In Spirit : The philosopher sculptor
To spend time with a sculptor such as my grandfather, is to learn to look at the world. A ray of sunshine falling on a vase, a branch on a path, the relationship between the color of a plate and that of a tablecloth, in all is volume, form, and light. Every detail and moment becomes subject to observation and the infinite possibility of fascination.
The studio is a place of mysteries, where the world is suddenly at hand, as if he had extracted the beauty from within: mirrors and broken stemware, pieces of metal in disarray, a pebble picked up in the torrent, a skull of a dead bird, a serpent preserved in formaldehyde, a crooked root, a withered flower, all is an excuse to observe and reveal beauty. From the organic to the machined pieces, rubbish found in garbage cans or laying at the edge of the town roads, the discoveries on the mountain paths, all becoming treasures in his lair. He was a master in contemplation.
His two large clear eyes, hidden behind locks of silver hair and lines of old age, sparkle while showing me his discoveries. After almost every walk, whether in town or in the mountains, he comes back with something he found on the way.
I have lived these scenes a thousand times; they have imbued themselves in me like the iron in the pulpit. I had to understand. I was intrigued by the attention he gave to what was around him. The very act of truly looking at something, of being present with what is before you, carries that strong emotion — that of being touched. It’s almost like a secret, a deep intimacy that we share with the world. It is an art that has to be cultivated.
This feeling he sparked in me became my thread of years of research and questioning which, if I look at the path until today, continues to be an inspiration. More than an introduction to art, little by little I understood that it was about life: the being who seeks, who questions, who learns not to take for granted, who works with this space of uncertainty, imbalance where the living breathes.
There are people who are great in their art, in their profession, in their field. But fewer are those who possess the ability to articulate their knowledge and share it. The pedagogical sense is a separate element; a great artist does not necessarily make a great pedagogue. Jean-Louis Raina was a recognized artist and was also a teacher who knew how to get people to open one’s eyes. “Mr. Raina”, as his students called him, or “Jean-Lou”, for close friends and family. He taught visual art to architecture students of the Paris Beaux-Arts and lived his art his entire life, alongside his wife, Jeanne Tivoli, a painter.
The day of his burial ceremony, I was surprised to discover that this grandfather was not only important to us, his family and grandchildren, but that he had also been the mentor, the friend, confidant, master of many people who visited him at the studio of Boulogne-Billancourt (Paris) or at Théus (Hautes-Alpes), the two places between where the artist-couple lived. He taught some to carve, others to mow, and yet others to repair tools. When his grand-children came to visit him, we had the right to make sculpture with bits of clay, under the very observant and sometimes stringent eye of the artist that he could be. He liked to share his knowledge — a seemingly limitless wealth of knowledge. Mathéo, one of his youngest grandchildren, writes:
“There is so much beauty in this world, and too few people to see it” This is the sentence he uttered after contemplating a single piece of bark that Jeanne had picked up for him. It was enough for him to look at the inert object to bring it to life. This is what Jean-Lou knew how to do on a daily basis: to give objects a part of himself. Suddenly, this same bark becomes a face, a dance, a man, a woman, a child, an animal. What I admire the most about my grandfather is this ability to see the beautiful, in all that was, is, and will be. The marvel lies in the hatching of the egg, the insect, its metamorphosis, and finally its death and its decomposition. In other words, the wonder lies in every moment of life, everyone has the responsibility to reach out to catch it.
Jean-Lou apprehended nature with admiration and great respect. Coming from a family of peasants, he was first a shepherd in his youth and then became an apprentice cabinetmaker. It was a little before he turned 20 that he left Barcelonnette (Alpes de Haute-Provence) for Paris to go to the school of Beaux Arts and become a sculptor. A rough life, but also a constant connection with the textures and the work of his hands, offered him a sensitivity that he would develop throughout his life. His knowledge of the earth and matter, wood, nature, geology, was omnipresent in his work, elements from his history lived in the heart of this mountainous land and pebbles torrents from which he came.
The stone-bench at his house in Théus is still today covered with stones he used to find on his excursions through the Alps, of which Jean-Lou always kept one in his pocket. I can still see his old worn and rough hands touching the contours of each stone, unique in form and color. Patiently, he polished some of them with sandpaper, which gave them that exceptional smoothness under the fingers. Teaching how to see is also an initiation to the sense of touch. The sculptor sees with his hands.
The sculpture is not made, it is revealed. Jean-Lou speaks of this fair space that must be found between doing and not doing, between carving and, at the same time, letting the stone dictate to the craftsman the direction to take. Light is a living matter that shapes the world. Then the volumes, caressed by the eyes, breathe in this passage from shadow to light. The body, the plants, the life, everything is a form of dialogue.
We would often talk about the work of the model, the importance of the presence and the simplicity of the movement, elemental, which inspires the art-work, even when they fall asleep on the stage. The muse and the artist are looking for the same thing: the suspended moment when nothing is thought. There is no longer logic or reflection, only an obvious intuition of the space to be explored, guided by a feeling of unity, a taste for the present moment. The gesture arises from the ability to perceive, silence and listening precede the action.
The act of creation, the experience of the artist, is an enigmatic questioning that has always been a matter of fascination, as much for the one who lives it as for the one who witnesses it. It was a conversation we liked to have. Here, I transcribe the exchange we had which, unbeknownst to me at the time, would be our last meeting, during which he and my grandmother spoke about this process as I ask them about their experience as artists.
Mariette: I feel in the creation, a form of dissatisfaction, as something that one can never touch finally …
Jean Lou: Look, the dancer is constantly in danger of losing his balance and he catches up with his sequence of movement, which always passes by a moment of balance, in fact, but voluntarily it is unbalanced, to continue to moving forward. Otherwise, he stays there and he becomes a mummy. In sculpture it’s the same, there are times when you feel that you are touching the existence of what you wanted to do, what you felt unconsciously, what you wanted to do. You see, the tangent between the subject, the material, the moment, it is a kind of balance point. But tomorrow you take another pebble or clay, and all of a sudden you’re as new as when you started … except that you’re more aware of this search, that it is what makes you move forward.
Jeanne: In all the creations, it’s like that …
Jean Lou: Yes, so finally it’s a grace to have that, to have this permanent doubt.
Jeanne: This dissatisfaction is suffering, but it is also a gift. Yes, it’s a chance …
Jean Lou: … And I believe that the things we are most attached to is perhaps because there is a part of oneself that has been realized, outside of oneself. Now, we are proud enough to want to dominate everything. You say “well I’ve achieved a result, it’s true that I feel completely involved, but there is something that has escaped me …”. That’s the state of grace.
Jeanne: You feel very good when it happens, maybe not right now, but after. But anyway, it’s a pain, that’s for sure.
Jean-Lou: Yes, yes, that’s not reassuring.
Mariette: And when you touch something of the order of the state of grace, there is almost a kind of nostalgia that comes after, a very deep joy and nostalgia at the same time …?
Jeanne: Oh yes, but yes …
Jean Lou: Yes, hahaha, exactly.
Jeanne: … Because you want that to happen all the time.
Jean Lou: It’s good that at your age you already have to make this statement.
I walk around the Boulogne-Billancourt studio. The presence of all his being, his intention, his look, everywhere, in every nook. The busts, the bodies of the dancers and the musicians, the horses and the birds. It’s a whole universe with its own characters that exist in this Parisian studio. Models, sculptures, molds, stones, metals, earth, game of materials and textures, different stages of creation. In the saddle, a block of rough stone or charcoal features indicate where the chisel will strike the material for the sculpture to be born.
The man is taller than his stature. He is limited, and at the same time, possesses this extraordinary possibility of being traversed by something beyond him. It’s simultaneous. Greatness is not ours, it has nothing personal. To live in contact with this life replete with details and events, and also to be in touch with those moments where we are traversed by intuitions that bring us beyond ourselves is a gift. This momentum of creation reminds us that nothing belongs to us and brings us back to our humility.
I remember one afternoon with my grandmother in her studio. She told me about nature and how her explosive colors inspired her to paint. A turquoise blue shutter, an orange roof, a deep blue enamel vase adorned with peonies. Small, I see her arranging her bouquets very simplistically, choose the bottle of color that will be appropriate, and organize two old wrinkled apples and a quince on a purple tablecloth. My grandfather lived a life of black and white, light and volume, whereas my grandmother is undoubtedly the artist of colors.
When one feels touched by a detail like a pebble or a piece of broken glass, a cloud or the color of a flower created by nature, this state of wonder puts us in direct contact with this Truth that exists beyond oneself. One can only really see that which abdicates a part of himself, a part of his pride. Our actions do not come from us, but rather are carried by bigger. No matter what name you give when you marvel at a simple stone, you can sense the evidence.
It is not a matter of defending oneself against hostile forces that one cannot tame, it is not a question of powerlessness and ignorance, it is about the fullness of life; it is about infinite joy, it is a freedom finally recognized, that which makes our power to choose the power to give us, to give everything by giving us. How many philosophers have struggled to define freedom, to reconcile it with determinism, and there may not be one who has understood that the meaning of freedom was precisely to make of ourselves a gift. But a gift to whom, if not to a generosity that announces itself as such in the depths of us?
In awe of the history, words, story, frequency and essence that permeates this piece. To call this solely an “article” demeans the impact and imprintation that was just left on me. Wow, wow, wow. What an honour, to know the ones who have passed on in body never truly leave us..especially when their wisdoms, philosophy and creations guides us. Jean-Louis Raina, thank you for this remembrance of doing and being, of truly seeing and living, the impermanence of this fleeting moment.