Ask Hervé Constant what he thinks about his adopted city of London, England, and he will share Céline’s sentiment. Unlike the French writer, however, Constant, the artist, injects no irony into his words. Born in Morocco, raised in France, and now settled in London, he finds it “more tranquil, more personal, the people (are) more tolerant.”
A peripatetic chronicler, he has been adapting to various cultures and environments all his life, a path both chosen by and imposed on him. It is perhaps no surprise that theatre was his first calling, an art form requiring constant shape shifting, emotionally as well as physically. Hervé Constant studied at the Conservatoire National de Musique de Toulon, followed by two years at the École Nationale Supérieure des Arts Techniques du Theatre in Paris, and further studies in etching and silkscreen at the Beaux-Arts de Toulon.
What lured him to London was the English cinema, and it began with films he saw as a child; Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin… A brief trip to the UK, and a visit to Stratford theatre, left a profound mark on Constant and in a sense launched his theatre career. He began participating in numerous, and varied theatrical productions around the world, but oddly enough, once in London, another passion took hold – painting. For there is one thing that sets Constant apart from the contemporary artists of today, and that is his boundless, limitless, driven need to explore all the mediums available to him, to find the best possible way to address his creative vision, and his total engagement in his surroundings. His world, as his art, is a mixture of wide and diverse interests, travel, as well as social and cultural influences. The music of Erik Satie serves as background to his travails, as does Jazz. His literary interests lean towards the French avant-garde like Céline, whose seminal poem “Journey to the End of the Night” served as inspiration for many of his works, and then there is Rimbaud, Verlaine, Beaudelaire… As for painting, the expressionistic canvases of Chaim Soutine are the first he mentions, but before long Giotto and Masaccio appear. The switch to visual art, without entirely forsaking theatre, was, again, driven by both circumstance and choice. In the late 1980s, Constant found a studio in Hackney, in the East End of London. An area populated by artists, it was at once home and inspiration. Visual art attracted him “because it’s art I can do alone, I can concentrate and make my own choices.” And these choices involve the selection of medium, for Constant doesn’t limit his expression to one. In his atelier, each corner is dedicated to a different production; he paints in one, draws in another, works on his videos in yet another part of the studio. He often opens his doors to visitors and other artists, sharing as much as drawing inspiration from them. These are brief moments of social activity, for Constant prefers to work alone. He does not shy away from projects, however, and has been involved with artists from around the world, including Canada; recently he collaborated with Montreal artist Joyce Ryckman, among others, on an Artists’ Books project. His book “Killing” was part of an exhibition at Kaleid Editions, at the London Plasto-Baader Books Exhibition of Unique Artists’ Books in 2009. It relates to Constant’s travels, which included Bosnia, and his unusual way of looking at the world, without artifice, without illusion, but with enormous empathy. War-ravaged streets and façades, fruit offerings at decrepit cemeteries, walls ridden with bullet holes, guns, all become symbols in his photographs and paintings, as does solitude and isolation. These are all themes that weave through Constant’s many and varied works. A philosophical, humanist approach marks his stance, and he is drawn to sombre and dark subject matter.
“As a child, I was moved by Arthur Rimbaud’s vision of the world and his understanding of humanity. I discovered and started ‘travelling’ with his famous poem ‘Le Bateau ivre’, a very long poem he wrote at 17.” Like the poet, Constant sees his life as a voyage, a discovery, a charted path from birth to death. “Our joy, and our hard times, populate the trajectory.” Illustrating this sentiment is Family Nest, a charcoal on paper drawing that evokes so much of what makes us human. It goes back to Constant’s figurative works, the story-telling, narrative aspect of his production. But, as the artist points out, “this piece goes well with the other semi-abstract or symbolic works.”
From one series to another, from one medium to the next, Hervé Constant’s creativity flows with Taoist ease, bypassing any obstacle, be it of technical or existential nature. The harder the times, the more creative he becomes. And as if to further tempt fate, he will pick difficult subjects to focus on. For Heavens Sake was one such project, an oil painting presented and purchased by the University of Kent, Canterbury School of Computing. First shown as a smaller work in a Los Angeles gallery, it is based on a real utterance by a troubled man. In white, crude letters against a black background it spells: For heavens sake catch me before I kill more I cannot control myself. To Constant, it was “like a cry”, and its echo begat the painting.
Wrapping up, as it were, this multi-disciplinary artist’s production, are his short films, which he continues to produce despite their limited market. His three-minute short titled Hand Ballet is at once pantomime and sign language, a message both visual and emotional, as the viewer tries to decipher the movement of the (artist’s) hands. Very little is needed to understand the mental disintegration experienced by the actor (Michael Ewling) in Lettre d’un fou / The Out There. Based on a short story by Guy de Maupassant, it is a mini tour de force. Filmed in black-and-white, it is a succinct, terse discourse on the human condition, its sombre atmosphere aided by the dark sounds of composer Gyorgi Ligeti. For Hervé Constant, the endless diversity that surrounds him, and that finds its way into his oeuvre, is a continuity of sorts, a common lot we share.
‘REAL LIFE IS ABSENT’- ARTHUR RIMBAUD 1854-1891
PART1. THE RETURN: IN RETROSPECT by Hervé Constant
PART2. THE RETURN: IN RETROSPECT by Hervé Constant