It is difficult to describe Garouste. He is an interpreter of stories and texts, religious, classical, mythical. He is an interpreter of interpretations. A painter, a sculptor, a thinker, a philosopher, a playful imp and a creator of often fantastical works. He is counted as one of the leading figures in French art, and what we have here is the biggest exhibition of his work outside Europe: about 50 paintings that span nearly 40 years of his artistic life, from 1980 to 2019.
Mask of the Dog (Self Potrait) (2002) | Photo: Dalip Kumar
Drawing from Christian and Hebrew texts and cultures, literary greats such as Dante, Cervantes, Goethe and Kafka, and his own experiences, Garouste has created a mammoth, complex and thoroughly enjoyable body of work, largely in oil.
The title of his retrospective, “Gerard Garouste — The Other Side”, which is showing at the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) in New Delhi, comes from a work he created in 1999-2000. “It’s a theme I often use,” says Garouste, who was born in 1946 and lives and works in Paris and Normandy. The painting depicts a larger-than-life figure standing on one bank of a river with his fingertips touching the other. “The bridge creates both a link and a distance, a new point of view when we cross it, if only to see the side from which we came,” reads its description.
In Jewish philosophy, Garouste explains, the idea of going to the other bank is fundamental. It’s about crossing over to look for your destiny. The idea was fundamental at a personal level too “because the beginning of my own life, the early years, was such a disaster,” he says.
Blind Booksellers (2005) | Photo: Dalip Kumar
His father was a violent man. “I was frightened of him. And on top of that, I was bad at everything in school. I was shy and hardly spoke. My whole personality was built on the fact that I used to draw.” So while his classmates were learning to read, write and use their minds, “the only thing I was doing was developing my skills with my hands”. His works too focus a lot on the hands. In the exhibition is a painting of a student whose feet go backwards but whose hands are very visible.
The traumatised childhood led to mental health problems. “I was often institutionalised in psychiatric hospitals,” he says. We are now sitting outside in the sun on one of NGMA’s lawns, not far from the schoolchildren he has spent the morning talking to about his works. “One of the great gifts of spending time in psychiatric hospitals is that it helps you discover the myths and associate with them to uncover the truth,” he says.
Another recurring theme is that of the double: the Classicist and the Apache; the Bible and the Talmud; Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. He talks of a dream he once had in which a voice told him that there are two types of people: the Classicist and the Apache. Classicist, as in someone who is correct and succeeds at everything. “Someone like Emmanuel Macron,” he says with a laugh, and explains: There is a bit of the classic in each of us, which makes us straightforward and proper. But we also have an Apache part, which is about madness, poetry and the intuitive things of life. “Macron is more classicist and I am more Apache.” More laughter.
The Sarcophagus (2012) | Photo: Dalip Kumar
Garouste also has a propensity, somewhat devilish, of putting faces of known people in his paintings. Besides the many works where he himself is the subject — whether as Pinocchio, Tintin, a diabolical buffoon or a man caught in a fantastical setting — there are faces of his friends, acquaintances and also of Kafka.
In one painting, the face of the woman is that of his gallery owner’s wife. “She is someone who is very correct and I have shown her as very correct. But behind her head there is a whole orgy going on,” he says, the glint he painted in Pinocchio’s eyes reflected in his own.
Oft-depicted also in his paintings is the donkey, an animal usually seen in poor light. “That’s part of the Greco-Latin thinking,” he says. “But my donkeys are not painted in the Greco-Latin spirit. I see them from the Hebrew perspective.” The three letters that make up the word “donkey” in Hebrew also make up the word “matter”. Just like the letters in “messiah” are the same that compose the word “mind”. So in Jewish tradition, the image of the messiah arriving on the donkey to redeem the world at the end of days actually means the triumph of mind over matter, he explains.
Visitors at the exihibition
Garouste has closely studied the Hebrew texts and obsessively pondered their meanings. Born a Christian, he embraced Judaism later in life. “The paradox is that my family hated Jews and, like my parents, I didn’t like Jews either.” It was when he went to middle school and came across people from different faiths and ended up with Jewish friends that he realised how prejudiced his parents’ attitude was. His wife is also Jewish. She is present in the exhibition, too, as part of a triptych that also features the artist and their two sons. The inspiration for this work is a mindboggling puzzle from the “Logic Room” he would frequent as a child at the Paris Science Museum. “This room was full of little stories, each of which ended with a question. You had to work out what reasoning the story was based on.”
Garouste’s paintings also invite you to do that. So, go, visit and find your own stories.
‘Gerard Garouste — The Other Side’ can be viewed at the National Gallery of Modern Art, Delhi till March 29, 2020