Probing into humanity

By FLORENCE MONTAGNON, docteur en muséologie.

To this day, Jean-Christophe Robert's entire production has probed into the depths of humanity through his intense way of questioning it, as well as in the intimate ways in which he has responded to it in his various compositions. The artist interrogates society along two lines - he explores society's relationships to the present in order to highlight its modes of everyday existence, and he also concentrates on its links to history in order to assess the significance of contemporary changes.

Jean-Christophe Robert subtly embeds his feelings in his works. The spectator can enter his artistic universe from a dual perspective shifting as it does between literal and figurative level, humour and irony, deep observation and critique, lightness and seriousness. Thus the visitor navigates among easily identifiable iconographic references and new items which bring along a totally altered perspective. Hence a paradoxical sense of ease and disorientation for the visitor as he moves through objects which deeply engage and challenge his feelings.

This tension figures strongly in Jean-Christophe Robert's rich aesthetic forms. His production comprises multiple objects - three-dimensional objects hung on walls, paintings standing frame to frame hanging from floor to ceiling, or relatively small sculptures and pieces encased in more standard frames.

In order to fully understand Jean-Christophe Robert's artistic development, the leading lines and goals of his project, it is necessary to examine his whole work in terms of the earlier phases of his creative development and to get a comprehensive view of the structural underpinnings of his artistic system.

Reworking genres through a diversity of aesthetic forms :

SCULPTURES - everyday objects (bronze or gold)

Oeuvre de JEAN-CHRISTOPHE ROBERT : Le icket de métro

Le ticket de métro, gold 18 carats, 1 x 1,5 x 3 cm

The sculptures are relatively small-sized objects in bronze or gold made to a scale of one; they represent everyday items. These artefacts are quite mundane, ordinary, almost insignificant, not the kind of objects which could have figured in the art pantheons of the past - remote control devices, spray aerosols, sugar boxes, cleaners, metro tickets, Q-tips cotton buds, preservatives boxes-that is, the very common items you touch and use everyday. The artist calls the gold items "sculptures de poche" ("pocket sculpture"), which points to where they come from literally, the inside of one's handbag or pocket, but also more essentially to indicate the new rapport one may have to sculpture - you can carry your pocket culture and walk around with it, lose or touch it whenever you feel like it. The sculptures show the objects as they have been reshaped and altered by the artist's hand. They seem to have been deformed by frequent and daily touching. Using bronze or gold the artist modifies these common objects as he gives them extra weight in terms of financial value and also in terms of density. This may challenge and surprise the spectator; increased mass along with increased monetary value create some distance and force the viewer to reconsider the ordinary object.

Oeuvre de JEAN-CHRISTOPHE ROBERT : Le icket de métro

Le téléphone portable, bronze, 2,1 x 4,2 x 10 cm

LANDSCAPE paintings - a technological assemblage of two brands - trademarks versus artistic icons

Oeuvre de JEAN-CHRISTOPHE ROBERT : Paysage n°

Etude pour un paysage 50 x 96 cm

In the background of landscape paintings, multinational company trademarks and reproductions of paintings by impressionist artists.

Against all expectations, Robert's landscape painting is not about representing nature per se. Instead, the artist uses a trademark which, according to him, better embodies contemporary landscape, that is a urban and universal one.

The impressionist pieces are reproductions of the famous series of Monet "The Nymphéas". The artist has chosen this particular series because of its richness - most of the compositions offer tremendous possibilities in terms of abstraction, size, colour, and also they are celebrated paintings. Indeed Monet's "Nymphéas" are commonly used by publicity brand names. This motif is often used to illustrate calendars, towels, pencils and is emblematic of art history and impressionism in particular. Moreover, art neophytes and professionals alike can relate to Manet's series though for different motives; the former for sentimental reasons and the latter because of the innovative breakthrough this series has represented in the history of modern painting. By mingling the aesthetics of publicity icons and Monet's artwork, Jean-Christophe Robert transforms commercial narrative into a renewed art form.

The size of each canvas is standard, but the material used is not since the artist also borrows from high-tech and serigraphic devices. The trademarks vary in terms of size and are more or less visible, often blending into the composition thus recalling the subliminal images publicity keeps imposing on today's world.

Oeuvre de JEAN-CHRISTOPHE ROBERT : Paysage 013

Paysage 013, 97 x 146 cm

STILL LIFES - mundane objects and volumes

Oeuvre de JEAN-CHRISTOPHE ROBERT : L'ajax vitres

L'ajax vitres, acrylic on canvas, 29,5 x 10 x 2,5 cm

Jean-Christophe Robert's still lifes are three-dimensional and depict ordinary objects on a scale of one, they are placed at eye level and are hung from walls just like paintings.

These works represent mundane, everyday objects which are neither rare nor unique nor original. They are not made of precious or valuable material; on the contrary, they are very banal, serialized objects of very common quality. They are utilitarian or ornamental, socially neutral and simple items of use to any social class. Meant for mass-consumption, they can be found anywhere filling in the shelves of food and furniture stores. Among them some big brand names, but all of them are distributed everywhere. The artist's still lifes can be classified along various categories: foodstuffs, cleaners, toiletries, toys, printed materials, decorative or furniture wares.

The structure and form of the three-dimensional still lifes gives the impression they have exploded into space. The artist does not attempt to impose any kind of hierarchy and gives equal primacy to the three main components of paintings, that is the stretcher, the canvas swathing the whole composition and the paint which, more or less conspicuously, covers the edge of the object facing the visitor and standing parallel to the wall.

Oeuvre de JEAN-CHRISTOPHE ROBERT : Découvertes, galerie Alain Gutharc, Grand-Palais, Paris.

Découvertes, galerie Alain Gutharc, Grand-Palais, Paris, 1993

PORTRAITS - a blending of intimacy and media overexposure

Oeuvre de JEAN-CHRISTOPHE ROBERT : Portrait de Xavier Cazard

Portrait de Xavier Cazard, acrylic on canvas, 180 x 180 cm

The portraits consist of nine paintings which have been put together; each one portrays the bust of the same person on a scale of one. Together these items form a square pattern and have the same background.

The artist has represented his model at nine different time moments. Hence a very specific touch for each portrait, which highlights the artist's concern with the problematic question of representing human beings. His models belong to his familial or professional circles and have been selected for their capacity for self-introspection. What emerges is the density of the model, his or her diverse facets and life traits and not simply his or her physical beauty. Each work is composed of multiple pieces just like the unfocused and split self of the individual of today, and as such may recall psychoanalytical exploration. In the background, a portrait which is emblematic of nineteenth century or twentieth century art, a dialogue is thus set between the background and the foreground. The superimposition of the contemporary portrait on the classical portrait helps establish filiations between the pieces and enhances the unifying role of the passing of time.

The format of each portrait is always the same, that is a square (1.80 x 1.80 m) made of nine canvas paintings identical in size (60 x 60 cm). The whole composition equates with canonical and average human measurements. Jean-Christophe Robert's treatment of the background and the subject in the foreground is variable. He models the background after the classics, which creates some distance, while shifting to his personal mode and style to portray the character's face and expression and to capture his model's intimate being.

Oeuvre de JEAN-CHRISTOPHE ROBERT : Portrait de Xavier Cazard

Exposition personnelle, Galerie "Chez Valentin", 1999

MYTHOLOGICAL installations - Stars in line

Oeuvre de JEAN-CHRISTOPHE ROBERT : Paris hilton la chute (détail)

Paris hilton la chute (détail) 400 x 600 cm

Mythological installations are paintings juxtaposed to one another covering up one or more entire walls. Like myths, those installations illustrate stories based on famous legends like The Iliad or The Odyssey. Jean-Christophe Robert has replaced those legends with excerpts from celebrity magazines. In lieu of heroes and gods his works show contemporary stars and celebrities. The long narrative pieces now leave space to short notes inscribed on the canvas; they are meant to be emblematic of today's news clippings. The allusion to myths is more or less evident depending on the portrait; the viewer encounters quotes from magazine titles or short sentences which may directly refer the visitor back to some mythical events - hence the fall of Karen recalls Icarus, Venus from Malibu echoes the birth of Goddess Venus, the choice of Alain alludes to Paris' choice - or elsewhere the inscriptions move away from myths.

Those pieces feature the private lives of celebrities, royal families, pop, movie or television stars, that is the privileged subject matter of the glitterati press. Most of the items concentrate on the life of the rich and the famous - wedding, separation, extra-marital love affairs, or other "events" such as holidays, parties, public outings...

Since 2002 Jean-Christophe Robert's installations have been composed of a series of one-square meter canvas paintings. The global format for one series is variable, most of the time it is a large-scale one; it gives birth to what the artist calls a "running painting" (the artist uses the term "peinture au kilomètre"). Each unit is placed frame to frame building up a sequence which, in turn, produces a narrative continuum. The installations cover a huge surface recalling the overwhelming amount of news pieces that the media impose on society today. Here the artist seems to move at a brisker pace, privileging a general ambience rather than details, precisely because he is concerned with the global rather than with the private domain.

Oeuvre de JEAN-CHRISTOPHE ROBERT : Exposition personnelle, Galerie

Exposition personnelle, Galerie "Chez Valentin", 1999

DRAWINGS - decontextualizing magazines

Oeuvre de JEAN-CHRISTOPHE ROBERT : Je renonce à mon cadeau même si j'ai trouvé mes trois timbres !

-Je renonce â mon cadeau même si j'ai trouvé mes trois timbres ! 29,7 x 21 cm

The drawings mainly comprise gouaches on white paper and collages. They depict ordinary items, paper clippings, or characters coming from mail order magazines, advertisements, periodicals or administrative mail. Among the objects represented are garments, fragments of comic strips, trademarks, washing machine instruction manuals, advertising images with their original typeface, brand names and price tags. The collages combine characters from romance magazines and advertising blurb. They also include fragments of pictures of celebrities or of erotic magazines.

These drawings are on white paper (crayon or colour); the paper format mostly used is A4. They take very little space on the centre of the page, or else the whole page. The represented object stands away from its usual context as only one fragment of the original picture remains - a title, a price tag or an icon. Such distancing enhances the aesthetic versatility of the object and its capacity for the abstract and for new treatment in terms of colour and size. The artist's hand is made visible and this modifies even more they way the spectator may look at everyday images which are otherwise bland and unsurprising.

Oeuvre de JEAN-CHRISTOPHE ROBERT : Au dessus du fax

"Au dessus du fax",exposition personnelle, galerie Jennifer Flay, Paris, 1996

The artist's outstanding characteristics :

A fine-honed mastery of structure

Over the years the artist has structured his compositions according to genre; this has generated diverse aesthetic shapes and forms with painting remaining nonetheless the hardcore of his enterprise. The artist's works has evolved along different phases. The first from 1990 to 1994 includes drawings, bronze sculptures and still lifes, the term has been used by the artist since 1994. Organizing his production along generic line is part of the artist's aesthetic exploration ­ he started working on portraits in 1994, on religious paintings in 1995 and later, in 1996, he began his exploration of mythological paintings. Since then Jean-Christophe Robert's body of works has been growing out of these lines which have their own logic of development.

In effect, still lifes, sculptures and drawings contain the artistic germs of his most recent pieces. Looking back, one may posit that genre painting has been a form of emancipation for the artist as it has enabled Jean-Christophe Robert to escape from some of its limitations. For example, the portrait is encased in the still lifes but also stands as a framed object.

Oeuvre de JEAN-CHRISTOPHE ROBERT : Portrait de Florence Robert

Petite photo de garcon, cadre doré, 9 x 7 x 1 cm

Portrait de Florence Robert, 180 x 180 cm

Human figures and mythological scenes do appear in some of the collages (romance magazines are coupled with textual excerpts) and in his still lifes (magazines sit next to framed portraits).

Oeuvre de JEAN-CHRISTOPHE ROBERT : Reine d'angleterre

Voici, rien ne va plus 29,5 x 23 x 0,5 cm

She's grandma before she's queen, 200 x 300 cm

-C'est doux, c'est neuf ? ... -Non ! Lavé avec Mir laine. 29,7 x 21 cm

Landscape paintings originate from the drawings and, in a less conspicuous fashion, from the still lifes as well.

Oeuvre de JEAN-CHRISTOPHE ROBERT : Paysage 003

Paysage 003, 130 x 130 cm

Véritable petit beurre Lu, 6 x 20 x 4 cm

-Oui, je m'abonne à Gala, 29,7 x 21 cm

The artist's exploration of various genres has produced forms which, at some point, may have seemed incomplete. Indeed, it has been a time-consuming process, a long and extensive research for the artist to find the most adequate form for each genre, that is, eight years on an average - nine years for still life works, five for the portraits, eleven for mythological scenes and five years for landscape paintings.

Jean-Christophe Robert does not move out of a genre when he has found the form that satisfies him, he continues to work with it in parallel to other forms. Exploring one art genre is not just a step in his artistic process, but an essential component which needs deeper maturing. Hence his various generic orientations develop simultaneously, successively and in constant dialogue with one another. Refusing to simply dismiss his earlier artistic choices and to comply with short-term goals and temporal constraints, the artist manifests a different stance from what prevails in the universe of contemporary art with its overemphasis on continuing and constant need for artistic renewal. For Jean-Christophe Robert on the contrary, long-term goals help probe deep into his aesthetic preoccupations and reveal his refined and meticulous artistic enterprise.

Oeuvre de JEAN-CHRISTOPHE ROBERT : Un an d'abonnement à Détective

Un an d'abonnement à Détective, 250 x 500 x 1 cm

Oeuvre de JEAN-CHRISTOPHE ROBERT : Jacqueline Fourcaut

Portrait de Jacqueline Fourcaut, 180 x 180 cm

In search of balance between subject and form

Structuring his work after genre enables the artist to concentrate on his strong point - a search for perfect balance between form and subject. To that end, the artist needs to change gears according to the chosen genre. As a result, the spectator encounters a number of distinct forms and formats: still lifes are volumes made to scale of one, portraits are made of an assemblage of canvas paintings, mythological scenes are assembled into installations, and landscape paintings come on more standard frames. Several components (volume, material, format, subject) are explored in turn and receive variable emphasis according to the chosen subject.

Working on still lifes especially, the artist experiments with volumes. Before final completion (the three-dimensional format) the works go through various stages; first of all, frame and stretcher are moved out, then the background is erased - gradually the contours of the composition match those of the represented object. The artist started to use a three-dimensional format in 1990 when he began working on sculptures. Drawing on this twentieth century artistic device has helped the artist to go beyond it and to come back to a more standard canvas in which painting figures strongly.

Oeuvre de JEAN-CHRISTOPHE ROBERT : La bouteille d'eau minérale

La bouteille d'eau minérale, 60 x 60 cm

Herbes de provence, basilic, ail semoule (tryptique), 12,5 x 3,5 cm (x3)

Lampe sapin IKEA, 25 x 20 X 25 cm

The portraits have forced the artist to experiment with substance notably because of the primacy given to face skin. Each portrait is first composed on a "dry" canvas and then placed on another canvas, and the artist moves on to draw other versions of the same model. This particular technique enables the artist to have a foundational texture resembling human skin, and to be more precise in capturing the individual's profound intimacy. The artist uses a similar technique with mythological scenes, which considerably fastens the composition process and corresponds with the "cover up" effect that the scenes convey.

Oeuvre de JEAN-CHRISTOPHE ROBERT : Visages divers

Vlado Perlemuter, Chopin, nocturnes(détail), 12,5 x 14 x 1 cm

David quitte Claudia (détail), 176 x 155 cm

Portrait d'Eric Laurent (détail), 180x 180 cm

This substance is also used in the initial stage in making landscape paintings when impressionist paintings are reproduced, it is erased altogether when the artist turns to serigraphic devices which involve the preparation of yet another substance.


Etudes pour un paysage, 40 x 50 cm

Paysage 009, 114 x 194,5 cm

For his mythological scenes the format is essential since the artist covers an entire wall with them giving primacy to the overall composition rather than to each canvas. At first, each image is drawn on a small canvas (80x60 cm), captions are inserted in the image at this stage. Then the caption is taken out and the artist moves to a bigger format. Finally, the artist assembles the one-square meter canvas paintings, the caption is now re-inserted. This is meant to be in line with the levelling of the values which shape our environment. Size is of paramount importance here: Jean-Christophe Robert selects gigantic forms rather than drawings on a scale of one to underscore the overwhelming pressure of media exposure. His choice illustrates the way in which our daily lives are overburdened with superficial contemporary issues and with obtrusive celebrity magazines - with their trite topics and images, both fascinating and repelling. It takes a while for the whole portrait to reach completion. Models are first represented whole on small canvas paintings (65x 46 cm), then the bust is made on a scale of one (81x65 cm), in a later phase, the artist portrays two at a time, and then as whole figures again on a scale of one. According to the artist, this scale is more in keeping with the portrayed model and remains constant afterward; however, the artist keeps the bust (60x60 cm) in order to maintain a closer relation to the spectator as he faces the composition.


André a fait d'elle une vraie femme, 73 x 92 cm

Caroline retrouve le sourire, 142 x 130 cm

Charles et Camilia in India, 300 x 200 cm

The texture of the background grows out of the portraits. At first, the background is made of motifs later replaced by coats of uniformed colour. At the end of the process, the portrait has been transformed into one composition presenting nine images of the same character; it now combines twentieth century artwork and one portrait which is emblematic of art history.

Oeuvre de JEAN-CHRISTOPHE ROBERT : Etudes des portraits

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