The colours of BUDDHISM

by Camilla Russell, Bangkok Post, April 6, 2006

French artist Jacques-Leon Charrier finds inspiration in Buddhist monks

Bangkok, Thailand -- Contrary to his artistic predecessors, who chose to immortalise angelic beings, French artist Jacques-Leon Charrier conveys spirituality through the numerous Buddhist monks that populate his paintings. Exploring human vulnerability through the men who devote their lives to the teachings of the Buddha, his paintings shed light on the paradoxical quest for inner peace and the desire for ecclesiastical conformity.

<< From the sub-series `Passion'

His present exhibition, "Sangha", is now on display at Baan Amanthee. "We are living in a crazy period where morals are forgotten, more now than any other time in history," he explained. Referring to his coined phrase "society's global insanity", which touches upon the world's manic need for materialism, Charrier said, "Spirituality should be developed. This society never talks about spirituality, which is a pity. Human weakness comes from never wanting to be alone, and you need distance if you want to study yourself. But people want to fill in the hours with noise - they don't want to be alone."

<< From the sub-series `Sangha'

A self-taught artist, Charrier began painting in 1995, primarily influenced by his sojourns and experiences throughout Asia. However, he was a devout Buddhist for many years before his initiation into the artistic arena, and this ultimately influenced his relationship with the creative mediums. "I use watercolour, because you can't change it, so it requires lots of concentration. It's like meditation, because I can't make a mistake," he explained.

Divided into eight complimentary, smaller series, the complete exhibition, entitled "Sangha", explores the evolution of Buddhism, juxtaposing the primitive teachings with the present model of the religion. The series of paintings are titled "Sangha", "The Salvation Army", "Vexations", "Impermanence", "Duality", "Passion", "The United Colours of Buddhism" and "Vacuity".

"I want to compare what I read and learned [about Buddhism] with what the reality is," he said.

The monks portrayed in the paintings are serene and stoic, and with their eyes closed in each scene, they are enigmatic and perversely erotic in their demeanour. The closed eyes symbolise how an individual can forsake reality, for in order to "see" one must have all of their senses opened.

Jacques-Leon Charrier  >>  

"The portrayal of the monks is reminiscent of antique statuary and underlines the sacred and unalterable quality of the monastic institution. This gives the statue-like figures a timeless and semi-celestial aspect. This impression, enhanced by the deliberate eroticism, emphasizes the need of those who cannot sustain the effort of walking alone on the path set out by the Master to 'sacralise'," Charrier explained in the exhibition's brochure.

Oftentimes the monks' spiritual pensiveness is punctuated by a silver foreground, emphasizing the matte hues of the monks' robes. The latter technique was witnessed during mediaeval times when artists crowned Christ in golden halos, contrasting the matte colours of his physique with metallic sheens to communicate the divine spirit within.

Charrier explained that, with regard to his paintings and Buddhist teachings, the metallic foreground represents the "divine light" within every individual, for it is the inner truth that leads to enlightenment. "It's animal instinct to feel safe, but the Buddha said to forget everyone else, and then to forget yourself too, because it's all the ego."

The paintings play with the contrasting relationship of light and dark, yin and yang. In his "Duality" series, the painting that shares the same name is a deliberate ruse to entice the viewer. Amidst a white foreground, silver figures walk toward the edge of the frame. With the way the light falls upon the painting, one can either say the figures are moving toward the light or heading toward the dark.

"The Buddha believed in wholeness, not fractions. So positive exists with negative and so forth," he said.

The series labelled "Passion" mirrors the figures in The Last Supper in purple robes and their postures. However, with Charrier's tongue-in-cheek perspective, the central monk in the painting personifies the Buddha. "We should always link the Buddha to mankind. The Buddha is eminent, but not transcendent."

Charrier acknowledged that creation and artistic pursuits go against the teachings of the Buddha. Yet it was a paradox that he finds comfort in, as it reveals his limitations as a human being. "It's a big question, because as an artist, we carry on being passionate - that is the basis of creation. But the purest sense of Buddhism is the intellect," he said.

"But I don't paint with my heart, I paint with my mind. If someone looked at my paintings, they couldn't tell what my emotions are, not like Picasso."

His paintings in the series titled "Impermanence" are perhaps the most artistically relaxed in the collection, for each portrait of a contemplative monk is coupled with a silver and black scene in the background, sharing vague similarities with comic strips. The silver and black scenes symbolise the past, and the monk is in the present; the series reveals the perverse fluidity and hardened quality of time.

"The question of time is very important in Buddhism. The present is said to be the consequence of the past, so only the present is important," he explained. "We always tend to idolise the past, believe it to be true. So we should never condemn anything, just have experiences.

"Inspiration comes from my life, from every moment. Sometimes I have energy to produce, or sometimes I don't have the time, but it feels like I have already done it," he continued.

"Humankind inspires me. I only represent humans. I never paint animals or landscapes. It's a never-ending story, being human."

For more information on the exhibition, contact Baan Amanthee on 02-982-8694/5. The gallery is located at 131 Chaeng Wattana 13, Laksi, Bangkok 10210.