After spending his childhood and teenage years in Benin, Philippe Cognée came back to Nantes where he was born in 1957. While a student at the city’s art school, his first exhibitions show the influence of Africa in the primitive style of his paintings filled with animal and plant life and the totemic figures that came from Douanier Rousseau, as well as in the expressiveness of deliberately simplified forms.
A few years later, when Cognée was in residence at the Medici Villa in Rome (he was the 1991 Rome Prize winner), he achieved a complete revolution in aesthetic terms: giving up on his first manner, he invented a technique that would become his sole way of working on canvas. From the photographic data bank he created (today he uses videos and Google Earth images also), he projects images on to the canvas and sketches in the outlines. He then uses encaustic (a blend of beeswax and pigments) for the painted surface, overlaid with a transparent film that is heated with an electric iron. This operation liquefies the wax, causing outlines and colours to leach into each other, thereby deforming the underlying drawing. When the film – a glaze that is however never uniform – is peeled back from the canvas, some of the paint tears off the surface creating cracks and crevices.
The effect produced is peculiar to Philippe Cognée’s work: the objective photographic rendering gives way to blurring, liquefaction, or even causes the subject to partly disappear. This is in opposition to photographic realism, with the result that the subjects represented are worked on in abstract terms. Forms are confused, and to some degree chromatically fused, so the real work hinges on paint as matter, which endows the paintings with a sensual ambiguity. Cognée states: “When a subject is no longer clearly outlined, spaces for imagination and memory open up”. By distancing the figure, he creates a space for the viewer’s individual sensitivity to engage with, the viewer is included in the image.
Although Cognée’s subjects are both fleshly and distanced, they are also utterly banal and ordinary, coming from every genre in traditional painting – urban and rural landscapes, portraits (friends and family), copies of old masters, supermarkets, heaps of detritus, hotels, bookcases, crowd scenes, carcasses, flowers, cargo containers, vanities. They are simultaneously close to us as part of our daily lives, and totally foreign through the treatment they receive at the painter’s hands, floating in an indecisive space that arrests the gaze, just as the resulting displacement is fraught with questions. The artist’s photographs are likewise banal, with no aesthetic intention; they flatten the subjects so that in the end the true subject is painting itself, manifesting its power to present reality.
By distorting the figures, Cognée questions the matter of painting itself. Like any great figurative painter, he questions the notion of representation, the lax relationship between subject and pictorial figuration. In the final work, the viewer apprehends something that is symptomatic of loss, something that trembles, melts away, vanishes, that is seized even as it ‘falls’ into final defeat, a movement caught in extremis. The glazed surface is not uniform, it is scraped away, it decomposes. The skin of paint shows that nothing is ever fixed, everything is in the process of moving towards a transformation where the fundamental ambiguity between instability and immobility is captured by the artist.
At Chambord, Philippe Cognée is showing around thirty paintings, as well as drawings and watercolours many of which are new pieces or have seldom been shown before. With around sixty works, the exhibition is structured around the issue (and not the genre) of portraiture, echoing the portrait galleries that so often embellished royal residences. But whereas those portraits were all about the iconography of power, Philippe Cognée’s contemporary portraits assert the fragility of human life. The figures are eaten away by a gradual process of dissolution, further underlined by the skulls in the paintings of vanities also present in this exhibition.
The fact that these paintings co-exist alongside other ‘real’ portraits, as well as landscapes (views from trains, the Google Earth paintings) and still lifes (fish, sides of meat), shows in the end that for this artist, everything is a portrait. It is his vision that individualizes the subjects, catches them in their singularity, and in the violence of their relationship with the gaze. Philippe Cognée believes that painting’s uncompromising clarity of vision can wrest modern forms of solitude from the flux of consumerism and other mortiferous trends in contemporary societies, and yet also foster feelings of attachment to their strange beauty. Beauty that this artist, whatever the cost, will not relinquish.
THE HUMAN FIGURE
Portraiture figures frequently in Philippe Cognée’s work. His models can be historic figures (subverted classical paintings), friends or family, and he has also painted a number of self-portraits. The special technique he uses means that his portraits are on the verge of being effaced, the image can be pushed so close to vanishing that it inclines to abstraction. Viewers are invited to partially reconstitute the figure they observe, and in so doing apprehend the fragility that is at the core of human representation. From the figures that have almost completely disappeared, a remoteness emerges that paradoxically makes them closer to us, their animality (especially in the self-portraits) and their finiteness registering on the hyper-sensitive skin of the canvas. There is a jubilant tone in the wide range of portraits which address viewers with a simple, radical question about our own humanity.
Philippe Cognée is the first painter to have used images developed by Google technology and transferred them to painting. Whether from Google Earth or Google Street View, these new ways of capturing space, such radically different ways of representing the world fascinate him. Google’s vertical images make for a representation that is impossible, no city is ever seen this way. This is because perspective gets flattened when the usual horizontal vanishing point is elevated to a vertical overview.
And this creates the opportunity for cities to be re-written. Such and such a block of buildings forms a random composition, a landscape inscribed with letters that the painting makes legible. With his technique that fuses colour and outline, the cities become unstable constructions, their monumentality is threatened by encroaching decomposition. In all his work, construction is counterbalanced by collapse, vertical by horizontal, as if a semblance of equilibrium could only be achieved through a continual confrontation of the opposing forces that ceaselessly harry representation.
The landscapes derive from the traditional genre, yet immediately assert their contemporary character. Based on photographs taken by Philippe Cognée from the TGV, they are then transposed on to canvas using his own personal technique. What counts here is not so much the modern means of transport as the effect produced by this special point of view. Such camera shots imply lateral vision, like tracking shots in which the clarity of the photographed landscape gets blurred by the speed of the train, making it impossible to capture any animal or human form.
The resulting painting is inevitably halfway between figurative and abstract: its treatment is both completely realistic (the camera lens captures a real landscape) and completely abstract (the photographic operation in itself blurs the outlines, and the chromatic choices set up violent oppositions between acid colours, mainly yellow and green).
Philippe Cognée’s landscapes and architectures do not have a vanishing point, or any perspective, only speed and laterality to capture an instant in the world whose image, in the literal sense, does not exist.
Philippe Cognée’s work is interspersed with still lifes, in three main forms: the vanities, meat or carcasses, and lately fish, as well as the everyday objects presented below. With outstanding mastery and sensitivity, paintings, drawings and watercolours dialogue with works from the past – the classical vanities, physical remains and flayed sides of beef are reminiscent of Rembrandt, Soutine and Bacon, while the fish allude more to the Dutch tradition or, closer to our time, to Courbet.
In one way, the consumer society is denounced, and in its centre, the masticating flesh-eater unable to escape his ‘skull future’, as illustrated in Cognée’s many paintings of vanities. Nonetheless, his melancholy and pessimistic view are matched by the treatment of image, matter, rhythm and colour, the aesthetics which celebrate his joy in painting.
In line with Baudelaire’s ideas of modernity, for Philippe Cognée anything is a suitable subject. Any ordinary objects from daily life, especially contemporary objects, are fit to be painted: supermarkets, bookcases, hotels, cargo containers, bathtubs, chairs and pots of paint have all been treated by this artist.
For him, painting shows the world as it is, or as he transforms it through painting’s materials and movement. Objects are transfigured – not in the sense that they acquire some kind of sacred aura, but in the way they reveal painting’s iconic power by being transformed into an object for painting. Objects are wrenched from the world’s flux and from certain dissolution to become a painting, their strange beauty revealed by this singular act.
Directeur général du Domaine national de Chambord—Jean d'Haussonville