Sometimes the course of our lives seems to be all mapped out ahead of us. And yet! That illusion can quickly shatter and lead us on to other adventures. Unexpected, of course, but certainly more lively, more human and more revealing of what lies deep inside us. The multidisciplinary artist Marie de Villepin is a vibrant example of this. For this citizen of the world – born in the United States, having lived in India and now settled in Paris – her vocation as a painter wasn’t immediately obvious. On the contrary. Her path was established through decisive encounters, while she religiously nurtured in the background the artistic and cultural identity inherited from her parents, a diplomat and a sculptor respectively. After a musical experience as a singer in the group Pinkmist, the young woman decided to “reconnect with the threads of her own history” in France. A “return to her roots” was a natural consequence, and painting became an obvious choice for her. By gathering on the canvas all that matters to her, the Parisian artist is finding a new means of expression. Intimately linked always to her first love, music, she translates the effervescence of her inner self while confronting it with her perception of the outside world. Raising existential questions about our society: “How do we find the balance between the present moment and the passage of time? How do we capture the spirit and the shape of a moment, a place, or an image?” Marie has had a series of solo exhibitions. From New Creatures to The Lost Weekend to Murmuration, her latest exhibition. Oil paintings, presented in Asia this time, which try to find a balance – through the swooping, unpredictable flight of birds – “between the darkness and brightness of the world, between anxiety and hope”. These fragile and sensitive works have been matured in Aubervilliers in the premises occupied by the artists’ collective, Poush, and this is where she welcomes us today.
Murmuration exhibition by Marie de Villepin from 17 November 2022 to March 2023, at the Villepin Gallery, 53-55 Hollywood Road Central, Hong Kong.
Could you introduce yourself, please?
Born in the United States, I grew up in India before returning to France to complete a scientific baccalaureate. Predestined for a financial career, I enrolled at Dauphine. After a summer internship in investment banking, I quickly realised that it wasn’t for me and that this was not the right career path. During this internship, one lunch break, while I was strolling around Place Vendôme, I had a chance meeting that led to an amazing adventure in New York. Over the next ten years, I was lucky enough to meet many talented people, photographers, directors, painters and musicians who shaped my views and my world. During a snowstorm in 2007, when I was leaving for a shoot in South Africa, I met two Venezuelan musicians, Adrian and Inocente Carreño, at JFK airport. Together, we founded my first music group, PINKMIST, and I wrote the lyrics and sang. Since then, I’ve always carried notebooks to scribble words, stories and anecdotes among my drawings. This approach has allowed me to record and remember moments and emotions and to chronicle my life. I drew upon my experiences to define the group’s visual identity through logos, photos and videos. Looking back, I realise that these notebooks have provided the raw material for my artwork today.
What is your background?
After spending several years between New York and Los Angeles, I returned to Paris in 2019 for a solo exhibition, “New Creatures”. I longed for a return to my roots, to reconnect with the threads of my own history, but above all, to give unity to my life. To move towards a form of stability when everything was pushing me towards dispersion. Painting allowed me to gather together all the things I loved on a page or on a canvas. Over time, my world began to take shape with imaginary landscapes, creatures and machines of all kinds. The canvas became my new mode of expression, allowing me to transcribe this inner world and to deepen the links I perceive between colours, sounds and rhythm. This first exhibition was a meeting between music, cinema and art; it was a synthesis of my past, in a way. I’ve been working at Poush since 2021; it’s an innovative space devoted to contemporary art. In 2022, I presented “The Lost Weekend” at the Charraudeau Gallery, an exhibition echoing the lockdown and the suspension of time. The confrontation between the world before, frenetic, and the world after, fragile and uncertain. This exhibition is like a marvellous escape, a temptation to be elsewhere. It also refers to John Lennon’s “Lost Weekend”, like a mosaic of the fragments of the past. To the ten months when the musician lost himself and then found himself again. This exhibition has a seventies vibe, made up of experiences, nostalgia, joy, sadness, peace and momentum. “I feel like I’ve been on Sinbad’s voyage, and I’ve battled all those monsters, and I’ve got back. Weird”, John, a member of the Beatles, said at the time. Recently, Anselm Kiefer sponsored me for the Prix Marin, which aims to exhibit and support young artists. Finally, “Murmuration” will be my first solo exhibition in Asia and will be on view for several months in Hong Kong starting 17 November.
Tell us about your upbringing. What sort of environment did you grow up in – and how did that affect the way your tastes developed?
I was born to a diplomat father and an artist-sculptor mother, both avid collectors. My parents started introducing me to the arts when I was very young through visits to museums and galleries, not to mention lectures and countless screenings of “auteur” art films. My mother listened to classical music, and my father to blues and rock. My mother always took me along when she visited the workshops of her artist friends and the craftspeople with whom she collaborated (the blacksmith, gilder, framer, etc.). All these encounters made a deep impression on me, especially those with poets, musicians, filmmakers and painters, including Zao Wou-Ki, a family friend. I understood at a very young age that art was a language in its own right.
The canvas became my new mode of expression, allowing me to transcribe this inner world and to deepen the links I perceive between colours, sounds and rhythm.
Where does your taste for drawing and music come from?
Both have always been with me and, in my mind, are linked. They respond to a need, a profound disquiet, an anguish even. Undoubtedly there’s the fear of emptiness and of the unknown, yet at the same time, the desire to move forward, to make new discoveries and meet new people, while still playing an active part in my own story. So, on the one hand, there’s drawing. And on the other hand, making music to live more fully and better.
How would you define what you create?
My painting is very much inspired by music. I see the canvas as a musical score where line and colour give life and form. I try to engrave a specific soundtrack into my paintings. As in music, there are repetitions of motifs, alternations of sound and silence, and a rhythm that adds a texture, that transforms the space. I find that the medium often determines the direction my creations take. I tend more spontaneously towards figurative work when I use paper, and, on the contrary, abstraction becomes more predominant when I work on canvas. Whatever my starting point, each work takes on a life of its own and finds its own way. It’s often music that gives my works their titles.
We can guess at some of your inspirations by looking at the books in your studio. What are they?
Having lived in the United States for many years, I know American culture shaped my childhood and accompanied me through my young adult life. I quickly became interested in painters such as Willem De Kooning, Franz Kline, Joan Mitchell, Philip Guston, and Richard Diebenkorn, but also in Bill Traylor, Horace Pippin and Henry Darger. All of them came from the art brut movement. These artists inspire me through the musicality, freedom and lack of conformity in their work. Photography, like that of Francesca Woodman and Diane Arbus, and the work of directors like Billy Wilder, Maya Deren and David Fincher played an essential role in sharpening my eye, as much for the composition of the design as for the rhythm or the arrangement of the void. Understanding these aspects helps me approach the space of the canvas more easily. American literature helped shape my imagination. I’m thinking in particular of Raymond Chandler’s noir novels and John Fante and Joan Didion’s works. I couldn’t escape the music either, from Junior Kimbrough to Kendrick Lamar, Syd Barrett and Jimi Hendrix. Through these artists, I understood what I wanted to do without being locked into a trend or pinned down by external influences. It’s important to me to translate my inner world and my perception of the outside world.
You paint in oils. What does this medium allow you to do? Are there any others you would like to explore?
For me, oil painting requires time and space. I like working on large canvases and in successive layers. Oils sometimes takes several days to dry, which allows me to work in parallel on large sheets of Korean or Japanese paper. I often take time to choose and prepare my canvases. No two are really the same, and I take genuine pleasure in touching and handling them. There is an inherent depth of character in the fibre, as if it already contained the seeds of all the diversity of the world. This initially blank page can become anything; it can contain anything, and that fosters a dialogue with the material. I try to maximise the possibilities by exploring a variety of mediums in my work, including pencil, charcoal, pastel and collage. I strive to combine several points of view on the canvas, drawing upon my past experiences. Alone in front of the canvas, I feel an extra freedom. In painting, the experience of vertigo is fascinating; in other words, the blurred boundaries between harmony and dissonance and the fear of being on the edge of a precipice. The perpetual search for the “right note”. I’ve learned to love this face-to-face encounter with myself, this body-to-body relationship which allows me, wherever I am, to let my imagination run completely free. I use acrylic pens, coloured pencils and all sorts of collage techniques in my notebooks. I’m also incorporating photos, like Polaroids, more and more. I like to move from one to the other, to refine techniques and develop others as I need them. Eventually, I’d love to explore ceramics and large-scale wooden sculpture – why not? I often look at the work of Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore, Germaine Richier and Valentine Schlegel.
Tell us about your next exhibition, “Murmuration”, which follows “The Lost Weekend” and “New Creatures”.
“New Creatures” deals with the subject of a mechanised society in an age of biotechnology. What is a human being, what is the life of a man and a woman in the face of such developments and, above all, can art bring us a new humanity? “The Lost Weekend” is a direct reference to John Lennon’s eighteen-month drug and alcohol interlude in Los Angeles. Eighteen months of break-ups that coincided with the end of the Beatles, his split with Yoko Ono, and his relationship with May Pang. Paradoxically, John Lennon came back from this dark period with a bang with “Walls and Bridges”. The title really stood out to me in times of pandemic and isolation. The multiple constraints involved brought me additional freedom to go further on the canvas and, quite naturally, to occupy all the space. With no other demands on me, it was like an adventure beyond time. It was an opportunity not only to take stock but to reconcile, through painting, some of the words, sounds and lights that obsess me. Finally, “Murmuration” is my first solo exhibition in Hong Kong. It will run from 17 November 2022 to March 2023. The title describes the mesmerising ballet of birds in the sky, flocks which gather and swirl collectively, creating opaque clouds. Like the aurora borealis, these shimmering, dancing masses instinctively induce a melancholy that hypnotises, fascinates and soothes. In this exhibition, I wanted to anchor and re-transcribe this phenomenon where the individual birds fly free yet the flock spins and swirls as one. The paintings move, evolve and transform themselves, echoing these patterns in the way of painting. This same fragility is at the heart of Nicolas de Staël’s 1951 drawing of birds in flight. I tried to find a balance between the darkness and brightness of the world and between anxiety and hope, illustrated by birds. The constant shifting of forms, where identities, communities and technologies in this postmodern world can be simultaneously aggressive, oppressive and repulsive. In this way, I question the issues of our time by offering alternative pathways through my imagination, my words and my music. “Murmuration” embraces the evolution of nature by presenting paintings, drawings, personal stories and inspirations. I put my exhibitions together like albums.
With hindsight, do you think that certain themes recur in your work?
Some forms haunt me and come back consciously or unconsciously, like visitors at twilight. Human silhouettes, birds, boats, forms on the move in a primitive landscape untamed by humankind. There are also imprints, traces, in a post-disaster world. What I paint is intimately linked to a land, to a climate, to a voice, and to people. I transform everything I can experience, hear, and grasp into creative material. A painting thus becomes a story in its own right, a piece of a puzzle. And amidst all this, I try, through colour, through the play of lines and shapes, to re-establish an order where life is possible. In addition, my pictorial and musical practice are intimately linked. Music gives rhythm to my brushstrokes which diverge and converge like the notes themselves. Beyond the themes, recurring questions beset me: how can we find the balance between the present moment and the passage of time? How can we capture the spirit and the shape of a moment, a place, or an image? How can we transcribe without misrepresenting? Hence, the incessant coming and going between full and empty, fragmentation and crystallisation, mark-making and erasure.
What I paint is intimately linked to a land, to a climate, to a voice, and to people. I transform everything I can experience, hear, and grasp into creative material.
We are here in your studio, which is located in the Poush artists’ incubator in Aubervilliers. How did you come to be here?
At first, I made paintings in my kitchen, a wholly unsuitable and particularly narrow space. Later on, I transformed a mini studio into a workshop, but oil paintings require a certain amount of time to dry, so I couldn’t produce them quickly enough. I felt limited and frustrated in my creation. What’s more, artists can quickly feel isolated. I met several people from the Poush collective by chance. Having spoken to them, I decided to apply to work with multidisciplinary artists. In 2021, I moved to the building in Clichy before relocating recently to the new premises here in Aubervilliers.
What does this contemporary art space allow you to do?
The collective runs an artistic and cultural programme with exhibitions, events, installations and performances. Poush encourages the cross-fertilisation of artistic disciplines between residents and connects artists and curators by increasing the opportunities for interaction between them. There are regular open-door events to introduce the site to a broader audience. During Paris Photo, the main 2,000m2 space is hosting a collaborative exhibition entitled “Le paysan, le chercheur et le croyant. Chapitre I” (The farmer, the researcher and the believer. Chapter I), which includes two of my paintings. “Things behind the sun” and “In the Pines”. They are hung alongside the works of sixteen other artists. This exhibition is open now and will end on 6 January 2023.
Does the history of this place – a sprawling Eiffel complex of 12 brick and steel buildings that once housed a data centre – and its ephemeral nature – it is the new home of Poush’s occupants under a two-year derogatory lease – influence you?
We have a much larger space here in Aubervilliers than the previous one in Clichy. There are 230 artists working on this 20,000m2 industrial campus. As far as I’m concerned, my new studio allows me to work on very large-scale pieces. The high ceilings and the natural light create an environment that’s highly conducive to creativity. The external alleyways, which are like lanes, encourage people to wander about and meet each other. Poush is a fantastic hive of activity and experimentation.
Where will we see you in the coming months?
Currently, in Hong Kong, finalising my next exhibition, “Murmuration”, which will open on 17 November. I’m also working on an exhibition project in a museum in China. And as for France, I have projects underway in Paris, and they will come to fruition next year.
I try to engrave a specific soundtrack into my paintings. As in music, there are repetitions of motifs, alternations of sound and silence, and a rhythm that adds a texture, that transforms the space.
Photography : Constance Gennari – Text : Juliette Bruneau @thesocialitefamily