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Sound of Cement, Marielle Ernould-Gandouet, 2000

in Revue de la céramique et du verre n°112, May-June 2000
As a child, she draws, as a teenager, she takes to paint. Trained in the best artistic tradition, she spends a few months at the Beaux-Arts, two years with André Lhote, one with Fernand Léger. As a painter, she is well aware of how difficult it is to paint. What took her to Zadkine’s studio? What made her work in clay? “Within two days, I knew I was a sculptor,” she says. A contract for life.

All the same, it will take her ten years, after a long interval away from the ferment of the studios and dissatisfied with her own failure to make something of her talent, to find the discipline to make sculpture. With a little help from her reading of Simone de Beauvoir,

Her years alone, away from the art-world, have left her with a need to work alone, in the silence and half-light of the quiet cell, that is a studio of one’s own. She draws tulip buds, omits the flower, models a memory of a bud, creates monumental and stylized shapes in clay, about to burst, as if their inner life concealed a wanting to exhale something like freedom. She models the hollow of her own hand and other forms that focus the attention on inner tremors.

One day, on seeing a photograph that depicts the painter, Hantaï, in his studio, surrounded by haphazardly pleated canvases, she meditates upon the function of chance in making work. Then, in the year of freedom, 1968, she will loosen the ties that bind her to figurative work, introducing chance into sculpture, taking a great block of clay, striking it with wood, very fast and hard to ensure that nothing like thought enters into her process. The clay trembles beneath her blows. From the heart of the material rises a trace, an inscription in light and shadow that seems to surface up out from another world. The format is without scale. It makes works that remain unbounded, as though born in nature and fossilized. The mark of a human hand is not there – or lost in the thicknesses of time.

Over the years, Claude de Soria will retain these characteristics. Her work is without scale. It seems immense and reflects a silent meditation on the ceaseless wonders of what arises from out of the depths of her material.

At one point, she travels across the Sahara. On a rocky outcrop she finds the very traces that her own work seems to echo. Alone on a desert mound at sunset, lost in thought, surveying the world at her feet, she feels as though she has caught a glimpse of infinity. She experiences a fragmentary vision of eternity. Manmade marks fade. The only thing that counts is what the material world has to offer, the very essence of the planet that spreads as far as the eye can see around her. She is tempted to remain in that place, the far-point of her journey, and never return. But return she does, like a tiny ant, into that world beyond the world, which is her studio. Where she will never cease in her attempts to convey what was experienced in the Sahara.

The material must speak for itself. Spread clay on some kind of frame, beat it, let the blows come almost unconsciously, empty the mind, examine the result coldly as though she had nothing to do with the making, see the mark, a printed sign that appears on obverse and reverse, a multitude infinitely reflecting the sensitivity of clay, that carries the mark of the frame and the mark of the blows.

She works in grey clay for its dark tones. But on firing, it turns white. Firing remains on obstacle on the road to instantaneousness which she needs, if her listening to what the material has to say is to be perfectly unhindered. How will she come to cement? Is it because, at the Salon, in May 1973, she sees something carved in cement and finds in it the grey of raw earth? She dreams of cement, but how can she cross the line and make cement available in her studio? Everything happens by chance. The concierge leaves a bag of cement in the courtyard beside a heap of sand. A miracle at her feet. She takes it all, enquires as to the correct proportions: one third cement, two thirds sand, water. She goes to work, pours the cement onto a sheet of glass, makes incisions, is amazed at the result, after just evaporation and drying. “It came to me like something from the bottom of the sea, like a starry sky, like a landscape pitted with tiny hollows, a world in mutation, a world alive.”

Cement becomes her passion. “I was myself cement”, she says. Cement allows her to dispense with intermediaries. There is just a material and a work. No more kilns or firing. The work is born without intervention. Cement decides and acts. She can allow her thoughts to drift, which is more meaningful than any thought of art.

Upon a plastic sheet, apply a circular disk of moist cement, watch how the material evolves, as a slight white fringe appears, imprinted by drying. Roll a plastic sheet layered with cement, pleat it, twist it. Pour cement into two half-spheres, bring them together, allowing a gap and shadow to filter between. Pour cement inside a plastic roll around a metal stem. Remove the plastic: so are born “rolls”, “stalks”, “blades” and “counter-blades”, “pleats”, “needles”, as well as plaques, disks, pierced rectangles known as “openings” or “views”. Each of these forms, primitive vessels that reveal a sensual intimacy with the vanished plastic and speak of unsuspected wealth of this material, its change. Cement is alive, brings out damp spots, coloured accents. A tiny breath of air will bring a hollow, bring out a fullness. The type of material on which the cement is poured leaves a texture, matt and raw or brilliant and precious as the most highly polished marble. Texture makes for networks, veins. A moment of life is kept forever. Each form focuses on itself and acts as a vessel for inner life. Endless series, for shows at ARC or in private galleries, display myriad similarities and differences. A reflection of a galaxy whence the mark of man has vanished. Claude de Soria is of Spanish origin. She contains the discreet depth of a passionate soul, perhaps the same that gave birth to the writings of St John of the Cross or St Theresa of Avila. She has chosen an unusual path. Her studio has become the mound of Sahara sand, whence to survey a world without boundaries.

How can she have been tempted, recently, to make jewels of her work? Perhaps the memory of a friend from her Zadkine days, Penalba, who in the 70s, designed sculptural jewellery executed by Gennari the goldsmiths. Or a need to draw attention to the beauty of her cement? Or a friend who wanted such a jewel and dragged her to Thierry Vendôme, the jeweller’s? Thierry Vendôme has designed several such jewels. Among them, Claude de Soria has selected the most silent: two pendants, invisibly lined with a nickel silver reinforcing frame. Nothing but the sound of cement is there.

Marielle Ernould-Gandouet