Friday, May 18, 2012

Robert Combas: Artist , Musician

Robert Combas has been living at the "Musee D'Art Contemporain de Lyon" and will be staying there in his adjoining painting/ recording studios until his retrospective exhibition ends on July 15.

   Last week, I saw the grey haired rocker/painter through the 2 way glass the museum as provided on the second floor.  THat day he was composing on an electronic keyboard with a colleague.  An hour earlier he had been playing church music which was being piped into the "salle' of his religious themed paintings.   It seemed so fitting that he was there participating.


Robert Combas is a native son of Lyon born in 1957.     In his own words... paraphrased by my translation:  For the full text in French.

"I  had always painted and drawn and  I started to study Fine Arts at the age of 9 years old.  I was a pretty average student but I needed to paint."I am from a family of six children, my father was a laborer and my mother did housework. I went to high school until age 17, then I returned to Sète Fine Arts for a year, and then to Fine Arts school in Montpellier.   It was during the last three years of the five years at the "Beaux ARts" school that I started my first works that would become what was called later " free figuration. "Teachers often tried to control me but I was free, I did what I liked. 

The first painting that I made I changed several times, then I  separated it into 4 parts, then 3. It was after this painting I started making paintings very free, very colorful, and quite violent with lots of characters who were often spirited to fight or to make jokes, It was black humor. I did a lot of small battles by scribbling on school books. My first paintings were "Battle of cowboys against Indians "," Japanese against American "," Sea Battle "...

I always wanted to do something completely new, I always had the need to stand out over others.But I try to get out of myself and not care too much of the resemblance to someone else. I try to be as honest as possible, and in art it was thought impossible to do something we can not explain. At the Beaux Art Schools I was told this and I wanted to prove otherwise. 

I was blocked by others since kindergarten but at age 20 I was released because of my huge output of work, I got the diploma. I had nothing intellectual, but I had a mass of work."

Well, that sounds authentic.  He is just trying to do what he does and stay true to himself.  Refreshingly, there is no intellectual "art-speak" to wade through here. 

 And now some of my favorites of paintings that I snapped( not knowing if I was allowed photos):  

This one is very easy on the eye.  I like the use of complementary colors to pop it at you.  Combas seems to have an instinct for this.  I doubt if he thought about it.   I really get the feeling that he has always followed his instinctive- inner voice, and that art school didn't influence that.

  I especially like the composition of this one with the frieze along the bottom.   The colors are winning.

  I loved this painting which is "bas relief", the running figure being painted on "Gaterboard styrofoam" poly- styrene and stuck onto the main painting.

Combas' work is really not about technique.  There is an "art brut"," outsider art" quality      to a lot of it.  I feel he has an impulse to get the image down on whatever is at hand.   He uses mostly acrylics but on a variety of surfaces, wood, canvas, linoleum etc.

 I like the movement in this one.  This was the phase where he outlined every drip in black......very jarring on the eyes to see a whole room full of them.

 There is a definite " spoof" quality to many of his drawings.  Look at this "ass" in the background which has the face of a human.  Quite charming with the juxtaposition of a pitcher of flowers.

   Another of my favorites.  It had a more painterly quality than the others...... unusual for him.

As Bruce B says in the comments, this reminds me of  Robert Crumb and some other cartoon satirists.  I wonder if he knew their work when he started.  He obviously has been influenced by Picasso too in the first photo I show here.

These are full of his own symbols about the "church".  A lot of collage was used in this period.

     Here is a photo I found online of Robert Combas in his studio , with the painting I like so much.

    This was the first room of his early offerings on cardboard and ungessoed canvas.  He called this period, "Arabian pop art" and it is markedly different from the work to follow.

   This last image I include as it shows an example of one of the artist's most prolific styles.  There is  variety in his development but this graphic style predominates.   There are hidden messages he wants you to see so it pays to get up close and into the painting.  These over layered paintings don't work as well for me from afar.

  On the last floor of the museum is a stage set up with instruments. There is a video playing of Combas and his musical group.   IN the video he looks like a 50 + year old kid, rapping in a stilted, incomprehensible, ritualistic style, in French of course.    It is not hard to conclude after I look around the theatre with lamps , shoes,  guitars, cut out cities , marionettes etc,  all covered with his signature graffiti- like style,  that Robert Combas is off in his own little world.    

      I asked the docent jokingly if after the time he has spent in the museum, meeting the artist and all, if he thought that Robert Combas was "crazy".   "Yes", he said, "but in a good way".    ANd that is what I have concluded too.  


  1. Looks interesting. I know he must have seen the work of R. Crumb and Matt Groening. BB

  2. Thanks for this post , too


  3. His work is superb. Basquiat, Penck, Picasso, Crumb, and Dubuffet et. al. loom, but Combas has carved out his own niche.

    Bruce Bethany

  4. We can't help but be influenced by those before us, but I agree, Combas has many innate skills and a lot to say. Thanks for your comment, Bruce.