forms and media. This is a conjunction that might serve to shed light on that heroic rupture and to lift the veil from what must be termed “the Raysse mystery.”

The exhibition did not formally explain the artist’s passage from his fluorescent paintings, the assemblages of neon and plastic objects, photographs taken from magazines and ads, to his pencil or pastel drawings on paper or canvas representing Edenic landscapes. But, if there was a shift in technique, Raysse’s avid taste for images and stories remained, as well as a penchant for provocation, a desire to place himself outside convention and consensus.

Born in 1936, Raysse, at a very young age, encountered Arman and Yves Klein and joined the Nouveau Réalisme movement from which he later split off to develop a personal notion of reality he dubbed “Hygiène de la Vision” (Vision hygiene). His assemblages of Prisunic products, plus his installations of touched-up pinup photographs brought him close to the Anglo-American Pop-art movement. There are striking similarities, for example, between an assemblage of boxes, entitled Étalage de Prisunic, Hygiène de la Vision no. 1 (Prisunic display, vision hygiene no. 1, 1961), and Andy Warhol’s Brillo boxes from 1964, and between the flowers reproduced on oil cloth in neon, Printemps (Springtime, 1963), and Warhol’s flower silkscreens from 1966.

His contact with members of the Beat generation during his stay at the Chelsea hotel in 1962, and with hippie ideology from his numerous stays in California between ’63 and ’68 might explain why Raysse followed a route typical of the period: a questioning of his own work—the fabrication of “things,” little symbolic and ritual heteroclitic objects, as in the series “Coco Mato,” 1971–73, from the Italian name for the hallucinogenic mushroom Amanita muscaria. But he did all of this with distance, humor, and sometimes scorn.

His love of the stereotyped, made-up beauty of fashion models led him to produce the cultural clichés of the series “Made in Japan,” 1964–65, in which reproductions of the paintings of nudes by Ingres and Tintoretto are repainted in garish colors. But after “Coco Mato,” and after the production of the film Le Grand Départ, (The great goodbye, 1970) he awakened to a universal awareness of the beneficence of nature, and to a recognition of the permanent validity of myths. Bucolic scenes and mythological enchantresses provide the subjects for his series “Loco Bello” (Beautiful fool, 1975–76), and “Spelunca” (Cave, 1977–78). In La Source (The spring, 1989), or in the large allegorical fresco Le Carnaval á Pèrigueux (The Perigueux carnival, 1992), in which each character is the bearer of a hidden meaning, Raysse reintroduces the notion of perspective into painting: “Perspective, which stratifies both the planes and the beings, puts things in their place and introduces nuance between these things.”

Anne Dagbert

Translated from the French by Diana C. Stoll.