Despite early affiliations with Leo Castelli in New York and Rudolf Zwirner in Cologne, Gérard Garouste remains best known in his native France, where Daniel Templon has represented him since 2001. Thanks to a new traveling retrospective comprising forty years of work, Garouste is again poised to attract due international attention. On the eve of the opening of “Gérard Garouste: The Other Side” at New Delhi’s National Gallery of Modern Art earlier this year, Whitewall caught up with the artist to talk about the personal and universal mythologies represented in his large-scale figurative paintings.
WHITEWALL: This is your first solo show in India. How did this retrospective come to be and what does it mean for you to be presenting your work at New Delhi’s NGMA?
GÉRARD GAROUSTE: As long as they are in my studio, my paintings belong to me. But once they are finished, I entrust them to my dealer, Daniel Templon, whose initiative has now brought my work India. The NGMA show is the first in a series of retrospectives that will take place in the coming years. The next venue will be the Pompidou Center [in September 2022] and hopefully the show will continue on to other countries, including Israel. I’m not a huge traveler, but the country I feel closest to—in terms of its spirit—is India.
WW: You work in series and often make multiple paintings in reference to a specific myth or work of literature. What stories and characters visitors will encounter in the retrospective?
GG: The most important theme in the exhibition is Don Quixote. The form of this book is, of course, very modern. It is a great work of metafiction in which the second part of the novel references the first part and Don Quixote becomes a critic of his own story. On the one hand there is a very classical aspect to Cervantes’s tale and on the other hand there is delirium and dreaminess. This dichotomy can be found in all of my paintings.
WW: Your paintings also represent stories from the Bible.
GG: My work in more inspired by commentaries on biblical stories, as in the Talmud.
WW: Is it interesting for you that the average visitor to your show in New Delhi might not share your predominantly Western references?
GG: It is ideal! In working with curators at the NGMA, I’ve rediscovered my own work. I see my paintings through new eyes, with different references. Of course there’s my own history and my personal mythology, but what counts just as much—maybe more—are the interpretations of the viewers who engage with my paintings. This is why I don’t like didactic wall texts. I prefer when people apply prior knowledge—from life experiences, cultural references, or spiritual beliefs—to an exhibition. To give you an example, there’s a painting in the retrospective that shows a man in front of a row of sarcophagi with cigars all over the floor [Les Cigares du pharaon (The Pharoah’s Cigars), 2013]. For a French viewer, the reference is clearly Hergé’s Tintin comic of the same title, but for everyone else the figure standing by a row of sarcophagi could be anyone. I like when it’s mysterious.
WW: How does India’s long history of figurative painting reframe your oeuvre?
GG: I’m delighted for my works to take on new meanings. I think Indian viewers will have a great time decoding my paintings. My work is meant to be very accessible—there is no truth, only interpretation. It all depends on the curiosity of the viewer. I also play a lot with the juxtapositions of my paintings. The hanging at the NGMA put together works that have never before been hung side by side. Confronting two paintings next to each other sparks visual relationships between otherwise and previously unrelated works. There are always surprises, even for me.
WW: Many of your paintings are self-portraits and, in 2011, you published a best-selling autobiography, L’intranquille (The unquiet), in which you describe your struggle with your abusive and anti-Semitic father. Now, nearly a decade after this book was published, what would you add to your story?
GG: More than ever before, I am looking deeper within myself to create my work. You can see it in my paintings, my work and my whole studio practice have become more and more internal.
WW: Why is it important for you that the NGMA invite local school children to see your show?
GG: When I was a child, I was separated from my parents. My father was a very difficult person, so I went to live with my aunt in a very small village in Burgundy. In this village, many families took in multiple foster children. When I grew up, I moved to Normandy and wanted to do something to make life better for children placed in foster families. In 1991 I founded an association called La Source, which offers creative workshops with trained professionals and artists to children receiving social services throughout France. La Source works in concert with social workers in rural and urban communities to teach children freedom and responsibility through art. I believe that art nourishes children.
WW: Was art an important part of your own childhood?
GG: When I was young, I was a terrible student and I was also very shy. For me drawing was the only thing. Art saved me.
Gérard Garouste’s “The Other Side” is on view at National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi, India through March 29, 2020.