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Hervé Constant’s transformative sensibility

“The man whose thoughts, like larks, take to their wings

Each morning, freely speeding through the air,

Who soars above this life, interpreter

Of flowers’ speech, the voice of silent things!”

Hervé Constant is a poetic painter – Like the poet in Baudelaire’s text, his images give form to fleeting and at times fragile things, unnoticed, perhaps in the ordinary performance of our lives. Waking up, organizing one’s day, travelling through the city, dealing with the hundred and one things that occupy us, interfacing with our fellow citizens, friends and family, tuned in to the broader geo-political events which form the background of our lives and over which we may have little control. Each of us comes to our own way of personalizing and navigating through our day. For some, perhaps, survival is already enough.

The mind attuned to poetry finds wonder in the mundane. Those blinded or distracted by the material world may choose not to dedicate their thoughts to poetic reverie, or may question its purpose or validity. But this particular spirit of reverie has often been the poet’s at least since the 17th-century. Basho, writing in 1689 observed that, “It is only a barbarous mind that sees other than the flower, merely an animal mind that dreams of other than the moon.”[1]

The sensibility of the poet/painter is attuned to these moments and fragilities, and from this awareness, is inspired to encapsulate a thought in form. A battered suitcase, mundane in almost every way, is nevertheless worthy of our attention. Let us stop and think about it – its myriad journeys, the service it has done its owner, obliged to pack up and transport only a handful of worldly possessions on some journey; a synechdoche for the larger home it encapsulates and displaces to some foreign place, a metaphor for the roving spirit of the poet and the transitoriness of life. Its mundanity permits it to stand in for everyman, whether refugee or holiday-maker, and embody their aspirations and anxieties at the journey ahead.

To an unfamiliar eye, the range of Constant’s work may appear baffling: portraits, Tarot cards, checker boards, videos of prisoners and hostages, paintings of kinetic sculptures by other artists, moving in the wind; the fleeting forms of wax candles as they burn, forming luminous caverns of light and shade; photographs of the artists’ hands enacting a ballet of interrelationship; Paintings of Japanese stone carvings of heads and paper prayer strips (Omikugi). But after brief exposure, their common threads lead us to overlapping themes and preoccupations. The notion of transformation emerges repeatedly – a form emerges from another, an idea gives rise to a further idea: one thing becomes something else, and of course, always an image. Throughout, it is the magical transformative power of the poet/artist which he is celebrating: to the ancient Greeks, a ‘poema’ was a ‘thing made’ – an artifact, constructed by skill and sensibility over time, using the material of language and the structures of grammar and scansion.

So too, in “Prayers”: brushstrokes, heavy and opaque, which never let us forget that they are made of paint and matter, stand in for and ‘become’ the agitated strips of paper at a Japanese shrine. In “Abracadabra”, the letters of an incantation, repeated systematically in paint, render the spell material, and determine, as they are determined by, the triangular shape of the image. The reiteration of pictorial forms echoes and metaphorises the verbal repetition of the spell, and the magic transformation (of word to image) is enacted before our eyes.

“The Castle” is oneiric, in the way a dream image forms in the mind as a visualized concept, clear enough to carry significance, but not so detailed as to distract us with unnecessary or anecdotal detail. It is an image, centralised against a vague background/foreground, with enough directional lighting to suggest a light source, a horizon, a physical location, but no doorway, for instance by which to enter. A castle, is after all designed to keep us curious invaders into the artist’s heart, out, and the solitary, central window is barred, to keep the artist’s heart safely locked within. It is an image of suffering and resistance, and solitude. The colours tell us this too: they are a sort of tortured melancholy, restrained in more than one sense. One inevitably thinks of Kafka, but this is not Prague - it is an idealised or rather conceptualised castle set in a timeless space, the space of childhood, fiction and lost dreams.

Paintings such as “The Return”, “Dream”, “Hockey Player”, “Posing” and “Inquisition”, draw upon similar tropes – there is a figurative image, which is the main focus and content of the painting, and a setting, background or foreground, just sufficient to lend it an atmosphere in which to breathe. Each image suggests a narrative. Perhaps just a frame from a micro-narrative, whose beginning is implied and whose conclusion is less certain. The figures stand, caught en route to an action, given context by their surroundings, and their titles, but not much else. Their stasis derives from their sense of oneiric time. Dream images often present themselves to us with a startling, immediate clarity. They can surprise us with their dramatic finality. We don’t know, at least when they appear, from where they arrived, and their future or development is not really of interest to us, but we are very conscious, we even revel, in the sudden hold that have over our imagination, right now.

The two charcoal drawings which comprise “Same Story” present us with such a space of fantasy. But it is an unsettling space, like the gloomy prisons of Piranesi or the never-ending spiral stairs of Escher or Hitchcock’s “Vertigo”. Charcoal on paper, simple black and grey on white, is sufficient to create an entire world, comprising physical spaces, lit by directional lighting, and inhabited by solid sculptural forms. Some of the forms have the unsettling qualities of an early Giacometti (“The Woman with her Throat cut”, for example)[2] and there is something, too, of De Chirico’s metaphysical painting, in the mood and atmosphere of these two. Both share the dominant trope of the Surreal from the early decades of the 20th-century.

Sometimes, Constant’s images are frontal and direct, but that is not to say simple. “The Heurtoir de porte” (Door-knocker) for example encapsulates its function perfectly. A door is a flat plane, and can thus be seamlessly exchanged by the picture plane. As if to emphasise this, the physical materiality of the paint surrounding the central panel is indistinguishable from the paint one would find on the physical door represented. It is flat and roughly even. The two realities, physical and depicted switch back and forth as we think about image and reality. The paint does the work of both. The image of the hand knocking, which personifies our actions as we take the actual knocker in our hands to knock, repeats this double exchange, and adds a third: the physical hand grasping the sculpted hand, here depicted, at one further remove, in two dimensions. Like the castle, the image presents us with a façade which we cannot breach. The door is closed. But here at least we are invited to try our luck.

Both “Prayers” and Balance” too partake of this pared down aesthetic. What is painting if not the attempt to perfectly balance colour, form and line on a flat surface, whilst never letting us forget the materiality of paint and surface? From the teeming complexity of the ever-changing world, the artist selects, arranges and omits until only the essential, held together in harmony, remains. The art of William Scott, Craigie Aitchison and early Hodgkin did just that.

One feature, perhaps the dominant one in our postmodern world, is the amount of imagery to which we are constantly exposed. Faced with this, the artist is inevitably a retinal sponge. Everything that enters into the artist’s consciousness is grist to his/her imagination, and that includes everything visual, whether natural or already cultural.

This, the work of other artists can, and indeed always does, become the source material for a new work by another. The kinetic sculpture of George Rickey agitated by the wind, each ‘limb’ revolving through a finite routine, yet combining with every other limb in patterns which are unpredictably chaotic, for Constant, becomes the starting point for a meditation on symbolic language, like an artificially intelligent semaphore, trying to communicate some arcane message to us, which, however, rests just beyond our comprehension. Like poetry and art forever, tantalizingly distant..

It is this poetic transformation which characterises Constant’s work, the search for which motivates the artist, and whose discovery uplifts us, the viewer, beyond banality.

“Fly far above this morbid, vaporous place; Go cleanse yourself in higher, finer air, And drink up, like a pure, divine liqueur, Bright fire, out of clear and limpid space. Beyond ennui, past troubles and ordeals That load our dim existence with their weight, Happy the strong-winged man, who makes the great Leap upward to the bright and peaceful fields!”

Kenneth G. Hay, Larroque, 2018

[1] Matsuo Basho, “The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches”, Penguin, Harmondsworth, (1966).

[2] Alberto Giacometti, “Woman with her throat cut” Bronze, 1932, National Gallery of Scotland.

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