The mythical paintings of acclaimed French artist, Gérard Garouste, are mysteriously spellbinding, and quite unusual. Ahead of his new exhibition “Zeugma” in Paris, he tells us why myths are so fascinating, calling us back to our ‘deeper selves’. Now in his seventies, Garouste is still as fervently creative as ever, occupying a unique position in the French art scene. Interestingly, he opts for a return to classical painting whilst drawing influences from traditional masters like Greco and Titian. Fascinated by ancient mythology and religion, his work often references the Torah or the Bible.
The common thread running through Garouste’s current three exhibitions in Paris (“Zeugma” at Galerie Templon, “Diane and Actaeon” at Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature, and “Le grand œuvre drolatique” at Beaux-Arts) is their relationship to myth with all its enchanting ideas.
“My works often centre on myths, that is to say, stories so old that their origins have been lost,” Garouste tells Culture Trip. “Myths have a universal value, which is why we come across them in Aesop’s and La Fontaine’s tales.”
“When I paint armed with the texts that have irrigated the centuries, shaped the thinking of our forebears it is in order to look inside ourselves, reveal our culture, our dominant philosophy, our unconscious. I want to be a worm in the fruit.”
By describing himself as ‘a worm in the fruit’, he means that he doesn’t use these myths literally. He is more interested in what we do with these myths, and the way we build on existing interpretations. “They are often buried very deep. We’re in the world of painting, not literature,” he explains.
Whilst many of these ideas might seem difficult to grasp, belonging more to the realm of philosophy than to painting, Garouste insists that he is only a painter, and not a philosopher.
“I get the feeling that I paint because I don’t know how to write. As I see it, an artist represents a perfect balance between head and hands. I’ve got emotions and feelings like everyone else, but I express them with pictures rather than words.”
His painting draws on traditional techniques, respecting the conventions of oil painting as set by 18th-century artists, with techniques like impastos, depths, passages, and sinkage.
It’s an acknowledgement to how we have come full circle in the world of art where true innovation is hard to come by. “From the first handprints on cave walls to Marcel Duchamp, everything has been done,” he says.
In these paintings below, he talks us through how the story of Diana and Actaeon inspired him. “Like in all mythology, there’s an encounter between Eros and Thanatos: love and sensuality as well as violence and war.”
“I thought about the characters who people the story. Actaeon, of course. I’m not very fond of the hunter, I imagine him as a bit arrogant, strutting around with his gun and his dogs.”
“As for Diana, she’s a goddess and therefore a sublime creature. She bathes naked, spied on by the eyes of a mortal. As I see it, she doesn’t give a damn! It’s even possible that she enjoys it. In any event, she can’t be at all worried about it.”
“So, I wondered why the dogs start devouring Actaeon. He must have done something dreadful. I let my imagination go wild.”
“Since I don’t believe in the version based on Diana’s revenge, I suggest that something atrocious happened between Actaeon and his dogs. Something sexual.”
“In the exhibition, certain paintings will illustrate my interpretation of Actaeon’s crime, and others the dogs’ revenge.”
Despite his many achievements, including his first major retrospective at Centre Pompidou in 1988 at only 42, and seeing his work publicly commissioned for the famous l’Elysee Palace, Theatre du Chatelet and gardens of the Palais-Royal, his greatest source of pride is having set up La Source.
La Source is a charity he founded in 1991, and takes place in seven different locations around France. It runs art workshops for underprivileged children, a project that he is passionate about. “Art is a necessity for a child’s equilibrium and, something that is practiced at La Source, is its use as a tool for becoming a citizen,” he says.
“We encourage the flourishment of a child’s artistic awakening, cultivating their sensitivity, their imagination, their intelligence. From this perspective, it gives them a desire to do it.”
These projects aim to develop skills in art but also in responsibility, commitment and dedication, infusing new meaning into their daily life, whilst also proving that art has real social importance.
“By learning to make, they learn to how to be and get to understand themselves, an indispensable dimension of learning how to project themselves in the future.”