The imagery and esthetic power of her works, combined with her technical rigor grabbed my attention, but I confess it was a detail of her bio that made me dive into her website looking for more, but we will get to this later.
There, it becomes immediately clear that all of her paintings and drawings, without exception, revolve around the human figure. Full bodies, faces, or just hands, always touching, moving, grabbing – hands almost merged with bodies, bodies almost merged with each other.
Imminently classical and highly narrative forms and expressions. People loving and/or hating each other, static but frenetic bodies, engaged sometimes in violent and spasmodic, sometimes in gentle and tender actions. All at once, the whole world seems enclosed in those bodies – or is it just one?
They are strong images, painted in oil, in dry tones, with shades of colors going from blue to pink and brown, up to almost white; charcoal or graphite drawings, where black rules and the light revealed by the contrasts creates volume and movement.
Images are charged with a provocative symbolism, inviting us to a dialogue, and waiting for a judgment they already despise, in tones and colors that bring us to a dreamlike dimension. The backgrounds in solid or dark patches of colors imprison us in an alcove or a nightmare.
Paintings and drawings with almost palpable volume reminiscent of Renaissance sculpture, with an impressionist pictorial touch.
The truth is not an attribute of art, it is its alma mater, and these works also rely on the surrender of Hélène’s models to her camera lens, as they embody, without limits or barriers, as only friends do, the artist’s dreams. Her truth.
I sent her an email proposing her a written interview, while a virtual conversation was already unfolding in my head. A few hours later she answered that she would be very pleased.
I prepared and sent her the interview, and then we started exchanging our views, until this point.
And “here” is when I have to tell you a secret: Hélène Planquelle is self-taught.
Although from a very early age, she felt that “her success in life” would be trough art, she never aspired to make a career out of it. Instead, – she told me – she always thought she would have to find a “real job”.
After doing humanity studies, she entered a translation and intercultural communication school, and graduated in 2016. She then started working as a freelance translator specialized in art, (and still does today) for galleries and museums, magazines and auction houses in France, which gave her the freedom to dedicate part of her time to her artistic creation.
To begin, I asked her what she would change if she could go back to when she was fifteen.
– Spontaneously – replied Hélène – I would say: attending an art school of course! I confess that I suffer a bit from the impostor syndrome… I would feel much more secure today in this field if I had an academic training, not to mention the technical aspect of it. But on second thought, I would have missed out on all the literary and especially philosophical background I built during my years of higher education. And today I think this is what makes my work truly valuable: its conceptual and narrative content. My specificity is precisely the fact that I came to art out of an inner imperative and not education.
She claims to be free and independent and considers freedom of movement and thought as sacrosanct values. She therefore also believes that artists should not be politically involved, at least as artists, since – any artistic work serving a political idea, even a noble one, is thereby weakened in its very quality as a work of art.
She believes in the dialogue between the arts and her paintings and drawings draw on a wide intertextuality. The reference to classical sculpture, for example, is visible, but she also draws from the Bible, a gigantic poem.
Extremely demanding with herself in the preparatory phase as well as the esthetic conception of her work, the shooting of her models and the composition, she pays a rigorous attention to details.
She did feel tempted by sculpture – she confesses -, to put her compositions in three dimensions, but her self-imposed demand to always reach the top, which is and will always be, one step away, one inch away – like water and fruits for Tantalus – does not allow deviating from the path she has chosen.
I asked her:
– Can a movie or a song, for example, inspire you?
– Yes. The titles of my works are mostly quotes (from books, songs, or even movie lines). For me, it’s a way to open up their meaning… to resonate with other worlds of thoughts and sensitivity. It’s always a personal reading of course. Sometimes I hear a song that ravishes me and gives rise to a work in my mind. Like with Draw your swords by Angus and Julia Stone. One day I’ll make a work, or even a whole series of works on this track and its lyrics. Everything I do feeds my practice – she says – everything I read, see and hear shapes my artistic vision. Even in my spare time, I constantly try to feed my mind.
Ideas for her work can arise everywhere along with her daily thoughts. Yet, Hélène needs to work in a familiar and quiet space, isolated from the world: without friction or external stress, and preferably to the sound of “an instrumental or bineural, hyperhypnotic and repetitive five-hour playlist”, which makes space-time stop.
She has – as she states – a very Kantian perspective on art:
“The ultimate goal of a work is to generate an esthetic experience, which Kant describes as that of an “endless finality”. “Is beautiful what is universally pleasing without concept.” For him, the experience of beauty cannot be captured by rules or concepts.” (Critique of judgement)
I asked her if she thinks that everything an artist produces results in a work of art.
No. Hélène believes that the work makes the artist and not the other way around. In the same way that putting together some music notes doesn’t turn someone lacking music theory into a musician, the approach, although genuine, of a fine artist, doesn’t necessarily result in a work of art.
Many other elements are required for a manual artifact to become a work of art, starting with a “know-how”, along with a lot of work and a mastery of form and matter, resulting in the transformation of a “concept” into a form, into a perfect symbiosis. A work only acquires its value as a work of art when the final object, in its form, goes beyond the concept or idea it conveys. And this is perfectly indescribable…
– And is a work of art so in itself? – I wanted to know – I mean, if you make a painting and decide not to show it, keep it just for yourself in a hidden place, do you think it has the same “value” as a work of art?
No – just as I imagined – a work of art – she said – that no one will ever see, is a simple piece of matter, more or less organic, eventually doomed to decomposition. Nature does not make esthetic judgments; and for a monkey, the Mona Lisa has exactly the same value than a simple piece of cloth, that is, none. Only men make judgments, elaborate systems of arbitrary values. Therefore, a work of art requires the look of another, the subjectivity of another consciousness, since art is truly a “language”. It is, therefore, an act of communication. And to communicate, we must be at least two. This is the beginning of intersubjectivity.
Like for many of us, a few teachers made a strong impression on her; in the case of Hélène, there were two: Darwin Leon, an artist and art teacher who taught at the art center of Bradenton, Florida.
– It was with him that I took my first drawing lessons one summer. I was 21 years old, and it was the first time an art professional told me that I had “talent” and I should go to an art school.
Until then, I had only showed my drawings to my friends and family, whose compliments were necessarily complacent. No trained eye had ever looked at what I did, except that of my older brother, whose natural talent reduced my few faculties to insignificance. That moment marked a turning point in my life. I began to believe that I indeed had talent.
And a philosophy teacher in her last year of high school – “one of the first figures of authority to value my thinking and distinguish me from the crowd”.
But Darwin – was a real driving factor. First of all, because his work, deeply influenced by surrealism, was a great source of inspiration when I discovered it at the time. I especially remember a work (or was it an entire series) called “The Embrace”, representing a couple whose bodies were so intertwined that they were almost indistinguishable from one another. It was exactly what I wanted to do. Actually, it is the first time I make the connection, but, in reality, that work that impressed me so much sowed the seeds of my entire approach. And it also foreshadowed my Dalian period… I became completely fascinated by the work and life of Salvador Dali, whom I studied and read a lot about. During my studies, I also did several internships at the two largest Dali museums in the world (that of Catalonia and St. Petersburg, Florida). This allowed me to enter in his work like no other artist.
I couldn’t resist asking her:
–In which Parisian workshop, Romanticism or Impressionism, would you have fitted best??
– Romanticism without hesitation! – she replied – Even if I tend towards a kind of sober and dignified romanticism because I don’t like mushiness or pomposity.
Some of her works are very narrative, while others could have been composed for a play or a ballet. If she was commissioned to illustrate a play, her choice would be something by Paul Claudel.
– And who would you choose to compose a musical theme on your “Where is your brother” series? – I asked her.
– Without a doubt, Abel Korzeniowski!!! My favorite composer of all time… And if he wasn’t available, Philip Glass or Hans Zimmer would do the job!
To illustrate a literary work, she told me she would choose Baudelaire’s Flowers of Evil.
Braque once said that “the act of painting is always more important than the result”. And for Hélène, who invests so much in the planning and execution of her works?
I asked her, and she answered no, but…
– I mean, it depends on the perspective! Like for any activity – like sport, gardening, meditation, etc. – it is the process that brings pleasure. In my daily life, it is the active practice of painting and drawing that makes me happy, more than the works I produce.
But it is a perfectly “egocentric” point of view, centered on my own well-being. And if Braque had painted without ever producing results, he would have been very happy, but he would certainly not have entered the history of art. The act of painting is a private endeavor, but a work of art has a universal vocation.
Pain and violence transpires from all of Hélène’s works. So I thought of Shakespeare when he wrote: “Give sorrow words. The grief that does not speak whispers the o-er wrought heart, and bids it breaks”.
And I asked her:
– You confess that the inspiration for your work originates in the pain of love: is it what your art is all about? Sorrow and pain?
– Of course. At the origin of my will to create, there is the experience of suffering, in love, but more generally in our relationship to others. It is obvious to me that artistic creation has a therapeutic function, at least the type of art I defend. It originates from a will to transform a painful experience that feels meaningless, the irruption of chaos in our lives, into something else…
This something else is a work of art that will help us live. Something which, when faced with the experience of dissolution, the rupture of bond and meaning (suffering is always a highly personal experience – we always feel alone in it), reconnects us with others through esthetic experience (Kant’s famous “endless finality”) and the experience of the beautiful (which postulates a universal agreement of judgment).
So yes, ultimately, my approach “gives voice to pain”. It is the token of its authenticity, another essential standard of judgment in art. And authenticity goes hand in hand with vulnerability. An artist must dig into his own self and confront his most troubled thoughts and emotions.
She told me, at another time and for another purpose, that she is a big reader, reading mainly essays in the fields of history, neuroscience, evolutionary biology, social sciences, behavioral psychology, ethics, etc. Jared Diamond’s Collapse, Connected, The surprising power of our social network by Nicholas Christakis or Behave by Robert Sapolsky (who she listens on YouTube in a loop) for example help her better understand humanity, behavior, choices and always, our relationship to others.
But it is the thinking of Emanuel Lévinas that pervades all her work.
– For Levinas, the other comes before me, that is to say, he precedes me. His thought is rooted in the original experience of the other as a face, which is for him the place where the mystery of otherness is revealed. Defenseless, the face of the other, in its vulnerability, commands me the original imperative: “Thou shalt not kill”, thus forcing me out of my primitive egocentricity. Like no other, Levinas spoke of the original violence others exert upon me by their mere presence.
Some of her works, as I mentioned earlier, are on the edge of violence. However, because they are images of sexual content, we don’t know to what extent they represent games both parties engage in voluntarily.
I wonder if the ambiguity is intentional on her part, meaning the relationship between her models, her protagonists after all.
– Yes, completely. There is always a part of violence in my images, albeit in a more or less visible or explicit way. This dimension is indeed often counterbalanced by the rather “sensual” charge of my works. But I wouldn’t talk about “sexual content”, at least that’s not the point of my works. I never talk about sexuality strictly speaking (although I might make a more openly sexual series in the future), but about relationships, which intrinsically contains violence. It is mainly psychological violence that interests me, yet our relationship to others is grounded in bodies.
We engage in relationships as minds inhabiting a certain body. The two are inseparable. The body, in its materiality and sensuality, is omnipresent in my works, because it is the body which is the source of desire. And desire is the origin of all our suffering…
At the root of our need for affection and love is the primary need to hold another body in our arms, to feel the warmth of its blood and the smell of its skin. My works are sensual because they summon this sensory experience of the other. It’s therefore always a deeply intimate experience, because the other, before being conceptually grasped, is, first of all, a sensory environment: a form, a smell, a texture, etc.
The human mind is far too troubled to give a clear answer to this question… Doesn’t Stockholm syndrome teach us that it is possible to become emotionally attached to our tormenter?
It is perhaps for this reason that Hélène’s “bodies” are so poignant, almost desperate for touch. They grab, hold and almost merge, unlike the classical references I see in some of her works, in which the touch was subtle, almost circumstantial.
Is touching, in any way – I asked her -, even insignificant, crucial in our communication with others? (What a bad time for this question).
– Yes, completely. One could say that the “grip” is the most emblematic and recurring scene in my work.
Boris Cyrulnik is also a very important author for me and my work. As a neuropsychiatrist, he has hugely contributed to the development of Attachment Theory. He is also a clinician and has worked in orphanages in Eastern Europe, where children, completely left to themselves, with almost no contact with other human beings (or limited to cold and medicalized contact) had become wild animals, showing mental retardation with no physiological origins. Boris Cyrulnik discovered that by socializing these children, it was possible to repair some of the damages done, and that human bond, and more precisely the bonds of attachment that we form at birth (initially with our parents) condition our entire subsequent development, both physical and mental. It is, therefore, literally vital – and “desperate”, since our survival is at stake. And the first bond, the first presence, is the body of a nurturing mother (or maternal figure) who puts the newborn baby on her breast. Which is very sensual in the end…
– How much of you is in those bodies? – I asked.
– Ahah, pretty much all of it… – she replied without surprising me – It’s my sensitivity. More or less well expressed depending on the works.
Despite the realism and eroticism present in almost all of Hélène’s works, there is a threshold of decency the artist does not pass; and I remembered Egon Schiele or Lucien Freud, and even Jenny Saville, whom realism she is just a few steps away.
– Is it your own modesty and shyness, or do you think a more explicit and crude exploration would shift the focus of your work?
– Yes, that’s exactly right. I think it would draw attention to something that’s not the heart of what I’m talking about. Besides, suggestion is always much more interesting (and exciting for that matter) than exhibition. That’s the very difference between eroticism and pornography. One plays with what is concealed and appeals to our imagination, while the other saturates reality with an excess of availability.
Maybe that’s also why I remain so “suggestive”, it’s a way of stirring the desire of the viewer. Something remains unsatisfied. It brings us back to a certain idea of art, which must raise questions rather than provide answers. In this suspense nestles the esthetic experience in my opinion.
– Among the painters you most admire, both Jenny Saville and Ernest Pignon-Ernest put the human figure at the center of their dialogue with others, although none of them is as literary and textual as you clearly are. Do you also communicate with your models’ body language, or the “medium is the message”, a bit like Marshall McLuhan advocated?
– The body language of my models is indeed essential. If I work over and over with one duo of models in particular, it is because their body language corresponds exactly to what I want to capture. Besides, we are friends, and they’re together in real life. They no longer have modesty in front of me, and they accept to really expose themselves. It’s beautiful! It gives moments of a rare intensity that I rarely find in other artists indeed. These moments are the most precious thing I have. For if I had only my ideas and no one to embody them, my works would be much less powerful, if at all – they could be much more powerful! My work owes everything to the images I take during my shootings, and therefore ultimately to my models and what they agree to give of themselves.
I wanted to know, for a “classical” and figurative artist, what movements like Dadaism or Cubism represent…
– They leave me quite indifferent. The use of derision or provocation in art distresses me more than anything else. I think it’s a pity to want to make art a game or a simple joke. For me, it is the opposite of a derisory undertaking, it is one of the most serious and important things there is. Cubism is especially interesting from a graphic and perceptual point of view, but it doesn’t touch me very much either. My yardstick for judgment is the emotional impact a work has on me. The more I can project myself into a work, the more it touches me, hence my love for realism, hyperrealism or surrealism. In short, it’s reality that interests me… I don’t try to escape from it. It’s complex enough as it is…
So, Hélène, a fierce defender of figuration, venerates Dali. Could this be a contradiction?
– Where does figuration end and non-figuration begins? – I asked her…
– That’s an interesting question… I guess the line is pretty blurry. A shape that looks like a human body can still pass for “figurative”. Perhaps a relevant criterion could be the willingness to refer to reality. I’m not so sure…
– Is Guernica figurative? – I insisted.
– Figurative “with a twist“. – She replied – this work still represents something. Soulages’s Beyond Black is not figurative, we all agree on that!
So, what about technique? Hélène also argues that “technique is to art, what vocabulary is to language: the more words you have, the more complex and precise your expression is”.
– And then – I ask – what about artists like Basquiat, for example, who do not demonstrate any technique, at least in the academic sense of the term. Isn’t he communicating?
– Unsurprisingly, I can’t say I’m very sensitive to Basquiat’s work…
Although many modern and contemporary artists have turned their back on academic technique, almost all have developed a certain methodical approach to their creation. It is quite obvious: all the great artists have, at some point, stated a sort of more or less systematic “formula” of their creative process. Somewhere along the way, they invented their own lexicon and developed their own language, a language that they also refined and expanded over time. So I don’t think it’s fundamentally different…
– What about Pollock?
– Pollock invented the “method” of Action Painting and Dripping. It is a technique in the end.
For everything left behind and anything else, I asked her:
– Do you have a Renaissance soul?
– Caravaggio forever in my heart… – She replied, and I imagined a smile on her face.
I’m an unconditional fan of Renaissance esthetics for sure. The chiaroscuro, the shimmering draperies, the dramatic postures and swooned bodies… And especially the color … For me the color of the Renaissance is mauve, crimson red, or blood-red, my favorite color. It’s the ultimate color of tragedy!
To Hélène the philosopher, I threw my last card:
– There is a discussion, perhaps the oldest and enduring philosophical discussion , about what is art or a work of art. Do you have your own take on this issue?
– Ahah, that is indeed the million-euro question… and I think we’re not done debating it yet. Fortunately so, because it would be quite sad and boring if there was a clear and irrevocable answer. It’s the vagueness that’s interesting, the elusiveness.
Of course, one of the criteria often used to define art is its “useless” nature. What differentiates a true artistic enterprise from the work of a graphic designer, for example, is that, on the one hand, you have someone who creates something without any purpose, for free, while on the other hand, a graphic designer (or any other creative person working with specifications) pursues a precise goal (selling a product, promoting an event, etc.) and meets a need. This also brings us back to the difference (always very Kantian) between the beautiful and the pleasant, the sublime or the decorative.
Basically, I think that a human production owes its value as a work of art to a touch of soul. A grace.
To conclude, I returned two challenges that Hélène gave to her followers on Instagram by asking her:
– What was the biggest esthetic experience that you remember having experienced or witnessed?
– One of my most striking esthetic experiences was at the exhibition held in 2015 at the Pinacothèque de Paris “Au Temps de Klimt, La Sécession à Vienne” (it goes without saying that I am an equally unconditional Klimt fan). In this exhibition, there was a relatively small black and white drawing of one of Klimt’s large, now destroyed, paintings entitled Medicine. I stood in front of this drawing for a long time, as if hypnotized. My heart was pounding in my ears, my stomach tight and tears in my eyes. It was truly (and in a Kantian way) sublime… A transcendental experience of total surpassing. If someone on earth could create something that beautiful, then surely human existence was not totally in vain. And perhaps good was redeeming evil…
– Define your art in one word.
The nightmare of the single word… – (did she sigh?) – Well, maybe the one you rightly used earlier: “desperate.
On Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/heleneplanquelle/
Her website: www.heleneplanquelle.com