Visionary revue (Fall 2004)
In the works of Christophe Vacher, a primordial world appears once more, but now it is full of mystery and expectation. Though his earlier works may be dark and foreboding, he eventually pursues a more Romantic view of Nature - expansive, overpowering, sublime. And so, the negative apocalyptic view of the last generation is replaced by images of regeneration .
This is eminently clear in his painting Rebirth, where new stones rise up from the volcanic gyre of the old, like a telluric cathedral mounting and ultimately piercing the heavens. The earth itself is capable of renewal and self-transcendence.
This message of hope may be coming from the earth itself. It is for this reason that menhirs floating in one of his panoramic landscapes are called 'Messengers'. These floating rocks are a recurrent theme in many of Vacher's works. And, if they are indeed menhirs, then the monoliths may also be stony reminders of Man's presence, persisting across the ages. In this sense, it is Man himself who has sent this message, reminding us of Nature's eternal power.
When queried about his fascination for rock formations, the artist replied "One day, I started to have an urge to paint this, and it never left me. I would probably say that they symbolize sacred spirits (or The Spirit), personified by the ultimate symbol of matter: rock. Their appearance was definitely inspired by the medieval feeling - both Celtic and Roman - of my hometown area." (75)
Christophe Vacher was born in Auvergne (Issoire near Clermont-Ferrand), a mountainous area of France where many Roman ruins and Celtic remains are preserved. His art is strongly inspired by the landscape and architecture of his homeland. But, the images that appear in his imagination are just as likely to emerge through music:
"I prefer to search for inspiration in a mix of reality and local legends, and mostly in music... Most of my images don't come from processed thinking - even though the process involves thinking at some point - but rather from a sudden burst of imagination, or some kind of vision." (76)
Even as a child, certain images and sounds combined in his imagination; signs that resonated with a deeper significance - though he would not understand their meaning until much later:
"When I was seven, my parents had a record of Dvorjak, Symphony 9: Symphony of the New World. I used to listen to it all the time. On the cover, there was a picture of the Grand Canyon. For some reason, the music and the picture stuck together in my mind and - although I didn't know exactly why - became a symbol of my distant future." (77)
In 1996, Vacher left France and moved to California, where he worked for Disney as an animator and background artist. "It's not that easy to leave everything behind, to change your Life and dive into the unknown... it costs a lot, emotionally and psychologically," (78) he remarked.
Until recently, the artist divided his time between animation and easel painting - working for Disney while having shows as a gallery artist at such venues as Galerie Morpheus. And indeed, these two pursuits combined to a degree, since a cinematic feel is undeniably present in his painting - though Vacher makes it clear that "my style has also been shaped by contemporary artists like Sandorfi, Beksinski, Ugarte and Les Visionnaires in France." (79)
But, after eight years in California, these European influences have expanded to include more American painters, such as the Hudson River school. In Vacher's own words, "I have broadened my horizons in art and discovered many different styles and schools, from the Realists, Pre-Raphaelites, Romantics, Orientalists, Symbolists or Visionaries in Europe, to the Hudson River school, American Realists, American impressionists and Plein Air painters in the US, not to mention all the generations of great American illustrators." (80)
In his painting, this change in sensibility is increasingly evident. Mount of the Immortals or Swept by the Wind are cinematic in scope, but also share with Ugarte a cloudy grey atmosphere that is omenous and foreboding. Meanwhile, Vision of the Lake and Mistress of the Winds share certain affinities with the Hudson River school in their rosy dawn atmosphere, promising new beginnings. This is only natural as the artist absorbs influences from the land and the artists who have interpreted it visually.
Yet, those 'generations of great American illustrators' are also starting to have a determinate influence on Vacher's growing vision. As we shall see in Part II of this article, graphic novels and comic book art have an immense popularity in France (where they are called BD - les Bandes Dessinées). And certain BD illustrators, like Moebius and Druillet, will be considered here as Visionaries. But the title of 'illustrateur' remains an extremely prejorative term in the mouths of many French artists.
For them, an illustrator is not a true painter, because he renders his subject through hard lines or strong colours while ignoring other important painterly qualities such as light, atmosphere, and mood (qualities which many French Visionaries have mentioned here time and again). The illustrator's image is designed for immediate impact, multiple reproduction and mass taste. It is not a timeless work of art destined for a gallery or musuem, where its unique appearance must be felt face à face, since it defies all attempts at reproduction.
All of this is important because Vacher's work manifests the tensions of an artist who sees great artistic worth in illustration, yet also wants to preserve the painterly qualities of the older traditions. As Vacher himself has remarked, "I think classical influence (like Alma-Tadema, Sargent, John Waterhouse or Lord Leighton - to name just a few) is really a direction I'd like to take, but still depicting modern imagery, keeping a foot in Fantasy." (81)
And yet, a painting like Mistress of the Winds would be dismissed by many French Visionaries as illustratif. They would dislike the British Pre-Raphaelite influence of the mistress with her flowing robes. She manifests much too clearly what the landscape itself should evoke more subtlely. Meanwhile their American counterparts would hail it as a great work (as indeed, they have when it was selected for the cover of the illustrators' annual, Spectrum).
And the same is true of The Source. The gentle stream which meandered through the works of other French Visionaries was often present, but never emphasized. Here, the stream comes to the foreground while the landscape gradually recedes into the background. And it could be argued that, over time, the landscapes which were so important to the French Visionaries are gradually moving into the background of Vacher's art.
In this way, Vacher's work higlights some of the interesting tensions that exist between French and Anglo-Saxons, as well as between the Old World and the New. He is in a unique position, and those tensions will hopefully unite in his works rather than divide and polarize them. But, Vacher's art is also uniquely his own - expansive, refreshing, alive - and will continue to manifest his own, broadening and ever-renewing vision over time.