In a novel by Agatha Christie, a woman is watching an artist - who is also her husband - as he paints her. The man is dying. She has loved him, and he cheated on her. She has poisoned him. Hercule Poirot, the detective, is also a good art critic: he finds the painting remarkable. The artist does not know that he is dying, but he has nonetheless managed to capture something in the portrait : the expression of his murderer, the sad look of her betrayed love. The eyes of the sitter reflect the crime she is committing. This is the evidence which enables the aged Belgian detective to solve the mystery.
Jean Daviot is a man of thirty five and he is definitely alive. His models do not want to murder him (as far as I know, at least). But, just like Hercule Poirot, he is looking for traces within those whom he has portrayed: not of crimes they may have committed, but of the presence which make them human beings, this je ne sais quoi that makes him a painter. If Jean Daviot has not been murdered by any of his models, he has however, been seriously wounded like so many others, by the history of art of this century.
The beings he represents are powerful; they seem to emerge from the long sleep of old frescoes being restored, and this is because they map out the program of an artist who is himself resuscitating to painting, and thanks to painting. These pictures show us how a man can learn all over again to love art by saying just yes. The traces which he looks out for are distant, almost rubbed out and they are first of all, his own.
Jean Daviot is neither an anatomist nor a psychologist. The faces, the hands and the bodies he paints are not sentimental subject-matters. He would rather be somewhat of an archaeologist. He is actually himself quite difficult to extricate. At first glance, he seems open-minded; one sees that he is quite physical, that he likes flesh and earth. He inspires confidence. Gradually, one understands that he is something of an oyster, that he never speaks of himself, that he never expresses emotions of any sort. One is told that he has led or leads several lives as an artist, a politician, a city-dweller, a worthy, a semi-peasant, a reader of Artaud and Duras. One fears an impostor. One becomes suspicious. Where does he really fit? He never says anything. Then , one day, the studio door opens, after years of blackness, of absence, and, after being set aback by incredulity, one discovers one had been misled, and that he is probably just as sincere as the dying painter, his murderer and the detective all together.
Jean Daviot places hands, faces, breasts, parts of the body on a photocopying machine the lens of which has been modified. He then photocopies them. Each model lays his hands however he wishes. Each one crushes his face according to his own choice. Not too much, however, for the features must appear. Daviot then goes on to work with paint, from these images, or these imprints he has gathered. He stretches, lengthens, searches. He makes the bodies levitate in black and white, not with faith, but with the painter's own obstinacy. Sometimes he adds a touch of colour, as an exterior sign. The result discloses a special emotion: theses faces, these hands, these bodies seem all to emerge from a cloud.
I have spoken earlier of these fragments of frescoes which have been rediscovered under the coating, thanks to technical devices, in old churches. I could also have mentioned icons, or these funerary steles showing anonymous couples, that one can see in Burgundy, for example in the Dijon Museum. These are simple, stylised forms through which life is most directly expressed. Jean Daviot cleanses the death traces which his models are already bearing, albeit unknowingly. This ignorance is probably that of a judgement (or an elevation), but here I should make clear, to avoid this Sulpicean form so frequent nowadays in art and literature - that of a self-indulgent religiosity - that this judgement is not the Final Judgement. It needs neither a God nor future times: it takes place here and now. What it needs is men and women, busy as usual in the comedy of self-destruction and oblivion. The painter is there to remind them of a certain vital order . Hence, he may cast, following an expression of Marguerite Duras which Daviot likes to recall, an "interior shadow" (l'ombre intérieure).
The interior shadow ? Lets listen to it: "A Greek once drew with a piece of charcoal, the outline of the cast shadow of his girlfriend. A shadow is related to the image of the other, but also to past phenomena which we have witnessed " and later, lost. Daviot quotes another sentence by Duras: "Ernesto does not want to go to school, because, over there, he is taught things he does not yet know". That is what I have already explained : as he paints, Daviot looks for something he has known before. Something very primitive, that has nothing to do with school or schools, with movements and neo-movements. Something which, through the description of living and suffering bodies will bring forth a fossil, a state of permanency, the glow of this "bewildering 'déja su'".
It is in Digne, his birthplace, a rocky and beautiful cul-de-sac, that one may understand why Daviot has undertook such a research. In Digne, the shadow is very sought after. Jean Daviot is the son of a worthy local doctor. Massive, he is most often patient, full of energy, precise. He obviously looks out for people, listens, gets on with any kind of assembly. No noise, no music, no reading, but faces, stories, actions. The setting: valleys grown with prehistoric plants that look like dwarf palm-trees; churches full of Provencal polychrome-wood statues and of paintings that recall the shrewd energy of the men of the region.
This is where one must go back to, and research, through family and neighbour affairs. Daviot is not the worldly, almost loud man he can become when circumstances demand it - which they almost always do in Paris, the city of hollowed out images. He is rather more like one of these provincial, instinctive beasts about which Balzac used to praise the ability to carry out affairs in their utmost details. Over here Daviot searches traces of life, just as in Paris in his paintings, he re-creates these traces with the aid of models. What he needs at once are men and stones, silent things to be deciphered. But also, time, silence, even boredom. He needs trust to arise, a shadow to appear. He needs the artifice to collapse. That is, not the artifice of the mind, which is of no concern here, but instead, that of art history which concerns itself since the Renaissance with using only the outside shadow before it moved into the twentieth century and lost it all.
Daviot's obsession with traces is therefore probably born in his country. It was only thought processed later on. His house is in the mountains, it is warm during the day, and cold at night. Over here, boars live at rifle range, and lizards within eyesight. These lizards are like men. They parade, with their problems of water, or roads, of neighbourhoods, of love, of betrayal, suffused with a crisp and nervous silence. They are like the "robine", a black stone from the area : crumbly over the surface, and hard inside. They seem isolated, as if the main thing should remain hidden under the stone, ready to bite those who would step on it by lack of attention or boldness.
Over here, people give out little but are very demanding. Jean knows that and he speaks little of himself - only what is necessary. He knows that they are caught into something which makes them compromise little, and forgive almost nothing. The hardness of living accounts for a loaded atmosphere. The very mediocrity of the conflicts, which are so frequent, and as low-keyed as the valley itself, seems stuffy, as if saturated. Words and gestures mime absence, suspicion, dryness, as in an old story by Giono. Digne pushes to distant limits a world in which people hide, are as wild as an remote mountain spring under a thorny bush. For Daviot, it takes much to find a little, a trickle of water and even then, it may not be drinkable water.
One needs to know how to bargain. Power is therefore something necessary to build oneself up. Jean Daviot is an artist who likes politics, and who takes a part in local politics. The last portraits by Philippe de Champaigne, at the time of Port Royal, mesmerise him. The most official painter under Louis XIV ends up living with the Jansenists after having used up, in his own way, all the experiences of power. Of course, this has nothing to do with the peasants from Digne, nothing except perhaps this: he seeks this hidden, oppressive and austere presence which is, of course, nothing less than oneself brought to one's foremost limitations, passions, in a hostile context. This context may be divine, geographic or human : at any rate, it is. Daviot has worked at Maeght publications. He knows all the petty politics, the chatting, the useful but shallow world of go-betweens. He thinks of power as a means, a sort of indispensable exercise in order to bring forth and challenge any kind of artistic research. He therefore paints friends, relatives, rich people who wish to be portrayed, in an utmost bourgeois tradition. In an exhibition, to crown it all, he mentions all the names of the sitters. It is true that, portraiture, since the Renaissance, is for an artist a privileged way of making use of his power. Beyond abstraction, conceptualism and all of the century, it holds high in the imagination, and photography has but worsened this phenomenon by rendering it accessible to all. To manufacture a portrait is a bargain, a war, sometimes a love affair; in any case, it is a fools' game the issue of which is always a surprise that is detrimental to the players. It is the Agatha Christie story. Daviot's models, of which I am one, satisfy their vanity while he is looking for something else. He is not making a portrait. he is not masturbating the subject-matter. Look at them closely: they all look alike. Just like stones. Just like hands. They are means. Daviot utilises their vanity, ours, mine, so that they all believe they have been represented, whereas they merely help the painter to learn again this old technique of drawing with the brush onto the wall, in the cave, this most truthful gesture. The sitters are in reality already dead and buried. They have gone through lay resuscitation in a form which no longer concerns them individually. It is the artist cleaning up their appearance, who, in so doing, ressucitates them.
Power brings some kind of electricity to Daviot. Daviot looks down onto the stereotype of the romantic artist. He states: "Power is shallow, fragile, but one needs to exert it to speak of it. It interests me because it is held by those who appear trustworthy, such as priests, artists, politicians". He has dreams which contradict the twofold image of the official or accursed artist. I imagine they are more like Jan Van Eyck, the painter of the duke of Burgundy, Philippe Le Bon. His prince trusted him so that he was sent off to Portugal to negotiate his marriage with the infanta Isabel. In the Louvre, one can also see the portrait by Van Eyck, of Nicholas Rolin, who was the chancellor of the Duke, depicted facing the Virgin. One understands that some time ago, "priests, artists and politicians" got along well even if harshly. Admittedly, the artist is one of the few who can say no to power; but in order to say no, one needs an interlocutor. "Art, says Daviot, is freedom from power. In Venice, artists have the same tombs as politicians. Of course, they build the tombs themselves. The artist is a politician: he takes risks, he makes decisions, he puts forth a vision of the world that needs to be acted out."
In Daviot's Parisian studio, heaps of postcard reproductions of portraits he likes lay on tables. Postcards are a great invention: they might end up killing museums. Here we find Jean Le Bon by an anonymous artist, Elisabeth d'Autriche by François Clouet, and a few pictures by Champaigne. A portrait of sister Angélique Arnault, a surprising "Christ mort couché sur son linceul", and this man from the Louvre whose right hand, coming out of a lace sleeve, steps out from the frame and the black costume like an orchid flowering in the dark. In Digne, Daviot recalls , "there have been many Jansenist bishops". His village priest is harsh on the wealthy, on men in general. He never comes for "apéritif" which is such a sacred ritual in the region. "Over here, he explains, there are quite a few mystics. They live with silence"
The landscape of Dignes somewhat explains this Jansenist research. It is one of the most beautiful , but it is not an outdoors landscape. "Very few plains, many mountains, hardly any roads", wrote Victor Hugo in Les Misérables. Without access, then. Daviot resembles this landscape, closed off to all intimate penetrations, to all mawkishness. In his house which is situated on a mountain ridge, one recalls a sentence by Artaud which he likes: "To settle only for a clear truth, that is, a one-sided truth". Born in a landscape which cuts man off from the outside world and leaves him to himself andto his solitude, as if he were naked. Here, the history of the century has certainly not been awaited for in order to understand, as Daviot often repeats it, that "man is capable of anything". No escapism, no settlement. Only stones, cliffs, a sharp blue sky, people stifled in a world where the air is never sufficiently pure and violent in order to overcome boredom and spread energy. Boredom walks in circles just like discussions do, just like the sun or the thousand fossils rolling in the empty gorges whose walls squeeze you, and through which the torrent gushes after storm and, at times, drowns you . It is from this sharpened, this polished boredom which is shuffled around, that forms gradually emerge.
Jean Daviot is not a humanist. His understanding is classical: "Scorn is as good as love" and so on. At a very young age, two photographs struck him. "first of all, that of Hiroshima, to me, the end of Modern Times. The shadow of some guy on a ladder placed against a wall. This shadow was cast with the latter, onto the wall, by the incandescence of the bomb. the guy was carbonised. The second photo shows bulldozers in Auschwitz pushing the bodies of Jews into mass graves. My work is somewhat related to these absolute horrors". He has used carbon very early on: "nothing but ash, almost as a crematorium". The bodies and faces he reveals with this substance symbolise the desire to outlive the horrors of the century.
When he was fifteen or sixteen, Jean Daviot learnt print-making at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. Once, before his astounded professor, he placed his ink-bloated clothes in the printing-machine. As a Christmas gift, he asks his parents for art history books. His father is an "alien" who spends all his time reading, in Dignes, on Mars, or on the Moon, very much influenced by Balzac and Céline". On Sundays, he takes his younger brother to a surgeon friend who is also a Sunday painter and who was once acquainted with Eisenstein. The cinema comes into the story, or rather, into the static image, which it will disrupt.
Jean Daviot follows, for about ten years, the path of post-Duchamp era, both in photography and in cinema, with in this well known leitmotiv mind : "Painting, or how to end with what has already come to an end". One has to exist, therefore one must act. In 1981, he paints over film, then, in 1982, at the Villa Arson in Nice, where he is a student, he one day creates a commotion during life drawing class. He sits a model on a photocopying machine flashing uninterruptedly, and later, as a provocation, hands out the photocopies to the viewers. "the model, who had not been warned, complained". What interests him then, after so many others, is the "questioning of the static image from the moment the moving image was introduced". Fernand Léger said everything on that subject in the twenties and thirties. But of course, the history of art is made of oblivion, of repetition. One rediscovers what others had previously seen and understood. On very large boards , four or five meters wide, he glues second-hand 35mm film, recuperated at the Eclair studios, and over which he paints with broad gestures "very physically". A camera records the scene. Then, the scene is projected, and is followed by the painted over film strips glued one after the other. The soundtrack is nothing more than the film. Each brush stroke is a noise, like a rifle-shot. Hence Daviot messes up the projector and earns a little success in experimental film festivals. "Today, he explains with amusement, these film scrolls have become sculptures, as the binder I used has stuck them all together".
Later on, he makes a film by scraping the film with a fragment of glass which draws something "like a long scar". The film is shown in a room filled with smog, and the scar becomes a line of light which divides the room. Hence the spectator become part of the screen. Marcel Duchamp's teachings can be recalled endlessly, that is part of the chess player's charm. It is also tiring. Daviot's films will no longer be seen. They were typical gestures of the late 1970's, in other words, of the time when performances existed only to remain in one's memory, a time when they were neither to be repeated or petrified, nor financed by the Ministry of Culture.
Daviot made other performances of that kind until 1984, when he became exhausted by the conceptual grin miming the Duchampian epic. He is not alone in this feeling. How many children of the history of art are walking in circles within a big NO without finding the idea, the strength, the sincerity to escape? To say YES is the most difficult. And , of course, there is photography which has definitely killed - Whatever Levi-Strauss may think - the pictorial idea of a copy, of resemblance. "I am convinced that the whole history of the century can only be understood through the spectrum of photography, now says Daviot, after so many others. "When Gérome heard of Niepce's discovery, he said: "Gentlemen, painting is dead". He was a 'pompier', and others followed him". Then Daviot lightens up: "But Cézanne, of course, picked up a paintbrush".
Daviot has not done that yet, in the middle of the eighties. Let's finish this apprenticeship period with a quick inventory of facts. "What interested me was to create a moving image. It had to be moving! I was only really fascinated by art history. One had to be in the avant-garde, to clear the way, whatever it was". In 1983, he copies out for a month Joyce's Ulysses on a 35mm film, using a felt tip pen. In another film the main character, who is called Hirmance, holds the camera and returns to the scene of a past love story on the îles de Lérins. Hirmance is the name of this lover : it sounds like Duras reviewed by Céline. Twenty six minutes of it are shown at the Digne film festival, a spot for avant-garde cinema in the early eighties. Marguerite Duras is its pope. "The film and its commentary were largely influenced by her. When the lights came back, at the end of the screening, she remained still and asked me, very seriously: "Who read out to you the manuscript of La Maladie de La Mort? staring at me with this striking look she had". There was also, later on, this film called 1/60ème de seconde de la vie d'une femme (1/60th of a Second of a Woman's Life), in which he took a picture of his girlfriend and screened it for fifteen minutes. Finally, a silent luminescence shown in 1984 was, he says, a tribute to Malevitch, the artist of "the absolute icon": "There was no more film. I turned all the lights off in the theatre during five minutes before releasing the white screen. Then I locked the projectionist room to prevent anyone getting in, and the screen remained thus, empty until the last spectator left. In Bordeaux, when it was shown, someone stayed long enough to make it become the longest film of the history of the movies - and the cheapest too - ". That was nothing, and it was Jean Daviot's last film.
He nevertheless still went to the cinema. He saw Le Mépris endlessly, L'Age de la terre, by Glober Rocha, the films of Robert Bresson, and Orson Welles whose suavity fascinates him : "Welles has an obsessive demand for action, and makes a profound analysis of the vacuity of power". Our days, ninety percent of cinema is a manufactured product which has lost most of its artistic promises. Daviot no longer goes to the movies, and most of the time, he leaves the theatre after the first few minutes. "Or else, I fall asleep. But that too is difficult : the worse the films are, the noisier they get."
The dadaist-film period is over now. It's the end of the diet, of the conceptual salad. Daviot was born in a country where the body predominates. He enters the orbit of charred, almost Christic figures which throw themselves in the artistic experience of body art. He was introduced to Michel Journiac and to a few others who are no longer alive, who were into the total work of art inscribed in their very flesh. Champaigne's Christ is not so far. "Journiac taught fine arts in the Sorbonne, but he was rejected, people thought he was a madman. His life was a permanent problem. His attitude was very close to that of the great mystics. There was no difference between the production, the object, life, and oneself".
In 1984, Daviot took part in one of Journiac's performances in Avignon, entitled Le Vivant et l'Artificiel (The Living and The Artificial). "I exhibited, in an former convent, a series of photocopies showing intertwined hands of men and women, twenty five meters long. Opposite me, Journiac was burning himself with an incandescent triangle, branding himself with the pink triangle of homosexuals. That was the performance. Suffering is an integral part of the work : he lived it." Journiac made another famous performance, the Messe Pour un Corps after which the press called him a cannibal. "It was almost a catholic ritual", recalls Daviot, "during which he gave communion with black pudding made with his own blood. The mass was filmed with a bad video camera. that was the problem: there were no traces. Journiac did not care about materiality". Daviot is impressed by Journiac's total sincerity, and by this idea that there is "no art without the body".
Why the body? for a young man of twenty five or thirty years old, there is no longer a fascination for the object, the factory, the city : it is no longer new. He was born in the world of mass-consumption, the turmoil, the reproduction, the visual. The questioning of art and its "petite mort" in the discourses? That too is passé. What is new in this already worn out modern world, old schmuck enough to give lessons about modernity, is the absolute loss of all trace, of all interior shadow. A world of drop-outs which have thrown away the shade for an ever-escaping prey. Daviot's work, alongside that of a few others, has nothing to do with God, or with a psychologising pathos which originated in the United States. It is actually all the contrary: a simple act of presence, or traces that need mapping out, studying, precisely, scientifically even. Mission Impossible in a world which resembles the serial of the same name, in which the tape continuously self-destructs after thirty seconds. Start again with the simplest things: for Daviot, presence is, before anything else, in the stones, in the bodies.
He then has an encounter that brings him back towards painting. At that time, he is writing from time to time in the review "L'Art vivant", which is published by Maeght. One day, he interviews André Leroi-Gourhan at the Collège de France. He discovers a short, charming old man somewhat neglected, a man who had the time. He sees him almost physically disappear under his huge wonderful book on wall painting. He goes back to listen to him. He shows him works by Basquiat :" He was moved. He saw in it the primitive, the energy of the genesis of civilisation. The fashionable minimalism, on the contrary, appeared as the rigidly academic form par excellence". Of course, Leroi-Gourhan spoke to him of Lascaux, "where form froze into academism", then of the negative hands of Gargas, these prehistoric stencils which a sentimental view once identified with mutilated hands and which where in fact signs probably related to hunting. One year earlier, Daviot had worked from the deaf-and-dumb language. "The deaf-mute, that was my own problem, my own incapacity of doing anything at that time". He lucidly observes his powerlessness, and the way in which he acted it out. How can a shepherd in Digne look at the dead bodies of his sheep torn to pieces by the storm in the mountain, one piece after the other. In what direction should one start looking? Where move to? He meets Claude Levi-Strauss, for another review, Noise. Jean has always favoured reviews, groups, generational coteries: places of power, seduction, where everybody pretends. Places of experience, then. He is disappointed by the great structuralist who talks to him about crafting, forgotten savoir-faire, of modesty before the world (but what is the world anyway?). In summary, says Daviot, he lives at the time of the Flemish Primitives: "I saw an abyss between him and contemporary art".
During the following five years, Daviot gives up any kind of artistic activity. He now claims this as part of his work. "I found it impossible to carry anything out, to represent, but that was part of the job. Duchamp did a bit of everything, and then, during twenty years, he played chess, and that still is a work of art. Thanks to Duchamp, they have finally understood that . The institution always likes good little artists who string beads; always the same ones, incessantly.
Art literally took him by the hand again in 1992. As a child, he was sometimes taken to a healer. She laid on her hands to transmit her fluid. Neither magic nor sorcery, but instead, a way of catching mislead, or lost energy in order to redirect it. Jean is also fascinated by divination, by hypnosis. Naturally, in such circumstances, did he begin to use his own hands on the canvas. The photocopier uses ash, marks the shadow (it is the opposite of photography, he insists), it reproduces an image. All that will be his starting point: his own complexes, in other words, his own obsessive fears. This will have to take place on the canvas. An attitude of modesty: "I had tried to escape from its two-dimensional space. the result was five years of inaction. So, after all, why not try again?"
Chains of hands first intertwine amidst stones, perhaps those of the valleys of the Southern Alps, just like old imprints; like that of a man slipping in mud twenty thousand years ago, which Leroi-Gourhan once pointed out to him. "Chains, he warns, are most often understood as some sort of jovial humanism. But here, they are made of my own hands." Look at them: one feels the air being blown by their shuffling. They nevertheless come from far away. Motionless, they are moving. They point out, they learn to live again: the painter tames himself; learns to know himself again. He is learning over what he already knew, just like Duras' Alberto.
One year later, coloured spots are introduced episodically, like lighthouses in the forgetful memory of gestures and bodies. One hand holds the brush. The motif is surrounded by a yellow line. The painter started off with grey, with white. Gradually, thanks to the law of contrasts, a little dawn appears, a slow and gracious awakening.
After the hands, logically Daviot goes on to painting faces, breasts, bodies. He is taking possession of himself again. All this is distant from any anatomy: Once again, the idea is not to describe but to find again. Find what? An interior eternity. It is fixed only for a second in a movement, in a look, in a moment of trust, and later it is recreated. Man is dead, his traces remain. The painter looks out for them, finds them, and them inscribes them. Later on, much later, the detective shall conclude his investigation. The modern trinity of an artist: first murdered by the history of art, by his models, then resuscitated through the inscription of traces he exhumes, and finally, he has become himself the detective in a murderous world.