My last blog was about the painter Alfred Robert Quinton and his artwork which was perceived to be “chocolate-boxy” and kitsch and yet, I believe was a charming window on beautifully tranquil bye-gone days of rural life.
The artwork today could not be more different. It is Surrealism. Surrealism, which means “beyond reality”, was a movement, principally in literature and the visual arts. It thrived in Europe between the First and Second World Wars. The Surrealists rejected rationalism and held the belief that the rational mind repressed the power of the imagination. Surrealists instead tried to channel the unconscious mind and by so doing, reveal the power of the imagination.
The founder of the Surrealist movement was the French poet and critic André Breton who launched the movement by publishing the Surrealist Manifesto in 1924 and led the group till his death in 1966. Surrealist artists find magical enchantment and enigmatic beauty in the unexpected and the strange, the overlooked and the eccentric. In a way, it is a belligerent dismissal of conservative, if somewhat conformist, artistic values. The depictions in the Surrealist paintings are startling often colourful. In some ways they are mesmerising and one wonders what was going through the mind of the painter when they put their ideas on canvas or wood. My featured artist today is French and she was considered to be one of the leading twentieth century French Surrealist painters. Let me introduce you to Agnès Boulloche.
Agnès Boulloche was born in Paris in 1951. She was the daughter of André Boulloche, who in 1940 joined the Resistance movement He was captured and deported by the Nazis. In 1959 he was made Minister of National Education under the mandate of General de Gaulle. He was known as a politician of integrity and conviction. Sadly he died in a plane crash, barely 62 years old. Agnès spent much of early childhood in Rabat, Morocco where André was head of the Road Bureau. As a child she loved to paint and draw. Her mother, Anne, once said that she was born with brushes in her mouth, where others have a pacifier! From a young age Agnès was also fascinated by myths and mythical lands and loved to hear about the adventurous tales of the Arabian Nights. Her other interest, and maybe it came from living in an Arab country, was the world of jinn. Jinn being defined in Islamic mythology as a class of spirits, lower than the angels, capable of appearing in human and animal forms and influencing humankind for either good or evil.
From an early age Agnès had always been immersed in a world populated by fabulous beasts, countless chimeras, gorgons and genies. She experiences life in a fantasy world inhabited by humanimal creatures who she depicts in her artwork dancing, riding on each other and even spinning their horned feet around chessboards in stone-paved gardens. This was her fantasy world which she once described:
“…I’ve always had that taste for escape and freedom. Already a child I escaped, taking the side roads to find my close friends, a whole people of fabulous beasts, chimeras and other geniuses. And my left hand lent itself to my dreams and allowed me to evolve in this magnificent dimension that is painting…”
She always had an affinity towards animals, once saying:
“…I do not see so many differences between humans and animals. On the contrary, I see a lot of interference. However, I hate bestiality on one side or the other. What I disliked was the fact that animals are considered objects, which fortunately is no longer the case since the recent vote of the deputies on April 15, 2014…”
Agnes Boulloche paints in oil on wood panels and uses the ancient technique of “glaze”, a superposition of thin transparent layers of colours. She also uses many chemical recipes to create her pigments and varnishes.
When she was a teenager, she and the family left Morocco and returned to Paris where she enrolled at the École des arts décoratifs, a school which had a major role in the development of the Art Deco design movement in the 1920s and in the creation of new design concepts. Agnès focused on oil-on-wood painting. Except for a short period at art school Agnès was self-taught. One of her main artistic influences is the artist Hieronymus Bosch, whose works are often populated with strange and exotic animals.
Agnès also liked to look at the illustrated bestiaries, which must have inspired her works. A bestiary was a compendium of beasts. A bestiary means a manuscript of the Middle Ages gathering fables and morals on the “beasts”, real or imaginary animals, mystical animals. They originate in the ancient world and were made popular in the Middle Ages in illustrated volumes that described various animals. She would study works by Philippe de Thaon, Guillaume le Clerc, Gervaise de Fontenay and Richard de Fournival in a modern version. The themes of her inspiration were creatures, half-men, half-beasts, but according to her, they were “more than human”.
Her painting technique followed traditional methods. Agnes used her own different alchemical formulas for her colours and mixed her own colours, pigments and varnishes. She would then use these oils and paint on wood panels in “glazing technique” used by the Old Masters, in a way in which many transparent layers of colours are laid on top of each other in several passes. This made it possible to work out very fine details and attain delicate, bright colours. Agnès Boulloche paintings are often set in landscapes, which appear similar to those we see in Renaissance compositions.
Besides her paintings, she would spend time in the production of sculptures, which were mainly cast in bronze in wax castings and hand chased and then patinated.
In the photograph above, taken by her daughter, Julie Lipinski we see her working on one of her favourite animals, the owl.
Soon after completing her studies, she opened her first exhibition in Paris. She was invited by friends to visit them on the Ile de Ré but for Agnès it was not love at first sight. She recalled that at first she deemed it to be ugly and flat. However, she returned the following year and, had a change of heart:
“…When I came back the following summer, I noticed the lack of bars on the ground floor windows and the houses that were not necessarily closed twice when we were away, etc….. I said to myself, this is a place where the notion of freedom must still have a meaning…”
She used to live and work alternately in Paris and in the town of Foix on the Île de Ré, which lies on the southern French Atlantic coast. In 1994 she finally made Loix her permanent home. She knew it was her destiny to live in Loix saying:
“…Convinced that it was there that I had to be, I first rented a house in Loix, then quickly bought a first home, still in Loix, my village for 18 years. Even though I have always been painting and if I’ve been living for about forty years, in Loix, when I leave home, I am not permanently stamped “painter”. No, I am a Loidaise [term for people of Loix] full, I participate in a real village life and I feel adopted. So to honour this shared friendship, I contribute artistically, and of course voluntarily, to the daily life of the village by making street signs and various other things such as the cemetery or the children’s kitchen garden of the school…”
She bought her first house, but it had no garden and she missed that aspect of living. Then she met Michel Héraudeau, a local builder and in 1996 they joined forces and bought some land in the heart of Loix. He then built Agnès’ house first, then his own, but by this time they had fallen in love and he moved in with Agnès. Soon their common garden was full of flowers and their life became a great love story, which lasted until her death.
In 2011, her daughter, Julie Lipinski, also moved to Loix with her partner, Thibault Chenaille, and their 13-year-old son Swan. Then, in 2013, Agnès Boulloche became a grandmother for a second time with the arrival of Julie’s second child, a son, Marlow. Now, Agnès’ life could not be bettered. She was a very successful artist who was now surrounded by her daughter and her grandchildren. Julie described her mother as being a passionate lover of life, a very sensitive person but for all that, one who has a natural authority.
Sadly in June 2018 she was diagnosed with having cancer. Her daughter said that she accepted the news and never complained as she was a woman of great strength of character. Agnès Boulloche died on April 7th 2019. On that Sunday afternoon, her daughter announced her passing in Facebook, simply writing:
“…My mom joined her fantasy world this morning…”
A tribute was held together with the dispersion of her ashes at the port of Loix Saturday, on April 20th. The local newspaper, Ré à la Hune, recorded the news of her death writing:
“…Since her death, there has been a shower of tributes that sweeps over the social network, on the island of Ré, and more precisely to Loix. For twenty-five years, Agnès Boulloche had put her baggage in this village she loved so much, because in the middle of the salt marshes, the land, the sea and the sky were her horizons and especially her anchors. In her suitcases, she had first brought back her brushes and paintings, and of course, all this universe of her own, populated by animals like the rhinoceros, the cat, the owl, the unicorns, but also angels and little girls or young women with bare breasts, but with ruffles and pointed hats…”
Agnes Boulloche had her paintings exhibited in Paris, as well as several other European countries. Her Surrealist works of art have also been seen in the United States, and in Africa. Her work brings out the energy of the colour she uses and seemed well suited in her imaginary world, a world where dreams prevail over reality. An art critic once wrote:
“…Agnes is a ghost who dreams with her eyes wide open …”.
At the start of this blog I talked about the meaning of Surrealism paintings and pondered on what went through the artist’s mind when they formulated their depictions. Are there hidden meanings or were the depictions just amusing fantasies? In the case of Agnès Boulloche we may get closer to her reasoning for she decided to put her ideas on paper with her Dictionary of Symbols. I am not sure they help but here are some of the examples from her dictionary:
Cochon; animal très pieux et avenant toujours prêt à se faire atteler ou chevaucher par n’importe qui
Pig; a very pious animal, always ready to be hitched or ridden by anyone.
Chien: ne laissez jamais un chien nu sinon il fugue. Vêtissez le plutôt d’un chapeau de lune et d’une fraise empresée de dentelles
Dog: never leave a dog naked otherwise he runs away. Wear a moon hat and a strawberry with lace
Hibou: à tiroirs, il garde nos secrets
Owl: with drawers, he keeps our secrets
Licorne: sa corne telle celle du narval, son sosie marin, peut empaler les mérous, trépaner les dés ou décrocher la lune Unicorn: its horn, like that of the narwhal, its marine look-alike, can impale the groupers, skewer the dice or catch the moon
Nef: folle, elle navigue bondée de créatures insensées qui se jouent de sa ligne de flottaison
Ship or boat: crazy, it sails full of crazy creatures who play with her waterline
I am not sure they help you decode the paintings but they do give you a further insight into the mind of the artist
Agnès seemed to have lived a happy life surrounded by her family on the Ile de Ré and yet she also loved to escape that land and journey to her imaginary world which brought her equal happiness. She will be sadly missed.