In Monaco, a Retrospective Looks Back on the Eclectic Career of a Chameleonlike French Painter

Aug 24, 2016 11:10PM

“We change our car, we change our girlfriend, we change our socks, we change our underwear. So,” French figurative painter Robert Combas has said, “you must keep changing your painting, your drawing and your ideas.”

That philosophy has driven Combas to continually reinvent himself throughout his decades-long career. He is perhaps best known for emerging onto the international art scene in the early 1980s as leader of the Figuration Libre (Free Figuration) movement, which he said is “about doing whatever you want as much, as personally, and as freely as possible.”

It should come as little surprise, then, that Combas’ practice has been uninhibited by conventional rules or expectations. His oeuvre runs the gamut from visual interpretations of classic texts, such as John Milton’s Paradise Lost, to thematic exhibitions that pay tribute to historic events and cultural icons, from the Trojan War to Toulouse-Lautrec.

A new retrospective, organized by Galerie Laurent Strouk in Paris and held at the Grimaldi Forum in Monaco, looks back at several key phases in the artist’s eclectic career, particularly in the 1980s and ’90s. The show features more than 100 works revolving around Combas’ favorite themes: history, battles and conflicts, religion, mythology, music, bestiary and landscape, phantasmagoria, and self-portraiture, to name just a few.

If that sounds like a lot of ground to cover in a single exhibition, consider Combas’ biography: In the late 1970s, he stood out among his contemporaries for breaking with abstract and conceptual art, even before the artist Benjamin Vautier coined the phrase “Figuration Libre” to describe Combas’ style (Combas himself consider calling it “fun painting”). He was a musician involved in the French punk scene, but he also worked on a series of paintings portraying Mickey Mouse and other children’s cartoon characters. He founded his own magazine, BATO, a so-called “assemblagist work of art,” and in the 1980s showed his works alongside American artists like Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Eventually, an interest in Byzantine cathedrals prompted Combas to create a series of works based around religious iconography.

Chameleonlike and endlessly inspired, Combas defies categorization. And that’s exactly how he likes it. “I am not Hergé or Andy Warhol,” he has said, “nor am I like all the great painters who are often the prisoners of a kind of painting, of an established order, who change only every six years or, in some cases, not once in their whole lifetime. Life,” he says, “is change.”

—Bridget Gleeson

Robert Combas: 80s & 90s” is on view at the Grimaldi Forum, Monaco, Aug. 7–Sept. 11, 2016.

Follow Galerie Laurent Strouk on Artsy.