An Artist and Her Material Moving Ever Freely, Marcelin Pleynet, 1988
Slowly clay, sand, an expanse. Slowly light… One has to have heard Claude de Soria speak of her work and describe the road trodden to comprehend how the lively, spontaneous, unexpected and sudden (because forever delayed) movement of artistic creation arises, is established and defined. A bright, always over-hasty kerfuffle; an interminable, endlessly dragged out instant, like a stutter in time, and suddenly the piece of work is there. Anything can happen, everything is always possible… yet nothing is possible. The “everything possible” within “everything impossible” is a form of fear. Like stage-fright before an event. “Anything is possible” collapses into “Everything is impossible”, which must then settle back again, and then, as if accident, as if by surprise and for the first time ever, all over again as it were, it happens. A version of time. Conversion of time. Crossing-point. Closed border rapidly crossed.
But what about the first time?
Examining Claude de Soria’s career, one cannot help being struck by the formal compression and decompression of time that has characterised her creative journey. For six years, she studies engraving with Cami at the Beaux-Arts in Paris, then painting with André Lhote and Fernand Léger and finally sculpting from life with Ossip Zadkine. She leaves Paris appearing to put her artistic career on hold for five whole years. And then she returns to clay, modelling, drawing, perfectly naturally and as before; or better as though, maybe, actively needing to forget what had been learnt, to unlearn. It is not uninteresting to note that the first work she shows, at the well-known Galerie Claude Bernard in 1965, is a clay model of her own left hand carved by right hand alone. There could scarcely exist a more literal appropriation of the puzzle of potential and constraint that underpins the creative process. Having said which, this open left hand (clay, 12 cms wide X 22 cms high) is related to the memories Claude de Soria may have retained of her time with those masters of post-Cubism that were André Lhote and Fernand Léger. The peculiar merit of this work lies, in my view, in the fact that it is a marriage of construction and modelling, which makes it a frontal relief as well as a three-dimensional piece. Playfully combining skill and chosen constraint (use of only one hand), Claude de Soria instrumentalises the inevitable awkwardnesses consequent on that constraint to slow the process of making and precipitate knowledge (what she has been taught) into an unexplored avenue, namely the impossible mastery of accidents that must force her to resolve problems not any longer really her own, but specifically those that lodge artistic practice in uniqueness.
I insist on this fired earth piece of 1965 because, it seems to me that, in its way, it prefigures what I consider to be the true turning- and starting-point in Claude de Soria’s career, namely towards the end of 1966 or the start of 1967, the discovery, at the vast Picasso retrospective in the Grand Palais (1966/1967) and her obsessions with two just pre-Cubist painted works of from the 1903/1909 period. Having seen the Picasso show, Claude de Soria decides to re-create two paintings made by Picasso over the winter of 1908 to 1909 in three dimensions: Homme nu assis (Seated Male Nude, Winter 1908/09) and a still-life called Pain sur table (Bread on Table, Early 1909). This decision does not just show evidence of a surprising and immediate understanding of the sculptural nature of Picasso’s painting, but first and foremost involves a commitment to and radically and explicit treatment of what the fired earth work of 1965 (The Hand) as construction and modelling was tending to reveal of the making and if I may put it this way the unmaking of a figure perceived both as a frontal and as a three-dimensional presence. Adapting Picasso’s Homme nu and Pain sur la table to three dimensions enabled Claude de Soria to capture in the very act, as experienced, a bright motion, both rapid and slow (and barely intentional) that fixes both the appearance of a figure and its nearness, thus precipitating it into space. That decision – choice of model (her own left hand, a Picasso painting), which may or may not be explicable – is a spontaneous occurrence. It happens in as brief a time as possible. But the consequence of such a decision involves a timeframe of a different sort, allowing for elaboration and development. If one takes Picasso’s fixation with figure into account, one cannot help noticing the skill with which he plays on the dialectics of a double vector of fixing and carrying away that sustains the composition of every one of his pictures (whether pre-Cubist, Cubist or post-Cubist) as both a head-on surface and a volume. It is this, it seems to me, that Claude de Soria realizes when she sees the 1966 Picasso show and it is in this sense that Picasso’s work can be regarded as a decisive and important influence. The two pieces mentioned are obviously evidence of this, as is, no less so, another fired earth piece called Fleur (“Flower”) made in 1963, and formally extremely close to the set of water-colours of an apple that Picasso painted in the autumn of 1909. This suggests that Claude de Soria was prepared, and more than prepared, to de-realize the figurative as a means of realizing a space which, specifically, might stand in opposition to the figurative and break down the wall of time.
But… what space?
I hope I have made clear that the line that Claude de Soria is pursuing is neither dogmatic, nor consciously chosen. Fixing and carrying away, slowness and precipitation… the artist is inclined to let forms arise which, in a twofold movement, manage to both achieve and disrupt temporal continuums. And from this point of view it is not surprising that she has been led to abandon an over-immediately figurative mode. Indeed, it is in the experience (and technique, almost) of handling material used when striking clay with a bit of wood (fixing and getting carried away here in a literal sense) that she discovers that the resulting reliefs spontaneously display a complexity and a formal, chromatic and rhythmical patterning with a logic of its own. And that such an arrangement may exist without limit, capable, as it is, of sustaining the widest possible range of associations. “Space is as broad as my imagination,” says Matisse. Claude de Soria’s discovery consists in giving this idea full metaphysical rein. Less explicitly than Matisse perhaps, but quite clearly, this is the area she ploughs, not in a potentially spectacular sense, but negatively, you could say. Towards the end of the 60s, she hammers a loaf of earth with a big bit of wood, provoking rhythmical reliefs that deliver a polymorphic unfurling of almost scriptural design (Earthen rampart? Sumerican tablet? Any other form of writing in tune with the materials written upon?) From this indecipherable and opaque piece, Claude de Soria embarks upon – defines and opens – the space in which every imaginative fixation is lodged, which is to say the strictly defined bounds of the material’s own plastic properties. That which, in one mode of representation of the figure – figurative art – plays on development and long narrative units (the Psyche as Ego), here finds itself essentially put to account in the smallest creative units as a poetic grammar (the Greek poezis), a space for handling, making and doing. And so it is not surprising that Claude de Soria should have been led to consider the work of Alberto Giacometti, to whom she pays tribute, explicit tribute, in 1970. The specific space of Alberto Giacometti’s work is indeed constituted, not by a massive and wilful intrusion of the sculptured object, but by removal (fragment: Nez; distortion of conventional scale: Hommme qui marche or Figurines de très petite taille, 15 cm), which, over and above the object itself, reveals the infinite strength and wealth of the moment of appearance and disappearance (one and the same at this point) of sculpture in space. No longer being associated with a manifest figurative reference, this means of spatial qualification, through appearance and disappearance, is entrusted by Claude de Soria to the fact of precipitation, in an almost chemical sense, with the material reacting to such and such a form of treatment, described by her as “a contact with natural processes.”
But what treatment?
Claude de Soria seems progressively to have discovered that as material the clay she was using only offered reaction to the extent that the artist’s will intervened to over-determine the material’s specific qualities. In order for clay to react, it must be beaten (as Claude de Soria in Mur, mentioned above). The discovery of a different material that is both less easily controlled and more malleable, cement, opens up a field of new opportunities. Clay must be forced into action. Cement, more or less liquid, spreads of its own accord and acquires shape only when moulded. This how Claude de Soria puts it, “I let the cement operate as far as possible without intervening and thus obtain physical evidence of its forming and spreading, waves and air-bubbles that represent its life of its own. ” (Claude de Soria, ARC Exhibition Catalogue, Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, Nov 1977 – Jan 1978). And it is, if I may say so, this containment (of liquid cement in motion and of its spreading) by means of a sheet of plastic that will enable Claude de Soria to discover one of the most unexpected and troubling aspects of this supposedly thankless material. A spontaneous discovery. A sort of confirmation of the existence of a continent of sculpture, so much her own, which she was then in the process of defining and inventing. The first operation of containing cement, once it has spread and been compressed, as far as possible, within plastic, reproduces, ten years later, that very fired-earth bud which I related to certain Picasso watercolours of 1909. In itself and for itself, under the watchful and intimate gaze of the artist, to itself and to herself, the material thus affirms not so much that it can reproduce the initial figure of the fired-earth bud, as the essence of handwork and… the figures it makes. (Need I repeat that Claude de Soria’s career includes nearly at the start and nearly as its very first piece, a replica of her own open hand reconstructed and modelled in clay?)
Condensation and expansion of time. Immediately, as she frees the dried cement from the plastic sheeting that surrounds it, ten years precipitate and solidify, a version and a conversion of time, at the brink of a forbidden country… into which she must now enter. A continent of infinitely varied representations unfolds before her and for her. Alongside her. On the occasion of her show at Baudoin Lebon in January 1980, Claude de Soria writes, “This time, after Plaques and Balls of cement, Stalks and Folds are born of my ceaseless wonder at the transformations of this material… In short, I let the material reveal what, obscurely, it is I expect of it.” I would emphasize that this expectation is precisely what, in other circumstances, is called a technique (an art), a means of handling material. Claude de Soria, her continent, its art, everything that she has accumulated in terms of sensitive attentiveness to herself and to that strange withdrawal of herself is fixed and suddenly set, as one says of cement just before it solidifies, technique and creative gesture are then one and the same, art and creation in fusion. Cement works, from her Plaques of 1974 and 1975 to the Boules En Deux Parties of 1976/7 and 1978, from the Tiges of 1979 and 1980, to the Plis of 1980 and Plis Plats of 1981, to the vaster set of Lames and Contre-Lames shown at the Montenay-Delsol Gallery in 1985, to the current series of Ouvertures, the diversity of pieces and formal inventions in Claude de Soria’s work has shown itself to be very extensive. It might seems, for instance, that from Boules to Plis Plats, the artist is exploring various approaches to showing volume in space. And it would be so, if, as Alfred Pacquement rightly pointed out in an interview with the artist in 1982, the focus of Claude de Soria’s work were not centred also on the “skin of the material, the surface” as by formal experimentation. We have seen the extent to which the art of Claude de Soria is reliant on technique, on a treatment of her material and how form is conditioned by the intrinsic qualities and technical handling of this same material. And it is this handling, in as much as it contributes to producing and preventing identified figures (Boule, Tige, Pli, Pli Plat and so on) which in the last resort over-determines and makes for the unique coherence of her volumes in space. If there was any need to demonstrate that the aim of Claude de Soria’s art is not to establish the identity of her figures as such, the creation and presentation at one time and in one place of so many explicitly named pieces as Lame (Blade) or Contre-Lame (Counter-Blade) would do the trick. Whatever its size, scale, relief or volume, Claude de Soria’s sculpture defines its temporal and spatial presentation not as a part of a whole but as a part representing the whole. Chance provoked; controlled accident; and accident adopted; determine the qualities of a set, a piece, a sculpture as living molecule, as the smallest element in a body to exist self-standingly, without losing that substance’s original properties. The complex, chromatic and plastic palette of the surface is the result of a rigorous atomic arrangement of a finite and infinite universe, that bears witness, from microcosm to macrocosm, of a breathing exactly identifiable as the one we already know and yet, always, again and again, imperceptibly alien. Made, determined, displayed by chance and the secret logic of the micro elements in the material, sculpture injects, a breaking and entering, immanent properties of the material into the transitive continuities of our own. And it is of course an accident, though not an accident, that some of Claude de Soria’s pieces evoke the sun (a star thought to lie at the centre of a system of planets), such as Boules, Plaques, and even more so, Empreintes de Ciment Sur Plastique, and it is difficult to think of the very recent Ouvertures as unrelated to our cosmic disk, that the Chinese call Pi.
Her starting-points are the most literal aspects of the art of her era: frontal and three-dimensional space; the volumes of Cubism; the fact of existential anxieties of subjective alienation in Giacometti. She takes into account the logic of specific reactions consequent on her treatment of her material. Then she shows, in her unique way and always as for the first time, what it is about a work of art: what it is about forcing a time alien to the world upon the world; a time, if you will, that is made slower, as she says and yet is precipitate; cosmic time of material at birth (earth, sand, dimension, light) in all its exaltedness. Created. Unique. As for the first time.