Art's man in black gets Louvre tribute for 100th birthday

Paris (AFP) –


They call him art's man in black. Artist Pierre Soulages has painted primarily in black for eight decades -- foreswearing all other colours since 1979.

Now the Louvre museum in Paris is marking his 100th birthday with a rare tribute to a living artist.

Twenty works from the more than 1,700 canvasses the French master has produced over his long career will be shown in a special three-month show which opens Wednesday.

But the painter, who will turn 100 on Christmas Eve, and who is still working, is unlikely to make the opening because of a general strike which has paralysed France's rail network.

Having worked mostly in black since 1946, Soulages began his voyage to the dark heart of the colour in 1979 with a series of paintings called "outrenoir", or beyond black.

And since then no other colour has appeared on his canvasses.

Naturally, he also dresses in black.

"Black is never the same because the light is always changing it," Soulages told AFP in his studio earlier this year.

- Dark obsession -

Black is "a very active colour. It lights up when you put it next to a dark colour," he insisted.

"Black isn't the colour of mourning, white is," he said as he showed AFP around his spotless atelier in the Mediterranean town of Sete.

Soulages said he did not "believe in the myth of the chaotic artist".

Although he is less well known in the English-speaking world, Soulages is France's most celebrated and expensive artist, with one of his black canvasses selling for 9.6 million euros ($10.5 million) at auction in Paris last month.

He is also the first living painter ever to be exhibited at the Hermitage museum in Saint Petersburg.

Hailed as "the world's greatest living artist" by former French president Francois Hollande, Soulages admits to being a fierce perfectionist.

If he is not 100 percent happy with a painting, "I burn the canvas outside. If it is mediocre, it goes," he told AFP.

The Louvre exhibition will trace the development of Soulages's work from the end of World War II to the present day.

His principal technique involves scraping, digging and etching thick layers of paint with rubber spoons or tiny rakes to create different textures that absorb or reject light, subtly changing the monotonous black.

Born in 1919 in Rodez, southern France -- where a museum is now dedicated to his work -- even as a child he was obsessed with black.

Soulages was fascinated by the dark sheen of ink, making his mother laugh at his black "snow".

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

He showed his first works shortly after World War II in 1947.

At 33, Soulages exhibited at the prestigious Venice Biennale for contemporary art in 1954, and held his first solo New York exhibition just two years later.

Today he has around 230 pieces in museums around the world, including the Guggenheim in New York and London's Tate Modern.