Interview with Jacques Flechemuller

Jacques Flechemuller is a French artist, dividing his life between New York and the South of France. His work is in the Metropolitan and Whitney Museums in New York, the Musee d’Art Moderne in Paris, as well as other museums in Europe and the United States. He currently exhibits his work in galleries in the United States, Europe and Japan. In 2008 he exhibited at Várfok Gallery in Budapest. This month we asked him about his art and inspirations.

Becoming an artist… How did it all start?

“I went to an Applied Arts School in France. I learnt the classical way. I enjoyed drawing, spent hours and hours scribbling something on the paper. At that stage, I didn’t even realise how important it was to have a traditional training. During my school years, I went to a museum once to see Jean Dubuffet’s work. For this show, Dubuffet collected small stones beside train tracks, piled them up on small pedestals and invented curious titles for them. I didn’t really understand its meaning back then, but I was riveted by it. And I immediately knew I wanted to do stuff like that. I actually met Dubuffet after I finished school. It was a delightful experience. I went to see him and took all my drawings to show him. He was a gentle guy and very supportive, a true influence indeed. I wanted to know what art was about. I still don’t really know but I kept on drawing and painting every day. It’s all I wanted to do. I never thought of a career in the art world. But at one point a gallery contacted me in Paris. There was a cafe next to my school, the Ecole des Beaux Arts de Paris, and the owner asked me to do a big painting on the window. (It is still there today.) The gallery owner saw it and approached me. Voila! Later, in 1982 I got fed up with galleries and Paris, so I decided to go to New York, on a studio exchange with an American artist. I felt incredibly free there, a totally new person. Then I met my wife and I stayed.”

Who are your inspirations?

“When I was a child I travelled to Prague with my parents. One day we visited a museum where I saw a landscape painting by Van Gogh. At the time, I didn’t know who Van Gogh was, I just stood in front of that painting in awe. It was such a strong visual experience, I was so overwhelmed that I fainted. This very first personal encounter definitely left an impact on me. Ever since I like art you cannot escape, something that has an immediate effect on you. Art Brut and the COBRA Group give me endless inspiration. And of course, I’m always fascinated by Picabia’s works. Whenever I see Picasso’s paintings or drawings I am completely blown away.  Let’s take his portrait of Dora Maar in Weeping Woman (1937) for instance. It’s an incredible example of how to show anguish, despair and the cruelty of war. My other favourite is Goya. He is a fine draughtsman, capturing all emotions. In his drawings everything is right on, absolutely perfect, nothing to erase or to add.

When you are young you refuse to look at classical art, you want to belong to the new, but with age you reconsider. Now I am rediscovering old masters and their exceptional works. In their creations you can definitely feel all that knowledge they accumulated. And as a result of that they created masterpieces with incredible ease. I’m crazy about James Ensor’s works too. His ‘Skeletons fighting over a pickled herring’ painting still amazes me.”

How would you describe your art?

“When I was 4, my parents sent me to my grandfather’s place during the summer. He was German, so we couldn’t really communicate. So instead of talking we played the “Exquisite corpse” game (originally invented by the Surrealists). My grandpa started drawing a body part let’s say, then folded the paper so I couldn’t see what he drew, but I had to continue the drawing, then I folded it and so on it went until we decided to stop and check what we had created. And of course it was always something funny and absurd. I tell you this story because I have realized that everything I make is basically stimulated by that game. I’m inspired by images from books, magazines, classical art reproductions, I rework them, I give them a new face. I often start with an idea that already exists and transform it completely. Just like in that game my grandfather and I used to play. I like to do things really fast. Even the big paintings have to be done in one day. If I work on them much longer, they end up being garbage. The same principles apply when working in 3D. My sculptures are found objects converted into something new. Humour is also very important in my work. Humor is a way to describe how stupid the world we live in today can be. But first and foremost I’m working to make my wife smile and laugh. When I finish a painting I call her into the studio and ask her to close her eyes before taking her in front of my newly done artwork. Then she opens her eyes and if she smiles or laughs I keep the work, if not I throw it away.”

What are you working on at the moment?

“4 years ago I started thinking about doing a series of love stories (I think love is the best thing in the world!). But I didn’t really have a clear idea about how to approach it. So I happened to be in France with my wife. One day she invited me to go with her to a garage sale in a nearby village. There was an old man selling all sorts of junk, including a cardboard box filled with love story magazines, you know the ones with silly romantic stories. The cover of all these magazines had a perfect ‘old style’ illustration of a guy and girl from the story. And there it was, I had it! So I bought them all and I immediately knew what I was going to do for my series. I use these cover illustrations and transform them into something completely surprising, basically the exact opposite of the illustrator’s original intention. I have bought more of these magazines on ebay too and so far I have created about 250 gouache paintings. I really enjoy painting them. Working with gouache allows me to execute a piece quickly, which retains all its freshness.

Do you use any specific program or application to archive and catalogue your artworks?

“For a long time I was using Facebook. It was a nice way to communicate with the outside world. A great platform to connect with other artists from all around the world. But as you see, it can also be very dangerous. People you befriend might not be ‘real’ friends. So I let it go and not really use it anymore. Now I build connections through the galleries I’m working with. They have a lot of documentation of my work. Besides, I take photos of my creations and put them on my computer. But I’m very messy, so later on I can’t really remember where I’ve saved them. I’m much more fascinated by the future. Whenever a painting is finished, it belongs to the past. So I move on. I don’t even have a website, I can’t be bothered. I’m much more interested in getting up in the morning, going to my studio and doing something that I haven’t done before.”

What advice would you give to young emerging artists?

“Be modest, learn the classical way and study the grand masters. Having these tools will enable you to do whatever you want later on. Start at the beginning, don’t rush ahead, just focus on simplicity and develop it further. Take for example, Morandi, he was a master of that. The subject matter is not important, but the way you tell a story. When you go to art galleries and see the work of different artists, you can check who follows these rules. You can immediately notice the difference between good, mediocre and uninteresting work.”

Author: Marta Balla

About Marta Balla
1980, lives and works in Budapest, Hungary
Marta Balla graduated from the Polytechnic University of Valencia (UPV), Spain. She holds an MA specialized in painting and art theory. She has exhibited in solo and collective shows in Croatia, Hungary, Mexico, Spain and the US. She is also involved in curating and social art projects and has been invited to international conferences to talk about her art and process. She is currently enrolled in a postgraduate course in Art Therapy focusing on the use of fine arts, music and storytelling in the therapeutic process. Marta has been practicing aikido, a non-violent Japanese martial art for 13 years. She has been engaged in contact improvisation dance for 2 years which lead her to more exploration in performance art.