I love portraits. A seemingly inexhaustible genre, portraiture is as endlessly fascinating to me as the variety of people in the world. Only rarely, though, does an artist offer up some new and compelling angle that meets the originality of a unique person head on. When that happens, the portrait manages to transcend the individuality of the sitter.
Anthony Verot paints portraits in Paris. I first saw his work in 2004 at Maison d’Art Contemporain Chaillioux, in Fresnes, a suburb of Paris known primarily for its prison. Maybe the dedicated and tireless director of MACC, Marcel Lubac, intended a sly reference to mugshots. More likely he was drawn to the painter’s exacting formal and conceptual rigor. Amazingly, Verot, now 40, had hardly shown before, though he had piled up an impressive stack of canvases.
My friend, Shirley Jaffe, took me to the opening in Fresnes. I found Verot to be dedicated, earnest, singleminded, and determined to create a space for deadpan, distinctly unsensational representations in oil paint of ordinary people with a lurking dark side. Think August Sander with a dash of Ingmar Bergman tossed with Ingres, and drizzled with Lucien Freud. With shavings of Alfred Hitchcock.
A few years ago I visited his studio in the 14th arrondissement, not far from the Parc Montsouris. Despite the proximity to this lush garden, there’s not the slightest whiff of greenery to be found in what Verot paints. He was working on a 24-panel portrait of a woman, 8′ x 12′ altogether. He had filmed her with a movie camera turning her head, and the sequence of paintings corresponded to the images produced on film in a single second. The nearly identical 60cm x 60cm (about 2′ x 2′) canvases were arranged in four rows of six each, stacked one on top of the other. I was mystified by the effect. How crazy, how obsessive, how meticulous, how ridiculously simple and riveting!
Warholian in it’s Jackie-esque repetition, it dazzles the eye because of the progression of almost imperceptible changes in the course of the sequence. Hardly seductive, the woman is seen moving from what might have been modesty toward a direct confrontation with the viewer’s gaze. It is the contemporary embodiment of Manet’s Olympia with her famously unsettling self-possession. As Eunice Lipton put it about the model Victorine Meurent in that work, “she could say yes, or she could say no.”
Verot’s paintings draw on heavily on canonical masterworks. Flatly painted, distinctly modern, they feel timeless. Very little situates them in the present moment. Wardrobe is nondescript, though vaguely today. Backgrounds are either monochromatic or minimally descriptive of bland interiors. Despite the fact that there is little joy in Mudville, these people are thoughtful, intensely present, curiously confrontational, often stern. You recoil as much as you are drawn to them. Nothing is idealized about their appearance.
One, an homage to Jean-Baptiste Ingres’ 1832 portrait of Monsieur Bertin, is a portrait of Monsieur Piquiaud, from 2004. Verot’s Monsieur is every dignified head of state, unforgiving father, French philosopher, retired insurance company CEO, befuddled grandfather, frustrated diplomat all rolled into one. Neat!
His most recent paintings double up the subjects by including images of their backs seen in mirrors. Verot heightens the intimation of reality, paradoxically, by including a reflection of the person painted. I get the feeling I know more about the person because I’m getting more of them. These doubled images (the one on the right below is a self-portrait) seem to suggest that the artist is trying to reveal more even than his subjects will allow, by “going behind their backs.”
You can find Verot’s work at the Galerie Vielle du Temple in the Marais in Paris.