Ambition still burns in art star Soulages at 99

4 min

Sète (France) (AFP)

He has been called "the world's greatest living artist" -- and he is still painting at 99.

Pierre Soulages attacks his blacker than black canvasses in his bare studio overlooking the Mediterranean in Sete in southern France every day his legs will carry him there.

His step has slowed but there is a real urgency these days about the old master.

For Soulages is preparing a massive retrospective at the Louvre in Paris in December to mark his 100th birthday.

"Pierre is working on a huge new canvass," he wife Colette, only a few months his junior, told AFP.

"He thinks it through at night. A space has been left free for it" on the walls of the great Paris museum.

Soulages is to black what the great French artist Yves Klein is to blue.

You get an idea of his sheer longevity when you realise that Klein, born nearly a decade after him down the coast at Nice, died in 1962.

Soulages' star rose shortly after World War II and he is venerated in France and much of Europe as the Rothko of black -- the "master of noir" -- even if his fame has faded in the English-speaking world.

Naturally, he and Colette are dressed head-to-toe in black when they welcomed AFP into their villa.

And he is much amused at the amazement that he is still painting. "But I have always worked," he said.

- 'I burn the mediocre' -

Nor has his legendary perfectionism dimmed. If Soulages is not 100 percent happy with a painting "I burn the canvass outside. If it is mediocre, it goes," he told AFP.

He even still makes his own tools to get the precise effect of the paint on canvass he wants.

In Sete, a sun-soaked port with a long spit of beach, Soulages likes to cut himself off to plunge into the depths of his obsession with black.

For him no other colour can compete with its dark dazzle. "It's a very active colour. It lights up when you put it next to a dark colour... Black isn't the colour of mourning; white is," he insisted.

As a child obsessed by the dark sheen of ink, Soulages would make his mother laugh at his black "snow".

"But I was serious. I made the white of the paper even more white with my black. I loved winter trees without their leaves.

With all his "black marks on paper", his mother would tease him that he "was already mourning her death".

But what Soulages was doing was asking basic questions about art that go back to prehistory.

"Why did man need to make marks on a wall?" How did art start? "We hardly talk about it -- it is very badly taught," the painter said.

"What is extraordinary," said one of Soulages' friends who was visiting that day, "is not just that he is still painting but that he is continuing to search and to think. He sees things that we don't."

- Into heart of blackness -

Still a bear of a man despite his age standing 6ft 2ins (1.90 metres), Soulages likes to work in scrupulously empty spaces.

"My studio is bare while those of other artists are often overflowing. I have to detach myself from anything which could hold me back."

Soulages admitted that he "knows very little about contemporary artists".

Instead he prefers to explore the heart of blackness in Sete "behind a few ramparts".

He puts a stone from the beach wound with string outside the door when he wants to be "left in peace".

But it can be a struggle. Two months ago the painter "could not get up because of my back" but he shook the problem off, and intends to "return to my (bigger) Paris studio when I can," he said.

With a whole museum dedicated to his work in his home town of Rodez in south central France, his dealer Emmanuel Perrotin is planning "a crazy project for my 100th birthday" in the US.

"He wants to bring all my works at the Fabre Museum in Montpellier to his new gallery, which is magnificent, in New York," Soulages said.

"Financially it's madness. I don't know how he'll manage. I doubt if it will happen," said the man who former French president Francois Hollande called "the world's greatest living artist".

Another ex-president Jacques Chirac is also a fan and last year the current occupant of the Elysee Palace, Emmanuel Macron, and his wife Brigitte visited him.

"I was impressed by how cultured and open they were," said Soulages, "and how they knew how to make friends immediately."