INTERVIEW with Mauro Corda, by Patrice de Méritens
exerpts from the book MAURO CORDA, 2003
I was born on July 27 th 1960, in Lourdes. My parents lived in the little village of Arrens, at the foothills of the Pyrénées. My father was a hard worker and always on the move. He was a site superintendent for civil engineering projects like bridges, dams and roads. He was one of the many foreign workers that were brought in for the reconstruction of France . It was the Thirty Glorious Years, the time of General de Gaulle. The war in Algeria was ending.[...]
My father Ottavio was born in Sardinia in 1932, and was promised a good job when he went up north at the age of 24. My mother stayed behind with their daughter, until he found a home. And what a home! The company provided low cost housing, and before long Mom arrived in snow-bound Arrens. They were living in a tiny, filthy house, similar to hundreds, lining the roads of Béarn. Ottavio and Fedela - that's my mother's name, it means Faithful - were cramped in less than sixty square meters along with my older sister, one of my paternal uncles and his wife.[...]
But life took on a routine, and the years went by...
Yes. My father had just turned 29 and had four kids, one girl and three boys when I was born. As my mother kept poverty at bay by drawing the shutters, I keep the image of living in the dark, in a cave, while my father worked high up in the mountains. One day, the cable-car breaks down. He spends two weeks with his team in the glacier on top of the mountain. He catches pneumonia and goes to a sanatorium near Lourdes. After recovery, he goes back to work. I have hardly any childhood memories of him; I only really got to know him later.
When you have roots, it's important not to forget them. I am the son of a bricklayer, a manual worker. French, but of Sardinian stock. When there's a rugby match between Italy and France, I just cheer for the team that's plays best! If my father hadn't left, I wouldn't have done Fine Arts. Fate? Luck? Others might see it as the hand of God. One thing is for sure: when my father left his native country, he gave me a huge opportunity.
Do you think you could have been a self-taught sculptor there?
Of course! But as a sculptor, it's better to be young than old, and better not to be self-taught. To miss the teachings, the experiences and observations of the geniuses of the past - the ancient Greeks, the anonymous work on cathedrals, the Italian Renaissance of Lucca della Robbia, of Donatello, or of Michelangelo, the wonderful French sculptors like Coysevox, Houdon, Carpeaux, Rude and Rodin - it's a real pity. No matter what language you speak - Italian, French, Greek or Hebrew - it's always the same question « What have you done with your talent? »
So here we go. From Arrens, we moved to Argelès, then to Reims, following my father's work sites: major construction in the Jura, Champagne and Ile de France. We were always living in exile, along with other bricklayers. Among us we spoke Sardinian, like Garibaldi hadn't unified Italy . We spoke bad Italian, and as children of immigrants, we talked in French. Some people can trace their family tree back to the mists of time. As for us, we can't trace back beyond my grandfathers: a bricklayer on my father's side, and a shepherd on my mother's. An oral tradition implies you can't keep track of your ancestors, and past generations fall into oblivion. [...]We never went back to Sardinia, except for holidays. Ottavio had left for Eldorado, but although he earned enough to maintain his family, he didn't strike it rich. He had a tiny business, and cactuses were his only treasures when he left for France. To come back home not being rich would have been humiliating. Dad died just two months after he had retired... I come from the noblest Sardinian peasant stock, people who have always worked. The best thing I inherited from my father is the love of working.
When you went to Reims, you attended elementary, then secondary school. « A French childhood », as we say nowadays...
We lived in a village near Reims called Courcy. In a hovel, a real dump. My father was a thrifty man, he would save money so that one day he could build us a real mansion, the goal of his life, the beginning and end of his existence. The company that employed him had put him in charge of new building projects in the north-east; and he took whatever they would give him.
[...] My brothers and I used to play with the kids in the main street and a bit further, in the fields and in the woods. At school, I was always asked to do the Christmas decorations, because I was more skillful than my classmates. And I could draw! My mother told me that I always drew, even as a very young child. With pencil and paper, I was happy hours on end. And what could have ruined me would finally save me...
What do you mean by that?
The poets state that passion is an emotion that both transcends and subdues, what doesn't destroy you makes you stronger. I drew as naturally as I breathed. Later, it would distract me from studying and from a social life, to some extent, without my noticing. I had my whole life in front of me... From Arrens to Courcy, I did badly at school, I wasn't interested. I was always wandering off, and Dad used to grumble, « You're always the first to leave class».
[...]I was a dreamer, I could stay put for hours being idle, or that's what it looked like - but in reality I was meditating about a drawing...
In any case, modeling play dough didn't start me on sculpture. Quite the opposite! I remember my disgust when the different colored sticks mixed together in a dingy yellow-brown mess. Nothing is nastier than this stuff mixed with dirt. You feel as if you're working with goats sh..
They were childish fantasies, nothing to do with being a sculptor...
Exactly! It made a deep impression on me. My first idea would have been to carve stone with a knife, not to model clay that much. Clay is only good for making balls. I remember moving from Courcy to Reims , where we were going to live. I was ten, and Dad only came back on weekends, or every other weekend sometimes, because of his work. We - Giovanna, my older sister, who was over fifteen, and my two brothers, Pascal and Salvatore - didn't complain. Mom brought us up. Dad lived near Paris or in the Jura in his world of concrete bridges and dams. [...] I felt that the years dragged on and on while I was in high school. I would play or skip class, always sketching in crayon and pencil. [...]
So your formal education ground to a standstill?
More or less! And because I was hard to shape up, I was a real problem. If a child is withdrawn and unresponsive, you say he's ill. Something's wrong with him. He's not quite normal. Did I take advantage of this? Not at all. I was sure I had a future, a sort of personal wheel of destiny. At twelve years old and still at school, I worked in a pastry-shop to earn some money. I worked from 5 a .m. to 2 p.m. every Saturday and Sunday. The pay was ten bucks for the whole weekend.
I was unruly rather than rude, and I started to put myself forward, simply repeating, «I'm going to draw, I'm going to attend the Fine Arts Institute». A friend of my father's, a bricklayer like him, exclaimed, when he saw my work, « Your son has golden hands ». My hands were intelligent, and he was the only person who spotted it... [...]
So that's when you start the Beaux-Arts in Reims .
My parents didn't give me anything, but they didn't stop me from doing what I wanted. A boy with no skills, that's what they thought...
Fate sorts things out all right, doesn't it? I was lucky to live in Reims , and I skipped class to go to the studios at the Beaux-Arts. The entrance fees were set by the City, and were minimal. The sessions were on Monday and Wednesday evenings and Saturday mornings. Between the ages of twelve and fifteen, I entered an adult world. When I was sixteen, I left school and my report said: to redirect to manual training . This was normally for the slightly retarded, although I was developing an innate gift for drawing that set me apart from the other children. That's not vanity, it's just how it was - and I worked harder than all of them! When you do a job like that, you are alone with your passion, it's the only thing you carry with you and nothing stops you.
After years of evening classes, I enrolled at the Beaux-Arts. This was in 1976. During the probationary period, you felt your way a bit, deciding which studio you wanted to attend: painting, sculpture, engraving, architecture, interior decoration, advertising, ceramics...
I was absolutely certain of my choice: Sculpture.
So you had some inner feeling, a calling or a vocation for art ?
Art is a big word, when you practice it, you are living it from inside, feeling it instinctively. Yes, I did think I was going to do « important things in sculpture ». I knew I would. But when you're twelve, thirteen, sixteen, you don't call yourself an artist. Even now, I have doubts about this word.[...] I would say that I felt a great affinity for art. For sculpture, the primary factor was my ability to draw. The deciding factor was familiarity with the material. The sight of a posing model made my hands shiver.
My first teacher was Charles Auffret, himself a pupil of Raymond Martin, in turn a pupil of Wlérick. It was good traditional French sculpture. Auffret set me on the right path. He was watchful but let me work in my own way, only rarely correcting me.
He taught me structure, how to set up a figure. He would sketch the brain for us, the heart and the hand. The brain apprehends, the heart feels and the hand transforms. Once he'd traced the outline, a human figure would rise up like magic. A virtual sculpture starts with this initial structure. Charles Auffret said «To have brains is fine, but there is nothing without the heart, the hand only shapes». He added, enigmatically, « Think it over! If you create using this concept, you'll gain the world ». He taught me volume.
The great love of my youth was Michelangelo. But before that, I'd practiced my scales copying classical art and practicing academic methods. The mind guides the hand. Polycletus founded the Greek canon with his sculpture of Doryphorus , a squared-off form, with each muscle clearly defined, suggesting a human machine, supple, immobile, but ready for action. Praxitelus added languor, with an adolescent leaning carelessly against a tree trunk or a column. It gives him the essential point of suppor. From him, I learnt the sloping pose so foreign to Polycletus, whose heroes stand firmly on their own feet. I measured the flexibility of the spinal column and modeled it. The vertebrae links the two separated points of suspension - the leg and the shoulder - so the whole being is contained in this casual movement. The sculptor has to convey both the body at rest and the free-ranging mind.
But you were saying that the great love of your youth...
... Was Michelangelo, that's right! It may sound arrogant, but when I studied his works in detail, they didn't seem to me all that difficult to copy. Let me explain. Technically, a Michelangelo replica is largely a manual exercise.[...]. I knew that Michelangelo would be a mentor of special relevance to me. By finding myself face-to-face with him, I would learn enough about myself to become who I am. It was an experience I can't express in words. [...]
Charles Auffret trained you technically, but did he also help developping your esthetic values?
Yes. It was the ideal of the Paris school, where you mostly modeled in outline, so that you could see the shape of the strips of clay.[...]
A portrait head by Despiau, for instance, is smooth, but sometimes uses a few strips to reinforce an eyebrow or a cheekbone, not overdoing it, just a touch... Rodin used to work with strips, sponging them gently to blur and merge them. Bourdelle and Martin used to do the same thing. It was my school, and it allowed me to become a burgeoning sculptor!
But if Charles Auffret taught me to be rigorous, I was increasingly interested in the shimmering of life. I wanted to convey it in statuary, as accurately as possible. This very particular approach of transcribing thoughts that transcend form, is exclusively found among the Italians - particularly Donatello and Marino Marini. Perhaps it was my Italian blood.[...]. Paris is very static. The Italian touch is assured - more spirited. How, at seventeen, could I not find this inspiring ? I learnt form without much difficulty - you just need observation and discipline. Auffret taught us how to set up figures using a plumb line. We used to work with compases, so we knew that if we made a slip when working from memory, at least the compases were never wrong. "Focus on your point and follow the device!"
Auffret showed us that [...] a sculptor must control the entire design embedded in his architecture. «You must never draw a truncated model», he explained. «You must think ahead to the shift to three dimensions».
The next year, in 1979, a new director was appointed to the Beaux-Arts. His predecessor belonged to the previous Prix de Rome generation; pupils arrived at eight in the morning, and that was that. With the new order, all that changed. The new director was a typical character of the post-1968 generation, limousine left. He collected Jaguars, sequins and spangles, was keen on « whimsical art », and so on. I was appalled: the workshops evolved towards «communication and advertising», and funds for sculpture were slashed. I didn't want to be trapped there. I said to him, «Sir, I don't find you interesting!». I left school - I was nineteen.
What about the diploma ?
Useless. Michelangelo and Donatello didn't have diplomas. Rodin failed three times to get into the Beaux-Arts. In sculpture, you're good or you're bad. [...]
As soon as I left the school, I did odd sculpture jobs, a bas-relief for a cemetery, and some restoration work on gravestones... Funerals are a terrific drain of emotions, and hence of money ! I also taught drawing in a centre for disabled children. At first, I thought I could give them something, but it's tough job. I had taken a studio in rue Gambetta, in the back of a courtyard, together with a sweet girl - she had gotten her diploma from the Beaux-Arts of Reims. I lived from hand to mouth...
So you stayed in Reims for some time...
I frantically modeled clay, in our little studio. Male models poured in, and for a very good reason. My room mate was very good-looking, and a lot of her admirers ended up (un)dressed as Adam. They came to show off, like a sort of love parade. It was good for me: I was working with clay... All my money went in keeping up the studio. and paying for drinks, because we boozed a bit, not like real alcoholics, no, but to hang out. It was a school tradition. Going to Paris to visit the museums was an impossible thing... I traveled with books. In the end though it became unavoidable. In Reims, you soon hit a brick wall, and there was no way of becoming a second rate provincial sculptor, an « Artist with a capital A ». You have to go to the capital. This is a bit like the American dream. But you can't just turn up with a straw in your mouth.
So what do you do?
You try to get into a studio. It's not easy. In 1981, I took the exams to enter the Beaux-Arts (Fine Arts Institute) in Paris, and won the first prize. I was twenty-one. César, Jean Clos and Charpentier wanted me. I had «patrons» queuing up! Everyone rushed to César like moths to a light. Jean Clos was involved with the Villa Médicis, so that made him quite attractive. Seeing me come in, he said to his pupils « There goes an artist ». You can imagine how pleased I was. Charpentier worked in concrete, and I felt I had no future there. In the end, I went for Jean Cardot, the only one who hadn't asked for me, and who didn't like me ! But he used live models, and I liked that. [...]
It was an odd situation. What set Cardot apart was his social standing. He was a professor at the Beaux-Arts, Director of Studios for the City of Paris, a member of the Institute, and so on. This made him a respected artist, but also a leading dignitary as far as sculpture was concerned. My relationship with him started very badly.
I arrived in Paris on my own, calmly bearing my first prize. Cardot greeted me after the others, sighing, « Your record and your marks say I can't turn you down». [...]
He operated a sort of caste system with Sheep , on the right hand of God in the warm studio, under their master's tutelary eye, and Goats living outside, a Kafkaesque situation at the castle's gate. Except for the drawing and modeling sessions with live models, I was not allowed into the studio to work with marble.
I stayed a year in the courtyard, as the penalty for my insubordination. Fortunately, the following year, the printers, who weren't far off, lent me a small space at the end of their corridor. It was so chilly in winter! I got there every morning at eight o'clock, an unusual time as most pupils turned up around ten, just before Cardot. Cardot didn't put barriers in my way, he just ignored me. He didn't like me but it made no difference, I just carried on.
Even so, it must have taken a great deal of will power...
It's as Elsa Triolet puts it « You can kill time or kill yourself, it comes to exactly the same thing ». But time was on my side. For instance, the professor decided which blocks of marble you could use. He denied the first one I had my eye on, saying it was already booked. « Prove yourself to me first». He shoves me off with a piece of stone from St Maximin in Oise, full of fossil shells, so tricky you wouldn't even use it for a cornice. It's so soft - you can almost cut it with a spoon - although it hardens with time. What am I to do? It was a Wednesday. With my hammer and chisel, I chipped away. By the following Wednesday, the head of Victor Hugo emerged from that wretched bit of limestone, the heavy forehead, hooded stare, and beard combed into lines. I had finished it. The professor scowled. I didn't react, but claimed a piece of marble, picking out an interesting looking block Cardot had set aside for one of his « inside pupils », who, unfortunately, was very slow to finish a sculpture. I could have done several during that time. « Well, OK », Cardot said, « you take it ». So there I was in the courtyard, as winter drew on, with my hammer and chisel, my eyes squinting ... Chip ! Chip ! Chip !
In practical terms, how did you live?
I had a tiny grant from the Beaux-Arts, and of course, I did odd jobs as well. I did a few commissions, a few portraits. The undertakers in Reims had passed on the word to the ones in Paris, and I sculpted bas-reliefs for the Paris cemeteries too. I had quite a good time, actually. I lived partly off my lovely girlfriend from the rue Gambetta: she came to join me in Paris, and she had a real job. Our life together in the 15 th arrondissement was open and carefree.
Did the galleries take an interest in you?
Yes, and faster than I would have thought, although my first experience didn't turn out so much in my favor. Believe it or not, as soon as it was finished, my Victor Hugo was on view in a gallery showcase right on the rue des Beaux-Arts! A lump of stone one wednesday, finished the next wednesday, on display the following wednesday. When Cardot saw that, he was really stunned! I was going fast. The thing was that I had absolutely no idea how to deal with galleries. This guy came up to me in the school courtyard, looked around, and said « That's really beautiful, would you let me try to sell it? » I gave it to him! For free! What else should I have done? Selling it would have been a compromise, like producing gargoyles to make a living. It was nothing more than a gargoyle with Hugo's face on it. I could just as well have chosen Pasteur. It was just a technically and aesthetically impeccable stylistic exercise, but without Hugo's soul. It was «a head». There is a huge difference between a head and a portrait.
Can you clarify this?
Better than that, I can extend it by quoting what Rodin said: The only ugly art is art without character, art that offers neither outer nor inner truth .
My apprenticeship at the Beaux-Arts in Paris should have inspired me with the tradition of the great artists of the past. I should have known unswervingly that the best way to develop my talent was to be appreciated by these great men . Their singular achievements seemed to have put them above other people; these great men with in-depth knowledge and power to enlighten should have been the judges of my artistic evolution. But those days were over: these so called masters were merely teachers. When you're between twenty and twenty-five, you're still a helpless kid as far as art is concerned. What you need is a top-notch practitioner, one who gets you going, helps you find your first show, and broadly speaking turns you into a golden ass in search of a giant carrot. In that respect, a diploma has some sense. In any case, as I was soon to figure out, true recognition comes from being awarded a prize. With a marble piece in Rodin's style I was awarded the Paul-Louis Weiller prize. It was a strong piece, the model was a friend of mine - a jazz musician. I was quite pleased with it.
Well, such awards opened me up Cardot's studio in a big way. This was 1983, I had broken into the magic inner circle and could cut all the marble I wanted! Much more significant was my encounter with Jean Carton, a member of the Paul-Louis Weiller jury. It turned out to be one of the most important moment of my life. Carton was well into his sixties. He had been a student of Despiau, and was an unrivalled draughtsman and a stunning modeler. He invited me to come and see him at his home, 3 rue Joseph Bara, where Kissling had lived at the turn of the century. His studio was on the ground floor, with a large opening gate onto the street for the delivery of blocks of stone, and a small side entrance. This place had been Rembrandt Bugatti's, a talented animal sculptor, who gassed himself at the age of thirty-one, a bunch of violets next to him, one pallid morning on January 1916.
By the way, you sculpt animals too?
Absolutely ! And I love it. My animals are clearly portraits, but often with a symbolic or mythical dimension : this is true of the Minotaure , the chimeras, and the Pig-cow , or the Cock-sheep . I really enjoy doing that, it's a kind of an end-of-the-century recreation. I still continue today, for example with the Wolf , which is inspired by ancient sculpture, with its living enameled eyes and the treatment of its curly pelt referring to ancient Roman and Mesopotamian art. Since 2000, large figures like the Trojan Horse and the Quarter have been made in clay. The latter is a modern Apis bull, standing up, but with the butcher's dividing marks! A part of the flesh is missing... Well, in a few words, that's what I had to say about my creatures.
Going back for a minute, we were talking about your visit to see Jean Carton. You went there because he asked you to. What did he expect from you?
I had won the portrait prize and he wanted to know more about me. He just wanted to help young people. I arrived at that first meeting with a forty degrees Celsius fever. I was shivering and felt terrible, but I didn't even think about being contagious or not. His studio displayed some really beautiful pieces! This was the start of a very long conversation. He didn't take pupils, but only gave advice. His wife later told me that hardly had I left the room, he had said to her : « That young man will go a long way». Simple yet astonishing words!
I brought him pieces, and he looked at my drawings, explaining them and enlightening me. I had felt I was Auffret's orphan, and now I had found a new godfather.
One day, he saw one of my most accomplished drawings, and commented, «Even if a drawing seems finished, it is truly not completed. You need to go further. Something you've sketched in half an hour needs two hours; and something you've done in two hours needs four ». In spite of my ability, I had just been doodling. [...]
I brought my drawings to Carton. Compared with his, they came off so badly, they ended up in the dustbin. I did sell a few of them, but for peanuts...
This didn't stop you consolidating your reputation at the Beaux-Arts as a draughtsman, a portraitist and a sculptor.
To the point that once, when someone asked for information about ordering a portrait, the student replied, « Go to Cardot's and ask for Corda ! » Freud himself wouldn't have dared to swap the syllables like that ! [...]
I was seeing Jean Carton regularly, and thought about participating in the Casa Velasquez competition. There's a time for everything, isn't there? Age limit to attend the Beaux-Arts at Reims ? Sixteen. Casa Velasquez ? Twenty-five. Why wait? The Paris Beaux-Arts Institute graduation diploma wasn't going to be more useful than the one of Reims. People make things complicated, but in life, things happen at the right time. Inevitability doesn't consider contingencies... So, the Casa Velasquez Competition is in June 1985, and I would turn 25 in July 1985. So that took care of that. The Casa Velasquez in Madrid is part of the state education system like the Villa Medicis in Italy. You really work in excellent conditions: you're well paid and given a studio. [...]
And of course you won the competition, didn't you?
Yes, with one of my fellow students of Cardot's studio. Cardot was delighted. He was then applying for a chair at the Beaux-Arts Institute. For the first time I felt I had delivered what he was looking for.
Soon after, I was in Madrid. The Casa Velasquez was going to be a turning point in my life and in the development of my work. I had a studio and enough money to work for two years without having to worry. That was incredible luxury, an opportunity for refinement and progress. I had some money and spent it wisely. I used live models. That is how I came to see my future brother in law naked, before I met the girl who would become my wife! He talked about her all the time while I was working, telling me she was really beautiful and that she was a marvelous cook. How could you not suddenly feel hungry? I expected a sultry brunette from Madrid with dark eyes, but not at all, Alicia had red hair and eyes of dark hazel. Immediately, I loved her gentleness and her triangular face. She had delicate features, and an odd Venetian fairness that I admired. At first sight, I thought she was better looking than her brother, even though I had done some superb sculptures of him ! Alicia was a virtuous young woman with principles, and it wasn't long before I proposed to her. We celebrated our marriage when I returned to Paris. ... I worked for two years, and kept only the very best work. Charles Auffret had taught me to work life size. What I couldn't store, I destroyed. All artists do this. Outside, plaster soon deteriorate...
Art-wise, What did the Casa Velasquez bring to you?
The confidence to mature. I was an adolescent in Reims, a young man in Paris, and an adult in Madrid. A cocoon like that could have been dangerous: some prize-winners attemped to commit suicide when they got back to France, as if they'd lost the garden of Eden forever. Rather than softening me, my stay made me stronger. [...]
I was especially interested in the representation of the male body, both in drawing and in sculpture. After the family tragedy, some internal process made me represent male love. Absence. Contemplation. The Break up shows the separation of two men who love each other. Since I came back to Paris, I have been fascinated by androgeny and how to represent its elegance. I still am today. It's not a matter of following fashion or representing it in an intrusive or overpowering way. This is flaunting homosexuality and indulging it. I'm interested in the genuine love that is related to it. The Break up shows a couple fighting. The fluid fusion of the bronze, its fine texture and grain counterbalances the violence of the subject. Take Androgeny - I'm creating a dual personality, an ambiguous being, desirable and desired by ordinary people, not aimed at a part of the community. What I want is to be universal.
It's also the celebration of mourning for your brother.
Exactly! To tell him that I accept him more than ever. Naturally when he was alive I tolerated his marginality easily and without questions. Since then, I've somehow absorbed his memory, and been absorbed by it, I accept it completely. I want to state it and show it to the world. So in a way, I want him to know that he didn't die for nothing. Although my sculptures won't bring him back to life, each of them makes him live on by perpetuating what he thought and felt. He was so upset he hadn't told my mother! With this legacy, I felt I had to make other people accept the truth of what he was, using the means of expression I have.
Returning to your life, in 1985, while you were in Madrid, you sent one of your sculptures to Paris...
... Which won the Paul Belmondo prize. That was a nice trip!
In 1987, your Spanish adventure came to an end.
I came back to Paris with attractive prospects: I had the Weiller and Belmondo prizes and the fellowship at the Casa Velasquez. The town of Sillery, in Champagne, commissioned me to build a monument marking its twinning with a town in Quebec bearing the same name. My mind full of expectations, I accepted gladly - these golden commissions are the sculptor's welfare. It's all very nice being an artist; but at some point you need to get down to business. I thought I'd get a string of commissions leading to a prosperous life. - But alas, this didn't happen...
Then came 1989, the year of the Beaux-Arts Institute's Grand Prize of sculpture. People at the Beaux-Arts revolving around the Academy whispered « No point bothering, Corda will surely get it ». It was a cash prize of approximately €35,000. At the time I was beginning to have serious money problems. Upon coming back from Madrid, I bought a small studio in Paris. It used to be an old locksmith workshop in the 18 th arrondissement, in rue des Gardes near Barbès. It was a run-down place and my father did a lot of work on it. He also lent me some of the money to buy it. I was married to Alicia. My sculptures piled up, and none of them sold. I only had sold two pieces in two years, while everyone else was taking it easy! Con-artists had no problem selling their rubbish, while what I produced came back unsold. The money from Sillery had vanished. I was desperate. ... I borrowed the equivalent of € 30,000 from the bank. I was so much in debt I worried about how we would make it. The money cash prize of the Grand Prize of sculpture was like the thirsty traveller's dream in the desert who sees the oasis in the distance. The premium alone - € 3000 for each of the first ten selected - would even have saved me. I sent in my application. Then came the big surprise. When the results came out, I got . nothing! The jury only put seven candidates on the short list, on the grounds that no one else came up to their standards... I learnt later from Raymond Martin that my case had been discarded by hostile senior officials, with sighs of «Oh no, not him, he's already gotten enough»... € 3,000 for food!
It was the worst of times. I'd looked up dear old Jean Carton when I got back from Madrid. Alicia eventually joined me and we got married - in church, of course - and I introduced them to each other. He was my father in sculpture, he would be a grandfather to the future generation that I, as an immigrant, was denied access to... And then suddenly, Carton dies. I was filled by an overwhelming sadness.
I was bankrupt. I decided to move out from the Barbès studio to pay off my debts. I contacted a real-estate agent and I pretended I had plenty of money and could afford to wait. He paid me a 100,000 €. I wasn't sorry to take my lovely Alicia away from that rough area, even though my childhood in an immigrant community had taught me to take care of myself.
I had been thinking about leaving this place anyway for some time, so I had applied to the City of Paris Artists in residence Program for a studio eighteen months before we sold our place...
How did it go?
Right by the book! They marked the applications with a recommendation, «suitable», «possible» or «unsuitable». I qualified as « unsuitable », because I do figurative work. Does that surprise you? Even today, you'll find it's just the same.
I did what artists do when the bureaucrats decide that their work is out of line with the "official" trend: I went to the politicians. My sculptures were stashed in a friend's old stable, while I was dealing with the real estate agent. Our last week in Barbès, we had no furniture and were about to be thrown out on the street. We had paid off our debts, of course, but felt in a painful and precarious situation. Then the miracle came. I got a letter from the City of Paris allowing me the use of a studio. Jean de Préaumont, the deputy mayor, had intervened on my behalf. I'm eternally grateful to him. I was given a place in the 19 th arrondissement, rue des Marchais.
It was on the eighth floor, forty-seven square meters, with a breathtaking view on the highway. Not ideal for carrying up plaster casts, moulds or clay - but at least we were saved! And more than that - Alicia and I felt as though we were in clover, compared with our old district. We only had one room and a bedroom, but Alicia is tough, and at that time, we didn't have children.
So in 1991, you finally found the right place.
Yes. It was a time of reflection. I had plaster casts in stock, and a little money:€ 10,000 out of the € 100,000 from the sale of Barbès studio. I took the risk of investing the whole lot in casting bronzes for an exhibition in a gallery.
I went to the Chardon's foundry. They cast in sand, which is very expensive, and they agreed to be paid after the exhibition. Cappelli and Delval both gave me extra time too. And the next miracle came: the show did very well! Bad luck stopped dogging my heels. This took place at the outbreak of the first Gulf War, and people were afraid that the whole world would slip into the conflict. We expected the art market to slump, but I sold a lot. I haven't stopped since.
How do you explain that?
The art bubble was full of « meaningless stuff», ready-made ideas, spin and easy money. On the other hand, Honesty was disturbing: if you weren't «whimsical» or «amusing», you were discarded. Private collectors were being manipulated by con-artists, their devious dealers, the whole orchestrated by contented public officials. Death, Rupture, purely representational art or even rigor -in other words, the quest for beauty -wasn't fashionable. But when all this smoke was dispersed, people started worrying about their past choices, and so I reemerged. Timeless, my nightmares became relevant. Aesthetics became a haven. The same thing happened during the Iraq war in 2003.
In a safe, you only keep treasures, don't you?
And I can tell you that seeing work sold is very reassuring ! If you don't sell, the pieces start to weigh on you... The work requires a life of its own; it needs to be part of an economic and social network. Now one exhibition follows another, and people buy my work in Singapore and New York, I'm used to it and find it natural, but I'm still amazed. I don't know exactly why a particular work sells. That's a good thing, though! Plans and calculations are limiting. So many artists, once they've found their own « thing », stick rigidly to it to benefit their bank account. A single style is a prison.
We've seen your fascination for the Italian Renaissance, your development through contact with the Paris school, and then the way your psyche affected the direction of your work. How would you describe your art today?
I would say that I've mastered technique, which has freed me from it. I say that without false modesty because it took a lot of hard work where talent played little or no part. The more I progress, the more I get kicks out of it. My pieces are getting larger - because I want them to! I also want to express the inner and secret feelings, the hidden emotions of those who come to look at my work. For instance, look at my little Asians , The Spring and The Summer . They attract a special kind of attention, and that's what I intended. The container and the contained, the observer and the observed - I like these mirror games. By using the figure of a young girl and arranging her in various poses, I provoke lust and tenderness at the same time. My idea is to create a sculpture, which proposes to be a kind of mirror, reflecting the inner feelings of the viewer: protective, respectful, aroused or perverted. It's like going through the looking glass.
For you, smoothness is essential.
As you learn at school, «Genius is an infinite capacity for taking in pains ». The purity of a form comes through when light casts no shadows. The sphere is the most beautiful figure. If you don't smooth your sculpture - no, if you don't create any tension, you overlook the act that imbues it with humanity. I want the volume to be as beautiful as possible : the slack internal hold on life that you see in a tired, old, even wasted body, and the firm hold of youth and maturity. If you give up this requirement, you're left with just hollows, lumps and curves - and the prejudices that so often mask a lack of powerlessness. You can't make out the rhythm and the piece is broken-up like a bad piece of music. I want to hear the melody and be delighted by it.
This means some of your works are very sensual, like The Spring and The Summer ; or fluid and ethereal, like The Dive . I think we can sometimes detect an appetite for horror. I'm not thinking of The Slaughter , the sublime series of martyrs, but of The Dust , a violently realistic, skeletal child.
That's life in its own cruelty: concentration camps. It's also famine in the Third World. It's a hard piece psychologically speaking, with no ostentation and no easy appeal to emotions. The light vibrates on it, celebrating childhood as premature ageing and a reminder of death. Is it shocking ? Well, so be it. It's unique, and a departure from my ordinary style, and should be judged just as a sculpture. Beauty rules over any moral precept or prejudgment, and over any sense of revulsion or propriety. How can I put it ? Whether we see the sharpness of youth, the substance of maturity or the exhaustion of old age, the skeleton remains. The sculpture hangs from the skeleton. It is the shape that supports life but also reminds us of death. This is the reason why, by contrast, I like flesh and its softness. And, tantamount to heresy in our age, why I delight in beauty for beauty's sake. In sculpture, you make the rules. There are no bars - except boycotts and « unsuitable » recommendations from the ministries! I think sociologists and psychoanalysts should study the phobia officials have for figurative art - it just might be no more than the hatred of the body...
You've left the allée Marc-Chagall, and now you're in your newly built studio in Ivry. It's flooded with light, scrupulously clean - and presided over by your tutelary Venus ...
My Vénus d'Ivry was modeled when Alicia was pregnant with our second daughter, and it's as full and heavy as she was just before birth... Alicia, Victoria, Ariana : I live surrounded by women. I dreamt the plans of this studio, and had it built in 2002. It's spacious, but not all that scrupulously clean. It's always a bit dusty when you're working a lot, but I do sweep it often. This is partly because it's self-respect for traditional stone-masons to leave a clean yard every evening, but also because it's necessary. When it's cluttered, it seems dirty to me, in spite of its white walls and pearl-grey floor; it depresses me. I don't think my longing for space is necessarily anything to do with nostalgia for my country childhood: fields and woods have nothing to do with that. I won't have narrow rooms with walls that close in. That comes from my «poor background». I hate being cramped. I want light. Volume, space and more space!