Hervé Constant : Illuminations in London Fields
I knew Hervé first of all as the painter who loved Arthur Rimbaud, the boy genius who flashed through London with his symbolist lover, Paul Verlaine. Rimbaud found an equilibrium, finally, in far-off Ethiopia, Hervé came from the hot cities of Casablanca, Hyères, Marseille, and after Paris, Toulon to the green of London Fields. He is large man, his accent always strong; well-travelled: the accumulated memories of decades enrich his studio space. A past in experimental theatre, Grand Guignol, flamenco and rock opera preceded a chosen exile: retreat from a madding crowd and a space for reflection. In London he assimilates the fruit of his travels; he paints, reads and recalls the French poetry which has always been part of his life.
The relationship with Rimbaud began by listening to the poems as he painted, the synesthetic conflation of joyous colour with words and emotion, as in the rainbow-coloured vowels of Rimbaud's most famous poem (see Vowels, 1999). Then Constant realised that the bateau ivre... the 'drunken boat' symbolising escape and exploration was ‘actually a bitter disillusioned way of seeing the world'. He explains how through time even the meaning of colours can vary: 'Tenderness... or enthusiasm as time progresses, will not have the same value or meaning.' His video-homage Toute lune est atroce et tout soleil amer... (2005) shows an 'atrocious' moon with a shredded halo cloud appearing and changing in a depth of utter darkness, profound solitude. Hence the dialectical charge of so many images.
Constant's paintings express states of mind through symbols, signs, colours, forms and objects: the brightness of leaping flame-like hands of Reaching, 2018, contrasts with darker modes. Magical thinking is explicit in the triangular incantation, ABRACADABRA (shown in the catacombs of Brno), in the magic square of Tree Sephirotica, or the elements of his Tarot series, commissioned by the Azazel Institute (named after a dark angel) which resonate with other images such as the hermetic Castle, 2016. Indeed the Tetraktys series were inspired by a long trip to Bosnia in 1998 and shown in the Museum of Eastern Bosnia, (Tuzla). Paradoxically, the Balkans visit signalled the moment when a turn to photography was urgent in terms of the sights and encounters offered by the war-torn country: the park-memorial to seventy children, 'ethnically cleansed' was particularly devastating — see the videos Killing and The Return: In retrospect. Constant revisits these photographs. In Tuzla, Bosnia, 2013, black points and a spider-like network of cracks rhymed by the vertical of frames spread over a pale surface; streaked with opaline translucencies. The work speaks of impact, the crack of broken glass, the silent aftermath of impact. Still life here is much more than an act of recall: like much of Constant's work it is metonymic: a shard of memory refers to a far greater whole.
Flight, 2017, the recent pair of fire-tipped scissors, taking off into a violet dawn contains an imminent danger: will the sky be to cut open, torn, déchiré? Flight recalls Constant’s major commission, Icarus, 1985, whose hero represents overweening aspiration ending in tragedy (flying too near the sun his wax wings melted.). In contrast stands the insistent objecthood of many works, like the blue and yellow suitcase with its pale ground, speaking of constant voyage the cramped, minimum space of the personal: 'Nowhere is its home yet everywhere is its home'. Suitcase brings us back to earth. Hervé gives aura, colour and surprising texture — often waxy with encaustic — to the runic Prayers, 2015, where white and yellow strokes on a receding ground imply the mystery of repetition, of incantation and of a palimpsest through layers of acrylic. Yet many works are abstract, such as the receding oblongs of Gate, 2017, which still invites active introjection through its title. We can decipher the pendulum-like abstraction of Balance, respond to an object-ground relationship without identifying definite shapes or contours in Cross and Boat, 2014. The often-intimate scale of the works, together with textures combed and caressed, emphasise both separation and an intense, physical connection through time and touch to their maker.... Are these shapes really alone, when so invested at the moment of their creation, so literally infused with soul, so animate? Even the mysterious causeway of veined white stones on russet earth, touched here and there with moss or fresh leaves (At Hemingway, 2014) invites us in, unfolds towards the spectator.
The sense of spirit infusing the inanimate relates to Hervé Constant's recognition of the aesthetics of Japan on the occasion of his exhibition 'Journey of the Soul' in in Fukuoka. How surprising is the contrast between his coloured paintings and his almost monochrome heads of Buddhist statues, or the space and sky of the grey video Reflection in Naoshima, 2016, where the arms of George Rickey's kinetic sculpture, Four Lines, gesture rhythmically like trees-branches in a controlled storm by the sea. To see these gestures stilled, the sky transformed again to clogged pigment in Signals, 2016, each work with its own jagged landscape diagonals, is to understand how each small painting is a vanitas, haunted by the second of a photographic still.
The video pieces suppose a different artist: the traveller, the observer looking outwards, who shows the fleeting, the ephemeral to be beautiful. Run created in New York, starts with a ticking stopwatch opens out into images of a roller skater by water, self-absorbed in the twisting delight of a solitary dance. Run is a contrapuntal comment: the clock ticks with the irony of many distances. For Hervé, deep contact is of a primary importance and can abolish distance, in an era where technical devices — the phones which should bring us nearer each other — have sacrificed humanity.
The video Wrapping and Unwrapping (2015) —anonymous man wrapping his head with black cloth, achieves a state of complete darkness within the blindfold, an image of aggression from without. It epitomises doubled problem of self and Other (Rimbaud's Je est un Autre). Constant's conscious use of symbols is apotropaic: warding off any hint of the personal, any psychoanalytic temptation. As, one could argue, Masaccio painting Adam and Eve banished from paradise spells out the human condition: in Constant's words: 'the divine malediction has penetrated the fibres of the man with his stooped walk, hands pressed against his face in a gesture that expresses his shame, his pain and the weight of human responsibilities.'
Certain themes come close to intimating the possibilities of breakdown such as the black and white video Out There, based on Guy de Maupassant's Lettre d'un fou (Letter of a madman) with music by Gyorgi Ligeti of 2006, or the painting with spiky inscription in white on black, 'For heaven's sake catch me before I kill more. I cannot control myself ' (For Heaven's Sake, 2010), which also the frontispiece to the unique artist's book, named simply Killing. '
In 2008, Constant embarked on a quest to rediscover his birthplace in Bouskoura, via the night harbour of Tangiers, exploring the landscapes, architectures and people of his original roots, captured in poetic video Awaiting discovery 2012. In fact, he spent a decade as a child with his brother Lucien in the Refuge des petits, near Hyères, a sea-side town backed by mountains and much loved by artists; he recalls biblical cadences and choral singing: an initiation into beauty which constitutes him still. He sees the qualities of 'softness, delicacy, strength, aggression' in film, in particular in his Hand Ballet, 2006. Here Constant's hands, conceptual in their pattern-making, sober in black and white, represent 'different tensions, different moods'. They express a certain heaviness of memory — contrasting with the excited hands of fiery painting, Reaching.
The daily practice of art-making has offered Hervé Constant colour, form, rhythm, magic: a visual and tactile diary of experiences and images, the splendour the richest signs which dialogue with the preciousness of the insignificant. Perhaps in London Fields the spirit of William Blake has encountered the spirit of Rimbaud: Blake whose tiny moon in the engraving I want! I want ! has slipped into Hervé's surprising new abstract charcoal drawings Same Story 2107; Blake for whom innocence dialogues always with experience, hell is married always with heaven. In London Fields, Hervé continues to fuse cultures, to create through the tension of opposites.
Sarah Wilson is a Professor in the modern and contemporary department of the Courtauld Institute of Art, University of London. In 2015 she received the International Association of Art Critic (AICA) international award for distinguished contribution to art criticism