Etienne Assenat: The melody of movements frozen in time
Etienne Assenat, source: https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fichier:Etienne_Assenat.JPG
“The purpose of art is mystery.”
- René Magritte
"To discuss painting is to discuss oneself, which is in junction with culture, said Etienne a couple of minutes into the first part of our phone interview. Culturally speaking, to this day, I have not possibly come across a more "Parisian" painter! In a highly gracious, distinct manner, he accepted to share with me some of his work and opinions on art. Etienne Assenat was born in 1953 in Paris. He grew up in the Saint-Germain des Près district, on the opposite side of the Louvre Museum. "I could see the paintings from the windows of my room; I knew them by heart. Louvre, it's me." Louvre's copy painters were also some sort of mentors to the future painter. Assenat would meticulously observe their technique during his countless tours in the vast exterior spaces of the museum.
However, the choice of becoming a painter was something that arrived gradually. As a son of a violinist and professor at the École Polytechnique, Assenat will pursue the same musical path for 15 years, starting at 7. He painted his first canvas at the age of 16.
© Etienne Assenat: self-portrait, oil on canvas 130 cm/113. 2018.
Etienne Assenat showed no interest in a conventional academic, artistic education. He noticed rampant social dimensions in the courses proposed by the School of Decorative Arts in Paris, where he was admitted in 1970. With only 3 hours of drawing per week, he found the whole concept uninspiring and left after 2 years. Soon afterwards, Assenat had the chance to present some of his illustrations to the prestigious Hachette Filipacchi Médias (HFM), at one time the world's largest magazine publisher active from 1826 until 2008. His illustrations were published in magazines such as 20ans, Lui, and Playboy. This momentum was interrupted by the death of his uncle, a painter as well, and a merchant of ancient fabrics. Assenat took over the enterprise which led him to New York, where he negotiated sales with eminent institutions such as The Metropolitan Museum of New York, Fashion Institute of Technology, Parsons School of Design, and Hartford Museum.
Multiple travels to New York will result in obtaining an artistic studio proposed by the art dealer Tony Shafrazi on 42nd street in New York. This was in 1984 and starting from this moment, Assenat will be primarily dedicated to his career as a painter. To my surprise, New York has not left the slightest artistic influence on his particular style. After this 6 month stay, he returns to Paris where he obtains an atelier in the former public refrigerated warehouse called "frigs", in the 13th district of Paris. This mythical space-industrial wasteland, that unites 120 artists of various styles, was until the 70s, a public meat storage for the city of Paris.
What a contrast it was to step from an industrial, graffiti-covered hall into Etienne's silent studio and home with furniture pieces dating from the Regency Era!
© Etienne Assenat: the painter's home & atelier
© Etienne Assenat: the painter's home & atelier, work in progress
To visit this space was a privilege, and I wanted to absorb as much as possible by staying as less intrusive as I could, aware of the vulnerable act of exposing one's art. Maybe it is because of this need to protect the intimacy of his art that Étienne presents each canvas covered with glass, which imposes a respectful distance and stimulates thoughtful contemplation. The selection of paintings was limited. As Assenat explains, a painting is open to exposure once it becomes free from the painter's inspection. While casually chatting about the regrettable positions of Galleries only interested in profit, ignorant art professionals, vulgar visitors who would turn his canvases without permission while ignoring his presence, and emblematic Parisian figures, my eyes laid on "Montlevon," possibly my favorite oil on canvas, representing Assenat's daughter.
© Etienne Assenat: "Montlevon"- oil on canvas, 150X130cm, 2021.
"Talking about a painting is turning around the subject. It is an enigma, a totality existing on its own. Even if I wanted to describe the meaning, it is something that escapes my control, contrary to the choice of tint or the system of the composition." Étienne stays completely detached from external interpretations of his art. "Facing the canvas, the observer is searching for references in need of interpretation. In my paintings, people often find references in the works of Richter, Rothko, Hopper, and Balthus."
Personally, when I observe Etienne's paintings, I hear music, much in a way described by Orhan Pamuk in his novel "My name is red": Painting is the silence of thought and the music of sight. The purity of form and the structure of his paintings are notably musical, much as the paintings of Mark Rothko, who was strongly influenced by Mozart's music. The violin that he plays daily has an inherent role in Etienne's artistic expression, so I would be keener in searching for similarities in musical codes and the work of artists who were entirely driven by classical music, such as Mark Rothko and Gerhard Richter.
© Etienne Assenat: "Returning from the beach,"-oil on canvas, 130/113. 2022.
© Etienne Assenat: "Afa", oil on canvas. 130/113, 2022.
© Etienne Assenat: Annette France, circus artist 2. Oil on canvas, 130/113. 2022.
Mark Rothko favored the simple expressions of complex truths, oversized shapes, and flat forms that destroy the illusion. This sort of manifesto was directed at Rothko's critics, but also confirmed Rothko's idea that art should express the complex truth by simple means. And nothing was as pure and simple as his painted rectangles. Horizontality and verticality of Etienne's composition are properties also shared in music, where a horizontal line is time creating melody and verticality, from which the musical harmony comes through the combination of multiple notes at any moment in time. The horizontal lines separate the canvas into rectangles that exist independently in their color schemes but integrate a unique, harmonious picture. By contrasting warm against cool colors, Assenat creates an illusion of movement. His faded silhouettes are almost vibrating sounds, adding even more to the mysterious sensation of a dreamy reality.
© Etienne Assenat: Sarah Hamour, oil on canvas. 130/113. 2021.
© Etienne Assenat: Sarah Hamour, oil on canvas. 176/156. 2021.
If I could choose one piece that my amateur memory recalls while observing Assenat's canvases, it would definitely be Richter's "Ema", an oil on canvas representing Richter's first wife and produced from a photograph he took of her. Though Richter's mixed media techniques have little to do with Assenat's style, they both deal with questions of perception, imagery, and meaning. Much like Assenat, Richter also thought that talking about a painting is pointless because if we convey a thing through a medium of language, we change it. We can construct qualities that can be said, but the most important ones are always left behind.
Gerhard Richter: Ema (Akt auf einer Treppe), oil on canvas. 200x130 cm, 1966. Source: https://www.gerhard-richter.com/
This idea is identical to Assenat's conception of a painting as an enigma: if we talk about it, we can not explain it. The only deliberate action in Assenat's creative process is to display a presence on canvas in its timelessness. His main subject is always the space and the individual. The sense of nostalgia, solitude or melancholy that an observer can experience, comes definitely Assenat's ability to convey an emotional connection with his painted silhouettes. Often times they represent his daughter or an intimate partner.
I left Assenat's atelier followed by a peculiar melody of silence. At the end, I just regretted not asking what was his favorite violin piece.
© Etienne Assenat: Afa.Essaouira, oil on canvas, 150/130. 2022.
More about the artist:
Instagram: Etienne Assenat @eassenat
Les Frigos atelier: 19 Rue des Frigos, 75013 Paris
The Case For Mark Rothko | The Art Assignment, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uHjAwH1yPds
Tout comme le journaliste, j'aime le plus les peintures d'Ema et de la fille de l'artiste. Les peintures de l'artiste sont si vives qu'il crée au-delà des dimensions - le mouvement et le temps. L'article est très bien écrit, je peux presque sentir la peinture fraîche de l'atelier, ça me transfère dans l'atmosphère de la vie d'artiste parisien.
This is a very interesting and well-written article about an accomplished, serious and thought-provoking artist. It was not a surprise to learn that an artist demonstrating real skill and craft should have turned his back on the arts-education establishment orthodoxy which teaches '3 hours of drawing per week' in its schools. This is a ubiquitous problem across the West now.
The idea that the simple block forms that act as the backdrop to Assenat's paintings were inspired by the 'absolute' forms of classical music is an interesting notion. Certainly, as the artist intends, this has the effect of characterising the portraits and capturing their subject's interiority, as if they have been caught in a moment outside of time, in the same way that music can lift us outside of our temporality into a purely spiritual metaphysical ‘space’.
Like Kandinsky (who also developed his painting by ‘mimicking’ the forms of absolute music), however, one gets the impression that the emotional and metaphorical content music has been put to one side. It is a personal view, but I do not believe in ‘abstract’ art, or ‘abstract’ music; art is always about something, including music. There can be no form without content, and so the way in which these paintings could be said to be ‘music of sight’ is perhaps just another way of saying that they are Art – which is always caught between the spiritual and the representational.
More interesting, from the perspective of a musician, is Assenat's capturing of light, the glare of a flashing camera or tint of a plain of glass in front of the subjects depicted, which seems to say something about them. In this, of course, Assenat is working in that great traditional of French, indeed Parisian artists, who have always excelled at optics. ‘Montlevon’ especially seems to use this use of light to both enhance the innocence of the girl depicted, but also to undermine it – as if a depiction of full innocence is not possible in our contemporary world. The light hides her full personhood from view, which seems to both undermine and protect it.
This is an artist reaching for the divine but one also conscious of the spiritual deficit of our times. There is beauty in the world, but it is obscured by a pornographic materialism that threatens everything spiritual. Perhaps this is why Assenat lives surrounded by Regency grandeur cocooned in a warehouse – who knows!?
What is for certain is that this is an artist pointing tentatively towards the truth, and the results are an appropriately obscured beauty.