Interview with artist Hervé Constant, by Philip Hartigan
P: The first question I want to ask you, Herve, as I stand in the middle of your studio in Hackney, east London, is: where do you come from and why did you move to London?
H: I was born in Casablanca, Morocco. I left Morocco when I was about five years old and moved with my father and brother to the south of France. My background is in theatre. I studied in the Conservatoire de Theatre in Toulon, and when I finished my studies in Toulon, I got a grant to go to the Ecole Nationale Superieur des Arts et Techniques du Theatre in Paris. The grant was for two years, and that is when I started acting. At some stage I came with the drama school to London. We visited Stratford, the Shakespeare Theatre there, and I liked the atmosphere, the English style of acting, and I thought it would be good to try and come to London to learn to speak English, and maybe try to actually study theatre here.
Later, I came back to London, and I got into a school in Hampstead, north London, but I couldn’t get a grant. Gradually I started drawing and painting and I realized that that is what I liked the most. It felt more comfortable, more with my character. Even if I still liked poetry and literature, the idée to be in a space on your own like a studio, to do drawings and paintings and so on in your own tempo, it worked very well for me. I never feel bored or like I am wasting time. It is still my life and I still spend a tremendous amount of time in my space. Occasionally if I go out for a meal with friends, after a few glasses of wine I feel tempted to say poetry I know, so it is still something I feel strongly. But I think I found my space with visual art.
P: You also make films.
H: In the last few years I have included photos and films. When I do films very often, they are based upon a painting, with a similar type of vision or subject. It all goes in a cycle. For me it is quite interesting. Many artists they say, Yeah, you know, you are a painter, so why do you want to short films? They think maybe it is trendy. Many younger artists feel it is a way to do art quickly and all that, but for me I never saw the different kinds of art as separate. It is always a continuation, a way to know more and include other things. I do not think art is just separate – music, the type of music I listen to, for example – it is everything rounded, together.
P: You mentioned that the beginning of your artist life lay in theatre. Recently you have been making short films. Do you think there is any connection between the theatre and your more recent work?
H: Hand Ballet, a short video is like a dance, a ballet, the hands represent for me different tensions, different moods. I come from the south of France, where people move their hands a lot, they gesture a lot, and for me film has a similar kind of softness, delicacy, strength, aggression. My films do not have a lot of movement. I admire filmmakers like Tarkovsky, Bela Tar, Antonioni, directors who take their time. Many contemporary films feel like if you go slow people will feel bored, lost, not interested, not involved. Personally, I feel that with visual art we have to push a certain boundary. You do not work for the audience. You have to believe in what you do, go for it, then if people are not so interested or they don’t buy or write about what you do, you should be honest and show a certain integrity to keep going, to do your own work and follow your own path. It is not easy, but I think it is worth it.
P: I think I can recognize just by looking at your work and having been familiar with it for a long time, I can see what those common themes are, whether you're doing them in painting or drawing or film of photography. From your point of view, what do you think are the common wellsprings for the different forms of art that you make?
H: Maybe I'm not going to answer properly. But when I started painting, I remember I was interested in the telephone, drawings of people using the telephone, and now I see thirty years later the obsession of people with their mobile phones. And, I feel we are not communicating. It is a superficial way, yes, but on the deep side I feel we lost the actual humanité, the depth of the contact with each other. Rather than to make us more comfortable with each other, I think it is not -- maybe I am wrong but that is my vision, which is what I think.
P: But if we are talking specifically, say about this painting, from example --
H: It is called "MIRA". Basically, it is, um -- when I went to Morocco a while ago, I took some photos, and this is a lady wearing the --
P: -- the headscarf, the head covering.
H: Yes. The photo was in colour, taken from the back. When I came back home, I thought it would be interesting to cut it down, and use just the lines, to give an impression of the figure. I like it because it is a bit mysterious.
P: It is. And what you said about communication, this caught my eye straight away. In a way it also relates to the older drawing we were looking at earlier. There is a face, yet the face is covered up, we can't see it, so our first thought is: the face is the way we recognize other human beings, our common humanity, yet in this case the face is entirely covered up so there's a barrier to communication. What was the process that led you here, do you think?
H: The head covering was quite attractive. I did a painting using the colours from the photo, but I did not especially like it. I just switched to something simpler, more graphic, something not so obvious.
P: Again, this painting reminds me of other images of yours. You feel that they are symbols for something, not necessarily specific, you cannot quite pin them down to a specific thing, perhaps. You are using representational elements -- faces, hands -- but it is not necessarily a portrait of somebody, not necessarily a recognizable pair of hands. Yet you feel that the hands refer to something, they mean something. So, the painting is constantly suggesting it stands for something else, even if you are not sure what it is. I just wondered how aware you are when making the images of choosing things that stand for something that has meaning for you, or are they just things that come from the unconscious, and you just put them out and work with them?
H: I think very often it is the unconscious, but often strangely enough they follow on from each other. They come back. They have got certain togetherness, yes. Even, if they are different objects, or they are painted differently.
P: Tell me something about this picture of hands, for example.
H: They are video stills from the short video I mentioned to you, "Hand Ballet”. I thought it would be interesting to print a few of the shots from the video.
P: Anything governing the choice of these stills? Did you arrange them in different combinations?
H: I did, yes.
P: So, you were trying different patterns.
H: Some of them have a certain tension, yes. <Points to individual stills> These looks like they're expressing tenderness, this seriousness, a religious feeling with these.
P: I notice that sometimes your work is abstract, leaning towards the form, the shape, the division of the canvas. In other pictures, like this new one –
H: -- it is very narrative, descriptive.
P: Why one and why the other?
H: Well, I have never been to art school, so basically even I have read a lot about different schools of painting, I'm not bothered about the style of a picture or the way it's made. Just behind that painting is one called "The Labyrinth", based on a story of the same name, and it is abstract, geometric. The story of "The Labyrinth" is you can't find a way out, you just search your path in life, and there <pointing to a painting of small figures on a chessboard> the children are playing, they are stuck, they are all the same, it's dark, we don't see any of the faces, just the figures. They are symbolic, they are on a chessboard, a game I like to play very much, and we go again into how far we can be free to choose our own path in life. So maybe that is the connection between the two.
P: With the labyrinth painting, I see the artist's hand and mind working with a pattern to explore space, and even if I don't know the story I can see you exploring a maze, constantly arriving back on yourself. While with the chessboard painting, my response is: you could have indicated the faces, eyes, mouths, but they are generic human forms -- H: -- and I thought it had to be a perception of bodies rather than anything too precise, too photographic, or whatever.
P: You are interested in mysticism and religious ideas surrounding the mystical experience. Do you think these figures you work with allow you to access these ideas through the visual realm? I mean ideas about mystical oneness, unity of being, and so on?
H: I think so. The picture of the children playing has a certain existential quality, so I would say, yes. To a certain extent it reminds me of Giacometti's work, the way that the figures are still. I think this painting has quite a bit of his style.
P: You exhibited at the Jewish Museum in London a few years ago.
H: Yes, I showed in their old venue, a nice building in Soho.
P: Talk about that work and its relation to the Kabbalah.
H: I once did a series of work based on the poet Arthur Rimbaud. I like his poems very much. I started to read about other poets of the time, about symbolism, the symbolist poets, Baudelaire, Verlaine, all those people, and I discovered that they were all interested in the Kabbalah and the occult. I wanted to learn more, because even if I have got some Jewish background through my mother –
P: That's a lot of Jewish background!
H: <laughs> Yes, yes. And yet I was brought up in a Christian atmosphere, which I can talk about later. Anyway, when I grew up, I thought it would be interesting to read the Kabbalah, to know more, and that led me to other things, like numbers, numerology, which I began to include in my paintings. Quite a few of them became “symbolique.”
P: So let's have a look at more recent work.
H: These are twenty-four small pieces. They are prints taken from actual shoes, printed onto the paper. Each one is 15 x 12 inches, and they will be called the Salle des Pas Perdus -- the room of, you know, when you go to the court of justice or places where people are moving a lot and walking quickly, they walk this way and that, they leave their footprints. And it is about communication again: we move, we are rushed all the time, we are busy, and we do not have time. And I would like also to do a film and an installation with the same material.
Then I took out of storage that painting "The Labyrinth", and I am going to film some part of it. I will include a path that shows people walking. The paintings will be covered on the floor, there will be a projection related to the art, so hopefully it will all make an interesting concept. That is the next thought I have got in mind for that.
P: You're looking at your archive and making these connections.
H: That's how it works. I've been working on doing paintings for so long, you put them aside, and one day you go back to your storage, you look through, and you think: That will be good to develop, to go back to. It is quite exciting.
P: You said earlier that paintings need to be brought out and aired.
H: They need to breathe, like us. Paintings have a skin; it changes with time. A good painting, the transparency, the pigments, they have a richness of expression and a quality of ... <pauses> I still believe in painting. It is still mysterious to me. It is still a great way of making art. I enjoy filming, taking photos, but painting is sensuous to me. The feel, the touch, <clicks fingers together> the marks, it is still great.
P: You have also had a lot of success recently with your videos, showing them in festivals all over the world. How long have you been making short films?
H: Since the last seven years. Not only short films – I have done quite a few that were thirty minutes long. I wrote a script for a feature film not too long ago and wanted to make it with three or four actors. But I did not have enough money to pay the people, and then the actress said she had to go away and do other things, which meant the other actors had to wait until she got back. And these complications were with just a few actors, so you think, My God, what would it be like with twenty? It might be ok if you are a master director, but if not, it’s not an easy thing to do.
P: Whether they are one minute or thirty, what’s the impulse behind them?
H: For me they are like paintings being alive in a certain way. They are often painterly, clearly made by a painter. It is a simple shape, an uncomplicated “mise en page,” as we say in French.
P: Moving on then, how do you decide if a piece is not working?
H: Here is a small piece that I am not pleased with and I’m going to rework. I want to give it a bit more movement. I do not like the heavy contrast between the green and the black tone. I am going to change the background, try to give more togetherness between the figure and the space. Now it is too graphic, too like a print.
P: We are looking at this painting as it is lying on top of the ‘shoe’ pieces we discussed earlier, which are more worked on, they have more layers, more textures, colours. At what point would you decide that these pictures are finished?
H: When the balance is right. Sometimes I work on them on their own, and then I put them together to see how the work can fit together into the balance of the colour, the image. I try to find one principal colour to give the body of the work more balance. Again, I was interested in the idée of the picture, but that does not make a painting. You must do the work, to give a bit of richness to the idea.
P: I think that is particularly important to remember. A lot of younger artists forget that a work of art is not just an idea – the idea must be given form, developed in some way.
H: Going back to Tarkovsky, he said an artist should be honest with what he wants to do and should go all the way with that. Because this is like a marathon: you go from the start point to the end point, which is death, but it is important to go through the journey. Van Gogh also said that when you make art you sell your soul, and the soul is the most important thing you have as an artist. You cannot play with that. If you are honest and do your work with integrity, people will see that. The problem is that people want success quickly. They want to show with a gallery, sell the work, and they are prepared to do anything to achieve that. It is like we say in French: “mettre la charrue avant les boeufs” –
P: Putting the cart before the horse.
H: Yes, exactly. For example, when I was participating at the Verona Art Fair, recently I could see a lot of work that was witty, clever, trendy in a certain way, to fit what a commercial gallery wants. If you are clever and you have got some talent you can play that game, but I think it is a mistake. If you do that you might have success for two years, ten years, but in the long run that is not what the great artist does. I think an artist should develop in a personal way, where it does not matter if it does not fit. Goya, Rembrandt, quick success did not matter to them. Their work was serious, it had gravitas, humanity. I believe in that – the work having humanité.
P: Do you think that is what has kept you going for so long (if you do not mind my saying so)?
H: What is important for all of us is the passion, the “enthousiasme” to do it. Not many people have that. I meet some artists who talk about their mortgage, their job, and so on, and they don’t have the passion to create, to do the thing, to go to their studio, to have that “curiosité.” Or they are only interested in making one kind of art, like only paintings, or only prints. If you are open and you enlarge your curiosity, by travelling, meeting different people, I think it is rewarding.
P: What do you think is the connection between that deep sense of curiosity and this studio that you have had for more than twenty years?
H: I feel that to work well you need a kind of security of the space, the studio. If you move from studio to studio, you get away from the work. It is important to have stability. I travel quite a lot, but when I do it is like having a second studio. It gives me another kind of breathing space. When I return here, I feel more eager to work, you know?
P: You bring things from the outside back to this space. And how long have you had this studio?
H: I moved here in the late eighties, so more than twenty years ago.
P: Do you ever see yourself moving to another space?
H: What is amazing with life is you cannot really say, you never know. Things might change, for good or bad, but things change. Maybe that is the charm of life. I should say before we finish that this country has been extremely helpful to me. I am grateful to have been in London for so long. The people have been particularly good to me. I did not know I was going to be a painter when I moved here, and now I show all over the world, so for me it was a great move. The good thing too is that I felt freer here than in France. English people are not bothered about the way you dress, they keep to themselves, while in France they look at you, they judge you, and they mock you. I can only say good things about being in the UK.
P: A final question, which you an answer in any way you want: why are you an artist?
H: I think it is because of the way I was brought up. When I came back to France from Morocco with my father and my brother, I did not know my mother, and my father couldn’t look after us, either, so we were left in an orphanage until we were fifteen. It was run by two American missionaries. I remember that the woman played the piano, and she would get us to sing hymns, and perform in the church on Sundays. It was the time of the first TVs, black and white TVs, and occasionally we could watch movies – Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Burt Lancaster, who was a big star at the time. So, I think my interest in cinema, music, opera, it all began then.
When I left the orphanage, I finally met my mother, but it did not go well. I felt that she had let us down, she did not care about us. It is not easy for a child to be separated from his mother, particularly a boy. So maybe I am an artist because of this family background. Maybe art is a sort of solution. Because even now I think many of my paintings come from that. The work is seeking for some solution to unhappiness.