A Messenger of Light

Un Messager de lumière (par Anne Zali)

The child’s eyes are wide open, he’s burning, his face expresses nameless pain, his cry in the silence is a deafening clamour. He raises his hand as if to stop something. And she, his mother, is beside him, all her love powerless to prevent something from shattering. Yet the obscure light of her gaze seems to glimpse beyond the devastated earth, the distraught softness of a shore.

For more than fifty years now, this Virgin and Child has been with me, and it has lost none of its heartbreaking humanity or its power of hope, ever since that distant day when Jacques Riousse saw me fascinated by his painting and said to me, „Take it away!)

ill.1 Virgin and Child, painting on canvas, sd (sd=undated), private collection, AZ

I met him in the 70s, one Sunday at mass in Saint Martin de Peille, where I was accompanying my parents, and was taken by the light of the place, its particular transparency and the beauty of the surrounding mountains. On the square in front of the chapel, he was welcoming the few faithful, the wind was blowing the scent of lavender and sun-drenched hills and it seemed to me that the whole world was dancing around this man and that his blue eye, so blue, had caught a huge piece of the sky.

And I came back to see him, on foot from Monaco, taking the little path from La Turbie that climbed through the olive groves and mint trees. For me, my stays at Saint Martin de Peille became moments of freedom, open to the Unforeseeable. Everything contributed to a sense of bohemia and adventure: there was the teeming bric-a-brac of the studio, lit by huge windows through which the mountains came in, this prodigious mess where the most unlikely objects were side by side, ghostly coat racks, scraps of wood, coral, scuba diving, metal, pottery, sculptures, canvases, stained glass. It was as if the universe had invited itself there at the time of its genesis, or rather its eruption! Jacques Riousse created as he breathed; he gathered, picked, tinkered as if he had been given the task by the Eternal to endlessly transform the debris of scattered, broken matter, to engulf it with the breath of the Spirit, its vehemence, and the flow of its inexhaustible inventiveness.

There were also the long evenings under the lamp, when he would talk and talk, endlessly delving into his memories, about his experience as a young maths teacher, his three years in the deportation camp, the weddings he had celebrated in the mountains, the films he had made with Abel Gance… Meals always had something miraculous about them: he would open the fridge door and throw himself enthusiastically into some daring mixtures, which he would then throw into a frying pan quickly cleaned with newspaper. The results were sometimes surprising, but always interesting!

There was still the magic of the rooms he had carved out of the rock where he piled mattresses and canvases! My favourite was the Lusignan Room, with its sad clown and two serious children getting married holding a large lily, on the edge of an almost completely destroyed town, watched by a little dog brimming with consolation…

Lastly, there was the indefinable imprint of all those travellers, artists and non-artists alike, from the four winds of the planet, who had found helpful hospitality with him: penniless painters, Russian aristocrats in exile, a Chinese priest, men and women of all ages in search of the meaning of their lives (at Saint Martin de Peille, at any time of the day or year, there was a place to eat and a mattress available!)

In between several visits to his ‚parishioners‘ or the museums of Nice and Antibes, I remember with particular fondness the enchantment of that early morning in Cap d’Ail. The sun was still brand new and the sea had that warm, restful smell of summer mornings. When we reached the end of the red rocks, we spent a long time looking at the seabed, the basaltic purples and the incredible transparency of the water bathed in light, the phosphorescence of the blues and greens and the flash of tiny fish. As if in a dream of wonder, he had evoked the beginnings of the world, „when the earth, he said, was still just an immense meadow of blue seaweed“…

On another occasion, we went to see some friends whose daughter was ill somewhere far away in the mountains. I remember a long journey in his legendary 2CV; on the way he showed me his hermit’s hut hidden in a wild setting of rocks overlooking a mountain river. In the evening, at the wake, he had recounted Giono’s novel „Que ma joie demeure“ with great animation, dwelling on the end, the moment when Bobi separates from Aurore to join his solitary destiny and experience a form of ultimate illumination in death: „…and the lightning stabbed him between the two shoulders with a great knife of blue light…“. I think he had a prodigious memory, but what struck me at the time was the very special fervour of his relationship with Bobi, Bobi the Amazed, the Solitary, Bobi his brother!

He was a being of light. I remember his acute face, the intense blue of his eyes, his silhouette anchored to the ground against a mountain backdrop, his living hands always at work. (ill.2)

ill.2 Jacques Riousse, photo from the 1980s?

His presence is stocky, the colour of rock. He is a man of solitude and strong winds, his gestures are wide, and when he speaks he brings to life the long swell of human history, so fragile under the gaze of eternity. He is filled with vertigo and an acute sense of the relativity of everything. He has separated himself, withdrawn from the games of power and money, and ironises about the pitfalls of wealth, easily taking aim at the „Monegasque croupiers“ and this shabby, superficial principality „that lives off the laundering of dirty money“. He wonders about poverty in the Church and the dissociation between individual poverty and… collective wealth. He often said that if he had lived in the Middle Ages, he would have become a Franciscan.

He has a radical intransigence, an acute sense of truth and a secret incandescence.

It’s as if something of him were buried in the whirlpool of the galaxies, talking to the stars…

He’s a cosmic man, full of rivers and pebbles (he liked to remember that ‚riousse‘ came from ‚rivus‘, which in Cicero’s time meant ‚little stream‘).

His shadow is lost in the black flame of the cypress trees.
He was a whistleblower before his time, a prophet who rebuked injustice and hypocrisy.
He carries with him the experience of the camps. In that nakedness, he acquired a knowledge of mankind and strengthened a few solid principles: „the rich create the poor“, „you are rich with everything you don’t need to live“ and others that I have forgotten.
There remained in him something of the teacher anxious to pass on: through the secret channels of a living pedagogy that belonged to him alone…

Today, when I dream of him, I see him standing on his little terrace below in the vibrant heat of summer, surrounded by the song of the cicadas, busy assembling pieces of metal, bringing disjointed universes together, welding the improbable, his own strong and joyful way of celebrating the world, the fragile alliance of the living; his own playful way of joining in the dance of creatures. This is how I see him, inseparable from that gold, absorbed in the work of his hands, radiating a distant light.

Mass there

Or he’s standing in front of his church, planted like a rock among the olive trees. His eyes so clear. The wind blows-or perhaps the Spirit. The traveller senses that he has arrived in a very inhabited place. It’s Sunday, just before 10 o’clock. He rings the bell, waking up all the surrounding hills. The call vibrates for a long time in the clear air. Today no one will come. He says, „It doesn’t matter, I’ll say mass inside“. Indoors, that is, in the delightful mess of his living room. The only faithful member of the family, I’m sitting in the armchair of a beat-up old 2CV, where I’ve finally found a little free space. At his back, large expressionist paintings with emaciated faces and huge feverish eyes imbued with immense pain. In the centre, in pale lighting, a man who must be Christ stands out against a red and black wall, raising his left hand towards a very pale sun, holding a piece of bread with a hole in it in his right hand. He is waving like a sailor on a voyage, lost far away in the sea breeze. His eyes are filled with bright stars, and he is opening a path of overwhelming innocence. His prayer is a cry (ill.3)

ill.3) Last Supper, painting on canvas, sd)

The years have gone by and this painting still crystallises for me the living soul of the place, listening to a world in danger; I continue to hear in it the strength of a call, the presence of a wind that is not from here. I „hear“ it as a testament of fire… An invitation to set out on our journey…

(ill.4 Pélerins d’Emmaüs, painting on canvas, sd)

Little by little, it seems to me that we are not alone in the celebration of this strange Eucharistic liturgy, and that their silent voices, charged with invisible presences, share in the mystery of his offering. Sometimes he pauses to recite snatches of a great cosmic meditation, he dreams with his eyes wide open, the whole history of the world surges through his words, transforming the darkness of a small, dishevelled room into the dawn of another world where time no longer exists.

The memory of her in my mind today merges with the laughter of the light, with the tireless singing of the crickets and cicadas, with everything that says it’s summer there, with an impatience to be in the world and the certainty that we’re just passing through, with a feeling of exile, of solitude, of vertigo but also of mad immersion in the dance of the living. With the intensity of a stained-glass window, her presence continues to shine like the lamp of a refuge lit in the middle of the mountain, her voice has the colours of hope, she opens up the inexhaustible possibilities of play, she whispers in our ear that there is for each of us to seize our own existence, to go to the end of our dream, to dare the freedom of our singular path.

A work in tune with the times

His work, in its religious dimension, takes on its full meaning in the historical context of the hopes kindled by the Fondation de la Mission de France and the creation of the workers‘ priests: a desire to get closer to the world of work and the poorest people, to vigorously rediscover the evangelical demands formulated by the Beatitudes. The consistency of his artistic approach emerges in his use of poor materials, always salvaged, humble kitchen or gardening tools, worn, broken, destroyed, often linked to the traces of war, grenades, shrapnel, metal helmets (picked up on Mont Agel)… We can also see the impetus of redemption that drives all these sculptures, which seem to be carried away by an irresistible dance, a wind of cosmic lightness, as they enter a second life.

In its human dimension, it echoes the distress of its century and can be read against a backdrop of historical tragedy, but it always opens a window to hope, a space for the light of the heart.

Somewhere he wrote: „The artist is not separate. He participates in the common life, but more sensitively, he picks up its imperceptible tremors with many antennae, he perceives the forces, the currents, the waves that run through it. It listens to man’s calls and anxieties. It intuitively grasps his deepest aspirations, his unspoken desires. Then he withdraws a little from the noisy crowd (…) The artist, then in a state of clairvoyance, suddenly grasps by penetrating to the heart of beings the secret relationships that he had been guessing for a long time without being able to reach them“ („Dialogue de l’Artiste avec son temps“, „Conférences de la Salle Saint-Dominique“, sd).

That’s how the solitude of her studio, like a marvellous shell, became filled with presences and voices, and allowed itself to be permeated by the murmur of these faces, the irruption of these currents of energy. And so, in her own dented way, she began to welcome the song of the world. If there is something deeply moving in her work, it lies in this transfiguration of what is most damaged, neglected, despised, in a state of disrepair, in this inexhaustible fervour for transformation that animates her hands.

„Man’s battles, shrapnel, from now on be no more than the Madonna of Peace“.

Art brut?

In a fine article published in the catalogue of the „Beautés insensées“ exhibition in 2006, Jean Marie Bouhours refers to his work as „art brut“ and „homme brut“ in Dubuffet’s sense of the term, i.e. a man whose „moods and impressions are delivered raw, with their very vivid smells, like eating a herring, without cooking it in any way, as soon as it is caught, still dripping with sea water“. He sees in his work „a non-referential and wild creation, devoid of any normative teaching“ whose aim is „pastoral and mystical“.
For my part, I’m not sure that we can really speak as he does of „a position closed in on itself, almost autistic in relation to an alienating world, from which it protects itself thanks to a personal symbolic system“. On the contrary, it seems to me that his studio, with its huge picture windows through which the beauty of the world flowed, was a mysterious sounding board where the whole universe vibrated in the tumult of its forms emerging in great disorder, in an irresistible contagion. It seems to me that his approach, all discretion and modesty, was guided more by the extreme freedom accorded to objects in their irregular, rough, uncalibrated materiality, which certainly led him towards unbridled creations in the sense that no consideration of conformity to an aesthetic canon could impede their outpouring, restrain their boundless plasticity.

 Art brut, yes, in the sense that his energy is that of a passion for recycling that takes everything – iron, wood, plastic, from the burner to the coat rack, not forgetting the soleplate, the skimmer, the iron or the bicycle saddle – in a movement of transformation, of reinvention in the course of a baptism of fire achieved by his legendary welding… His logic is that of a „divine do-it-yourselfer“ who grabs hold of everything that passes through his hands and never ceases to accommodate the debris and lame remains of a Creation damaged by History. It’s his way of being part of the dramas of his time, and with such fervour. He’s a man who listens deeply, and I’m not sure that what he’s giving us here are his ‚raw impressions‘. I see it more as a turbulent fresco drawn by a little people who are by turns childlike, belligerent, candid, boastful, dreamers and prophets, digging up the nocturnal archives of the human adventure.

Alive with insolence

Life has left its mark on them in the form of wounds, battles more or less lost, and everything that has transformed, deformed or enlarged them, but they are alive, alive with insolence…
Shepherd or warrior sounding the alarm, leading the way (ill.5)

ill.5 Figure d’homme avec un bâton, sculpture fer, sd

They sometimes emerge from a slow stupor, standing with their white stones like little altars of memory (ill.6).

ill. 6 Visage d’enfant, sculpture fer avec cailloux blancs, sd

Sometimes they remember, unless they are dreaming, resting on one foot on the edge of the night while an immense butterfly flies from their heart, its wings overflowing (ill.7 ).

ill.7 Figure of Pierrot balancing on one foot, iron sculpture, sd

Sentinelles postées sur la ligne de crête : annoncent-elles l’aurore, de quelle lointaine planète oubliée nous font-elles signe ? (ill.8)

ill. 8 Animal figure, sculpture in iron, sd

Do they know something we might have lost? Don’t they have mysterious antennae? (ill.9 )

ill. 9 Virgin and Child, iron sculpture, sd

(ill.10 bis and 10) Male figure with antennae, iron sculpture, sd and 10 bis Balancing dancer, iron sculpture, sd )

ill.11 Female figure waving a sign, iron sculpture, sd

They form an unbroken chain of transmission (ill.12 Nativity, iron sculpture, sd), and with what gentleness, what tender solicitude it sometimes happens that the Elder protects the first steps of the one who still seems to be hesitating!

(ill.12 Nativity, iron sculpture, sd)

They form an unbroken chain of transmission (ill.12 Nativity, iron sculpture, sd), and with what gentleness, what tender solicitude it sometimes happens that the Elder protects the first steps of the one who still seems to be hesitating! (ill.13 Figure of a man guiding a child, iron sculpture, sd)

(ill.13 Figure of a man guiding a child, iron sculpture, sd)

ill.14 Figure of a dancing woman, iron sculpture, sd

They wave to us in a wind that is not from here

A few dates

-birth in Neuilly on 17 March 1911

-1914: his father is mobilised

-1924: he discovers Pascal’s Pensées

-1929: his father dies. Jacques works for a central heating company

-1932: teaches mathematics at a private college in Saint Martin de Pontoise, then in Amiens, where he attends the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and takes classes with Henri Lerondeau.

-1938: he discovered the thought of Teilhard de Chardin

-September 1939: he was drafted

-4 June 1940: captured by the Germans at Dunkirk and transferred to Pomerania. It was in the camp that he learned of Cardinal Suhard’s creation of the Mission de France. He was released in 1943 as a nurse.

-1944: he began studying theology

-March 1948: Cardinal Suhard ordained him a priest in Lisieux. He worked as a working priest in the Joinville film studios as an electrician, prop-maker and assistant director.

-1954: He chose to submit to the Roman decisions that put an end to the experiment with worker priests.

He learnt the art of stained glass, welding and blacksmithing.

-1957: He moved to Saint Martin de Peille, in the partially unfinished chapel built by the Nice architect Buzzi. He added stained glass windows to the bell tower, sculptures and paintings, and built his studio below the chapel to the south.

-2004: He died at the age of 93 in Peille, where he is buried.

Translation by help of DeepL

Schreibe einen Kommentar

Deine E-Mail-Adresse wird nicht veröffentlicht. Erforderliche Felder sind mit * markiert

siebzehn − 3 =