Around the globe, artists are in suspended animation. Whether they're alone, with friends or in a family, these are unforeseen conditions. In France, you can only go out for groceries, to briefly walk a pet or visit the pharmacy. However, 8pm every night, across the country, people lean out their windows to applaud their doctors, nurses, drivers, janitors and supermarket cashiers. Curious about what this challenge might be affecting, I asked a few French creators how they're doing. We didn't talk about the big issues; just the small, daily acts of life and work.
Officially designated National Year of the Comic in France, 2020 is anything but. Publishing has halted, festivals are cancelled, galleries have closed and shows are in suspension. Few of the Year's initiatives even survive. But one, by the Musée d'Orsay, is flourishing. It is their debut "Instagram Artist in Residence". Every Monday, at five p.m., the museum uploads a new drawing by Jean-Philippe Delhomme.
Although Delhomme's hashtag appears on the posts, all are his fictitious uploads by famous artists. They picture Picasso fretting that Braque may have more followers, Gauguin showing off exotic travel pics and JK Huysmans fulminating that algorithms may replace jurists for the Salon. (Edgar Degas posts ballerinas at a window while instructing "I can't show all my long paintings at once. Please swipe! #tableauenlong).
The works are extensions of Delhomme's Artists' Instagrams, published last year by August Editions. It's a sly dissection of the platform's heart: a torrent of ego, ambitions and false humility. Just like his 2013 The Unknown Hipster Diaries – born out of a blog started back in 2009 – the posts have a following that spans several languages. The same is true of New York, the luxury Travel Book Delhomme did for Louis Vuitton.
Delhomme is a serious painter who also writes novels. But his comic art targets what the French call mondanités – all the distractions of a modern, globalized society. Born and schooled in Paris at École normale supérieure des arts décoratifs, he is known around the world for his illustration. Delhomme works commercially in magazines such as Vogue and The New Yorker – and for clients like Chanel and Barneys. Yet all his art maintains a certain remove. "Everyone," he once told Le Monde, "assumes my only interest is in socialites and middle-class bohemians." If so, they're not really looking at his work.
For me, Delhomme's funniest book appeared at Christmas. This is Classe Ego, which publisher Denoël calls "a societal selfie". The book is a coffee-table tome, captioned portraits that capture the song of self composed by iPhone addicts." "I must admit," Delhomme writes in its intro, "I'm always a little embarrassed watching someone take a selfie… Every time I run across one on Instagram, even when it's a ravishing girl, I still find it a tiny bit vulgar."
Nor does he really think the likes of Manet would really have used it. As he told Art in America, "I think social media is alienating to artists because it's a space for promotion—even this word, 'promotion,' is stupid for an artist. You’re submitting your work for random people's approval, and that’s the worst thing for an artist! You should make work for yourself, not for the public's evaluation. If you get addicted to that, you become a brand, and satisfying your customers is all that matters."
Classe Ego typifies Delhomme's style of caricature, which is a wicked addition to a long French tradition. It took wing late in the 1830s when new money and new technology fueled mass-market print. Comprised of lithographs, booklets and printed series, fashion journals and subscription publications, much of this published culture poked fun at social "types". Spilling into every sort of comic art (including souvenirs and the theatre), it took social habits and pretensions as targets.
This culture birthed journals like La Caricature but also sales phenomena such as Les Français Peints par eux-même (The French Depicted by Themselves). Beginning in 1839, employing over one hundred artists, Les Français ran for 422 installments and filled ten published volumes. Like the contemporary "Physiologies", pamphlets that "analyzed" society in caricatures, its comic portraits proved very versatile. They were as comfortable alongside essays as in fashion magazines or caricature collections. Just like Delhomme's trendy, mordant portraits, they were also popular with advertisers.
Delhomme's comic predecessors were its artists: talents like Paul Gavarni, Achille Devéria, Henry Monnier, J.J. Grandville and Honoré Daumier. Just like him, many of them were worldly, erudite – and insatiably curious.
Such precursors would sympathize with current conditions. All of them suffered through 1832 with its terrifying, six-month plague of cholera. (In fourteen days, that epidemic killed 7,000 Parisians.) Then, in 1870, with the Franco-Prussian War, their city was surrounded and starved over four cold months. Henry Monnier and Honoré Daumier – the latter, at 63, starting to lose his sight – survived and then saw much of Paris burned to the ground. Then, with the end of the Paris Commune, thousands of citizens were shot in the streets.
One of Delhomme's Instagrams features famous animal artist Rosa Bonheur (1822-1899). Separated from those creatures she loves to paint, Bonheur is mourning the current quarantine. Yet the real life Bonheur fulminated as the enemy approached. she wrote a friend that she would flee them only "after having run all the wine out of my cellar, broken all the bottles and killed all my animals."*
Maybe you're not in Rosa Bonheur's position, but how do you find yourself?
I'm at the table where I work in my apartment in Paris, overlooking a boulevard which, no surprise, is rather silent and unusually empty. Even though all of us are working remotely, that was somehow always the case. To concentrate or create, you need to accept a certain isolation, cut yourself off from the stream of phone calls, emails, talks and going out … Of course it's one thing to do this voluntarily and quite another to do it because of a dramatic world situation.
To keep on doing what we do in that context, I think we need to let ourselves inhabit in the moment of what we're doing. For me listening to music and, even more, to live radio shows helps a lot. I listen every day, most of the day, to online WorldwideFM – where I hear many of my favorite DJs and broadcasters. It gives a great sense of community. Being linked by the same beliefs in music and sharing a common culture makes us closer. Even though none of us can travel now, it means you can be in London, New York or Tokyo...
(On Monday April 20, Delhomme and Tokyo DJ Toshio Matsuura collaborated through Worldwide FM: Matsuura spun, inspired by Delhomme's art. "I always listen to Toshio’s show while I'm painting and a couple of weeks ago, I wrote him." He wrote back saying "Why not send me some paintings and I'll play whatever music that they inspire in me.")
You are disciplined anyway. But, in terms of work, has having extra time on your hands changed things?
Every day I go to work in my studio, including weekends. I moved all the supplies necessary so I could work at home. I do the same thing as I would do at the studio, I paint and draw every day. Start up in the morning and go on until 8pm. Mostly, I do this no matter where I am. If I go on holiday or I am traveling, I'll keep on painting every day, maybe do landscapes, etc… Currently, I have a page in French Vanity Fair where they feature a different painting every month. The only difference really is that often I paint people and I do portraits but, of course, now I can't have sitters coming over.
Sometimes I'll ask my son or daughter to sit, as they are staying with us. But they're also busy with their own work: my son is an illustrator and my daughter an architect. Our youngest is a musician, staying on his own in Montmartre [Lewis Delhomme plays in The Jools]. So we watch his Instagram stories, him playing or doing covers.
Thus I maintain the same way of spending my day. I also have the same inspiration: books and music. So far, I have enough supplies but I might have to adapt, work on smaller sizes… you just use what you have.. It's already great luck just being able to work.
What are you focused on in more general terms? Has being inside so much changed your thinking?
The situation is already a stress for everyone. So I do paintings and drawings of what comes the most naturally…I find subjects around me in the apartment or from the windows, the changing light in the rooms. I’m not pushing or forcing anything. Normally I would read in the morning, about art, painters' biographies. Then I go to the studio along with my dog and I take her for long walks during the day. For me, those are breaks from work; for her, they're breaks from sleep. But of course such walks are now reduced to the minimum. I think it's absolutely necessary to do this, collectively. So there's no question about compliance; we totally accept it.
Under normal circumstances, how you handle social media? Has that changed at all?
I'm not on social media apart from Instagram. It has always been a torrent of images, but you don’t have to look at them all. Instagram is like a crowded dinner: some people talk too loud, some others not enough, some brag about themselves, some say interesting things… you have to move your chair to the right spot. I would say only follow people you really like; it's important not to get over-loaded with images or information that will rob you of energy and inspiration. Don’t let FOMO mess you up. It's important to keep your inspirations and a fresh state of mind. Even more so during a time like this one.
You often satirize worldly spheres – like fashion and galleries – and you critique self-regard and self-presentation. All those worlds have already had to change. Do you think they can embrace big change creatively ?
I've done a lot of things about the worlds of culture – some as social or satirical comment. But somehow I've become less interested by this… and more into painting what I see. Although, as Classe Ego shows, I'll always go back to it. For revenge on society and to amuse people… or, at least, to amuse some friends.
About the changes, I don’t know. Anything could be creatively embraced… or not. It's all a matter how one looks at things. In the end, our media and habits don't have such importance. I find the same goals, the same behaviors, the same psychological motives now as I do in Balzac and Flaubert …even though their characters were not dealing with social media, texts and virtual art shows. It's all about the way we choose to look at things.
That's another thing. Culturally and logistically, you're the epitome of a transatlantic artist. What are you missing? I know that, in addition to Paris, you have a studio in Brooklyn.
Of course I very much miss my Bushwick studio. I've been sharing it for the last ten years or so and it's been a place of adventure and experimentation…Being by myself all day at the studio, often until 10 p.m… having dinner by myself around 11 p.m. at some late-closing restaurant back in Manhattan… Then, the next day, doing it all again. Most of my paintings have been about the area. I do landscapes from my studio windows.
There was a certain loneliness, but overall a sense of freedom. If I'm in New York, I'm totally immersed in my work, I only go out of the studio on Saturday mornings, when I check the art galleries. Once in a while I'll have dinner with friends, but only the ones who are willing to have dinner late, which is not too many… I can't stand to leave the studio to have dinner at 7 p.m.!
The artist friend I share the studio with also splits his time, between Paris and New York. We don't know when we'll be able to go back to the States, when we'll return to our studio. I also miss Los Angeles where, over the two last years, I've spent time working on the paintings for my show "Los Angeles Langage" at Perrotin. That's been my biggest project – it's around fifty paintings I did in Los Angeles. The opening date had already been pushed to May 16. Right now, it's on hold.
I just miss traveling. A year ago I went to Tokyo and the Art islands (Naoshima, Teshima, etc) in Japan with my friend from the August Journal. That was to do some paintings and drawings as well as a story for their Tokyo issue. That's out now, it came out just as Japan went into lockdown. I miss Greece where I go very often to paint landscapes. I should add that I miss London as well. I spent a lot of time there in the 90s', working on animated films and doing TV spots …Because I spend my days listening to Worldwide FM or 6Music, I feel closer to the Brit vibe and I felt galvanized by the Queen’s speech!
If I took one thing for granted it was traveling. That possibility was my idea of freedom. Now it all seems like something from another time; we don’t know how much time it will be before it's possible again.
What do you find yourself thinking most about?
Let's pay tribute to and thank those people with the courage to help others, and those who keep on doing all those things necessary to the community. It makes us all conscious of usually-unseen kindness and greatness… During this period I want look at the positive, the beauty and what we can send as messages to make others feel good, to encourage them. Which, to be a little more precise, has to include humor.
- Jean-Philippe Delhomme's weekly Instagrams for the Musée d'Orsay are visible here each Monday; his new book "Classe Ego" (Denoël ) is available now
*None of Rosa Bonheur's animals ended up being killed. This included sheep, gazelles, horses, lions, wild boar, dogs goats, birds, cats, an otter, an eagle, an ostrich and a ten-pronged stag.