She places her canvas flat on a table. Then, with the precision of a chemist, she creates her colours in jam jars: a mixture of oil paint, petrol and freeze drying gel, cooked in a ‘bain-marie’. She pours this shiny liquid onto the canvas, which she lifts onto a support to allow the colour to flow in waves. Once the base is ready, she throws bold colours on top, waits one or two days for the surface to dry, takes a palette knife and peels off a few strips to reveal the base colour. After, it depends: she sticks these ‘skins’ onto a transparent sheet of polyester, returns to the table, she makes some cuts, sometimes scratches and rubs. She works on more than one canvas at a time, going from one to another, comparing them, refreshing their appearance.
Her gestures are light, precise. Irène Laksine practices a serene ritual, she’s not venting. “Violence doesn’t make a painting and painting isn’t a therapy. It’s like a duplication, an encounter with another self, which takes me to my limits, my efforts to surpass myself: “As the song goes, ‘you think you can hold your happiness, but it becomes tedious’.… here it’s the same, it doesn’t always work. It’s immoral, painting, sometimes you work like a dog for nothing…. Sometimes, you let things happen quietly, and it pleases you. I am not laborious, I am contemplative.” That’s the importance of the drying time, which forces her to observe, to think, to decide if it’s starting well or badly. Whether she should stop or continue. This lively woman is not the type to throw her canvas furiously out of the window when it displeases her. “Paintings that I don’t like, I wait until they’ve dried and then I recycle them. Neither is she the type to throw herself into the Seine from the Pont des Arts when ‘it’ won’t come. This was the fate of her uncle, David, who was swallowed by the Seine when he was 20 years old.
In the Laksine household, painting was a religion, and woe betide anyone who doesn’t paint. Her father, an immigrant from the Caucasus, was a dental surgeon in Cannes in the South of France. To perpetuate the artistic dynasty, he substituted his children’s toys with paintbrushes. One of his patients, a certain Picasso, came to the house every day to follow their progress. “Oh how it all annoyed me” Irène whispered, “Papa made us paint with a rigid technique, he didn’t care a jot if I enjoyed it or not, it was a real chore.” It was not until she went to the College of Beaux Arts in Paris that she escaped the strong paternal influence and discovered abstract art, the first rebellion of an obedient child.
Irène then discovered the pleasure of creation: “From school, I went to a world of total freedom, one where creation mingled with intimacy.” Her freedom extended also to her ideas, after being a militant in factories, against the Vietnam War, a gentle Maoist and a feminist at the MLF, in 1970 Irène settled into a studio in an attic, in Rue Quincampoix in Paris. Here, an artist's studio par excellence, organised clutter stacked between tables and punctured tubes, with a permanent whiff of the heady smell of turpentine. Since then, her rhythm of life hasn’t changed one iota, it is always guided by her complete rejection of any coercion. Ideas come freely to her. “My inspiration? I don’t know what it is. I don’t wake up in the morning with an idea in my head, and I don’t rush to reproduce the idea onto my canvas.” She waits until her desire to paint becomes an urge.
“I go downstairs to the café, gossip with my friends, then climb back up 8 floors, put on my combat gear (overalls spotted in paint). I take it off, I go out for a bike ride, I come back up….” until the moment when she is ready to paint. “When I feel free, I start. Afterwards I cease to be distracted and I can concentrate.”
In the studio, the canvases seem to move about all on their own. A magic trick? But on closer look, one can just see the artist hidden behind, holding in her outstretched arms these huge rectangular canvases, lining them up, face to the wall. “There, that’s my daily exercise” she says, boastfully flexing her biceps. Clowning around has become her way, as if to recapture her childhood, which had been somewhat constrained. Irène assures “painting doesn’t torture me, but it doesn’t let me let off steam either, it fulfils me. Oil painting is an inexhaustible subject. One never masters it, there is always something to explore, to dig… When I paint, I fly. The practice of it is as mysterious as the inspiration, I have the impression of floating, that my mind opens up, that previously confused thoughts suddenly become ordered in my head. I become intelligent! It has a powerful effect, the physics of matter: I feel I'm anchored somewhere. Both on land and elsewhere.”
Written by Jennifer Lesieur
Writer, Goncourt de la Biographie 2008
Translated from an interview and article in French, by Sally Perigo.