Vincent Bebert: The Romantic side of Contemporary Art
Where the eye meets Nature's metphysical poetry
© Vincent Bebert: Vincent in his atelier in Malakoff
“The position of an artist is humble. He is essentially a channel.”
- Piet Mondrian
My meeting with the French painter Vincent Bebert took place in Malakoff, a suburban commune in the Hauts-de-Seine department, southwest of Paris. This “communist bastion,” as Vincent calls it, is also, as I realized later on, home to a variety of influential artists such as Joseph Malet, Isaac Antcher, Sanyu, Sam Szafran, Jacques Grinberg, Christian Boltanski, and Annette Messager.
Malakoff is also a place where Vincent lives and creates, in his studio situated not far from a local café where he often makes sketches of friends or locals.
Quite a recluse, familiar, still places are what suits him best. A couple of minutes after entering the studio, I knew that I can throw all my questions into the wind. I was in a sacred space where the primary task was to listen and observe.
There is some justice in the idea that the meaning of the painting is also given by those who observe it, and Vincent does closely pay attention to the spectator's gaze.
© Vincent Bebert, work in progress. Source: @vincentbebert
Blown-away by the diversity of landscapes everywhere, I started to concentrate on the sketches. The subject of spirituality (common character trait) and Torah led us to the painter Sam Szafran, who was, along with the famous “tree painter” Alexandre Hollan, Vincent's mentor. Bebert's book published in 2021 by Editions El Viso "Conversation with Sam Szafran, Stories and memories of a friendship" (trans. from French) gives a true insight into his existential struggles, perspectives on art, philosophy of cosmos, and the individual, and his strong appreciation for Szafran's artistic work and person.
Photo: Courtesy of Ana Malnar
© GASSIAN, Sam Szafran , 2013 in his studio in Malakoff. Source: https://www.24heures.ch/culture/arts-visuels/boite-1600-pastels-sam-szafran-nuancera-vie/story/29818317
“When I come to see you, I enter another world where I am protected and where you nourish me, and once away, the reality doesn't appear to be more real than your fantasy world. I feel Lacan's phrase in “The name of the father”, that, to be balanced doesn't mean to adapt to reality-nobody sees the real, it is always added to the symbolic part-to be balanced is primarily, for an artist, to manage to symbolize his reality, or to make his own real symbolic.” (Bebert, 2021:219)
Sam Szafran (1934), Lilette in ikat sitting on the Gaudi bench, watercolor and pastel on silk– 120 x 156,5 cm – private collection. Source: https://coupdoeilsite.wordpress.com/2018/03/03/sam-szafran/
The great pastelist Szafran described Bebert as a "painter of temper", pulling out his creative drive from the stomach, which gave me a hint that I should concentrate on emotion, individualism, and nature to explore Bebert's work. To quote the famous French art historian Luc Benoist: "There are many ways to be a Romantic; by temper like Prudhon or Goya, by the choice of craft and the taste in color like Delacroix or Daumier, or simply by the subject like Decamp". (Benoist: 1985,102)
Interest for emotions, the mystical, spirituality, fascination with nature transcribed by the painter's introspection, were equally characteristics of expressionism and romanticism, and traits deeply rooted in Bebert's work. Parallels can be found in Eugène Leroy's abstract expressionism, but I prefer the comparison with the Jewish Russian expressionist painter and Parisian immigrant Chaïm Soutine.
Eugène Leroy, Three nudes, 1951. Source: @olivierhoung
© Vincent Bebert: Market in Issy, 96x130 cm, 2009
© Vincent Bebert: Starry Night, oil on mounted paper, 39x58 cm
“Giving birth to a painting”, as Vincent describes this process of transcription of the imaginative, brings me back to the 19th-century romantic painter David Caspar Friedrich. According to Friedrich, an artist possesses both a “physical” and “spiritual” eye. While the “physical” eye collects the real images, it has to be aligned with the “spiritual” one, responsible for making the collected images from nature comprehensible. It was according to him the “spiritual” eye that analyses what human perceptiveness is incapable of, and therefore permits to discover God's hidden truths. To simplify this idea, the role of a painter should be to express his idea of a landscape by using particular signs.
© Vincent Bebert figure in a landscape, Oil on paper on canvas, 96 x 130 cm , 2019
For Bebert, romanticism has its importance and is expressed through the individual and his solitude. He and the sky, the universe, the Star towards he is leading. The emotional, personal response to life is given by opposing the individual withdrawn into himself, his inner light, to the immensity of the cosmos surrounding him.
© Vincent Bebert: The Bargy mountain chain, 2017, oil on canvas and paper mounted on canvas, 122x250 cm
© Vincent Bebert snow dyptich, oil on mounted paper on canvas, 156x56 cm, 2012
Bebert's mountains evoke in a sense the landscapes of the 19th-century romantic painter Joseph Mallord William Turner, famous for his atmospheric style of painting through the careful attention to light and color, and an expanding repertoire of techniques. Another important characteristic that leads me to a form of revisited romanticism, is the nomadic style of painting “on the spot,” or as the French say, "peinture sur le motif". In the middle of the 19th century, this practice was developed in France by a certain number of landscape painters centered around the French commune Barbizon, like Charles-François Daubigny, or independent ones like Eugène Boudin and later on Claude Monet.
© Vincent Bebert, painting on the spot, French Alpes, 2012
“..... I observe that painting ALWAYS requires me to put myself in a particular state of mind, like a boil that will dissolve from the inside certain dissimilarities and get me to a state of unity for a moment or two. It is an unavoidable state. Each time, it is like I was forced to get into a muddy trench warfare or like battling with my own shadow… It is certainly for that reason that I paint in the fields…not just to create a painting, but also to be created by it”. (Bebert,2021:140/141)
© Vincent Bebert, on the dune. Painting on the spot
© Vincent Bebert: sand dune, dyptich, 114x162 cm, 2011. Source: @vincentbebert
There is a deep, mystical, almost psychedelic connection that Bebert maintains with nature. Nature as a return to the essence, a space of rejuvenation, was an idea developed by Jung in his famous book from 1958, "The Earth Has a Soul". He emphasizes the importance of natural life as a nourishing soil of the soul. Man is part of nature in which his spirit is rooted, and whenever we touch nature, we get clean, claimed Jung. This could also be translated as a return to a hidden truth, a form of authenticity and innocence. When it comes to painting, Bebert cultivates this form of authenticity by using natural elements, such as wooden sticks, soil, or other pure substances that he mixes with paint as he finds that industrial color tubes contain a part of falseness.
© Vincent Bebert: Alexandre's oak, tempera and mounted paper on canvas 2013, 29x38 cm
© Vincent Bebert: Horses and mountain, 2017, oil and tempera on mounted paper on canvas, 122x250 cm
© Vincent Bebert: Dinner on the grass, 29x39 cm, 2018. Source: https://articlesdart.com/00-vincent-bebert-2/
© Vincent Bebert: The Bathers II, 2020, 230x250 cm
In one of our recent correspondences, Vincent mentioned his manifest interest in psychoanalysis and dreams, which explains the misty, poetic nature of his landscapes. The figures are absorbed in the magical, mighty cosmos, becoming harmoniously one with nature. Sensitive to beauty in general, Bebert prefers to keep it disguised, as according to him, “the hidden lives longer inside us than the revealed.” The poetic expressionism combined with a taste for destruction, common to all “painters of temper,” are recognizable in both Chaim's and Bebert's artwork. Bebert's torments, though, never go as far as Soutine's mental distortions visible in his grotesque portraits and carcasses of dead animals.
Chaïm Soutine, Sheep Behind a Fence c. 1940. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sheep_Behind_a_Fence_by_Chaim_Soutine.jpg
Chaïm Soutine, Retour From School After The Storm, c. 1939, Phillips Collection, Washington (DC). Source: https://www.visimuz.com/29102015-soutine-orage/
While for Benoist, Soutine oscillates between despair and the highest poetic exaltation (Benoist, 1985), I would rather say that a never-ending sinister disturbance possesses him. Bebert's escapism turns him towards a chaotic world of dreams, torments, and fantasies from which he draws his artistry. Their techniques approach when it comes to urban landscapes, with rough, rapid brushwork and buckled, packed houses almost crushing one another in a cataclysmic sense.
© Vincent Bebert: Vanves, urban landscape, 146x96 cm, 2021
© Vincent Bebert: Vanves, the 7th view, urban landscape, 146x96 cm, 2021
The urban landscapes of Vanves (a suburb of Paris), result in turmoil, chaos, and even violence. There is a dominant sense of personal discomfort and agony in an environment that is oversaturated. However, I would add that Bebert never dives entirely into darkness; there is always some kind of light from the inside, a shiny star or a blue sky that opens towards a brighter perspective.
As strong tempers often result in a lack of focus and definition, I will lastly say that to insert Bebert's artistic work in any defined category is completely impossible. My vain attempts of comparison are just a natural need to translate the meaning of one's symbolic world. On a more spiritual note, Bebert's humility in the sense of putting himself aside to achieve something higher, his constant effort in perfecting his technique, make me certain about the impact his art will have on the future generation of painters.
In 2018, artists renowned as Alexandre Hollan and Sam Szafran, critics such as Alain Madeleine-Perdrillat, Yves Michaud, and Bernard Léon came together to express their esteem for Vincent Bebert in the first monograph dedicated to his work.
Photo: Monograph dedicated to Vincent Bebert. Source: https://www.dessinoriginal.com/en/exhibition-catalogue/9178-vincent-bebert-9782757213933.html
Bebert V. "Conversation Avec Sam Szafran, Récit et souvenirs d'une amitié", 2021, Éditions El Viso
Benoist L. "Histoire de la peinture", 1985, Presses Universitaires de France
Le paysage dans les arts du XVIème au XIXème siècle, https://landscapesevolution.wordpress.com/
Peinture sur le motif, https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peinture_sur_le_motif
Vincent Bebert-Portrait by Jeanne Traon Loiseleux, 2020, https://vimeo.com/407120201
Thank you for such an intriguing, informative and very helpful article. It touches the soul to read a meaningful study of an interesting dynamic, active artist. There is hope at the end of the lonely tunnel (art speakingly).
Staggering landscapes! An artist to follow!
Article très intéressant. Je ne connaissais pas le travail de cet artiste. Ravie d'avoir pu entrer dans son univers en découvrant ses œuvres.
Passionate writing and warm emotional sensation when watching these beautiful paintings..
The Bathers are amazing!
Amazing article and an amazing article. Would be a blast to visit that atelier!