François Arnal

François Arnal came to painting as an autodidact in 1947, practicing an informal and materialist abstraction, before constructing a pictorial universe of marks and imprints. In 1965, the everyday object entered his painting and brought him a step closer to the Nouveaux Réalistes: For each work in his “Bombardements” series, which he continued working on through 1971, one or several objects were placed on the canvas and the whole thing covered in spray paint (in French, peinture à la bombe aérosol); then the objects were taken away so as to preserve only the negative imprint, a white silhouette against a typically black, but sometimes red or green, background, inevitably evoking Man Ray’s rayograms, midway between manifestation and erasure of the real. Like Man Ray in his aerographs from the end of the teens, Arnal here seeks to eliminate the painter’s traditional tools, his mastery of effects, by creating a painting at a remove, open to the unforeseeable.

A number of the objects utilized suggest do-it-yourself projects: nails, pushpins, paper clips, rubber bands, hinges; most are used to attach things, and yet for the painter, “the spray-painted object is a cut” because, in being wrested from the canvas, it takes away the veil of paint that would cover it, outlines a shape cut from the real and floating in an indeterminate space torn from the intensity of its brilliance. As though to signify this cut, the interstices increase—whether the tiny ones formed by buttonholes in Bombardement de chemise (Bombardment of a Shirt), 1965, or, in Les deux charnières (The Two Hinges), 1971, the irregular ones that separate the slats of venetian blinds, constituting the true subject of the work in this canvas where two hinges seem to attach two zones of shadow separated by a fine white line. The “Bombardments” thus articulate multiple tensions, a dialogue of references between one work and another, between work pants and immaculate shirts or between nature (flowers, branches) and culture (a window shade), as well as within a single work, for instance Le collier brisé (The Broken Collar), 1971, with its pearl necklaces and bicycle chain—not to mention the subtle interplay always at work between the flatness of the canvas and the folds of the fabric (volume) or their appearances at different spatial levels (depth).

The process that gives birth to the image is at once very simple and paradoxical: The “bombed” (i.e., spray-painted) object is imprinted on the canvas while at the same time vanishing; literally and figuratively, it is vaporized or “atomized,” to use one of Arnal’s terms. He defines the result of the process as “a Hiroshima-like imprint that is truer than life.” This reference introduces an indirect and discreet violence into the works, the dematerialization of the object transformed into an image while being quite simply swept away; it places destruction at the heart of the creative process. That spray paint is part of the arsenal of protesters of all stripes further inscribes within these works a tense dialogue with the Western painting and society of the second half of the 1960s.

Guitemie Maldonado

Translated from French by Jeanine Herman.