“Sometimes you work for days and days, and nothing comes out. Then, for some reason, when you’re angry and depressed – inside of you, you can feel that this energy is coming to the surface, and then this energy comes alive on the paper or the canvas.”
Artist Ivan de Monbrison cloaks his subjects in shadow. They are in danger of being altogether lost. The world in which they live is on the grey borderlands of self-consciousness. de Monbrison works hard – perhaps obessively – to make it so.
de Monbrison was referred to us by our friends at Fjords, who thought that his art would be suitable for our work – which it is. In our fast-approaching release of Anobium: Volume 2, we are featuring nine select paintings by this Parisian-based artist and multilinguist who, in 1969, first entered the world and experienced these dark visions from an early age. His work has been published and featured in galleries in Europe and America, and we are proud to welcome him into the Anobium fold.
Over a weeklong e-mail exchange, we were able to compose the following interview. Some of the images from Volume 2 are included here. Learn more about Ivan de Monbrison at his website here.
How old were you when you started to realize yourself as an ‘artist’? What were the things that happened that help you realize this?
I was working in an office for a museum and doing some translations on the side, and some writing too. A friend of mine who was moving out of her place gave me back two paintings that I had done for her ten years earlier. I tacked the paintings on my wall, and thought, “What would come out if i were to paint again now?” So I went into an art store and bought some materials.
As I started, I realized that even if I had not improved technically, the person who painted now was different from the one back then. Then it grabbed me that working in an office was like death itself.
At first I worked in the office and painted at night, but soon it came to me that this was not enough. Working at the office was still holding me back. To escape this death, I had first to run away from this grey and weary place that was work at the museum. Then, I had to paint – to get lost in it. At my apartment, I sawed my furniture into small pieces and literally covered my place with painting. I stopped doing anything social and went into a long walk toward myself. I am still walking on this path. Maybe I’m lost, but at least I am safe from the dullness of the world I ran away from.
What is it about office culture that is so draining to the life of an artist? Were you worried about making a living after you left your job?
For me, office culture is the exact opposite of the artistic life. Everything in the office is about being self-controlled, accurate, and precise – and the work is very repetitive. People I worked with were nice, but the last time I paid a visit, they were all in their same places doing the same tasks – mostly working with files and computers. Many of these people had spent fifteen years in the exact same job. In an office, there is nothing alive, no surprises, nothing unexpected, no thrills. As my work was in a museum, many of the people I worked with were those who wanted to be artists in their youth, or working in the art world in a creative way. They chose security instead of following their instincts.
At first, I was full of hope after leaving the museum. I hoped for a bright future for myself in the art world. Obviously, I was wrong. The following years were the toughest of my life. I felt excluded, poor, forgotten, left out. As I was approaching my mid-thirties, I saw most of my friends settling down in a comfortable life. I was living in my small studio which was filled paintings, with only a small path between them from the door to my bed. But even at the lowest, I never regretted my work at the museum. I often felt like a fool (and I still do when no money comes in as I go on painting) but at no time did I feel like going back to the office. Actually, the curator invited me back in 2004 (I left the museum in 2000), but I declined.
Can you talk more about what you mean by ‘artistic life?’ What about the artistic life lacks self-control, precision and repetition?
You are right to point this out. In many ways, you also need discipline as an artist. Let’s say that when you are an artist, the core of your action is in looking for – let’s say – a spark in the darkness. The darkness is the scheme you have established through discipline, and it acts as the structure, but this structure is empty and shallow if it is treated only with accuracy and discipline.
As Francis Bacon said, if an artist starts copying himself, he becomes an academic. He meant that an artist cannot hope to achieve something meaningful by using the same method that had worked on a previous canvas. The artist needs to find a new way each time he wants to get to the core of his work. I believe – and I am not saying something very original here, though it is nevertheless true – that art is like an electric wire between the unconscious and a conscious act. That is mainly why a true artist cannot repeat a “masterpiece” at will. Skills are not enough here, they are just the basis.
Artistic life is for me nothing but waiting. Like a predator and its prey, the artist is hunting whatever is hidden in him, waiting for it to come out. It is very strange. Sometimes you work for days and days, and nothing comes out. Then, for some reason, when you’re angry and depressed – inside of you, you can feel that this energy is coming to the surface, and then this energy comes alive on the paper or the canvas. I am talking here about the traditional way to be an artist, the old fashioned way; the way Giacometti, Pollock, Bacon used. I am not sure that in the world we live, this still has a meaning. Art tends to be more and more used for publicity, fashion, and technology. You don’t need to find this kind of energy there.
I only concern myself with the ‘old fashioned’ way of making art.
Speaking of Bacon and Giacometti, who are some of the artists you believe have influenced your artistic stance and style? I definitely see some Giacometti in your treatment of the human figure. Who are some others?
I like Pollock very much. I was in New York two months ago and went to the MOMA, where I saw Number 31 of 1950. I was amazed. It is not even painting any more, it is something strange, like if he had pasted his mind on the canvas. It is funny – Autumn Rhythm, which you can see at the Met, and is a very beautiful piece, lacks some of the complexity of Number 31.
Maybe that is what I meant with the last question: the artist is looking for the right way to get into the canvas, but the path is very tangled up like a forest, like what Pollock symbolized on the canvas with all his lines.
When I started painting, I wanted to do it like him, but of course no one can. I admire Pollock because he is the essence of the artist.
I also like old African and Oceanic arts very much. These people never cheated. They went right away to what the felt they should express, especially in Oceania. I have been influenced by de Kooning, too, though I was very disappointed by the MOMA retrospective. I felt that de Kooning was a con, not going to the core, and he used his skills to make an impression, and that’s it. I prefer Pollock by far, even though my work is more akin to de Kooning’s.
Would you consider yourself as having ‘learn by doing’ approach to art? That is, do you prefer the spontaneous or the calculated in art? The artists you mention seem to carefully walk the line between these two extremes.
Don’t you think that all true artists, in many ways, should try to walk this line?
Your question reminds me of a poem I loved when i was young: The Waking by Theodore Roethke, “I learn by going where I have to go / we think by feeling what is there to know.” Now it is not really the kind of poetry I like the most, but when i was young I loved this poem by instinct. In retrospect, it seems that it was telling me something primordial. If you decide to dive deep into yourself and try to find out bring that hidden thing in you into the daylight, you need a good method to make this happen. However, by its essence, what you will find will be unexpected, or else it would not be worth it to dive into yourself this way.
You have referred a few times to the idea of self-exploration, and this ‘hidden thing’ in the self. Can you talk a little more about that?
My father died when I was quite young, and he had cancer for several years leading up to that. He was a terrifying man and he had a great deal of violence hidden in him. I don’t have a single memory of him being tender. I hated him, but when he died, I felt terribly guilty, because – like all little children – I still looked up to my father. His death was atrocious. I remember looking at the dead body at the morgue.
Suddenly it was all meaningless to me: life, the world, society – everything collapsed. Then my mother, who was devastated, refused the mourning that would have cured all of this pain. She built a fantasy image of my father that, as a young man, I believed to be true. At the same time she did this, she kind of used me to replace him. I was lost, I was nothing.
I guess that art was the only way to find a solution to this when, at age 30, I could not repress all of these feelings anymore. If I could not go back to the past, I could at least go deep into myself and try to sort things out. But it is too late. It is a lost war. What has been destroyed cannot be built again. The only thing I can do is fight the monster day after day with the only tools I have: the brush and the pen.
Maybe I am addressing these works to my father in some strange religious way of my own. Maybe the essence of all this is to take society as a witness of this struggle in the same way a child would take his parents as both witnesses and judges. I don’t know. I don’t even blame him. He was probably also lost. What I don’t understand is why they don’t tell us when we are young that the world is a con game and that we’ll all lose in the end. At least, this is how i see it now. Does art give the world meaning or is art another religion we have built to replace the old ones? I don’t know.
If art is a religion, or if it replaces the thing religion once fulfilled, do you have any sort of rituals you perform or undergo when you do your work?
No, I don’t think so. I guess it is more mental than anything else. Over the course of a given year, there are things I can and cannot do because of my work. I try to avoid social interactions as much as I can. Over the past years, the few very social periods I had turned out to be a disaster for my work. For instance, I also have problems reading a novel, because it totally absorbs me. Poetry is easier because it is short. Being an artist has made me turn away from many things because, in the back of my mind, I am always ready for it to come out, it is always lurking inside. To be honest i would admit that my whole life is dedicated to it, which is scary because, when it does not work, it gets even harder to withstand the disillusion.
Many people – especially Americans – romanticize Paris, and France in general. What are your feelings about where you live, and do you think your geography has much effect on the content of your work?
Paris is far from being what it was in the middle of the twentieth century. It is more like a museum now. French people have no sense of modernity. How come it was the center of the art world from – say – 1850 to 1950? First of all, I guess we could say that the French in the 19th century were much bolder than the French now. With its two revolutions in 1848 and 1870, Paris was like a hot cauldron. Great writers like Balzac and Baudelaire were in the heart of it. Social modernity was really born here. Then the French lost it. Maybe their defeat by Germany in 1870 started to undermine their confidence. But the city still attracted people and especially intellectuals and artists from all over Europe. One has to bear in mind that French was then the international language. After the Second World War, it was almost all gone. Paris was still important, but Picasso and Matisse were old men, and by the 1970s nothing was left of France’s past glory.
Now it is all over and modernity is somewhere else. The funny thing is that what occurred here in Paris 40 years ago is well underway in New York. Each time I go back to New York, it seems more and more conventional and less and less like the thriving city that it used to be, artistically speaking. Societies mature and lose their glamour.
People talk a lot about China as a future center, but I don’t believe that will happen. China is a reflection of our modern world, which is more about money and technology than it is about art. Art needs an ideal. There was one in Paris and then in New York (though these ideals may have been misguided) but there is nothing deep to expect from such a corrupted place like China, aside from wealth.
About the place where one’s produces art, I believe it has a lot of importance. I guess that if i were to live in the US, my work would change a lot. Living here, in a building that was built in the middle of the 18th century, I come from the past; my background is rooted in it. I am from old Europe, for the better or for worse.
You mentioned writing and reading in some of your answers – and you also mentioned that reading can sometimes be distracting for you. Despite this, you still have some knowledge about writing and poetry. Who are some writers you enjoy? Do you do much writing?
I still write poetry. It is always either in the middle of the night or in the early morning. It cannot be at any other time of the day. I published some poetry in magazines and with a small publisher when I was young. I used to be able to find these magazines in some bookstores in Paris, but now they are gone. I also published a small anthology of translations I had made from Urdu, but I was not very good at the language, so the translations were not accurate, though they did give the feeling of what traditional Urdu Ghazals look like.
For my last two shows, I made some poetry booklets for the audience of the shows, and I included some drawings in the booklets as well. Almost no one reads poetry in France anymore, so I don’t even bother trying to find a regular publisher. For me, writing poetry is even more at the heart of the creative process than painting. I cannot explain why. It is a very limited medium and very few people enjoy it. It is very hard to convey to the reader a true emotion through poetry in our modern world. Especially the poetry I write.
The author I most enjoy is Pierre Reverdy. I love Baudelaire too. In English, it would be Dylan Thomas and T.S Eliot. But Reverdy is a very special writer. He only uses images to convey his emotions. His goal was that an image pasted with another unsuspected one would spark a feeling by itself, a very pure one. His was mainly influenced by cubism. The idea of Reverdy corresponds with cubism as it says that an art form should have as little narrative as possible. He was also a friend of Picasso, who illustrated some of Reverdy’s books.
The issue for me with poetry is that when I write it, it is almost like a diary. I mean, the act of writing poetry gets so close to my emotional world that it really gives away what I feel as it springs out of me.
Ten or twelve years ago, I translated part of the Diwan by an Arabic poet from the 10th century. My Arabic was average, so my translation is not very good. Plus, this was a medieval poet, which means that he is sort of disconnected from our modern standards, though it was interesting work. I believe that true writing, in some ways, only occurred during antiquity and the medieval age, because writing in those days was itself the object of the act. In ancient Semitic languages, the word is literally the thing described by it.
But all this is behind me now. An amateur like I was cannot work seriously in these fields.
What are some projects you’re currently working on?
I have a show coming up in a small city museum nearby Paris, which started on January 4th. Then I have a show in the U.K at the end of the month where I am showing 6 drawings. I will be trying to find a bigger place to live because mine is getting too small.
Any last words of wisdom for artists stuck in the modern world?
I wouldn’t say I am wise, but nevertheless I think that most artists wait for society to give to them, though it is not for society to give. That is to say, an artist wants to make an emotional connection society the way that a child wants a connection with its parents, but society does not give a shit about these feelings. “I give you my heart, enclosing it in writing or painting. If you like it, tell me you love me…” The world does not function like that. In his desire to go on living in the playful world of childhood, the artist will have a hard time bearing the cold glare of modern life.
If success comes, and by sheer percentage it seldom does, it does not mean that the feelings of the artist are welcomed. It just says that, for these emotions, the machinery of society has its own use. There is no real connection with what the artist meant in the first place.
Just tell yourself that, as art was for the ancient man, in modern life it is the same: a quest for the discovery for yourself. The journey should satisfy you for its own sake. The rest is just an illusion.