Gérard Garouste

Fondation D'enterprise Coprim

For the inauguration of Fondation Coprim’s new exhibition space in the Marais, the painter Gérard Garouste presented a remarkably original installation, La Dive Bacbuc—Installation drolatique sur la lecture de Rabelais (The priestess Bacbuc—A ribald installation on reading Rabelais), 1998. Large painted canvases were attached by cords to a circular, forged-iron frame (almost eight feet tall and twenty feet in diameter) that resembled an enormous drum or a circus tent. The canvases were done in acrylic, like the artist’s “Indiennes” series (started in 1987), named after the fifteenth- and sixteenth-century “toiles peintes,” narrative paintings on linen imported from the Indies. Five of his “Indiennes” from 1987–88 were also included in the exhibition.

But in La Dive Bacbuc, there are paintings on both sides of the canvases. Because they form a circle, you have to walk around the exterior to see one side of the work; to see the other, you look through twelve peepholes cut into the canvases. The small openings, depending on their size and arrangement, allow only a fragmented glimpse of the motifs of the interior paintings, either framing an object and creating a zoom effect or showing an entire episode of the narrative. After looking through all the holes, it becomes apparent that the twelve scenes painted inside form part of a great epic fresco. Each exterior episode, placed next to an opening, corresponds in subject matter to an interior motif. The spectator-voyeur might feel somewhat frustrated being unable to apprehend a narrative whole in a single viewing, as he would be able to do standing in front of a painting, but the setup allows for gleeful concentration on the larger-than-life figures and objects concocted by Garouste with a verve and freedom inspired by his own reading of Rabelais.

For about a dozen years, Garouste’s work has drawn on literary works to produce timeless figures that are often influenced by Baroque art and marked by theatricality. François Villon, Saint Augustine, the Bible, Dante and The Divine Comedy, Edmond Jabés, and Cervantes (who inspired Garouste’s monumental work for France’s new Bibliothéque Nationale) provide the artist with well-known subjects through which he is able to examine fundamental themes of life and death, as well as realize his take on painting. This ingenious installation, prompted by the textual circularity of Rabelais’s four books—Gargantua, Pantagruel, Le Tiers-Livre, Le Quart-Livre—recounts the acts and gestures of the giants Pantagruel and Panurge and encases them like jewels within each other. Even if the Temple de la Pontife Bacbuc episode is highlighted, as is the phrase in vino veritas (written here in Greek), Garouste’s course through Rabelais melds mythological and biblical scenes according to a completely personal chain of associations. And as in Rabelais, the body (and its functions) dominates yet never loses its connection with the mind.

Rabelaisian ludism was found, as well, in the installation Aspharage, 1998, which completed the exhibition. An anamorphic arrangement of Pantagruelian images, the piece was made by children from Association La Source, an organization for disadvantaged children founded by Garouste.

Anne Dagbert

Translated from the French by Jeanine Herman.