We have the memory of a blue eye passing over the glasses, fixing you with an amused, mischievous, satanic air. When he spoke, he became truly diabolical: an erudition from another time, but never pedantic, sometimes comical by dint of jumping from cock to donkey. As for his works, they were of the same water: seductive, fragile, damn complex. We also remember the teacher he was, never a demagogue at the risk of a certain harshness, anxious to equip his students with the best weapons to embrace the dangerous career of an artist: Joël Kermarrec died on June 24, in Paris . He was 82 years old.

He was born in Ostend (Belgium) on July 20, 1939, into a family that was itself unusual: his mother, the sculptor Antoinette Labisse, was the sister of the surrealist painter Félix Labisse (1905-1982). Their friends are named Ensor, Permeke, Spilliaert… His father, Henri-Jean, is a bookseller. Joël Kermarrec therefore grew up in a polyglot, very cultured environment, where the arts held a major place. The double ancestry, symbolist and surrealist, will accompany him all his life, like the double culture, French-speaking and Flemish (he himself evoked a “batavism”) that he sometimes mixed fiercely in impossible puns, with which he loved to destabilize his interlocutors.

He refuses the Prix de Rome

Because instability was for him a virtue: it requires a constant effort to regain balance. What is unstable can never be at rest. His works were of that water. Magnificently composed, sometimes endowed with a sumptuous paste for the paintings, maddening collages for the drawings, not disliking the enrichments of gold leaf or peacock feathers. Improbable assemblages that were both rebuses and voodoo charms and drew as much from his personal mythologies as from the tradition of Jewish Kabbalah and Christian gnosis. All served by a line that is both soft and firm.

In 1959, he passed the entrance examination for the National School of Fine Arts in Paris (Ensba). He graduated in 1964, better than graduated: Prix de Rome. He refuses it! “I was scared,” he told Le Monde. Fear of Balthus [then the director of the Villa Medici]. Finally, less of him than of the state in which I saw the work of those who returned from it…”

A few other prizes, accepted these, salute his Parisian debut: that of the Dôme in 1964 and, the following year, the Fénéon prize and the Adam prize, named after a famous Montparnasse color merchant. The latter was given to him by Salvador Dali who, for the occasion, gave him his famous cane endowed, according to the press at the time, “with magical powers”. It was shown, from 1969, by the Lucien Durand gallery, a major place of discovery, and jointly by the very young Daniel Templon, without it being known whether the initiative came from the latter, or from his companion at the time, Catherine Millet, who had been the first to write about his work the previous year in Les Lettres françaises. He also participated in a group exhibition at the ARC, the “workshops” of the Musée d’art moderne de la Ville de Paris, and at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington.

From then on, the best critics of the time commented on his work: let us quote in the order of arrival Gérald Gassiot-Talabot, Marc Le Bot, Pierre Gaudibert, Jean Clair, Michel Ragon. José Pierre even included it, without retrospectively understanding why, in a book he devoted to pop art and published by Editions Hazan. With such sponsorships, it’s no wonder that he took part in the exhibition – abused! – “72/72”, wanted by President Pompidou to show the best of contemporary art in France.

Workshop and teaching

Launched like a rocket (a personal exhibition at the Musée d’art moderne de la Ville de Paris, organized by Suzanne Pagé in 1973, another – collective – the following year at the Guggenheim in New York), he then experienced a slump , which does not bother him more than that: he concentrates on the studio and teaching: first by creating in 1968, with one of the best French art historians of the time, Jean Laude, the department arts from the University of Vincennes where he taught until 1975, then at the Ecole des beaux-arts de Marseille-Luminy, until 1987, and, finally, back to the alma mater, at the Ensba de Paris, until 2007. His artistic work at that time was regularly shown, with varying success, by the Galerie de France, Baudoin-Lebon, then by the Galerie Claudine Papillon, whose pugnacity should be saluted: the man was rough and his work difficult, if not esoteric.

It must be said that he liked to quote Paracelsus, this 16th century doctor who scandalized the University of Basel for at least two reasons: he practiced the experimental method instead of sticking to ancient but little verified knowledge, and when he gave his lessons, he never parted with a sword bigger than himself. Kermarrec didn’t need this accessory: he was the sword.