Philippe Ancelin: As a young artist, why did you choose painting as your mode of expression?
Nathanaëlle Herbelin: I like painting for so many different reasons. But mainly because painting continues to move me, to surprise me. I feel as though I still have a lot to learn as a painter, because it’s such a wide-ranging and profound medium.
Painting takes a lot of time, out of one’s day and out of one’s life. I think that the more time I spend on a painting, the richer that painting becomes, in terms of its material, its layers, its details, its reflection, its pentimenti… What I like about painting is how it conveys the work that goes into it. Time becomes less abstract. One of the rules of this medium is that every brushstroke gets recorded. Even if a brushstroke gets covered up, its texture and colour will change how the next layers look like. It can resurface the next day or even years later. It’s no coincidence that painters call pentimenti “ghosts.” I chose painting because when it’s successful, it may contain several scenarios and even some contradictions, especially when a painting can be read in different ways and contains hidden pentimenti within it.
PA: Is figurative painting the future of art?
NH: I don’t know about the future of art. But like all the things that have been with us for so long, art will necessarily evolve. For me, painting is the recording of a subjectivity.
PA: Your work is very mature, especially when it comes to the structure, harmony, and colour range of your paintings. What is your background? What artists inspire you?
NH: As a child, I cared a lot about painting in a very “realistic” manner. I used to draw a lot and I remember how rewarding it always was for me to improve technically. Later, I took a lot of private lessons with Israeli painters, of Soviet descent mostly, and I started to paint more and more regularly. I started using oil painting when I was about seventeen years old. It was so painful. I remember, one time, as I was sitting on my bed, I started crying in front of an empty jar of Bonne Maman preserves that I was using as a model for a painting. I felt so desperate. I thought I’d never be able to finish it. Yet it ended up being one of the most realistic and polished works I’ve ever done. Since then, however, I haven’t wanted to paint that way. I gave that painting to my grandmother. She loves it, of course. But I don’t paint like that anymore. Little by little, I became more “comfortable” with oil painting. I felt relieved and I started to aim for my paintings to be very “true” instead of very “realistic.” My dream was to attend the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. When I was a student there, I looked at Monet and Velazquez a lot. I wanted to be more efficient at the time, but then I evolved. I started looking at the European Primitives and at other artists from before photography came around. I was interested in life model painting again, this time as more than just a technical exercise intended for my grandmother.
PA: You seem to be very rigorous and to like colour. Where does that come from?
NH: As far as colour is concerned, I react a lot to the environment around me. For example, when I’m in Paris, I often use Payne’s gray and other elegant colours like deep, dark turquoise, purple blue, and indigo. When I’m in Israel, it’s the opposite. There, the warm, oblique light makes me want to use ochre, pale pink, and Naples yellow. Otherwise, out of modesty perhaps, I don’t really have any bright yellow or pink in my palette.
I think a lot about how to simplify and go back the fundamentals in my work. During my compulsory military service in Israel, I was a mountain guide in the Negev desert for two years. This desert really became a part of me and, to this day, I still remember how I felt physically when I was walking certain paths for sometimes more than four days on end. There’s a kind of strength to be found in the solitude and intimacy of these wide-open spaces. The desert forces its visitor to focus on simple, primal things like shadows, water, walking, the sand in your eyes… Going back to these fundamentals both fascinates and soothes me. I hope to convey these experiences in my paintings.
PA: Like the Italian Primitives, your paintings convey a sense of equilibrium and expectancy, as if an epiphany were about to happen. Is it on purpose?
NH: Yes, it is. I look at the Italian Primitives and at early Renaissance paintings more and more these days. For example, right now, I’m very interested in the format of the small narrative predellas. Recently I saw a striking painting by Fra Angelico at the Museum of Cherbourg, The Conversion of Saint Augustine. In that painting I’m moved and inspired by the different scales and the characters’ postures. If you put aside the legend of Saint Augustine for a little while, I think the story in that painting could become completely universal and timeless.
If the predellas were used to tell familiar stories to a large public, then I’d like people to experience my paintings a little bit like these small predellas—as free narration, as unknown but also strangely familiar stories.
People often talk to me about this sense of expectancy you mentioned. I think it’s probably just one possible interpretation among others. I actually paint what’s in the past already, what comes “after the fact,” the “afterparty,” more often than I paint landscapes where one passively waits for something to happen.
PA: From beginning to end, what is your creative process?
NH: As far as my paintings are concerned, I always extract something from reality, whether it’s an object I find, a scene that’s had an impact on me, a landscape, a passage from a book, a feeling towards someone… I take a photograph of these things every day or I make sketches. If it’s too abstract, then I pull out some objects, stage them, and paint them.
I leave a lot of room for everyday accidents to interrupt my work. I often like that better than focusing on one single idea from beginning to end. I’m interested in those gaps between facts and memories, the initial idea and the realization of that idea on the canvas. Sometimes I make two or three different versions in order to test various scenarios.
PA: You mentioned taking photographs and making sketches. These small formats seem like drafts for larger works. Is that always the case?
NH: Yes, it’s true that I often do small sketches on wood or paper when I’m painting from a photograph, so as to avoid a photographic effect in the end. But a lot of works also call for small formats.
PA: I’ve noticed recurring themes in your work. Are some of your paintings part of larger series?
NH: There are clearly some recurring elements in my work, like interiors and abstract, geometric figures, as in Portant [Clothes Rack] (2017) and Le Distributeur [The Vending Machine](2019). I’ve worked on these things simultaneously and for an extended period of time, because they continue to interest me and to challenge me. However, there are also some real series in my work, from when I’m working outside the studio, like the series called Fernando qui ne m’a jamais rappelée [Fernando Who Never Called Me Back] (2013) and Tentatives de positionnement [Temptations of Positioning](2018). In Tentatives de positionnement, which is about the Israeli desert, I tried to convey the recent changes in the landscape and the different ways in which the desert is populated—the Bedouin villages, the displacement and extension of the closed zones, the evolution of cities like Arad and Yeruham, the waste in the Arava desert, the creation of new roads… I also learned a lot from the conversations I had there. I learned that filling the silence in these conversations wasn’t necessary. I painted this series like that. I tried to respect the moments of silence in the landscape.
Personally, I think that our understanding of the series needs to be challenged. The same goes for how we understand distinct lines and the niche, for instance. In my opinion, the series as we’ve understood it in the modern era remains fashionable mainly for commercial reasons. Artists are expected to work like that, to make coherent exhibits, and to make collectors happy. That’s why artists shouldn’t cooperate anymore, unless they really want to make a series.
PA: What fascinates me in your work is the relationship between the quotidian, the universal, and the transcendental. You extract objects from the quotidian and insert them into your paintings as if they’ve been there all along. What’s your secret?
NH: I see my paintings as personal notations, because I think that the more personal they are, the more mirror-like they become. I try to raise questions that are important to me and to create bridges, between the personal and the universal, or between the intimate and the political, for example. To find what’s personal to me, I always start with something that moves me. It could be the Bedouins’ living conditions, or just a black dog lying on a bed. But as long as that something moves me, for whatever reasons, my painting will be interesting. When I watch a movie by Almodóvar, I’m impressed with how he creates intimacy between his characters, and then, in the end, between his characters and his viewers. Likewise, the viewers may have an emotional and intimate experience while looking at a painting, even sometimes in the case of the still life of one single asparagus.
PA: When I look at your work, I feel like anything could be the topic of one of your paintings. Why is that true? And, if it isn’t true, then what determines your choices?
NH: Almost anything could be the topic of a painting for me. If one day I become completely cynical, then it won’t work anymore. Once again, a simple brick could be the subject of a good painting as long as I’m moved by it.
I also think that these are exciting times for painting, because almost nothing is forbidden anymore—no concept, no technique… You can paint a cat on a windowsill or anything else that’s over the hill without any problem. Today, if we look at Nicole Eisenman, Ellen Altfest, or Hockney, we’re not going to say: “Ah! No! Not flowers again…!” I don’t know why that is, but I think we should definitely be enjoying it.
PA: What’s the starting point of a painting for you, besides your being moved by something? Is it intimate, historical, political, or spiritual?
NH: I paint like a documentarian. I develop the content, which can be a colour, depending on what I find around me. I take a lot of photographs and I also collect objects from the places where I live. Then, I must say, the rest often varies from one painting to the next, but there are places and people I return to, like a ritual in some way. I’ve painted all the apartments I’ve lived in since 2011 and all my lovers, too. I’ve painted my sister maybe eleven times, seven Israeli shelters, religious altars in two different homes…
I can also start a painting by imagining its composition. The compositions of my paintings are often based on some sort of abstract visions that I keep having, including frames within frames, objects laid out strangely on the floor… For example, before painting Cent ans de solitude [One Hundred Years of Solitude](2016), I had in mind something with lots of yellow spots, and I waited two years before figuring out how to do it and in what context.
PA: In both the interiors and the landscapes that you paint, empty spaces always seem inhabited. Things and buildings retain the presence of people, yet the human figures in your paintings are somewhat absent, as if looking inward. How is this effect created?
NH: Well, I can’t really answer this question because I don’t think the woman in Eléné [Eléné](2017) is absent or looking inward. Neither is the man in La Douche [The Shower] (2019), despite his posture and the fact that we don’t see his face. But it’s true that, often, when I paint my models based on their photographs, I’m worried about seeing them as beautiful objects. In the end, whether an object or a model looks inhabited is out of my control. I can’t always make it happen.
PA: Can you say a few words about your exhibit in Bourg-la-Reine and about your other ongoing projects, including your exhibit in New York?
NH: The exhibit in Bourg-la-Reine will be titled “Mise en Scène” [Mise-en-scène] and it will include previous and original works dealing with set design and mise-en-scène. I’ve spent some time looking at sets from the theater and some set designs I’ve seen on stage have actually become the subjects of some of my paintings. Sets remind me of how one constructs a painting. To represent things, a bedroom for example, set designers don’t build a bedroom on stage, but they select significant elements from a real bedroom to symbolize that space. Every object they’ve selected will have an impact on the scenario…and the same goes for painting, too.
I’m also working on an exhibit in New York titled “Rituals for Long Distances,” which will be about love and longue distances. It will be in two spaces at the same time, at the Emmanuel Barbault Gallery and at Morris Adjani Architects.
Translated by Aurore Spiers