By Neelima Agrawal
“Painting isn’t just pretty or pleasant; it is something that helps you to stand alone and face yourself.” – Pierre Soulages
These words of the famous French painter, engraver, and sculptor, Pierre Soulages, best describe the emotional state of most painters down the ages. All art is indeed, an expression of deeply felt emotions, expressed in verse, prose, or colours on a canvas. It is but a very sensitive person whose inner torment bleeds into colours on a canvas. Artists are simply born with a sensitive heart, and Stéphanie Arpels is one such whose work fascinated me. Fragile like porcelain, with clear soft eyes, Stéphanie spoke from the heart. Her early teen emotions found expression in paints, and the canvas became her diary and confidant, where she poured it all out, in black. Unknown to her, her work and thoughts resonated with that of artist Pierre Soulages, whom she later grew to admire. He too used black to express.
Stéphanie’s canvas transformed once India happened for her. She connected deeply with the divinity and spirituality of India and Indians. Life could have been a bed of roses for her, with a supportive husband and a lovely little son. But as the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said, “You must have chaos within you to give birth to a dancing star.”Stéphanie battles with an ailment that wracks her body in pain. It finds expression in her art. We spoke at length on many topics. Here are some of the answers below.
Stéphanie – I discovered painting when I was a teenager, as a way to express my anger and my frustrations. It was a means to escape. Although I enjoyed the art class in school, I could not freely express myself. I had to follow instructions, which were in contradiction with my teenage crisis. At that time, I preferred giving free rein to my freedom of expression and to my imagination rather than learning techniques.
Your colour palette now has more colours in it. Is this a reflection of your moods, or is it the shades you see around you?
The colors in my work have significantly changed following our arrival in India. I was dazzled by the light and by the energy I felt in this new country. My husband and I have decided to move to India to accomplish different projects. The excitement of having my own studio and be able to dedicate my time to painting have overwhelmed me with joy. I had been hoping for such an opportunity in Paris for a long time but the lack of space did not allow me to express myself. The colors in my work fully mirror my feelings.
Has any artists influenced you, or inspired you – whose works you like?
I admire the work of several artists. I always appreciated abstract art over figurative art. I am passionate about innovative painters but mostly about cubism. For me, Picasso is the absolute master. He has revolutionized painting. Matisse’s work on women is wonderful too. He had the genius to show the magic in women in just a handful of pencil strokes or with a snip of the scissors.
Speaking about his technique, Matisse said: “Cut paper allows me to draw in the colour. For me it is a simplification. Instead of drawing the outline and to install colour -one influencing the other- I draw directly in the colour, that is all the more stable since it is not made up. This simplification guarantees a precision in the association of the means that become one.” (Quoted from the book ‘Henri Matisse, Ecrits et propos surl’artd’André Lejard in 1951). Matisse unconsciously inspired me when I began to work on collages to dress up and make my women sublime.
I also admire artists such as Miro, and Basquiat, as well as Husain who was nicknamed the Indian Picasso, and Souza whom I have discovered when I moved to India.Lastly, I must mention Soulages whom I discovered late. He has stunned me with his unique use of matter. He is particularly well known for his use of reflections of black colour that he defined as ‘black light’ or ‘outrenoir’.
When you are in the process of painting, do you have the viewer in mind? Or do you paint only as a personal expression?
Most of the time, I paint according to my emotions. My paint is a profound means of expression. It is a manner to cure myself and to escape. I am passionate about women and their complexities. I am moved by what I see, and I feel it. With my consistent physical suffering, I have the urge to represent the human body or to paint women’s bodies geometrically, projecting myself in another body. I idealize it.
The second phase, when you returned to painting again, your canvases were about women. What is it about women that you find fascinating?
Women fascinate me, because they always have to fight to obtain more freedom, but have not yet become the equal of men.
Women give life. They have the gift to be several persons in one. They must fight to find their place. Despite the evolution of mentalities, women are still not considered equal to men.
You had mentioned that you work on several canvases at one time. Tell us more about this.
I begin my work on one canvas, where I express my feelings. Once my feelings and thoughts are transferred on to my canvas, begins my work on the technique, which is followed by the process leading up to finalizing what I wanted to express. I can work on 2 to 3 paintings in parallel, as I must mark some pauses for the paint to dry. Sometimes I draw sketches to organize my thoughts and my emotions better. Time spent working on a canvas is variable. It could take from a few days up to one or two months.
How has marriage and motherhood affected you as an artist?
My husband and my new life have triggered the profound need to begin a new chapter of my life while chasing away my old angers and building my life on solid grounds. I again took up drawing, and then painting to build myself and to become stronger.
During my pregnancy, I became conscious of the chance and the magic of feeling a human being growing inside me. I sold my earlier business and fully enjoyed the nine magical months, the transformation of my body. I also took this time to study techniques to paint nudes.Becoming a mother is the most wonderful gift that life has brought to me.This has transformed me.
In what ways has India affected you as an artist and as a person?
As I understand, the status of women in India has improved during the last decades. Women have entered local or national political life. India has also been headed by a woman, with Pratibha Patil as President from 2007 to 2012, the first woman ever to hold this office since the creation of the Republic of India.
Although Indian society recognizes many rights for women such as political engagement, rights to family allowances, or the right to create businesses, in rural areas, poverty and a lack of information represent a real obstacle to their independence and autonomy. In this context, programs supporting human rights, literacy, or microfinance are essential to restore the rightful place that Indian women deserve, and to open gates to a better and brighter future.
I use colours to express my emotions. Red is to express anger. Red appears – love, hate, anger, strength, power, life –evoking what I witness daily. The gaiety of women, their laughter, their energy, whatever their social status, is striking. They keep smiling even in the direst conditions, and I am awed.Caste system is primarily based on inequalities between individuals. This is at the heart of Indian society. I think understanding about castes, is about understanding Indians and India.More than anyone, I realize the chance of having my freedom and of being able to make my own choices.
Is it important to you that the viewer should understand your painting?
To enter into my work and understand it, it is essential to know who I am.
Please give some tips to our readers, on understanding and appreciating abstract art form.
You certainly must have already heard someone say ‘I can do it’ while you were looking at an abstract work of art. For some, an abstract work of art can seem easy to paint, but it is in fact much more complex than painting a classic work, as it challenges classical principles and rules. It is for the artist to break from the rules, to be expressive, and to decide what is art.
For me, abstract work requires more imagination and mystery. One can see whatever one wishes, and rediscover, and imagine a work of art according to one’s disposition.
Is it true that ‘all great art comes from great suffering’? Or is this is just a myth?
My work is profoundly influenced by my experiences (difficult youth and daily life with my disease). The physical and moral suffering that I endure daily gives birth to my creativity. I am inspired by my good and bad energies to create my work. I use matter on my canvas as paths to find serenity. Color in my work is essential. White represents light and healing. Black expresses my fears but also my strength. Blue boosts my confidence. Red is synonymous with pain, with my anxiety, and with my anger regarding inequalities.
An exhibition of her works, ‘Abstract Nudes by StéphanieArpels’ will be on view from
2nd – 5th December, 2017,
72 KK Birla Lane,