Inconspicuously tucked in a corner in the back of Café Gaby’s busy terrace, one might think that local artist Gérard Isirdi would go unnoticed. On the contrary, by the time Lourmarin’s most famous artist has set up his makeshift easel atop a café table, attached his large canvas with a series of large stainless steel clips, and arranged his paints, a hushed excitement has swept through Lourmarin’s three crowded cafés on Place l’Ormeau, palpable to any passerby.Tourists recognize Isirdi or quickly learn that he is the painter whose atelier is just a few doors away from Café Gaby on the same side of rue Henri de Savornin. Inevitably, they have already admired his captivating work, perhaps in the gallery—where they may have talked with wife Christine–or strolling by the windows of the gallery in his studio. Perhaps they purchased one of his large prints to hang on a wall in their home. Or a lovely gouache on paper or a luscious oil on canvas. Such is the enormous appeal of Isirdi’s art and of the quiet, reserved man himself.
Regarding the walls of our home, let’s just say, that family and friends are very familiar with Isirdi’s work.
Locals may feign nonchalance and even indifference that they were in the presence of an internationally acclaimed artist. Isirdi, like other celebrities who regularly surface in Café Gaby—Peter Mayle, for example—is so deeply respected that, coupled with the French proclivity to be keenly respectful of privacy, he has earned the right to be ignored, one might say. But, if the occasion arises, locals will spring into action to protect the privacy of their patron painter (as I discovered last summer, but I am getting ahead of my story).
Gérard Isirdi, originally from Aubagne en Provence about 21 kilometers (13 miles) northeast of Marseille, was the 11th of 12 children in a family originally from Italy. It was just south of this city, in the village of Roquevaire, that Isirdi grew up and, at 12 years old, first experimented with painting. Roquevaire would be a fortuitous move for a young man who would eventually become a painter as the village is known as “la Cité des peintres.”
As a young adolescent boy, Isirdi worked with very rudimentary equipment in the basement of his childhood home, away from the eyes of his parents who neither encouraged nor discouraged young Gérard . (With twelve children, there was probably little time to encourage any endeavors!)
As Isirdi moved into his teens, his passion for painting continued to grow. At the same time, he began to realize that, without the means to pursue a formal education in art, he would need to develop his craft on his own. Toward this end, he studied painting with a group collectively called “Peintres de laVallée de L’Huveaune,” from whom he received much encouragement and with whom he exhibited his work. He often accompanied painters from Roquevaire, part of this group, out into the surrounding countryside and, to this day, Isirdi credits these pleinairistes with profoundly influencing his approach to painting.
When I asked Isirdi if his work was influenced by, for example, van Gogh—to my eye, there are similarities to van Gogh’s early and later work—or Picasso or Matisse—both of whom I see in some of Isirdi’s earlier work—he said no, adding that all the trends of painting were represented in the work of the painters of his village and that he was most influenced by the painters in that group.
“Les peintres qui m’influencèrent sont les peintres de mon village, où toutes les tendances de la peinture étaient représentées,” Gérard said.
In his twenties, he went north to Paris where he studied printmaking and by making prints for other artists, he was able to earn enough money to buy art supplies and more seriously pursue painting. In 1974, he traveled to Andalusia and Morocco where, unsurprisingly, he painted and in 1975, he had his first solo exhibition in Roquevaire. Shortly after that show, he studied in north central France in Rigny-le-Ferron with Arsène Sari, also one of the Roquevaire painters. He had another exhibition, under the tutelage of Sari, in the Museum of Arsonval.
In 1980, Isirdi discovered the Luberon where he lived for five years in the ruins of a troglodyte farmhouse. During this time, he moved from a brief period in which he flirted with a style he describes as “close to abstraction,” back to “nature” and experimentation with new perspectives. Not yet able to sustain himself as a painter, he also worked as a gardener at this time. Isirdi describes this time as “tourmentée” (“turbulent”).
It was not until 1990 that Isirdi made the commitment to work fulltime as an artist. In 1991, when he was 41 years old, he set up his first studio in Lourmarin. In the same year, he was awarded “Le PrixAlbert Camus,” which Isirdi said he saw as a “sign of favorable destiny.”
“J’y ai vu le signe d’un destin favorable,” Isirdi said.
Indeed. He immediately had three major exhibitions: in Annecy (1993), San Francisco (1994), and Geneva (1998). We met Isirdi shortly after the Geneva show, on our first trip to Lourmarin. By this time, he was devoted to the character studies in Lourmarin’s cafes (especially Café Gaby) for which he has earned an international following. We, like so many visitors to Lourmarin, fell in love with his work.
I caught up with Isirdi in July at Café Gaby. He had settled into the very same corner where we had first seen him painting some 15 years ago and was in the midst of capturing the figures inhabiting the scene at Chez Gaby that morning. With such a vibrant, constantly moving scene at this popular café and with so many passersby, I wondered how he chose his subjects.“I observe what is around me and I wait to be inspired by what I see before I set about painting,” he answered and added “I cannot paint something that leaves me indifferent.”In observing Isirdi painting, it appeared that his brush (actually brushes!) was connected to his eyes, bypassing conscious thought. He agreed, adding, “You have to put yourself into the subject, trying to become a direct vector between the subject and the canvas, to become one with the subject.”
Once he starts painting, he explained, the painting itself guides him. “In those moments, I forget everything that surrounds me.” Actually, as I watched Isirdi paint, it was almost as if he were in a trance.
In still lifes or oil landscapes, Isirdi explained that he has more time for reflection in contrast to the café terraces where “the speed I have adopted gives a very spontaneous result.”
As I wrote above, the locals are very protective of Isirdi and the personal space he needs to paint. When I was taking photographs that morning in July, one of the café patrons ran over to his atelier to express his concerns about me to Christine: He was certain I was bothering Isirdi and she must stop me. Christine explained that I was working with their permission which allayed his worries (at least a little).
Conseils aux Jeunes Artistes d’Isirdi:
À un jeune artiste je dirais : Plante ton chevalet n’importe où. Ce n’est pas le sujet qui compte c’est l’action. Le sujet s’imposera de lui-‐même sans que tu l’aies cherché. Laisse venir à toi la vérité. Tu entendras peut-‐être une voix qui te dira de rester concentré, humble et simple. Eloigne de toi l’arrogance et l’indifférence. Ne sois pas trop dur avec toi même. Tente ta chance mais ne deviens pas fou. Ce n’est pas d’exhiber ta souffrance qui compte c’est de montrer ta joie, ta ferveur, ton amour. Ne te juge pas trop. Crée une distance entre toi et ton oeuvre. Ce n’est pas une seule peinture qui te vaudra d’être reconnu. Quant à savoir ce que sera cette oeuvre, pour quelles raisons on la reconnaîtra ou on te découvrira un style, cela ne dépend pas de toi.
Adhère à cette pensée de Cézanne : “Je suis pour la réflexion oui, mais le pinceau à la main !” C’est ainsi que pour peindre un oiseau il te faudra (comme Prévert, réf : Pour faire le portrait d’un oiseau) entrer dans la cage et devenir toi-‐même un oiseau et signer pourquoi pas avec une plume de l’oiseau. Oui, dis-‐toi que tout est facile, que ton oeuvre est déjà en toi, qu’il s’agit simplement de la montrer aux yeux du monde et le convaincre, ce monde, de l’apprécier. Ce sera là le chariot de ton travail auquel tu devras t’atteler avec une opiniâtreté invincible. Cesse de croire que le rêve est éloigné de toi ou qu’il ne se trouve que dans ton sommeil. Il est juste là dans le présent fleuri, au milieu de tes sens.