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November 2002

By Anouchka Roggeman

Lying in all its splendour, dozing under an overhead light, a tiger is looking at me. He is on the lookout and seems to have heard me approach the canvas. His fur, superb, shiny, has just stood up. Alert, he stares at me, freezes me. Above all, do not move.

tigre peint par Remi Bourquin

The other tiger, equally rested, does not seem to be paying attention to the scene. Face to face with them, I bow to the calm of these beasts, this controlled and contained aggressiveness. Can we still call you "beast" with such majesty? Silence, a little further on, Nikou the polar bear, muzzle resting on its front paws, takes a nap. We want to stroke its coat, it seems so soft and real. Extracted from their natural environment, placed on a uniform marble plinth, these animals seem to display a certain sadness, a melancholy air can be read in their satisfied gaze. Who are you, elephants, tigers, lions and zebras who respond to magical, travel or dream names? Who is he who, by representing you, seems to be absent from the canvas to appear imperceptibly, in these glances so deep and so human?


The apartment door opens. Rémi Bourquin welcomes us, a gentle smile lets out a calm voice, a delicate gesture invites us to enter. We expected to find an exotic hunter's hut, a colonial-style apartment decorated with wild plants or, at least, a few hunting trophies, sharks and elephant tusks.

To paint these wild animals with so much veracity, so many expressions, so much naturalness, you must have known them, you must have lived with them, you must undoubtedly love them.

Some travel souvenirs adorn the walls, objects from Asia, Africa or Europe. They are discreet gris-gris, intimate memories. The artist's studio is located in the main room, where rustic furniture from an old hardware store warms the space. On a large canvas placed on an easel, the head of a painted tiger seems to await the rest of its body, the only outline of which gives a glimpse of the breadth of the future composition. Instinctively, we look for the model. But here, the only animal presence is provided by a small worn teddy bear, placed near the easel, on an old workbench. "It's one of those items that I always keep close to me, it comforts me." Through the window, the roofs of Paris are the peaks of the Baobabs of civilization, the heights of another jungle. It is in this apartment in the 20th arrondissement that the artist hides himself from the world, withdraws, immerses himself in his painting, away from hearsay, openings, social events to which he does not belong. "I hear very little what is being said around me, it doesn't interest me very much." At every moment, we feel the privilege of having entered his apartment as well as his privacy, as the man seems modest and lonely. The bestiary is in a room next door. There, around fifty works are stored, waiting to scroll before our eyes. My questions immediately come up: have you lived with these animals? Where do they come from ? Where are they ? Rémi Bourquin stops me very quickly: he doesn't like questions. "I don't want to reveal too much, I prefer to let people imagine".


Each word is posed, weighed and reflected. "I attach importance to words as in painting I attach importance to nuance or detail. I try to be less brutal." He speaks little, but he speaks true. We will have to wait, feel, watch to also understand that if he doesn't like questions, it is certainly because he himself questions life a lot. “Painting is time” explains the man who spends ten hours a day painting in his apartment, to render every detail of the animal, find the right light, the material, and struggle with the space of the canvas, to solve the "problems" with the paint, and the grain of the canvas. "Painting is like my landmark in life, that's where I find myself."


Yet painting has entered his life almost without  knowing it. In college he drew the view of the city during sports hours. At home, he painstakingly reproduced on paper his mechanical toys or insects that he collected. At the age of 16, a lover of natural sciences and philosophy, he might perhaps have become an entomologist, if one of his friends had not introduced him to Pierre Carron, professor at the Beaux-Arts in Paris and future academician. "I didn't think you could still become a painter in our time." Pierre Carron made him buy his first tubes of paint and offered him to attend the Beaux-Arts in Paris. Four years later, in 1984, he graduated, and won already three prizes. At this time he began to paint the animals of the Jardin des Plantes as well as the large tropical greenhouses. In 1986, he obtained the Casa Velazquez scholarship and went to live in Madrid for two years "to see Elsewhere". There, he painted the gardens of the Alcazar, discovered another culture and another light. Already, his work, mainly landscapes, has been exhibited in numerous group exhibitions in France, Germany and the United Kingdom and it is in Herblay, where he spent his childhood, that he made his first personal exhibition. On returning to Paris, he finds the animals of the Jardin des Plantes and the Vincennes Zoo. There his gaze rests mainly on Siam, the great elephant of the Vincennes Zoo, the very one that he will reproduce in large format on order from the Museum of Natural History and which still stands today in the Grande Galerie de l 'Evolution.


From then on, wild animals would become one of the artist's favourite subjects, which he will continue to alternate with landscapes, gardens, beaches, lighthouses, without ever abandoning them. To better observe them, he travels through many zoos in France and elsewhere, and spends hours, days in a row, by their side. Little by little, he knows them by heart, and begins to paint them with obsession. "They are my pets, I baptize them by giving them the names of exotic places that reflect their personality." While he used to paint in situ, Rémi Bourquin now prefers to work in his studio, using photography or based on his memories. "It is difficult for me to work outside, hampered by technical problems like flies sticking to the varnish but also hampered by the eyes of people." Back in his studio, he recomposes the animal as he liked and understood it, seen from the inside. “ When I paint I am inside, all my strength is channelled into the animals. I paint to stay peaceful ”.


Indeed, if there is a "quiet strength" in his paintings, it is probably because Rémi Bourquin concentrates his energy and his tension in the smallest detail of the canvas. Although he admits to being absent in his painting, he expresses his distress, his sadness, sometimes even his anger through endless horizons or dozing tigers. Why not choose to make the brush spring, go beyond the line, crush the material ? Why not let off steam without restricting yourself to a classic and contained writing ? Rémi Bourquin gets it off by preparing his canvas, or by working the skies. The rest is a concentrate of attention, thoroughness and nuance. From these subjects with perfect contours, subjects of tension and tranquillity, a feeling of eternity emerges, an imperturbable calm, soothing and comforting beaches of silence. Like statues, Rémi Bourquin's animals are inscribed in the duration of the marble.

Unlike the first animals produced by the artist between 1988 and 1993, the halo of dust has disappeared, the vaporous and putrefying atmosphere in which they were bathed is sanitized, lightened. The gates are gone, the cages no longer appear. In this new series, the subjects are illuminated by direct light, the colors are vibrant, limpid, crystalline. The animals spring from the canvas with all the more force that they are devoid of shadow, perspective, and any external contextual element. Set cold on marble plinths, almost life-size, the subjects stand out, provocative by so much immediacy. Can we speak of hyperrealism and compare Rémi Bourquin to these artists, Demuth, Sheeler, Benton, Mac Lean, Cottingham who, in their time, took an ultra realistic look at objects to reproduce them in an exact and almost photographic way ?  The reconciliation is summary and erroneous. If they have in common the accuracy of the image and fidelity to details, the precision of Rémi Bourquin is not clinical, the rendering is neither cold nor devoid of any emotional content, the artist's gaze is neither neutral nor distant. Like Edward Hopper - who was also sometimes accused of hyperrealism - Rémi Bourquin seems insensitive to the currents of his time, imposing his sober style, his way of painting, frank and direct. Like the American artist, he places his subjects in such destitution that he extracts their essence. From this beacon at the end of a jetty, from these watch cabins on an empty beach like those kings of the jungle standing in front of a uniform flat area emanates a permanent reality, a singular solitude that can only send us back to ourselves. Reduced thus to the “essential thing” (Camus), the painted subject loses its temporal and accidental limits, floats in a timeless space. Impregnated by the peaceful atmosphere that emanates from the painting, emptied of all human presence, the viewer can then give free rein to their imagination.

So it's up to us to seize these animals and make them live in our own universe, in our dreams, our fantasies or our fears. It's up to us to invade the empty space of the canvas to unload or rather recharge our emotions, to find deep within ourselves our true, impulsive, animal instincts. If the human being is absent from the artist's canvases, it is because he is the main subject and the greatest source of inspiration. Evoking the painters who influenced him, Rémi Bourquin speaks of Balthus, " through whom I learned to see painting ", Edward Hopper "for his houses and interiors", Corot " for his travels ". What about animals? "No painter in particular, no man in particular, but all at the same time". Because this is one of the artist's essential points: the one who seems to set himself so far apart from others, from the world and its noise is above all a humanist, a sage who questions human nature. "My passion is understanding human beings."


Among the human race, there is one gaze that the artist privileges and respects more than all, it is that of the child. Borrowing from him his naive gaze, his wonder and his fascination with large animals and things from elsewhere, Rémi Bourquin addresses those who also know how to rediscover that instinctive gaze. Saphira, the sleeping tiger, the two bears exchanging a kiss in the water of Baiser Mouillé, aren't Tinga and Madimbo , aren't they, after all, big, sweet soft toys ready to be cuddled ? Devoid of wickedness and any bestial character, they all seem to be taken from a children's book, Rémi Bourquin's Book of the Jungle. But in the sad gaze of animals, in these lonely headlights, on these empty beaches, we find nostalgia for a time that has passed. As in Jeux d'enfants, which depicts a beach empty of human presence and children's toys, the child is gone, leaving behind his seal and ball. Painted from a very low vantage point, two feet above the ground, the empty horizons seem to be seen from the eyes of a child. Rémi Bourquin is undoubtedly a modern-day Moogli, recreating around him exotic beings who become his friends. In his studio, far from the social jungle, he lives with them, inside. “The real trip is actually in my studio”.

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