THE LANGUAGE OF THE SOUL BY KATE SAUNDERS


Herve Constant paints in darkness in order to see clearly. As dusk falls outside the windows of his studio, which overlooks brick walls choked with drooping vegetation, he lights a candle in his basement studio near London Fields and works on a dimly lit canvas. Paintings emerge in twilight colours; soft blue, purple, brown edged with crimson. Often they have a transient quality; a sense of passing from daylight into darkness. Constant prefers to work in this way because his vision emerges from within. Like the French poet Arthur Rimbaud, one of his greatest influences, he feels that the artist must 'make himself a seer'. To do so, he 'searches himself, he consumes all the poisons in him, and keeps only their quintessence's'.

Herve Constant paints in darkness in order to see clearly. As dusk falls outside the windows of his studio, which overlooks brick walls choked with drooping vegetation, he lights a candle in his basement studio near London Fields and works on a dimly lit canvas. Paintings emerge in twilight colours; soft blue, purple, brown edged with crimson. Often they have a transient quality; a sense of passing from daylight into darkness. Constant prefers to work in this way because his vision emerges from within. Like the French poet Arthur Rimbaud, one of his greatest influences, he feels that the artist must 'make himself a seer'. To do so, he 'searches himself, he consumes all the poisons in him, and keeps only their quintessence's'. In Constant's paintings, the 'poisons' are transmuted into archetypal images; strange shapes perched in darkness as if on the edge of space, figurative images of the Major Arcana from the divinatory Tarot pack, and building blocks against a brown background with a texture like hair seen through a microscope. The latter painting, 'Tetraktys', which represents the Pythagorean '10', a symbol of creation and the wholeness of life. The blocks also symbolise the layers of the mind, suggesting that the deepest levels of the unconscious are inseparable from our conscious world. 'For me, the process of painting is like travelling a long tunnel, looking for the light', he says. 'My paintings are a product of my inner world, and of my past'. Constant was born in Casablanca to a Moroccan mother and a French father. When he was only a few years old, his parents separated and constant was sent to an orphanage in Toulon with his elder brother. 'I remember virtually nothing of the ten years I spent there', says Constant. 'My memory has blanked it out entirely'. He does however remember the day his father came to the orphanage, bringing biscuits and pocket money, and told the boys they were coming home because their mother had returned. 'We behaved very badly, because we were so angry with her for leaving us', recalls Constant. He was 13, and it was the time of the Algerian war. Racism towards the Arabs was prevalent in French society, and the orphanage had taught Constant to be ashamed of his Moroccan blood and his mother' skin. 'It must have been terrible for her', he says. Several years later, she left her family again and went to live near Lyon. In the late 1970s, she was murdered by her boyfriend. 'My relationship with my mother was so important to me, but it scarcely existed', says Constant. 'Children need warmth and tenderness, and i didn't have this as a child. I know that the type of work I do as a painter and the way I live is a reflection of what happened to me. I am trying to find a certain happiness, a light through the window'. Constant began to express himself for the first time through acting, which he studied at the Paris Conservatoire. It opened his eyes to the possibility of creative fulfilment. He joined a theatre company, and later toured Europe as a flamenco dancer. But he found his true voice when he began to paint. Today, Constant has gained an international reputation as an artist. He is invited to exhibits his paintings all over the world; from the Karelian Republic Art Museum in Russia, the Alvar Aalto Museum, Jyvaskyla, Finland, the Foundation Azazel and the Rimbaud Museum to a display of exile art in Copenhagen, as part of the Europeen City of Culture (Autumn 1996). For Constant, painting is a contemplative and solitary activity. In a symbolic form, many of his paintings represent the descent into the 'Nekya', a mythical term meaning the descent into Hades, or the unconscious, in search of initiation and secret knowledge. The secret knowledge is then brought into the light by the artist and given form. The influence of the esoteric teachings of the Kabbalah, the mystical branch of Judaism, can also be seen in many of Constant' paintings, reflecting the Kabbalists' preoccupation with the spiritual significance of numbers and letters. Constant is also inspired by the delirious, opium-soaked language of the symbolist's poets. 'Painting is like a church for me', he says. 'It gives me a kind of peace, and a language with which to communicate'. And as Rimbaud wrote, 'This language would be of the soul'. For the soul contains everything.

Kate Saunders, 1996


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