Abbé Perrin (Director of...
Interview with Mircea Cantor
Cahiers de dessins de Mircea Cantor
As part of the Paris Opera’s anniversary season, the artist Mircea Cantor found himself offered carte blanche to decorate the pages of certain programmes with drawings and calligraphy. Armed with Japanese brushes, he haunted rehearsal rooms and captured the gestures and exhalations of dancers, singers, choreographers and directors, examining the repertoire with the singular gaze of the aesthete.
There is no hierarchy to the different media. Each one corresponds to a need linked to the idea I wish to express. To give an account of the rehearsals at the Opera, I opted for drawing, but I could have used photography. What is beautiful here is to be able to distil the essence of dramatic movement graphically and to be able to say once the drawing is done: it is finished, I have nothing to add.
These sketchbooks allow me to escape from the framework of a studio where I’d be in front of an easel, and to be with my family all the time. Drawing constantly is also a means of appropriating reality, of possessing an object. By dissecting a subject, one understands the laws of colour, form, perspective, the relationship between objects. That is why we speak about “Studies”. It’s a discipline that implies the notion of error...
Nothing is reworked. During a rehearsal of Il Primo Omicidio, one of the singers mimed the gesture of sacrifice with a knife. After drawing her, I realised that the drawing resembled a Japanese ideogram more than it did the movement of the singer. I had to redo it three times to get the lines of the body to be as I intended them... But it’s very quick... When I talk about error, it’s rather that I’m not satisfied. In general, I continue to develop an idea until it seems right. But I never go back over the drawings outside the rehearsal room.
These Japanese crayons demand great mastery of gesture. They require a measured use of force in order to create the right degree of intensity, of rightness in the drawing. I have always been fascinated by the masters of Japanese and Chinese brushwork whose art is intimately linked to breathing and to the state of the soul. Their drawings can only emerge when there is a perfect balance between the inner and the outer self. It requires a certain degree of tension, an accumulation of sensation in order to be productive. Sometimes I find myself making drawings 24 hours before the opening of an exhibition. If I wanted to, I could create a work within an allotted time. But I don’t seek to fit into a framework but to ensure that my drawing be as right as possible.
The tradition handed down by Degas is very strong, and it can be problematic. For example, during rehearsals for Swan Lake, I filled four entire sketch books with drawings. I then had a difficult choice to make when illustrating the programme, I didn’t know precisely what to include. My one certitude was that I should not illustrate the work in a literary way, or fall into the cliché of the ballet sketch. Indeed, I forbade myself to look at Degas’s work. One of my drawings was done backstage. This is a viewpoint that the spectator will never see from her/his seat. In that respect notably, the booklet is original.
Yes, the book of drawings is not only a transcription of what I see in rehearsals. These references came to me whilst reading the libretto. There is also the portrait of a woman with a double head, which echoes Double Heads Matches, one of my works from 2002, which represents a double-ended matchstick. This motif is linked, in the context of Primo Omicidio, to the suffering of a mother at the loss of one of her sons. One part of her own body burns, the other remains, in spite of her devastation. In the programme for The Trojans, the drawing of one of the children sleeping, a reference to the massacres at the seizing of Troy, depicts one of my sons. I wanted to evoke death through sleep and not through a battlefield. These are little inserts with which I try to create a narrative.
Yes, the layouts are very important. They reflect those of the sketchbooks, in which there is a rhythm with points of lesser and greater strength, accents, intensity... a to-ing and fro-ing between the motifs. It’s like a poem in drawings. Like a haiku. I hope this will be perceptible when people leaf through the publication.
Yes and no! From the age of 15, I did a lot of exercises in artistic calligraphy. I was practising in order to reproduce parchment writings with diverse techniques such as ink wash, watercolour and crayon. Writing, then, has always fascinated me. These quotations for me are complementary to the drawings, and I wrote them with the same medium. To my eyes, certain written pages are like drawings. Their readability can sometimes be an issue, but the effect created by a double page of quotations is so visual that it can reach the level of a drawing.
In the rehearsal room, whether it’s for dance or opera, the same primordial question for me is the choice of motif. What can I single out to create a motif? When everything around me is dynamic, I must select what’s interesting in the sequence of movements. For ballet, between the moment when the foot moves and that of its transcription, the leg, the body have evolved. I really love the rapidity of execution to which I am constrained, and the procedures that it necessitates.
Il Primo Omicidio
Le Lac des cygnes
Born in Romania, Mircea Cantor is a multi-disciplinary artist equally skilled in photography, sculpture, video, drawing and installation. In 2004, he was awarded the Prix Ricard S.A., in 2011 the Marcel Duchamp Prize and in 2017 the Aspen Leadership Prize. His works are displayed in collections as prestigious as those of the Pompidou Centre in Paris, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Museo Nacional Reina Sofia in Madrid, the Castello di Rivoli in Turin, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris and the Rennie Collection in Vancouver.
Partners of the Paris Opera’s 350th anniversary
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With the generous support of
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Institutions associated with the 350th anniversary