Mendrisse, like a watchman waiting for the dawn

By Virginie Luc


Like a watchman waiting for the dawn, Jean-Louis Mendrisse has, for over forty years, been waiting for enigmatic figures to move silently into his canvases.


They arrived long ago.


Like a child amazed by the world’s spectacle, the young boy spent many hours in the workshop of his father, the sculptor Jean Mosnier, who, throughout his life, fashioned fragments of bodies from immense blocks of marble and black volcanic rock, transforming lava stone into shining, almost sweating silk. His father expressed, and passed down, his creativity by manipulating his burin to delicately carve out the face of the Virgin and the hands of saints, imbuing his work with a terrible beauty. In turn, like the air he breathes, freely, without remonstrance or advice, Jean-Louis looks for goddesses in the clay he models and in his preparatory sketches.


He wanted to create a world that belonged to him alone. Yet he still retains the memory of the child inhabited by the people of stone who still haunt him as an adult. Tirelessly, the painter works to transmute his father’s shadow into light, reinventing the divinities he has known since childhood and has made his own by means of sharp tints – sanguine purple, sky yellow, regal blue – and the subtle transparency of glaze.


A secluded atelier at the end of an impasse off the Place de la Bastille in Paris. Everyday the capricious muses beckon the painter there. To reveal them. One sketch is followed by another, each one drawn on separate leaves of tracing paper. He gathers together and then muddles up the little transparent sheets, juxtaposing them, turning them over, placing them on top of each other, moving them around again until soon, by chance, he finds “the” scene that will serve as the architecture of the painting to come.


Now he can start to prepare the canvas. Standing before his easel, the fight – sometimes it’s more like a dance – can commence. Shapes emerge – first in acrylic to lay the foundations – adding structure, filling the void. Once the surface has been prepared, the content is brought to life with oils. The hours pass more slowly, the work is more meticulous, more focused. Any error would be fatal. Colours invade the canvas: drapes of velvet raspberry clothe the immaculate bodies, shadows carve the outlines of emaciated faces, gazes are sharpened by rich black hues, while dazzling whites highlight souls from which issue ribbons of dreams and sand. Perspectives vacillate, the horizon trembles.


Finely chiselled decors emerge from the back of the canvas – a lakeside city, a forgotten Babylon, endless labyrinths … Rooted in the foreground of these oneiric landscapes, rectangular bodies sensually break free from the bottom of the painting and surge upwards towards an ether sky.


Often, a delicate neck leans back and a face looks up at the sky, its expression revealing a previously hidden secret. “The Memory of the Sky” can be read in the dark eyes. It’s the gaze which, like a pointing index finger in a Mannerist painting, shows us what the painting doesn’t, what the frame is unable to contain: the invisible.


So, with our gaze anchored in his, when silence descends all around, we sometimes hear the strains of violins and the undulations of a voice that comes from so far away that we believe it to be eternal. As if the painter’s work contained the song of Vivaldi’s Stabat Mater or the choruses of Thomas Tallis’s Spem In Alium, which often fill his atelier.


Mendrisse’s paintings are a prayer, but their only religion is Mankind. Sacred and profane, real and dream-like, contemporary and ancient. “Painting raises me up,” he says in his smooth voice. “It enables us to get out of ourselves and to reach a superior reality, to forge a link with the invisible, to something greater than ourselves.” Such is the profound motivation of a man who paints like others pray. “It’s our need to know that drives us on, otherwise we are nothing. Nothing, because the substance we holds between our fingers always fades. And because we manipulate things which do not exist.”


An alchemist marooned in a godless age, he is still looking for other possibilities in the creative act. On the margins, far from hackneyed modes and tools of expression, the painter holds with quiet fidelity to what he believes to be true. Painting, gesture, technique, colours, the all important use of oils, a supreme patience. The desperate quest of the painter – resumed in the gaze of his creations – is to look beyond Mankind’s horizons, not so much for a lost paradise as for a kind of unity, a fullness that, perhaps, preceded the beginning.


Then, even if a doubt remains, even if the secret is not revealed, even if the sky is still empty, in each of Mendrisse’s paintings, in each of the gazes that he sends in our direction, there is an invitation to dream. “Real life is elsewhere,” the poet said. The painter expresses his words in colours. 



Virginie Luc

Paris, 28 July 2008



Jean-Louis Mendrisse was born on May 19, 1955 in Clermont-Ferrand (France). He lives in Paris. His work is exhibited in France and the United States.