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Interview with London-based artist Herve Constant

For my 800th blog post, here is an interview I did with artist Herve Constant in London in mid-November. Herve and I have known each since the mid-1990s, when we both had a studio in the same converted tanning factory in London's east end. Herve is a fascinating mixture of cultural influences - Jewish, but raised in a Christian context; born in Morocco, then moved to France, now living in London for thirty years - and his multimedia work is a similar mixture of styles and influences. This long-ish interview is actually about half of the recorded material, and in it Herve has lots of fascinating things to say about his own work and the dedication it requires to be an artist.

Philip: The first question I want to ask you, Herve, as I stand in the middle of your studio in Hackney, east London, is: where do you come from and why did you move to London?

Herve: I was born in Casablanca, Morocco. I left Morocco when I was about five years old and moved with my father and brother to the south of France. My background is in theatre, which I studied in Paris. Later on I came back to London, and I got in to a school in Hampstead, north London, but I couldn’t get a grant. Gradually I started drawing and painting and I realized that that is what I liked the most. It felt more comfortable, more with my character. I never feel bored or like I’m wasting time. It’s still my life and I still spend a tremendous amount of time in my space.

P: You also make films.

H: In the last few years I’ve included photos and films. When I do films very often they are based upon a painting, with a fairly similar type of vision or subject. It all goes in a cycle. For me it’s quite interesting. Many artists they say, Yeah, you know, you are a painter, so why do you want to do short films? They think maybe it’s trendy. Many younger artists feel it’s a way to do art quickly and all that, but for me I never saw the different kinds of art as separate. It’s always a continuation, a way to know more and include other things. I don’t think art is just separate – music, the type of music I listen to, for example – it’s everything rounded, together.

"Hand Ballet", video stills
P: I notice that sometimes your work is abstract, leaning towards the form, the shape, the division of the canvas. Other pictures are more representational. Why one and why the other?

H: Well, I've never been to art school, so basically even I've read a lot about different schools of painting, I'm not bothered about the style of a picture or the way it's made. Just behind that painting is one called "The Labyrinth", based on a story of the same name, and it's abstract, geometric. The story of "The Labyrinth" is you can't find a way out, you just search your path in life, and there <pointing to a painting of small figures on a chessboard> the children are playing, they are stuck, they are all the same, it's dark, we don't see any of the faces, just the figures. They are symbolic, they are on a chessboard, a game I like to play very much, and we go again into how far we can be free to choose our own path in life. So maybe that's the connection between the two.

"Labyrinth", oil on canvas, 72 in x 72 in
"Children's Game", acrylic on paper, 15 in x 12 in
P: You are very interested in mysticism and religious ideas surrounding the mystical experience, and you exhibited at the Jewish Museum in London a few years ago.

H: Yes, I showed in their old venue, a very nice building in Soho.

P: Talk about that work and its relation to the Kabbalah.

"Portrait of Arthur Rimbaud", oil on canvas, 48 in x 36 in
H: I once did a series of work based on the poet Arthur Rimbaud. I like his poems very much. I started to read about other poets of the time, about symbolism, the symbolist poets, Baudelaire, Verlaine, all those people, and I discovered that they were all interested in the Kabbalah and the occult. I wanted to learn more, because even if I've got some Jewish background through my mother –

P: That's a lot of Jewish background!

H: <laughs> Yes, yes. And yet I was brought up in a Christian atmosphere, which I can talk about later. Anyway, when I grew up, I thought it would be interesting to read the Kabbalah, to know more, and that led me to other things, like numbers, numerology, which I began to include in my paintings. Quite a few of them became “symbolique.”

P: So let's have a look at more recent work.

H: These are twenty four small pieces. They are prints taken from actual shoes, printed onto the paper. Each one is 15 x 12 inches, and they will be called the Salle des Pas Perdus -- the room of, you know, when you go to the court of justice or places where people are moving a lot and walking quickly, they walk this way and that, they leave their footprints. And it's about communication again: we move, we are rushed all the time, we are busy, we don't have time. And I would like also to do a film and an installation with the same material.

Work in progress, mixed media on paper
Then I took out of storage that painting "The Labyrinth", and I'm going to film some part of it. I'll include a path that shows people walking. The paintings will be covered on the floor, there will be a projection related to the art, so hopefully it will all make an interesting concept. That's the next thought I've got in mind for that.

P: You're looking at your archive and making these connections.

H: That's how it works. I've been working on doing paintings for so long, you put them aside, and one day you go back to your storage, you look through, and you think: That will be good to develop, to go back to. It's quite exciting.

P: You said earlier that paintings need to be brought out and aired.

H: They need to breathe, like us. Paintings have a skin, it changes with time. A good painting, the transparency, the pigments, they have a richness of expression and a quality of ... <pauses> I still believe in painting. It's still mysterious to me. It's still a great way of making art. I enjoy filming, taking photos, but painting is sensuous to me. The feel, the touch, <clicks fingers together> the marks, it's still great.

P: You’ve also had a lot of success recently with your videos, showing them in festivals all over the world. How long have you been making short films?

H: Since the last seven years. For me the films are like paintings coming alive in a certain way. They are often painterly, clearly made by a painter. They start with a simple shape, an uncomplicated “mise en page,” as we say in French.

P: Moving on then, how do you decide if a piece isn’t working?

H: Here is a small piece that I’m not pleased with and I’m going to rework. I want to give it a bit more movement. I don’t like the heavy contrast between the green and the black tone. I’m going to change the background, try to give more togetherness between the figure and the space. At the moment it’s too graphic, too like a print.

P: We’re looking at this painting as it is lying on top of the ‘shoe’ pieces we discussed earlier, which are more worked on, they have more layers, more textures, colours. At what point would you decide that these pictures are finished?

H: When the balance is right. Sometimes I work on them on their own, and then I put them together to see how the work can fit together into the balance of the colour, the image. I try to find one principal colour to give the body of the work more balance. Again, I was interested in the idée of the picture, but that doesn’t make a painting. You have to do the work, to give a bit of richness to the idea.

P: I think that’s very important to remember. A lot of younger artists forget that a work of art is not just an idea – the idea has to be given form, developed in some way.

H: Tarkovsky said an artist should be really honest with what he wants to do and should go all the way with that. Because this is like a marathon: you go from the start point to the end point, which is death, but it’s important to go through the journey. Van Gogh also said that when you make art you sell your soul, and the soul is the most important thing you have as an artist. You can’t play with that. If you’re honest and do your work with integrity, people will see that. The problem is that people want success quickly. They want to show with a gallery, sell the work, and they are prepared to do anything to achieve that. It’s like we say in French: “mettre la charrue avant les boeufs” –

P: Putting the cart before the horse.

H: Yes, exactly. For example, when I was at the Verona Art Fair, I could see a lot of work that was witty, clever, trendy in a certain way, to fit what a commercial gallery wants. If you’re clever and you’ve got some talent you can play that game, but I think it’s a mistake. If you do that you might have success for two years, ten years, but in the long run that’s not what the great artist does. I think an artist should develop in a personal way, where it doesn’t matter if it doesn’t fit. Goya, Rembrandt, quick success didn’t matter to them. Their work was serious, it had gravitas, humanity. I believe in that – the work having humanité.

P: Do you think that’s what has kept you going for so long (if you don’t mind my saying so)?

H: What’s very important for all of us is the passion, the “enthousiasme” to do it. Not many people have that. I meet some artists who talk about their mortgage, their job, and so on, and they don’t have the passion to create, to do the thing, to go to their studio, to have that “curiosité.” Or they are only interested in making one kind of art, like only paintings, or only prints. If you are open and you enlarge your curiosity, by travelling, meeting different people, I think it’s rewarding.

P: What do you think is the connection between that deep sense of curiosity and this studio that you’ve had for more than twenty years?

H: I feel that to work well you need a kind of security of the space, the studio. If you move from studio to studio, you get away from the work. It’s important to have stability. I travel quite a lot, but when I do it’s like having a second studio. It gives me another kind of breathing space. When I return here I feel more eager to work, you know?

P: You bring things from the outside back to this space. And how long have you had this studio?

H: I moved here in the late eighties, so about twenty years ago.

P: Do you ever see yourself moving to another space?

H: What’s amazing with life is you can’t really say, you never know. Things might change, for good or bad, but things change. Maybe that’s the charm of life. I should say before we finish that this country has been very helpful to me. I’m grateful to have been in London for so long. The people have been very good to me. I didn’t know I was going to be a painter when I moved here, and now I show all over the world, so for me it was a great move. The good thing too is that I felt freer here than in France. English people are not bothered about the way you dress, they keep to themselves, while in France they look at you, they judge you, they mock you. I can really only say good things about being in the UK.

P: A final question, which you can answer in any way you want: why are you an artist?

H: I think it’s because of the way I was brought up. When I came back to France from Morocco with my father and my brother, I didn’t know my mother, and my father couldn’t look after us, either, so we were left in an orphanage until we were fifteen. It was run by two American missionaries. I remember that the woman played the piano, and she would get us to sing hymns, and perform in the church on Sundays. It was the time of the first TVs, black and white TVs, and once in a while we were allowed to watch movies – Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Burt Lancaster, who was a big star at the time. So I think my interest in cinema, music, opera, it all began then.

When I left the orphanage I finally met my mother, but it didn’t go well. I felt that she had let us down, she didn’t care about us. It’s not easy for a child to be separated from his mother, particularly a boy. So maybe I’m an artist because of this family background. Maybe art is a sort of solution. Because even now I think many of my paintings come from that. The work is seeking for some solution to unhappiness.

Herve Constant's video "Hand Ballet" was part of a group exhibition "The Mystical Self" at Art Verona in October-November 2011. The exhibition will tour other venues in Europe in the coming months.


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