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Monique Frydman: A Pictorial Chronicle of a Moment When Time Stopped

Published on , by Harry Kampianne

Known for her numerous abstract paintings, this dedicated artist, a key figure in the 1980s French abstraction revival, produced a series of monotypes on Japanese paper during the recent lockdown. Revealing another aspect of the art Frydman explores in the secrecy of her studio.

© Raphaël Frydman Monique Frydman: A Pictorial Chronicle of a Moment When Time Stopped

© Raphaël Frydman

In the calm, soft cocoon of her studio lying in the heart of a lush verdant setting some 9 miles (15 km) from Rambouillet, near Paris, the artist talks about the past year. "I made the most of the first lockdown during the health crisis to create a series of monotypes on Japanese paper. At the same time, it was the perfect opportunity to sort out my studio. While working on this, with help from my assistant Chloé, I came across these very intimate drawings in some old boxes dating between 1976 and 1983, which I had almost forgotten about, and never shown. My assistant got very excited about the drawings and insisted I exhibit them. Many young women of her generation who came to visit me in the studio had the same powerful reaction. I would never have thought that this could result in an exhibition."

All in all, 200 drawings from this period of reflection have been unearthed from her archives. Three of them, in bright colors, displayed on a large table, laud it. They illustrate the graphic, carnal tension in eroticized bodies that are often deformed or quartered, sometimes tending towards sibylline hermaphroditism, despite what she calls a vital need to highlight the female body. "At that time, I did not draw to proclaim any feminism. It was a matter of overcoming two taboos: figurative representation, which was frowned upon at a time when abstraction was in vogue, and the unconventional representation of the female nude as seen by a woman painter.

"In the 1960s, I had begun with ideological and even militant painting, in which I explored the problem of the role played by art in relation to a people's struggle. I soon reached a dead end and decided to stop painting. I no longer felt attracted to the studio. This didn't mean that I stopped my artistic activities altogether: I was a drawing teacher in high schools and colleges, and I also designed street theater sets, but I no longer felt the desire to paint. I must admit it was extremely difficult to get back into it. I went through a very profound crisis. I kept asking myself, "How am I going to become a painter again?" Eventually, I started drawing impulsively, mostly female bodies. It was a way of regaining possession of myself; they were like self-portraits, where I let myself go without wondering whether it was admissible or not." The representation of the female nude through drawing served as a springboard to rediscover this desire to paint.

© Harry Kampianne

© Harry Kampianne

Capturing Color Through the Intelligence of the Hand
It is difficult for her not to see a parallel with this copious series of monotypes produced on Japanese paper during the first lockdown, 129 in all, now published in a magnificent monograph, Chronique des jours fêlés (Chronicle of Crazy Days, Editions du Regard, Paris). Forced to be a recluse in the unsullied, muted surroundings of her studio, she was unable to paint. Faced with the violence of the pandemic, she needed time to find a new rhythm. Her ability to work and create was compromised: something she did not really understand, as solitude and a withdrawal into the studio were nonetheless essential for her to paint. "I felt once again at a loss, confronted with myself and my painting during this chaotic health crisis. I had to reappropriate the space with regard to this new context. And that's what I did from the very first days of lockdown. I put order back into myself." Using monotype as a printmaking technique, she impregnated herself with the colors of the garden and the vibrant spring around her studio, transcribing the greens, golden yellows, foliage shades, purples, browns, reds, pinks and oranges into small formats on very fine Japanese paper. "I like its soft, translucent texture. It's a paper that is both supple, to absorb the colors, and strong, because I can go back over it with dry pastel highlights." The traditional press is replaced by the pressure of the palm and fingers: what she calls "the hand's intelligence in capturing color." Each work is unique: the very principle of a monotype. It was an unobtrusive, delicate way to leave a wealth of prints depicting this particular spring of 2020. Frydman never works to music, preferring the quality of silence in her studio and this emerald green setting, soothed by the delicate sound of birdsong. Only the memory of Rainer Maria Rilke's verses floats in her mind. One of the books by this beloved poet is lying on a table, next to some monotypes. She leafs through it for a few moments, sighing "Magnificent!"

© Harry Kampianne

© Harry Kampianne

The Blissful Intoxication of the Workshop
She feels that the act of engraving or painting always ends by "opening out a space of infinite freedom". A palette of emotions she visibly seems to find each time she enters the studio. "Being a painter means seeking the most sensitive elements in oneself," she says. "It is also the conquest of color. At the beginning, I had no leanings at all towards abstraction. My work developed little by little." She does not sketch or make any preparatory studies; everything lies in the lyrical force of her gestures. No compromise, no ideological undertones: nothing but the painting. The canvas, laid on the ground, is always moistened with a binder so that the pigments are absorbed, but not completely, so that a visible layer of fine pastel powder remains, giving the work a velvety look. No glaze or varnish is used to counteract this rendering, just a light fixative to hold the whole thing together. Large blocks of red, green, blue and bright yellow dry pastels fill most of one wing in the studio: materials custom-made by Sennelier. "Normally, these blocks would be cut into sticks by the factory for marketing. I had the privilege of buying them in bulk."

In October 2019, Monique Frydman published Le Temps de peindre (Time to Paint), a collection of logbooks, reflections and interviews illustrating the intimacy of the studio and the quality of silence. Here is a passage written on November 29, 1988, at 9:00 a.m.: "Something special is happening in my studio—as if an oceanic space were being created—and in my own relationship to my work [...] I sense something huge, like a wave. Above all, I have to let go, not become afraid and let myself register this space, this access to memory, this hypersensitivity. What will happen afterward in the painting? What artist has not someday felt this "blissful intoxication of the studio?"

Worth Seeing
"My Perfect Body, 1976-1983", Dutko Gallery - Ile Saint-Louis, Paris IVe.
Until October 30, 2021.
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