In Search Of Grace

By Ian Findlay Brown

26 October 2020

There are innu­mer­able inter­pre­ta­tions of Bali, a place where the past and the pre­sent often meet uneasily. The Island has long attracted a great diver­sity of artists. Figuration and abstrac­tion, reality and dream have come alive through their work in myriad beguiling nar­ra­tives that reveal a com­plex society.

The French artist Jean-Philippe Haure makes paint­ings that are restrained nar­ra­tives of Balinese people, places, and spirit. At first glance, his art appears fragile, as if a puff of wind might wipe color and line from the paper in an instant. But his art is not fragile: it has the linear strength of a robust mar­riage of color, geom­etry, and sub­ject that delights the eye and stim­u­lates the imag­i­na­tion.

Haure has dis­cov­ered beauty’s grace in myriad places: in dance, in causal glances, among the impov­er­ished, in a moment of antic­i­pa­tion, in an inti­mate touch, in the ema­ci­ated form of a soli­tary man, in the midst of a fes­tival, and in abstract dream. Haure is not obsessed by the tough­ness of con­tem­po­rary society or the con­straints of com­mu­nity tra­di­tions; rather he demands that we look closer at the dis­pos­sessed inviting us to see the unique grace of the sur­vivor. His obser­va­tions force us to take note of the inequal­i­ties that blight society. But painful real­i­ties are set off against the elu­sive ritual of the fes­tival and ele­gant women, finely coiffed and clothed in striking tra­di­tional dress: they are beguiling pres­ences in the deep qui­etude of a time­less cul­ture.

The journey into Haure’s fig­u­ra­tive and abstract Balinese world begins not with a sub­ject or ques­tions of aes­thetics but with hued wash: the work flows from this base. “For me, the wash is very impor­tant. This is where the story starts,” he says. “When I see an ‘everyday-life-model’ in the street, it moti­vates me to work. Any ques­tions on aes­thetics should be found in the wash first.”

Even as Haure’s oeuvre deals in the meeting of fan­tasy and reality, he cap­tures some­thing of the spir­i­tual nature and the studied pace of Balinese life. He brings ele­ments of wonder to his tales, small dramas pos­sessing a sin­gular under­standing of his pro­tag­o­nists, refined through years of obser­va­tion and living in the com­mu­nity as a teacher. His sub­jects are brought to life through a soft color palette and abstrac­tion that “whis­pers” to viewers’ emo­tions in such inti­mate works as After the Bath (2006), Colors From Indonesia (2006), and Melancholia (2013). Haure’s palette also lightens the aus­terity of his stark fig­u­ra­tive works such as The Time Keeper (2012), Stay Alive (2012), and Keeping in Mind (2014). The results are varied dream­like expe­ri­ences that linger in the mind’s eye.

While Haure’s art, for all its color and fine line, sug­gests the easy acces­si­bility of pho­tog­raphy, his painting demands that viewers tease out the heart of his tales, to give life to them beyond the frame and his smooth seduc­tive sur­faces. This is vividly accom­plished in such por­traits as After the Bath (2006), the trip­tych Duality XVII (2008), Wisdom behind the Age (2011) I’ve Got a Dream to Remember (2012), Wind in the Trees (2012), Stay Alive, I Would Like to See the Other Side (2012), Melancholia (2013), Keeping in Mind (2014) . In this series of paint­ings Haure speaks can­didly of lives lived on the edge of society, per­sonal struggle, age, iso­la­tion, sad­ness, mental anguish, loss, and dreams. Here, for a few moments, we are voyeurs of a sur­face calm­ness but aware, too, of per­sonal angst. There is no tor­ment in Wisdom behind the Age but there is sad­ness in the face and eyes and pos­ture of the ele­gant, hand­some woman with her fur­rowed brow, here right hand clasping her knee and the fin­gers of her left hand pressed to her head, her volup­tuous breasts almost tumble from her dress. Her eyes look at us but she does not see us: one senses that she may be looking back to her youth, to time when her beauty drew admiring glances, a time when she pam­pered her­self just as the sultry young woman in After the Bath does. There is quiet plea­sure here but not in Haure’s moody painting Melancholia, on the other hand, in which the young woman gazes without focus at the ground, her hands on her feet. Her sloped shoul­ders and absent­minded gaze speak to the sad­ness that grips her mind. Haure real­izes these three women in subtle line, exquisite detail, and abstrac­tion that seems to rise as a living entity from the ground empha­sizing the nat­ural eroti­cism. In the trip­tych Duality XVII, how­ever, the old woman— arms at her sides, face stern, and eyes curious with ques­tion­s—gaze out at the world resigned to her fate. One sees quiet dig­nity in her cracked, fading beauty, but it is beauty nev­er­the­less, not a false nar­ra­tive, which makes many uncom­fort­able. “We are afraid of beauty,” says Haure. “We are ter­ri­fied of beauty as a tor­ment [for it is] excru­ci­ating, unreach­able. I want to cap­ture the pre­cise moment when things are exquisite.”

Haure’s I’ve Got a Dream to Remember; Wind in the Trees; Stay Alive; I Would Like to See the Other Side; and Keeping in Mind are excel­lent psy­cho­log­ical studies of men alone, soli­tary fig­ures who, through their pos­tures, sug­gest res­ig­na­tion to life’s trou­bles. Either squat­ting or standing as they work or rest, facing us or with their backs to the viewer, we are aware of their abject struggle to be. They are sur­viving in hard times, eking out a living as best as they can. Haure brings each figure alive through well-placed wash and muted colors, which recalls the free expres­sion of tachisme. Haure’s descrip­tive line reveals layers of his pro­tag­o­nists’ lives.

There is some­thing restrained, too, in Haure’s pre­sen­ta­tion of male fig­ures whose hard­scrabble lives he por­trays. Here is impov­er­ished humanity cap­tured with grace and respect: there is nei­ther romantic nor nos­talgic ide­al­iza­tion of the fig­ures. Here an ele­gant line and abstract washes com­bine tough­ness and gentle­ness that sur­prises. A tender memory is revealed by a hand placing a single flower in I’ve Got a Dream to Remember and in I Would Like to See the Other Side the man looks long­ingly into the dis­tance where he can only imagine another life. But for me, Haure’s three most pow­erful and sen­si­tive fig­u­ra­tive works are Stay Alive [see Cover], The Time Keeper, and Wind in the Trees, which are beau­ti­fully real­ized paint­ings of under­stated human tor­ment.

The wiz­ened figure of Stay Alive is androg­y­nous, the crunched-up face speaks to time’s deft aging touch; his right-hand fin­gers lift a morsel of food from a paper holder to an eager mouth; the left-hand fin­gers hold cigarette. Sitting on his abstracted place it looks as if the earth and he are one. Haure’s details of the face, hands, fin­gers, feet, and toes as well as how his clothes fold reveal his body add to the char­acter’s pres­ence. The strong lines of the bones washed with muted hues of burnt browns and reds and purple lend the body of the man in The Time Keeper a sense of despair, rein­forced by the folds of his ragged clothes. In the wrin­kled skin of the aged face eyes stare out in the middle dis­tance as if his thoughts are per­haps of once-pleasant mem­o­ries now lost in the doubt of the pre­sent. The burning cigarette gripped loosely between thin fin­gers punc­tu­ates his thoughts.

The sense of despair in Haure’s por­traits of the impov­er­ished is per­haps most vividly caught in the bent, ema­ci­ated figure leaning slightly for­ward in Wind in the Trees. Again a com­bi­na­tion of strong and del­i­cate line and light-col­ored hues define char­acter and place. That Haure’s por­traits have, at times, the quality of pho­to­re­alism is no acci­dent as the artist employs pho­tog­raphy as a tool and as a ref­er­ence point in his art-making. As the Bali-based critic Jean Couteau notes on Haure’s astute use of pho­tog­raphy in his essay The Art Concept Rhapsody (2012): “Pho­tographs … con­tribute the lines, and even­tu­ally, the ideational con­tent of the work. But how can a pho­tograph do this? By lending only some of its lines, the most evoca­tive ones, while let­ting go of any overly nar­ra­tive, detailed con­tent. Of the pho­tograph, there will even­tu­ally remain only the min­imum needed to sug­gest a scene, and through this scene, a cer­tain under­standing of sen­si­tivity, ten­der­ness and love. Everything is sug­gested rather than affirmed. As a flowing mood then runs beyond the colors into the lines of the sub­li­mated real.”

Regard­less of how tran­sient Jean-Philippe Haure’s world may appear, it is one estab­lished on keen obser­va­tion and deep Christian faith. Born in 1969, in Orléans, France, on the banks of the Loire River, Haure studied arts and crafts at the École Boulle from 1983, which was where, according to the artist, “I dis­cov­ered the love of work well done, the tech­niques to achieve it, and the way to develop one’s own per­son­ality and cre­ativity, all based on the knowl­edge of art his­tory, not only the­o­ret­ical, but applied in the work­shop. I felt that some­thing was missing: the phi­los­ophy of art. I wanted to under­stand what art is. I went to the Sorbonne and audited courses. I studied Idea, by Erwin Panofsky that opened the door of phi­los­ophy for me.” This was fol­lowed, in 1989, when he became a monk at the Benedictine monastery of Saint Benoit sur Loire where, as he notes, he learned to “dive in the silence, this is what I started to learn in the monastery. I feel very close to this life.”

In 1990, Haure arrived at Sasana Hasta Karya School in Bali, as a vol­un­teer, where he has taught a broad cur­riculum. Bali and its cul­ture have, over the past 30 years, become an inte­gral part of Haure’s artistic vision whose sen­si­tivity to his Asian sub­jects reminds one of that of the Japan-based French wood­block artist Paul Jacoulet (1896–1960), espe­cially with his indi­vidual fig­u­ra­tion. But Haure’s art is also touched by the rich spirit and tech­niques of a wide range of artists including Edgar Degas (1834–1917), espe­cially the freedom of his pastel draw­ings; the aca­demic and romantic ortho­doxy of Ingres (1780–1867); the courage of the free life without com­pro­mise of Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890), the Balinese fig­u­ra­tion of Willem G. Hofker (1902–1981), and the char­coal draw­ings by the Singaporean artist Teng Nee Cheong (1951–2013). Such artists have taught him that he stick to one place to examine it closely, for as he says, “I prefer to go deeper in the same place than travel around to dis­cover every ‘lieu commun’ of each place. I don’t like the sur­face, I prefer diving.”

But even as he is in one place, Haure’s vision is not rigid. It is full of the spice of life and not clichés. It is full of the spirit of adven­ture that sent him on his voyage of dis­covery so many years ago and one that has always remained with him. As he says, “I had a chance to move [from France] to dis­cover a new cul­ture. Almost 30 years of living in Bali teaches me how rel­a­tive a cul­ture is. The uni­ver­sality of beauty removes them. I am happy to be born after the European modern his­tory of painting. I get freedom from all these painters. They freed the lan­guage of forms. But for me, they did not go far enough. Learning how to make chaos is one thing but being aware of the beauty that appears in that chaos is another.”

Haure’s sec­ular and spir­i­tual life nur­tures his reflec­tive nature, where silence and action are sin­gu­larly united. He sees dig­nity and beauty in simple inti­mate scenes just as he cap­tures alien­ation among the poor and a time­less beauty among the priv­i­leged. But he does not judge, rather he allows his lyrical abstrac­tion and fig­u­ra­tion to guide us on his artistic journey. One sees this in Waiting for the King (2018), which is a pleasant scene of two boys waiting expect­edly for the King to pass by. The lux­u­rious designs of draped fab­rics speak to Haure’s love of color and abstrac­tion, but it speaks to the inti­macy of the still moment, too, as in Colors from Indonesia (2006) where a beau­tiful girl leans for­ward to touch her foot gently with out­stretched fin­gers and Coral Reefs (2019) where a young woman with her back to us is swept up in pen­sive mood. Haure builds ten­sion in this work through the muted colors and wash of her dress and such phys­ical details as her out­stretched hand and a bent foot.

The acces­si­bility of Haure’s art is refreshing as is the ethe­real quality that trans­ports viewers into very pri­vate worlds. It is in the richly col­ored and romantic dream-like Gemini (2004), where the dom­i­nant rich blues and muted reds and the flowing line add to an unusual ten­sion. The lav­ishly detailed and col­orful fes­tive group in the work enti­tled Unless You Know Another Way (2020) rein­forces the dream-like char­acter of Haure’s art, as does the dra­matic abstract-fig­u­ra­tive work Duality XIII (2008), an unusual union of human and animal con­tact in his art. This is in stark con­trast to the per­sonal moment of the two women of Duality II (2006) and the single female in When Grace Abounds (2010). There is a striking hint of the English Pre-Raphaelite ideal of beauty in these work­s—and many other­s—that car­ries Haure’s dreamy abstract nar­ra­tive along, and though they are touched with the sense of romance they are, at least to my mind, not sen­ti­mental. “Ab­stract painting is stronger than any other paint­ings in emo­tion, and drawing that is also stronger than a fin­ished work. I mix these two tech­niques together,” he says. The results, as we see, are deeply appealing.

Among Haure’s most beguiling works is the dip­tych such as Both Sides of the Story (2011) and the trip­tychs such as Duality XVII (2008) and Duality XIX, Waves in the Sky (2011), which is a dream. [The model for all the fig­ures is Haure’s wife, Reizka.] These works speak to Haure’s sec­ular and reli­gious sides. The sec­ular is the everyday nar­ra­tive, formal and informal, of the people por­trayed. And in the manner in which the works are framed, the panels sug­gest reli­gious altar­pieces found in numerous Catholic churches. Haure’s arti­sanal skill and atten­tion to the detail in the making of the panels is some­thing he achieved during his studies at École Boulle almost 40 years ago. In these works there are very human and per­sonal dia­logues taking place in sub­dued set­tings that recall old sepia pho­tographs, where his wash sug­gests time past. Looking at his fig­u­ra­tion here, one has a sense of the nar­ra­tive extending far beyond the edge of the paint­ings’ frames as one finds in reli­gious altar­pieces of bib­lical scenes. The entire work is a com­plex nar­ra­tive journey of which we have but a glimpse, making viewers voyeurs of pri­vate worlds.

One may be looking for a mes­sage in Haure’s works but as he says, “I have no mes­sage. I don’t want to change the world, only to fight to keep my art alive. I am not judging the world or people in my art. The only thing I can say is ‘I want to see the other side.’” The world now, he notes, has become a place where every­thing has become “an object for com­mer­cial pur­poses, human life included. If I touch some kind of truth, by acci­dent, emo­tion, beauty, spir­i­tual con­nec­tion, or love will come alive. It is the con­se­quence of my actions, not the inten­tion.”

And as for the feeling of mys­tery in his vision, his mixed­media mate­rials lend them­selves to this. But it is not some­thing that Haure goes out to do, for mys­tery is not cre­ated by the brush or a pencil, it emerges of its own accord as the artist works.

“I can’t say that I wish to do some­thing in my art,” Haure says. “What I do is pre­pare the con­di­tions, spe­cially for the wash step, where some ‘event’ may happen. I mean a form of lan­guage even. Using all the tools I have (colors, tex­ture, lines, con­trast, bal­ance, har­mony), I put every­thing together in a kind of chaos. Sometimes, some­thing unusual appears, a new ‘music’ in the lan­guage of forms can be heard. I need to be careful. It is so easy to destroy it by adding my own will to it. If I use my will, I fail.”

Jean-Philippe Haure’s search for beauty is ongoing, some­thing that will insin­uate itself into all his art. The search for beauty is a tough taskmaster for it demands every­thing from the artist’s per­son­ality and skill, vision, and spirit. As Haure says, “Beauty is a place to rest, and is not joyful. Sometimes it pro­vokes a fright that makes us move away. It’s the appear­ance of the inef­fable, the lan­guage of the unspoken. Beauty accepts no com­pro­mise. When working on my wash and trying to make the model appear clearly, I have to make so many deci­sions (choosing lines instead con­trast, changing the color or the sat­u­ra­tion, using a wash tex­ture as a fig­u­ra­tive part, adding a white line, cov­ering an area, erasing some details, and so on. I think that all these deci­sions, when added together, have an uncom­pro­mising effect. Paintings that are not suc­cessful have hesi­ta­tion and mawk­ish­ness.”

Haure sees his world forever on the move. In his art he seeks to reach out beyond the sur­face to describe a Bali that is rich in spirit. As he says, “The world we don’t see always reminds you of the mag­ical, cer­e­monies, rites, sac­ri­fices, offer­ings, beauty and fer­tility.” In any search there are sur­prises and delights, suc­cesses and dis­ap­point­ments. Jean-Philippe Haure’s embrace of the search for grace is filled with these, which is why his art is deeply indi­vidual.

 J-Philippe, BaliPress review In Search Of Grace

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