With Klaus Achen, Pavel Baroch, and Marcel Sabourin, Francis Lepage was one of the key figures of the early Anti-Real movement. His 1918 perma-transient installation Feu Statique, the first of its kind, caused an uproar when first exposed. For the next forty years he continued to set milestones for the post-real art world, exploring the themes of life, transience, and God. In this exclusive interview, Lepage talks with Realität Kunstform about the first stirrings of the post-real in his childhood, his experiences with Sabourin and Achen, and suggests that he might not be so retired after all.
Realität Kunstform: M. Lepage, at the age of twenty-four, you created one of the first pieces of post-real art, Feu Statique. You went on to become one of the founders of the Anti-Realist movem-
Francis Lepage: No, I wasn't. Even when I was, I wasn't so much. [laughs]. I have never been one for groups, really. It is just a slow death, cut apart by lines that you cannot cross and such. Before I created Feu Statique, there was already an Anti-Realist manifesto. Imagine, less than two months since Nő Kutya Nélkül, and already a manifesto. Apparently, I broke some of the rules [Martin] Despins wrote out about the right way to be wrong. That's why it caused such a stir, you know? They thought I was… what was it that [Marcel] Sabourin wrote? "Attempting to sooth the holocaust of reality with treacle and warm milk," I think. [laughs] I had been working for about three years on Feu Statique, and then [Pavel] Baroch was two months faster than me. So people assume that I was copying him, when that was clearly not the case. But no, I never considered myself one of the Anti-Realists.
RK: If that's the case, what were your inspirations for Feu Statique?
FL: Well, it was many things. Of course, there were the formative experiences, when I was a boy. Later, when I was in school, I remember seeing the cave paintings [at Font-de-Gaume] and thinking about how little things had actually changed. Art being made from reality, rather than being reality. But at the same time, I was inspired. After thousands of years, these depictions were still extant, keeping the artists alive in their statements. I wanted to create something that spoke to that combination of transience and permanence.
RK: You mention "formative experiences." Can you explain?
FL: When I was a boy, maybe five or six, my mother bought a silk shawl. She was so proud of it, she wore it everywhere she went. And it was beautiful, like the color of sunsets. One day, I was painting with my little paints, and I thought "wouldn't it be wonderful if I used the shawl for a canvas?" And so I did, and I made something that I am still proud of to this day. But my mother yelled at me, and then my father beat me. He said that the shawl was not for painting, and that I had ruined it. I couldn't help but wonder, why are some things forbidden for expression? Later, when I learned about the Byzantine kings and their laws against wearing purple, I realized. An expression is personal and eternal. Terms like possible or moral are just attempts to chain expression.
RK: Speaking of materials, your installation La Vie Et Mort D'Jean Senneville was the first work to utilize a human subject. To this day, it's one of your most controversial pieces. Thirty years later, has your perspective on the piece changed at all?
FL: My perspective on the piece now isn't particularly important. I wanted to show the art that is human life and death and suffering and joy in its most basic form. The idea came to me in a dream, I think. I was seeing myself being born and dying, reincarnated again and again as the same person. It stuck with me, I suppose. There was also a practical aspect as well; I don't think that I could have kept an entire family in a gallery for so long, and the effects of rapid aging make M. Senneville rather easy to contain. [laughs] As for the poor fellow, I wanted someone wholly average. Another artist or a model or a willing subject would have changed the context. It wouldn't matter if the viewer would know; I would know, and it would poison the entire work.
RK: As a result of some of your work, particularly Jean Senneville, many critics have labeled you as a primarily nihilistic artist. Do you feel that's a fair assement?
FL: The people who say such nonsense are- it is as if, upon seeing the Pyramids at Giza, they could only reflect upon the workers who died during its construction! Pain and suffering or whatever it is that upsets my critics is not the primary intention of my work; I am making an expression. I am making an expression as a human, using whatever I feel is necessary, against the vast universe! If anything, I consider myself a humanist. I am not rebelling against God or whatever people have said I do. I am rebelling against our views. People talk about science and knowledge and what is possible and what is not, and they mean it! They really do. They mean it like some Manichean nonsense, as if one isn't the other. I have no time for such people. When I was making Le Moulin à Papier, [Klaus] Achen claimed I was "going too far" because it could affect areas outside of the gallery, and could bring "unwanted attention," he said. When someone misses the point that badly, is that afraid of expression, he can only be a poseur. It makes sense, I suppose. He had been a Theosophist before trying his hand at art. After the Anti-Realists collapsed, he turned to the Star Church. I hear he is quite happy there, thinking he is a Red Giant or such. [laughs]
RK: Despite your issues with Achen, you must admit that Warum Sind Wir Nicht Kunst? has been instrumental in the continued vitality of the post-realist art world. Just recently, it went into its sixth printing. Artists ranging from Lars Denneman to Cheng Hê having cited it as one of the most important books ever publi-
FL: Exactly! That's exactly my point! Have you seen the state of the art world today? It is filled with homage, as the artists raised on Achen are happy to regurgitate the same cliches that became tired in the Forties. That, or they simply go for shock value. There is no art in a body count, they just think that the louder a statement is made, the better it is. They almost managed to destroy art, to bring down the hammer upon all extra-normal expression. It had been building a long time, and the raid [on the Blue Principle Gallery in 1967] was simply the final straw. Since then, they have dispersed, making small exhibitions here and there. Even so, they still have not learned their lessons. Still the same vomit, still the same death. It is quite upsetting, to be frank.
RK: With the raid on the Blue Principle, and the subsequent destruction of Sept Étapes De Dieu Et L'Homme, you largely ceased producing art. Without a creative outlet, how do you manage?
FL: [laughs] You know, Sept Étapes wasn't supposed to be in that gallery. It was a previous show, and it was about to be moved out. Then it was destroyed all because of that jackass Achenite [Paul] Kemp and his- I'm sorry, you were asking about not making art? I never stopped making art. When I wake in the morning, that is art. When I take a shit, it is art. Art is just the physical expression of culture, and culture is the psychological expression of life. Everything we do is an expression of life. As for an exhibition, which is what I assume that you mean, I never "retired," as you say. I've been working for some time on a project of my own. At some point, I suppose, it will be ready, but it is of great personal importance, and I cannot allow it to be seen before it is perfect.
RK: A new work? Wh-
FL: No, I suppose I've already said too much. [laughs] To color perceptions before a thing is complete, it's terrible. It will be ready when it is finished and I am satisfied.