The Museum of Modern Art in Paris offers a very fine painting exhibition: Eugène Leroy, an artist who remained confidential for a long time, neither abstract nor really figurative, sought all his life to paint reality by making the image disappear in the material while giving it an astonishing presence. The crossing of his proposed work, in 150 paintings and drawings, is a sensory experience not to be missed.
Marina (1982): before your eyes stands what at first sight looks like an indistinct mass of colors and matter. You have to look at this large portrait of Eugène Leroy’s last companion (1910-2000) for a long time to begin to make out a dark head, a shoulder and a perhaps lighter breast, which light up the canvas. The artist’s painting, which appeals to all the senses, cannot be revealed at a glance.
In this first room of the exhibition, devoted to portraits of his wife Valentine, then of Marina, we can clearly see the evolution of his painting. In the first paintings, we can clearly recognize the figures, painted in successive thin layers. Then, gradually, they disappear under layers added to each other for months, sometimes years. You have to get closer to see the colors, which he ended up applying directly from the tube before spreading them, crushing them, then picking them up later, scraping them off and starting again. It is also necessary to move away to try to grasp the structure of the painting and its subject.
“All I have tried in painting is to arrive (…) at a kind of almost absence, so that the painting is totally itself”he said.
Eugène Leroy was born in Tourcoing in 1910. Fatherless at one year old, he was raised by his uncle. He began to paint at the age of 15, studied for a few months at the School of Fine Arts in Lille then in Paris, but he quickly turned away from academic teaching, at the same time as he discovered the masters, Rembrandt, Giorgione, Titien , Chick. For 25 years, from 1935, he taught Latin and Greek in a college in Roubaix to live and traveled to Europe to admire old painters.
A series of crucifixions are reminiscent of Rembrandt. An exhibition room is devoted to Country concert by Giorgione (1477-1510), with five variations from the 1990s on this painting from which he took over (we can hardly guess) the structure and the figures, two nudes and a musician in red.
Eugène Leroy paints in a classic way, in oil, and visits traditional subjects, landscape, portrait, nude, still life, but far from any academicism. His work, unique and unclassifiable, neither figurative nor abstract or both at the same time, was for a long time confidential, known only to a small circle of amateurs of his painting. He had his first personal exhibition in 1937 in Lille, then he exhibited regularly at the Lille gallery owner Marcel Evrard from 1948, then at the Jean Leroy gallery, rue Quincampoix in Paris, run by his son. Exhibited at the Claude Bernard gallery in 1961, he was noticed by the German artist Georg Baselitz and by the dealer Michael Werner, which opened the doors to international recognition for him. His first major exhibition in a Parisian institution took place at the Museum of Modern Art in Paris, already in 1988 when he was nearly 80 years old.
He attaches great importance to light. “[La matière] does not exist if it is not imbued with light! I would really like to make a painting that has its own muted light.”he confided. In the studio of the house where he settled in Wasquehal (Nord) in 1958, he creates a backlight thanks to a glass roof to the north, a window to the south, to which he adds the reflection of a mirror his subject is lit from all sides. This research is felt particularly in his nudes whose light material seems to radiate.
Perpetually in search of himself through his painting, which has become his “only reason to live”Eugène Leroy created self-portraits throughout his life, a fine series of which can be seen at the Museum of Modern Art. Like his other subjects, he gradually fades under the paint, his features and eyes disappearing to give way to the barely perceptible trace of a head.
We will stop again in front of his seascapes from the 1950s, more classic and more fluid but where water and sky merge in the northern light, or in front of a series of canvases from recent years, such as this Couple whose mutual attention and energy we believe to be guessed under the mass of paint.
One has the strange impression, going back through the exhibition several times, that the figures seem to emerge more clearly from the paintings. A phenomenon that confirms that you have to spend time looking at Eugène Leroy’s painting.
Eugene Leroy, painting
Paris Museum of Modern Art
11, avenue du President Wilson, 75116 Paris
Every day except Monday and certain public holidays, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., late opening on Thursday until 9.30 p.m.
From April 15 to August 28, 2022
The MUba Eugène Leroy in Tourcoing is also presenting an exhibition by the painter, “Eugène Leroy, à contrejour”, until October 2.