Charles Popelier: “The landscape, c’est moi”
April 2, 2010 2 Comments
“I can’t paint the whole world, my canvas is too small.”
This article is about a painter. This is something I wanted to emphasise in view of the fact that I am not an artist. I have my favourite photographers, can talk about literature for days in a row and can’t live without music, but the art of painting to me is as unfamiliar as Thanksgiving to a European.
Yet, when my boss Lori Mees at Maastricht University showed me a book that she had been translating into English for Dutch painter Charles Popelier, I soon knew that I didn’t need to be an artist in order to resonate with his work.
One thing leading to another, there I was, a couple of days later, sipping tea with Popelier himself at the Rob van Rijn Gallery on Bredestraat in Maastricht. We had a wonderful conversation about mountains, ochre, Spain, warmth and Goya, which made me realise how stimulating it can be to find oneself in the presence of an artist.
Charles Popelier’ life story is stuff for a novel or a movie. Sitting in front of me was a man whose charisma and openness brought comfort to the room. His hands, bearing discreet remnants of multicoloured paint, seemed incomplete without their regular tools.
Popelier was born in Mönchengladbach, Germany, but has been living most of his life in ’s-Hertogenbosch, which continues to be his home, and the location of his atelier.
His artistic career began at age 14 when he started working as an interior decorator in his grandfather’s decoration shop. After a traumatising car accident at age 23, Popelier decided to move on from craftsmanship to a more conceptual form of art: painting.
It was at the Art Academy in Den Bosch, one of the major Dutch art academies back in the early 1980s, that he developed his own perspective on painting. “Rembrandt is so holy that you’re afraid to do anything,” Popelier says, “That’s why you have to start with yourself.”
A year before his graduation exam, Popelier felt there was still something missing from his art. In order to change that, he decided to go on a hiking trip in the Spanish Pyrenees. This initiating journey gave birth to the series of paintings called “Monte Perdido”, after the name of the third highest peak in the Pyrenees. “I wanted to bring the mountains back with me”, Popelier explains. “They give me space.” His goal as an artist is to create his own earth, a universe where “everybody has access to and can discover something.”
Collage, Charles Popelier
“The landscape, c’est moi”
“Monte Perdido” is a fascinating book, which I like to see as a travel diary. Instead of documenting a journey with a camera, Popelier put together an album of his memories transposed into paintings. Each page reads as a reflection of his thoughts.
“I think the book shows my development, and it brings more details about what’s inside the landscape”, Popelier explains.
Popelier is currently working on a new series, started in 2007, when he took another inspirational journey along the Ebro River, in the Aragon region of Northern Spain, the home of Francisco Goya. The trip took the painter throughout Spain, from the source of the river to its Mediterranean Sea mouth. Spain has been the cradle of his choice of colors, like the ambivalent ochre, which reflects the dryness of soil balanced by the warmth of the climate.
“Some paintings are inspired by what is inside the soil, and they have something almost realistic, even if they are abstract”, Popelier says. His remark made me look at the paintings differently and I started noticing the concentrated spots which he described as “a zoom into something that contains the whole world.”
“Sometimes you look for things you don’t have, like comfort and warmth,” Popelier says. “But how do you paint that? I try to connect with something that resonated with the inside of me. I can create things the way I think they should be.” He conveys that message, among other ways, by making his own paint in his Maastricht atelier, with his own secret ingredients. “Oil paint has a closed surface. I want the painting to breathe and have an open structure.”
Belchite II, Charles Popelier
If Charles Popelier were a poem, it would be one that he chose himself:
Reinventar un paisaje
Despues de visto.
Cierro los ojos. Los abro.
Ya no es el mismo que vi
El que estoy viendo.
Mas si pinto el que ahora miro
Pensando en el que no veo,
Parecera el paisaje
Que estoy pintando un invento.
Creating a landscape again,
After you saw it.
I see it.
I close my eyes. I open them.
What I see now
Is not the same as what I had seen before.
But if I paint what I see now,
Thinking of what I do not see,
Then the landscape that I paint
Will look like something I imagined.
Art as a refined business model
Gallery owner Rob van Rijn decided to showcase Popelier’s work in Maastricht because he says he can “determine which artists produce quality work, and are not simply commercial”. His gallery now displays Popelier’s art at any time.
Having one’s work presented at the world’s leading fine arts fair TEFAF is a major breakthrough for any artist. For Popelier, it happened in 2009 when Borzo Gallery Amsterdam commissioned him a painting to be exhibited especially for the occasion. The Amsterdam based gallery also mediated Popelier’s collaboration with Rob van Rijn.
Van Rijn’s collaboration with TEFAF goes a long way: “My father is one of the founders of the fair,” Van Rijn explains.
Gallery Rob van Rijn, Maastricht
The fine arts fair is a crucial event for local dealers and for the city of Maastricht as a whole : “I make a lot of deals during TEFAF”, Rob van Rijn says, “and the art scene in Maastricht gains a lot from those ten days a year.”
But TEFAF is not enough for Maastricht, according to Van Rijn. “If Maastricht is aspiring to the status of European cultural capital in 2018, there is a long way to go. Maastricht has two art academies, and it is internationally engaged during Tefaf days, but the rest of the time there is not that much distinguishing it from other same sized cities, like Heerlen for example.”
As I listened to Rob van Rijn talking about his work at the gallery, I realised that there is an aspect of Maastricht that I, as a student at the Maastricht School of Governance, have had little contact with up until now.
Who are the buyers of a Popelier? Maastrichters?
“Not really,” says Rob van Rijn, who sees Maastrichters as having a greater affinity for sculptures than for “things behind glass”, such as a framed sketch: “Here in the south, techniques like lithography or monotype are a bit undervalued if compared to Amsterdam. To that, people here prefer oil.”
Gallery Rob van Rijn, Maastricht
This is maybe the reason why the local market only accounts for about 25 percent of Rob van Rijn’s sales. Germany, Belgium and the northern regions of the Netherlands make up for the rest.
I’m neither an artist nor an art critique; nor am I striving to become one. Understandably, my brief incursion in the gallery world raised many art related questions I had no answer for. I did discover however that I had been mistaken in thinking that art cannot be experienced without first accessing the knowledge behind it. When I was shown Charles Popelier’s work, I realised that if I could relate to it by simply feeling it. This experience taught me that one doesn’t have to think about the meaning of a painting. It will be revealed through the senses.
By Catalina Goanta
Catalina Goanta, the eternal Master student sailing from one UM Faculty to another.