Painting Serenity

The Art of André Brasilier


It is Valentine's day and I am in Paris. But I am not here on a romantic date. I am on my way to meet one of the most prominent and inspiring French painters of our time, André Brasilier, at his studio on the Left Bank. Born in 1929, Brasilier has had a long and successful career. His paintings have been exhibited in some of the most prestigious museums and galleries around the world, from New York to St Petersburg, Tokyo and Seoul. 

Brasilier meets me at the steps of his apartment wearing a tweed jacket, Hermès tie and a blue striped shirt. Without a trace of paint, his appearance gives nothing away of his artistic profession. He greets me with a warm smile and, as we enter the apartment, he introduces me to his wife Chantal who is as luminous as her numerous depictions. We sit in their elegant living room where a sense of calm and familiarity invades the moment. And we begin to talk, interrupted only, from time to time, by the chime of an old clock. 

What's the best part of being a painter?

An artistic career means independence which is essential yet I have always been aware of the dangers of working alone; it requires discipline but there is the happiness of creating in total freedom. 

You come from a family of artists, in what way would you say that they influenced you to become a painter? In other words, did you always know that you had a creative talent or do you think art is more ‘nurture’  than ‘nature’?

My parents were both artists. My father was a symbolist painter and my mother, who was Belgian of Dutch descent, was very artistic; she painted and was also a ceramist. She lived in London during the First World War, and even before, where she studied at the Royal College of Art. Therefore, I was born into this artistic milieu, and this played a fundamental role in my education. I owe an enormous debt to both my parents. We were 5 children and I had an elder brother who became an architect and who, like me, won the Prix de Rome which is  quite unusual in the same family. I also have brothers who were not artists at all. In fact, I was the only one who became a painter.  But the influence of the family environment was considerable. I think of the verses [by Victor Hugo] ‘Pourquoi devant mes yeux revenez-vous sans cesse, O jours de mon enfance et de mon allégresse?’ Because my early childhood did have an influence. I would say that I was born an artist from parents who were artists.

You have described yourself as a ‘transfigurative’ painter…How would you, today, define your painting style?

I am first and foremost a visual artist. The ‘pictorial fact’ that Georges Braque talks about, is the play of colour, composition and form. But there must be an emotion as well which is inspired by life and is accessible to the general public. And like Paul Gauguin, whom I admire above all, also said, we should not paint what is real but what is plausible. 

I have always rejected realism, maybe also because of the influence of symbolism that I have known from my father who knew Emile Bernard, a friend of Paul Gauguin. I feel very close to this symbolist movement with its emphasis on the spirituality in art and it is this combination of the pictorial fact with the spirituality that I call ‘transfiguration’. 

How did you find your own ‘voice’ as a painter and what painter influenced you the most?

I don't really know, it's difficult to say how I found my voice because it came to me naturally. My work has been in the same vein since my youth. My craft has improved, the technique has evolved, but there has not been a revolution. It is through work, and I have always worked a lot, although work has been a constant pleasure - it's happiness to me - but I have advanced by spending a lot of time with the brushes in my hands. This is how I have succeeded in translating a bit of what I wanted to express. Then the man who has  had a great influence on me is Paul Gauguin. I discovered an exhibition in the early 1950s at the Orangerie, the first important exhibition of Paul Gauguin in France after the war, and it was a considerable shock for me. I knew his work in black and white and I was already filled with admiration: the simplicity, the beauty of forms, the sense of the landscape, the women in the landscape... and when I discovered so many remarkable works of art I was bowled over. The work ‘Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?’ is an absolute masterpiece.

How would you describe your use of colour?

Colour is essential and at the same time it is very indefinable, but it is the first element that attracts the eye. There are harmonies that move us deeply and others that don't. It's the same with musical notes - why is there harmony in some notes that go straight to your heart and others that do not at all? There are colours that marry in harmony due to their beauty or because of the quantity used. Sometimes it is the surface of a blue, because the dose plays a role too. It's like with perfume, a very measured accord, there is an ineffable magic, because it lies on the sensitivity of the eye, or the hand, it is mysterious but it is paramount. If the colours do not talk to you, the canvas does not talk to you either. 

And how do you decide on your colours, for example, when you paint the trees blue?

In my paintings I use colours I like rather than those that they should be because I escape from realism. I prefer to create my own kind of nature. The trees I paint are elms, oaks, walnut trees...I know these trees, and I love them, but I interpret them according to what I like. I want the colour I love to reign in a way that is plausible; not a fantasy but not real either. 

Your paintings have been described as ‘moments of beauty.’ What is beauty for you?

Beauty is what delights the soul and the eye. We feel delight when we see the Birth of Venus or the Spring by Botticelli, or a Countess by Goya. It is delight because there is harmony, the mastery of colour, humanity, it is all there. The Venus de Milo is the beauty of forms,  so beauty is the happiness of the spirit and the happiness of the eyes. It is irresistible. We don't always know why. We have a need to contemplate beauty, we admire a landscape or the sun reflected on the sea. It is so beautiful, we cannot define it but we are subjugated by beauty. 

You have made an intriguing reference to the ‘invisible’ by quoting Odilon Redon (“je travaille dans la logique du visible au service de l’invisible”). You also mention that with your paintings you wish to show the ‘essential’.  This reminded us of Saint- Exupery’s: “l’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux”. As a visual artist, how do you interpret this idea? 

To create an emotion is mysterious; art is mysterious. Colour is mysterious, there is some magic in all this. We must create work that can be accessible. Because I paint for a great number of people, I wish to create an emotion using the beauty of forms, colours and the visual organization.  

I use life as the base, that is ‘the logic of the visible’, it is not at all objective, it's a transposition, using mysterious means such as colour and the organization of the composition which forms a great part of my work. 

By mysterious do you mean there is something out of your control in your work?

Maybe not everything is controlled by the artist. There is a part which is totally voluntary and then another part that is totally mysterious that comes from one's origins, one's beliefs. This is why it is very difficult to speak about it with precision. Artists are creators and every time there is a creation, there is something divine about it, and because I am a devout Christian I totally believe that, and I thank Heaven for allowing me to consecrate my life to art. To  me, it is a mission. I feel I have come to earth to bring a bit of beauty and perhaps an optimistic message to those who see my work. For this reason, I must remain true to myself and not allow myself to be influenced by trends.  

Your art is highly appreciated in Japan. How did this Eastern influence in your art materialise? Did Japanese art and tradition influence your work or was it a case of discovering a culture with whom you had an affinity?

In my art and in my nature there is something that is in accord with the spirit of Japan. A love of simplicity, a love of nature and a love of life. So Japan has had an influence on me, like it did on Gauguin who himself was very influenced by Japanese prints. But it was also the fact of being at the same time passionate for life and spiritual, which is totally in tune with the essence of Japan to the point that when my work has been shown in Japan, it has resonated immediately with the Japanese soul. Even a master like Kaii Higashiyama, who was a national treasure, loved my work and asked to meet me. There was a total rapport with this man who was much older than me. We loved each other's work and, when he wrote about my paintings, his support had a considerable influence in Japan. This proximity to Japan has always existed in the way I work because of my love of simplicity and the rejection of realism. My spirituality means that I have a kindred spirit with Eastern cultures, not only Japan but also with Taiwan and Korea. I am currently preparing for an exhibition in Seoul and Koreans are extremely passionate about my work, which sometimes surprises me but at the same time I am very honoured because these are people that I admire deeply. They have a wisdom and a philosophy that I share.  

Your paintings reveal a beauty that is serene and meditative yet one sometimes also senses a feeling of solitude and melancholy, specially in paintings depicting Chantal. Do these feelings or emotions surprise you or are they intended?

My work is sensitive and the contemplation of my spouse, who is a source of permanent inspiration to me, is naturally a main theme that appeals to my sensitivity. There is the visual construction but there is also emotion and the emotion is sometimes charged with melancholy. As Victor Hugo said, ‘Tout souffle, tout rayon, ou propice ou fatal, Fait reluire et vibrer mon âme de cristal’. I have a sensitive soul so the smallest ray, whether favourable or fatal, naturally is going to affect me. And then there are all the hardships of life, and we have known the worst because we lost a child. All this exists in my work. It is the sensibility of the man, of the artist, which is translated in his work if he is truthful and he expresses his emotions. Sometimes these are melancholic. It depends on the moment. There are times when the vitality predominates and others when melancholy takes over but a certain melancholy is always present, I think, because life is tough.

You have said that with your art you wish to bring some light “to a world that is often harsh and scary” and you paint another ‘reality’ that is dreamy and poetical. Do you see art as an escape from the harsh reality of life?

With my work I try to bring my testimony of my love of life and I hope to bring with my work a trust in life, my love of humanity. I hope to help, to bring some happiness, a moment of elevation and I hope that my deep Christian faith is expressed in my work. I want my work to be constructive  and nothing brings me more joy than to hear someone say that my work gives them comfort. 

Many of your paintings are also a testament of your love for Chantal. You have mentioned that you painted her even before you met her…and then when you met her, it was love at first sight. It is a beautiful story. What could you share about this personal part of your life?

I must say that the meeting with Chantal was a miracle; it was magical. I spent three years in Rome at the Villa Medicis when I won the Prix de Rome. A year later my brother, who won the Prix de Rome in Architecture, asked me to return and to spend a few days with him. I was in Paris at the time and had no intention to return to Rome but I did and this is how I met Chantal who was there also visiting her brother. She was a chemist, a perfumer, working in Paris. We met in June and after a few days I told her we must meet again in Paris. Then that September we got married. This was over 50 years ago and since then there has been complete harmony between us. For me, it was the meeting of beauty. I totally admired her beauty, her mind; it was the encounter with the ideal. I had painted feminine figures before meeting her which could have made you think of her but it was this meeting with this beautiful woman whom I loved that changed my painting and that has been constant throughout the years -  every day and every moment. An exceptional privilege. 

What are the ingredients of a happy marriage?

You must share what you love. You must be passionate, because indifference does not work, and that has to be reciprocated and be in unison. We shared and enjoyed the same music, painters, sculptors...we had the same taste for nature, we both shared the same passion for the sea. A total sharing makes things easier because if there are differences these accentuate with time, whereas if there is a convergence, a complete sharing of everything, and a complete harmony, it is a gift from heaven. 

Another very important theme in your paintings is nature (trees, flowers, landscapes, the sea, the sky…) What is the meaning of nature in general for you?

Nature is a reservoir of discovery. When we look at nature we enrich ourselves incessantly. Nature is the perpetual renewal, the seasons, the is a source of inspiration. Those who close their eyes to nature, fall into a kind of dryness and monotony. Think of Mondrian who had an amazing talent at the start of his career but then he turned his back to nature and his art became dead. The same happened to Kandinsky whom I admire a great deal in his Blue Rider period but who then slowly detached himself from nature and he fell into an intellectualism, an abstraction which did not have a renewal and his art became stale. Nature allows you to come alive each time spring arrives, and this allows you to improve all the time. The contemplation of nature is the fight against death. 

You also paint horses. The horse is such a symbol in humankind, why do you like painting them and what do they evoke to you?

The horse is beauty, poetry. It is a wonderful animal that has fascinated man since Prehistory. Even in the oldest visual evidence of humanity,  in the caves, man had a need to express his admiration for this creature that incarnates the beauty of forms, of lines. I adore horses, I become emotional when I see horses. We have a horse in our home in Loupeigne which we almost hug even in the distance. He knows I am his owner and he greets me with a throw of his mane as a sign of affection. Everything is beautiful about the horse - the colour, the shape, the dynamism...And I have loved horses since childhood. My first models were horses. There were no tractors and no cars, as there was no petrol during the war in the countryside, and the milk man came every morning in his cart. It was splendid, and I took notes, because the horse also gives a  scale to the landscape. So, yes, I have always loved horses, even today whether in Morocco or in the circus, at the stables, at the Cadre Noir of Saumur, they are a constant source of inspiration. 

Another theme in your paintings is music (pianos, musicians…), does music inspire your paintings and if so what kind of music do you listen to?

Music is a necessity. I was born with the love of music. My mother loved music, she was part of a choir and sang Beethoven's Missa Solemnis. On my father's side, my aunt was a pupil of César Franck and my uncle was a pianist. I love classical music - Bach, Mozart, Haydn, Bendel, Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin, Brahms, Poulenc... The happiness of music is incomparable. I also like jazz - Duke Ellington, Armstrong. I am extremely fond of Schubert. Schubert talks to me, like a very close friend. His love of nature, of life, his melancholy, his love of spirituality and his intense emotion. Julien Green, whom I have known and I admire a lot, once said that Schubert's music was irresistible because it was the music of a sad child. One cannot ignore the sadness of a child. I was moved by this. Music is also a dialogue with heaven. But art, music, poetry - they all are. Painters have conversations with poets and musicians, a dialogue through time. I feel as though I talk with Schubert, Ronsard, Aragon, Victor Hugo. They are artists and magicians, who have their own share of eternity; they live through their art.                

Where do you most like to travel and why?

Many places. England, Ireland - I love Irish poetry - Russia, America, New York, San Francisco, Buenos Aires...But there is a place that I am particularly fond of: Rome. It is the birth of humanity, the siege of Saint Peter, and I love the colour of the stone, the painters, the light. It is also where I met Chantal. So if you asked me where I would like to go back it would be Rome. I also loved the Taj Mahal. The white marble monument is the testament of the love of a man for his spouse, and it is of supreme beauty. So if you wanted a definition of beauty there it is: It's the Taj Mahal. An expression of love.

This reminds me today is St Valentine's Day, does love inspire your art?

Love is fundamental. Before I met Chantal my work was sombre, severe, but she brought an opening, a balance that can be seen in my work. There is always a great love that is behind all creative work. 

One of your most beautiful paintings: ‘Rêve d’été’ (1979) shows Chantal against a starry sky, what was the inspiration behind this painting?

‘Rêve d’été’ [Summer Dream] is  an evocation of Chantal in nature. For me, the human figure is the most important element in the work of a painter. Artists who have not painted the human figure, and only paint landscapes or still lifes, place themselves in an inferior category. There is a painting that I loved, and that continues to delight me to this day, which is a portrait of Josephine in the Parc of the Malmaison by Pierre-Paul Prud'hon.  There is a romantic period in the 18th and 19th centuries, where the poetry of nature and the human figure are reunited, which is the synthesis of everything I love. It is obsessive. I thought of this theme with this painting and I wanted to express the idea in an extremely simple way, almost with nothing,  just a bit of dark paint and playing with the white canvas so as to say everything with almost nothing. That is it. Simplicity is my aim, to treat the human figure with simplicity, leaving the quintessence. That was ‘Rêve d’été’. 

Oscar Wilde said that “life is simply a mauvais quart d'heure made up of exquisite moments”, do you agree? 

I do like Oscar Wilde a lot, I have a great esteem for him, but I disagree with him on this one. I do not think that life is a ‘mauvais quart d’heure’. There are several ‘mauvais quart d'heures’ in life but life is beautiful. And the beautiful times count for more than the bad times. I love life, I admire life and I want to make other people love it. To make people love life is important and, precisely through art, we can inspire people to do so. The musician who delights your ears and stirs deep emotions, the poet who finds words of love and transforms your life because it does you good... So I agree that there are very bad, very painful, sometimes terrible, times in life and then despite everything, there are superb moments that one must appreciate. I would say that there is a very tragic half an hour and another half an hour that is very beautiful.  

You think there is a balance then?

Yes, there is. But with an advantage to the half an hour of beauty. Perhaps we should say that there are three exultant quarters of an hour and a quarter of an hour that is very hard, always. 

Apart from painting, what is most important in life for you?

Family, the love of family, our children and grand children, the love of humanity, the love for what surrounds you, and to be radiant with love, that is the Christian ideal. To be sensitive to others, first to one's family but also to humanity at large. To leave a message of love is, essentially, what matters the most...

After the interview, Chantal joins in discretely. We visit Brasilier's studio and Chantal and I talk about her beautiful antiques. She shows me the bust of Marie Antoinette on the mantelpiece. It still has a mark on the neck where it was cut off during the French Revolution.  As I leave, I feel grateful that I have had the chance to meet these two wonderful people. 

And I remember that they have spent three quarters of their lives together. Surely, the three exultant quarters of an hour Brasilier mentioned earlier. And suddenly, I realise it: this was quite a romantic way to spend Valentine's day.