Stripping things down to the essential
Bernard Chassé


At a time when life is lived at breakneck speed, we sometimes forget what really matters now, today, at this moment. We forget that we need time, sometimes lots of it, in order to approach and truly understand what is before us. Looking at the works of Alexandre Masino means taking enough time, calling a halt and reveling in the gentle, captivating tranquility of things.

Masino’s work is not for spectators who are in a hurry. These paintings do not belong to any specific movement in contemporary art. I would even use a cliché and say that his works exist by themselves and for themselves. No more and no less. This is all the more unusual because nowadays, we often feel the need to prove something, as if the idea of going further is an obligation in itself. This would be assuming that the history of art is built up from a succession of different periods, with the latest fashionable movement obscuring whatever came earlier. Alexandre Masino resists all this and makes no secret of his genuine and passionate interest in history. In fact, he sometimes draws on the past for inspiration and rediscovers forgotten works.

Alexandre Masino does not invoke a pictorial revolution. This is his great strength which also signals his determination and immense modesty, a rare and precious quality indeed. He does not believe in passing fads that distract artists from genuine, long-term effort. For him the only possible reality in painting is found elsewhere. His way of depicting still life allows us to rediscover the beauty of the things around us.

This genre is nothing new. It is sometimes reminiscent of funeral paintings by the old masters depicting fruit and other objects to guarantee eternal life. Here we find the basic necessities. Think also of 17th century Dutch paintings or the bodegón of the Spanish masters Francisco de Zurbarán and Juan Sánchez-Cotán. Closer to our own time, we have Ozias Leduc’s magnificent painting Les oignons rouges (1892). In gestures that communicate both the greatness and the wretchedness of man, Leduc succeeded better than anyone in depicting, in a truly individual manner, his profoundly religious and mystical state of mind.

With his still life paintings, Alexandre Masino is not aiming for something that looks “Avant-Garde”. The boldness of his work is there. He does not believe that people have to produce something totally new in order for it to be important; that unless we create something formally unprecedented, we are not making a contribution. The reality is quite different, especially in painting.

For Alexandre Masino, painting should be first and foremost: an art of metamorphosis, a region of beauty, the invention of a poetic language, the opportunity to suspend time in infinity; life in the immediate. Like Ozias Leduc, he shares with us the beauty of scenes from everyday life in their most intimate and spiritual aspects. Each painting requires months of hard work, perseverance, and a profound delving into the senses. In both composition and choice of subject, each work reflects the painter’s total availability to seize a moment in time or a specific mood.

The composition of Alexandre Masino’s paintings is highly complex. Some of them subtly defy the laws of perspective; others offer the spectator infinite spaces. Combinations of light and shadow emphasize the vibrant contrasts between rough and fine textures, and a rich glaze enhances the perfection of each work. Though your first glance may suggest the contrary, nothing is random. Nothing.

Some fruit on a table. A Chinese cup, obviously made of delicate, translucent porcelain. A piece of furniture that is solid and strong, and has survived the centuries to be with us today. No superfluous trappings, no extra objects, no artificial settings.

Note also the harmonies and contrasts between colours and textures; the combination of the coppery browns of the shadows and the daylight reflected on objects; light slithering and glancing off the surfaces, caressing them; the beauty of the tiniest details, revealing the meticulous hand of the painter and his desire to portray how complex simple things are.

And beyond the objects, we sense an atmosphere of calm and tranquility. As Didi-Huberman so aptly puts it: the painter is seeking not to reproduce but to convey an effect of presence. Presence in the immediate absence of things, in the case of Masino’s work.

Painting still life means trying to capture the impossible, accepting the paradox that presence and absence are one and the same, like fire reborn from the ashes. The presence, the fire of things, undeniably reflects the quest for a delicate balance, as in the verses written by the poet Paul Éluard to his young, brilliant friend René Crevel:

Beyond fire are no ashes
Beyond the ashes is fire.

Take the time to discover what the true subject of each picture is. Just turn away from what you see, or what you think you see. Forget the fruit, the cup of tea, the furniture, they are all too familiar... in other words, forget what appears to be the subject of each work. Then take the time to soak up everything that is left.

Notice the dramatic break in the folds of a tablecloth. Take another look and see how fragile is the furniture that formerly appeared so heavy and solid. See if you can follow the lines and points where they taper off – they have no beginning or end. Keep looking. It takes time. Forget the ticking of your watch. Breathe deeply. Be open.

Then close your eyes to see better, and give yourself up to discovering your other senses. Instead of recalling vague images from your memory, you start to smell the exotic, yellow, sweet aroma of a banana; you feel sure you can run your fingers gently over the smooth antique wood; you can taste the acidity of an apple that has just been cut up. You discover all that is sensual and erotic in a mango… and much more. Persevere.

Maybe then you will feel slightly dizzy, like I did. One by one, the objects in the picture fade away, leaving the traces of a projected shadow. Take the time to read the titles of each work. Every word has been laboriously, almost religiously, weighed by the artist, as if the words were being offered up to the painting: La quiétude du silence, La lumière du temps, Descendre en ce jardin … A world of richly instructive symbols awaits you.

The painting Triratna depicts three red, almost black, cherries. In the background, we can make out the angles forming the corner of a wall. Buddhism is fully expressed in a Triple Jewel: Buddha, Dharma (the doctrine) and Shangha (the religious community). In a mirror effect, we could also evoke the Holy Trinity of Christianity. Three cherries, Triratna, Three Jewels, Trinity. Fruits offered up as a sign of perfection.

I am thinking too of the title of Satori, which invites us to "think beyond technique, in a state of non-consciousness". Satori is the intuition that grasps both the totality and the individual nature of things.

Poetry, in its simplicity and sacredness, converges with the essence of the painter’s work. This reminds me of haiku, Japanese poems that reveal the whole universe in just a few words. Like each picture here, the form of the poem has precise requirements and rules followed by the artist. The same applies to Masino. Constraint becomes a source of freedom.

The paintings of Alexandre Masino – I almost said his poems – need to be approached at leisure and given all your attention. You need to be as available as the painter himself, putting all of him into each work. These pictures cannot be appreciated with just a glance. You would be overlooking the essence of movement here, the bareness there. You would be missing the pure, simple beauty of ordinary things. As Pierre Vadeboncoeur wrote about Ozias Leduc, what drives a true artist is not the soul of his subject, it is the soul of a tone or a movement, truly visual perfection.

Simply with his desire to touch upon pictorial truth, Alexandre Masino opens up to us the most intimate secrets of his sensibility. He has a sensitivity that is unique and fragile, yet potent; a sensitivity that is devoted to the quest for the richness and subtlety of tones, for the perfect composition. I mean especially the sustained effort to form an attachment not to the objects depicted but to what we see on the canvas, nothing more; an attachment to what the painting itself is and should be. Alexandre Masino speaks to us with a rare generosity, a freeness of gesture and soul, of his desire to grasp the very matter of painting. That is where we find an essential component in the artist’s work.

It takes time, lots of time, and infinite patience and a unique commitment to grasp, even fleetingly, the grace of everyday things, and to strip them down to the essential.

Bernard Chassé

September 2000
Translated by
Brooke-Delisle inc.





©2004 Alexandre Masino