Les Très Riches Heures de Raphaël Toussaint

"Les très riches heures de Raphaël TOUSSAINT"

By Paul GUTH


There is about him an aura of strangeness, he is mysterious to the point of unsettling one, he has something of the sphinx in his features. He emanates both spontaneity and something entirely its opposite.

« You have the eyes of a painter », I remember blurting out to Raphaël Toussaint. His eyes are arresting, unavoidable. Like the dot under a question mark, like the ocelli on the wings of some amazing tropical butterfly.

His eyes are his motto :

See then and perceive and with that conceive.

He was born to see and to let others see. I have never in all my life seen such enormously open eyes. Compared to his, all others seem dozy as if something was there keeping them from opening wide. Surely the Creator’s Own eyes must be as open so that He can embrace all his Universe from on High.

And yet what a paradox that this prince of sight’s own traits go masked. The Commedia dell’arte and the Carneval of Venice are not more masked than he and as do their own characters, he and his mask reveal sombre eyes sounding the fathomless deep. His is a series of flourishing strokes and dashing glances, his are the eyes of those of an expert swordsman, a master of infinity.

Toussaint is a Vendean, a child of that region where people still have faith and where the wounds of the 1793 genocide are not yet healed. He was born on 25th April 1937 in La Roche sur Yon under the sign of strong and sanguine Taurus. The Taureans have never had much trouble overcoming their ennemies as they are natural commanders and are confident and successful in business.

This is my impression of Raphaël Toussaint – he is Taurus masked. You only have to look at his name which is a pseudonym - he was born Jacques de la Croix. And then there is his voice. Jacques de la Croix had a voice, a beautiful voice, he was a tenor and he wanted to sing. The great Panzera who taught at the Paris Conservatory wanted Jacques to study with him but his parents refused. Later, at the time of the Algerian war when he was still only twenty-one, he was seriously injured – the accident happened on 9th April 1958. Fate is full of irony. Jacques was on duty and whilst climbing a watch tower, a French sentry – called Angel ! - mistook him for the ennemy, took aim and shot him down. Raphaël was cruelly wounded by a bullet – his singing days were over, he would never even be able to dream of rivalling with Pavarotti. But he who had adored Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, Verdi and Puccini was now to find a new voice to express himself using brushes and canvas.

He went as far as to change his name, there would be no doubt about his new life. On 1st November, his father-in-law, René Robin, helped him to fix upon a new pseudonym – he would be Raphaël, the king of painters, and Toussaint to commemorate this fresh, All Saints Day start.

Raphaël Toussaint made his début in 1964 at the age of twenty-seven and to complete the transformation he now had a moustache and a well-cut beard.

The painter René Robin who was both a mentor and Pygmalion-figure for Raphaël Toussaint, played a large part in the younger man’s formative years and helped his son-in-law who had dreamt of painting since the age of thirteen. René Robin was a patriarch, a profound believer who went about his business with a prayer book in his hands. He was self-disciplined and excessively generous towards his fellow creatures. As a sign of recognition to René Robin, Raphaël Toussaint has managed to slip a slight white-haired gentleman dressed in red and black into all of his pictures.

But is Raphaël Toussaint really a naive painter ? He himself is uncomfortable when he hears the word. To understand, one must realize that France is a country where everything and everyone is pigeon-holed and inevitably the critics have all had their go at labelling Toussaint. He and I have both run foul of categories, I, for my Mémoires d’un Naïf and its sequels, he for his pictures.

So here we are, both with a stamp on our foreheads.

« Have YOU been bothered about being labelled as Naive ? », he asked me. I answer for both of us when I reply – yes and no. Naive certainly does not mean stupid or slow off the mark. Far from it. Naive comes from the Latin word nativus referring to that which is innate, to that which we are born with. Someone who is naive is born again and again, he or she sees the world as some thing new each day. He or she is blessed with a child’s mind, something which St Francis of Assisi treasured.

We who are naive follow the seasons, are sometimes hot, sometimes cold, sometimes thirsty but eternally cradled in the happy arms of perpetual childhood. We are the best friends of those we portray. We grew up side by side with them, went to the same school, learnt multiplication tables together. The grass, the trees we depict are ours, we know them intimately. And in our own small churches with their spires like sharp pencils, God is more at home than in any pompous cathedral.

Naive or not, all that I am sure about is that Raphaël Toussaint is one of our greatest living painters. With his work, he cleanses us of a world of pollution, drugs, pornography, atrocities.

If you want to find heaven on earth, Raphaël knows the way.

What does Paradise look like ?

It’s a painting by Raphaël Toussaint, of course !

Août 1990

Aubade du Roi D'Ys par Jacques De La Croix - 1962

Why landscapes ?
René Robin
Artistic involvment by Henri Griffon
Portrait of a man, portrait of a painter by Jeanne Bourin