Les Prisonniers

I made a touching discovery whilst preparing the exhibition for November 2018. The date at the back of one painting (Les Prisonniers) has a specific date on: 15 February 1972. It is unusual. Most of the time, only the year is mentioned, sometimes the month. 1972 is the year she wrote a short journal about her painting process and 15th February was in.
Given than her depression was profound in 1972, this account gives us access to the depth of her creative process, detailing her feelings and emotions as she was working on it.



Extract from Colette’s journal 15th February 1972:

“What to do now ? Take this other painting again? I have enough. What a fatigue. All this has just been thrown together… And my head is empty. It is 4:30pm. I have not done anything of my day, and the second of the three days that I have given myself to paint is almost finished. Force oneself. Take this canvas, bought yesterday, a 15. What a silly format. What will I do ?

A window should be opened. Take this little sky study and put it here. Yes, put a sweet, tender and bright landscape seen through a window. And everything around is of thick, black, grey and white medium.

Look for the contrasts of mediums: contrasts between the smooth and light medium of the sky, and the rough medium of the soil that will be around it. Contrast between the brightness of the small landscape seen through the window, and the dark grey inside. Yet, a choice must be made: with will I use to create a contrast with the landscape: red soil or black and white paint? Both attract me. I would like to do the inside with white layers of shapes. But which shapes?

Let’s first paint with black. Let’s take last year black stripes back. No, brush effects have nothing to do with the black stripes that I painted with a knife, streaking the canvas from bottom to top. So, hide these black stripes under grey paint. Fill everything in grey. Leave only the space for the window. All this will be sadness, prison, misery. And through the window we will see life, light, inaccessible happiness, freedom.This completed grey surface makes no sense. All this has gone wrong. Let’s try to fill it with one or two large forms of red soil.

On top of the canvas covered with grey paint, I hover a spoon full of soil, dropping it with a rash purpose. Then, I look. What is this soil telling me?
It is the movement of a mother leaning over her child’s head. But how puny her child is, heartbreaking, with a big skull like a starving baby! Why are these red soil forms moving me? I see these prisoners, the mother and the doomed child who will never run in the grass that can be seen through the window.

Clarify these forms with a black brush, accentuate only the eyes. Nothing else to add. The soil did all the work. Now, it is necessary to straighten the canvas vertically and drop the surplus of soil that is not glued to the paint. Delicate operation that can destroy everything if too much soil comes off, or the wrong way. Operate gently.

I am struck. I was concerned about losing this beautiful red thickness. But it’s even better like this. The thin layer of soil reveals the vertical and horizontal black lines that I had previously painted and covered, making the emaciated body of the mother as a structure, a skeleton and a prison.

Now, create the landscape through the window. A large pure sky like those we see in the mountains at night in our rich countries, a white and blue sky with a great yellow and pink light. And a green meadow, with a light and fresh green, a meadow like the one through which our spoiled and overwhelmed children run during holidays.

What to think about this painting? I have never done anything like it before. It moves me. Yet, I created this form from scratch and, what is more, without having wanted it, without having looked for it. What was guiding my hand whilst I was hovering my spoon full of soil over the canvas? Chance? This is how I feel. However, it is unthinkable. Or is it an unconscious force, nourished by all my thoughts, all my past work? The so called “inspiration”?

And now, anxiety, like every time. This painting, which came all by itself as from the unknown depths of myself, is unique. What will follow, after it? Since it is unique, it is impossible to make it again. Each time, the nothingness opens itself. Each time, I think I have done my last painting, unable to do anything else.”