The Difference in the Similar—The Paintings of Pierre Boncompain
Pierre Boncompain inevitably returns to explore a beloved repertoire of motifs. He unfolds them for us, and sees them with us, with each new painting. A bouquet of flowers, a landscape, or a female body—each motif plays into a score or a refrain he activates. What can such motifs mean today? Is there anything new to be gained from the portrait, the still life, and the landscape—these classic motifs of painting? Pause for a moment with this question and consider how we live in a time where digital media serially reproduce images and we then share them in memes and select them through algorithms until we see every image primarily through its likeness to other images, reducing everything to visual information. In contrast to the way such likenesses scatter our attention across vast spaces of information, Boncompain’s similar motifs capture it. They urge us to gradually look closer—to notice each painting for what it is—and to realize what is captured within and between each painting.
Boncompain places his motifs close to our eyes. They sit in shallow planes and flat painterly spaces carved out by color. His strong brushwork lays on the oil paint heavily and in detail, slowly modeling each subject for us. And yet, cutting into our lingering attention, his brushwork is also dynamic. It guides our eyes across the canvas and prods us continuously to see more. Each repeated motif marks not likeness but the difference behind what might at first glance seem similar. Every time we return to a motif, we see it slightly differently.
The artist’s biography also evokes perpetual returns. Pierre Boncompain was born in Valence, France, known as the gateway to Provence. He moved to Paris in the late 1950s, where he still lives today, but he returns to Provence for long summers. Perhaps this rhythm of always seeing again with the joy of the new and the familiarity of the well-known defines how his art continues to reveal new mysteries.
Dynamic still lifes
Boncompain’s recent floral still lifes splendidly parade before our eyes the beauty of nature, with its incessant repetitions and marvelous variations. The splendor of each plant startles us: the bright petals of the poppy anemones, the voluptuousness of thepeonies, the amazing colorsof each and every flower individually and in combination.
Just as the flowers stand out to us, in some paintings their petals blend almost imperceptibly into the background, as if the shallow plane has consumed them. Even as they demonstrate their inarguable presence, the flowers pose a question: Are they really there? Are their colors real? Or are they, rather, a fading memory or a fantasy? Their concurrent presence and disappearance reminds us that a bouquet of flowers is incarnate splendor on the verge of death. After all, cut off from its roots, each flower awaits death’s arrival.This is the price we pay for our enjoyment of them.
The fact that Boncompain paints the flowers with months of delay in his Paris studio only underscores this relation between presence and memory. At the time of their entry into the painting, the flowers themselves are inevitably gone. Posing in the European tradition of vanitas paintings—the ripe fruits of nature on the verge of decay—they celebrate the beauty of life as much as they are a reminder of its shortness. Each flower is special, but they all share the same fate: gone in nature but present in art.
Across Boncompain’s paintings, floral motifs reoccur in variations. In Anémones au tapis(2019), for example, floral motifs decorate the tablecloth on which the flowers stand, as if the cloth were a mirror for the flowers. Likewise, in Pichet aux pivoines, flower silhouettes similar enough in appearance to the peonies decorate the vase and lead the viewer to look around and across the painting. Here, Boncompain works akin to the technique of Henri Matisse, whose repeated motifs and rhythmic shallow spaces made his paintings dance. Matisse displayed for us the splendor of his garden by evoking Islamic art’s non-hierarchical distribution of patterns. In the same way, Pierre Boncompain blends his interest in nature with inspiration from non-Western art traditions, such as the shallow spaces and flat planes of color in the19th-century Japanese prints he collects. Boncompain is not only a collector; he also works in ceramics and tapestry. He explores how a flower looks by itself or on a vase or a tapestry and folds these explorations into paintings in the various artistic media he uses.
Contemplative presence and spaces of dreams
If the flowers remind us of life’s shortness, Boncompain’s paintings of women—clothed or naked—celebrate the current moment. They too inhabit shallow spaces, pushed close to the painting’s surface. From her position at the center of the canvas, the blue-clad female body in La Robe bleue (1988) exudes sheer presence and joy of life.
Similarly, in Nu à la couverture tigrée (2007), the nude woman reclines in a luscious green setting, reminiscent of Paul Gauguin’s (another native of Provence) paintings of Tahitian women. Eachwoman is inevitably there in the here-and-now with us, but she is not there forus. Boncompain’s female models never meet our gaze. Rather, they take up their own space fully and wholly, reserved in thought, perhaps prodding us to also inwardly guide our own thoughts. The human soul, it seems, enables a contemplation that veers off the flowers’ inevitable decay.
If Boncompain’s women demonstrate sheer presence, his landscapes—totally void of people—are spaces of dreams built in flat planes of paint. In La Jetée(1986), the sun and the piercing blue of the ocean and sky engulfs the miniscule human bodies. Knowing that blue is a color signifying dream in Boncompain’s paintings, this scenery not only evokes the bright light of the Mediterranean but also the realm of a dream. In a working notebook he carries everywhere, Boncompain jotted down a remark by the great Argentinean philosopher-poet Jorge Luis Borges: “Quand je rêve, je ne suis pas aveugle.” (“When I dream, I am not blind.”) From landscape to bodies, Boncompain evokes the art of seeing as dreaming, thus seeing an object or entity for what it is.
In a time when images flicker in and out of our attention, Boncompain teaches us to see differently. He reminds us that there is a difference in seeing something and seeing it for what it is. That is the lingering advice he provides and how he reminds us again of the lasting power of painting.
Art Historian, New York