Interview with Michel Lévy – summer 2011
What is your oldest past remembrance of a work of art?
Nothing because I lived in an environment where there was no culture and where artworks had no room.
At what moment did you begin to be sensitive in the artworks?
It is simply the need to make things with my hands, whatever the used material is. I think that one of the first objects that I made was in a material easy to use, a piece of soap. Then, a little more elaborated, they were pieces of wood, stony pieces. I remember that I used the kitchen knives of my mother, I damaged them and I got trashing. I chose in no way to be a sculptor. I think that it is the opposite, a need to express oneself from things we create out from nothing.
At what time do you began to maintain a connivance with the existing artworks?
I arrived in France in 1962. That was a real revelation, because within reach of hand, there was everything. We lived in the Markets of Paris. Very near from us there were three points of interest strongly important for me: the first one was the Mégisserie platform, because there were shops with lots of animals, and Notre-Dame cathedral, and especially the Louvre museum…
What was your first remembrance about these discoveries?
Tremendous walks wandering around in Paris. For me, the arrival in France was a fabulous stimulus. However, the first artistic emotions are confusedly from all the great classics. What impressed me is the classic art that completely blew me, that is to say how a man was capable of creating a sensitive zone on a painting or in sculpture, it was magic. Thus, I have been taught by myself to try to reproduce sensitive zones. That is to say areas, which tell something.
Are there authors’ names or artworks names spontaneously springing to your mind?
All the classical names: Rodin, Michelangelo, Canovas….
Why sculpture and not painting?
I do not know. The first paintings I made, I made three-dimensional things. Thus, the 3D completely imposed by itself upon me when I was very young. When I made my small studies, I had an automatic and perfect visualization through space, and that amazed everyone a lot.
You learnt by yourself observing the artworks?
Yes, in sculpture far more than in painting, there is no forgery and there is no secret. Everything is within the created object. Everything is visible in the outside representation. However, there are many invisible things, which are from the order of all the interior design. That is when we look at a foot thumb, we feel phalanxes, small muscles, etc., and above all, we feel the emotion. For example, a foot thumb from Carpeaux in « Ugolin and his sons » where the toe is tensed up, it is phenomenal what we get as emotion through this thumb.
You said that in sculpture artwork we could not hide anything. Finally, is not it the genuine and sincere side of the sculpture that attracted you?
I do not believe whether it is a lucid approach. That is a need, which had to express by itself without any thought processing which came later.
In addition, this need to express yourself, do you know the reason why?
No, that was for me a big interrogation a long time ago, that is to say from where this need came, this “gift”, from which part of my family this could come from. The only thing I found is the paternal grandfather who was a jeweler in Algeria. That was the only link with the creation and the matter I was able to find out.
Why do you put quotation marks on the word gift?
Because who can boast to have a gift? At what level we can say that an activity is a talent? That is very delicate. But the question that I often wonder, and which sometimes led me to metempsychosis, is that it sometimes seemed to me I knew how to make things I should not have known how to make them.
At what time sculpture became a so vital necessity that you made it your business?
The question did not arise that way. When I was childish, I had two centers of interest: I made small objects, I looked for things at the level of the matter, as for example to push the wood in its last ditches: that means taking a piece of wood, making a small object and polishing it at a point such as it takes the appearance of the ivory. Therefore, to go and fetch from the matter some things those do not exist a priori. My second pole of interest was the curiosity about what is alive through the small animals I could find, I observed, I dissected, and kept in the formalin.
We arrived in France, and at time of getting the high school diploma, my son Laurent was born and I failed my examination. I said myself, that is the moment to quench my first passion, and I cast myself wholeheartedly into sculpture, I started up my first workshop in the Markets of Paris. That helped a lot me because it was a very difficult time, and the therapeutic action of art is tremendous. At the end of a few years towards the age of twenty-five years, having won some money, I said to myself: it is time to satisfy my second passion, that one of the science. I thus decided starting to study medicine. However, I had no high school diploma. I went to a municipal school where people of all ages were attending classes, in order to obtain the basic school-leaving qualification, the patent or high school degree. There were wonderful people, who wanted to take their fate with full hands to change the direction their life took.
I was very lucky because I got my high school certificate. I joined the Faculty of Medicine, within the CHU (teaching hospital) Henri Mondor, and there I attend evening classes during the first two years. There were wonderful professors there who take from their time to give courses to the people named “salaried students”. I got the exam, so afterwards I was doing my studies, and rather soon, I was ruined: no more flat, no more workshop, nothing. A difficult time when I returned at dad and mom’s home, what I wish to nobody. In addition, at this time, as I did not have any workshop, I proposed to the hospital’s committee a deal: as I spotted two empty rooms in front of the cafeteria, you lend them to me so that I make my workshop. In return for I shall give courses of painting and sculpture to the students and doctors.
The experiment has had great success and lasted several years. In addition, within the program of my studies I arrived as non-resident medical student in a department of gerontology, the Head was doctor Bodak. He was aware of my experiment with students and doctors and suggested to me making the same for the elderly. We created the first department of art therapy in gerontology. We began very small with my business, my easels etc., and then that became more important.
What that brought to you?
It is enormous. Because my theory is I that think the real material of the art is the human being, and so this kind of experiment leads you to understand and to know what is human nature, in very difficult conditions. That provided me a lot on the reflection on the human nature, and on the difficulty of being. This experiment of art therapy aroused the interest of the manager of the welfare service. He found the procedure attractive and that suited him a lot because that gave a humanitarian storefront for these terrible departments that are the departments of gerontology particularly in the long stay hospital. He gave us many means: we had psychiatrists, occupational therapists, nurses … That grew so much and so nice that I had the honors of the evening TV news at 8 p.m. . . . That lasted for four years, but I had existential problems: medicine is a full-time job and the sculpture also. One problem of choice raised, and who says choice says anguish. I took a long time to choose and I chose the sculpture eventually.
You did not ever regret doing it?
No, I do not regret it, but I miss the medicine, because it is a perfect justification of our existence on Earth, because in the simplest and the most commonplace and daily way we help the others. We really have the impression to be useful. Probably also about art but it is much more diverted, more subtle. I have had the feeling to choose the selfish way, the way of the personal fulfillment.
When we look at the room where your works are exposed what strikes the mind is the absolutely incredible diversity of the forms of your art. What feeds your inspiration?
In this room, there are various periods. When I work a period, I make many works in the same direction and after that period time changes, years go away and I switch into other things. The visible diversity comes because I work on elements of duality. For example, when I began to work out sculpture, I was mad of beauty, as based on the previously mentioned classic sources.
At the ending of a few years, I was stuck in a deadlock because through the aesthetic sculpture, there were many things, which we could not express, in particular what is concerning the difficulty of being, the difficulty of building yourself, in the human condition, of which I had become aware at the hospital.
There, I went on the other side of the mirror, at the extreme ending of the aesthetics and I found an approach profoundly anti aesthetic where I liberated myself from apparently beautiful things. There I found for example dwarfs, a theme that seemed more convenient to me to express what I wanted to express. Why dwarfs? Because I have a rather pessimistic vision of the evolution of the humanity.
I think that the man evolves incredibly on the technological side, but on the human and charismatic side, I think that he becomes smaller. So to say that simply to the world, I make small men.
The apparent diversity you are stressing on is in fact cycles.
When you take a cycle, do you have to go at the ending before beginning another one?
Yes, completely. You spoke about the creative process? The image that I like giving of original design is the one of the battery, with time of accumulation of the energy and time of liberation of the energy. Times of accumulation are indefinite: we can accumulate some energy during a month, six months, and two years. When liberation bursts out, it is made of the form of a flash. At some point, there are many questions we ask for, and in the mind there is a final image with the sculpture we want to realize. I believe that it is a rather good image this time of loading and unloading. When we are in the time of loading, when we load this famous battery of inspiration, everything can play a role. Of course, the human relations are at stake, and the readings, movies…
Are you aware of the fact that by observing your works, we can understand you better?
That’s for sure that for whom who knows how to read, it is absolutely transparent. However, we are protected by the fact that very few people know how to read this kind of thing. They stay in the surface. When we have to deal with intelligent art critics, we feel mostly nude.
What do you feel in this room seeing a part of your life expressed there?
That is as going through a road marked up by boundary stones. Sculptures are stones, and what mostly interests me are the ones which were important limits, which represented changes of course, direction, which gave rise to a different understanding of things. They are, either limits, or stairway on which we can lean to reach other levels. Because the creative route is to reach as much as possible superior levels, that is to achieve at best his (her) potential. Each of us has his (her) potential, the drama occurs when we do not succeed to express it. A perfect life, a happy life, is a life where we were able to go at oneself limit and to express his (her) potential.
When you look at that, have you the feeling to have expressed part of this potential?
There were many things made, but I would tend to answer according to time. I have a sharp conscience of the time which passes away because the more the time goes by, the more the creative times get narrower and the more we see the ending of the road and the next stop of all this.
What urges you to continue?
I consider sculpture as a language, with a vocabulary, syntax. It is my way to have a dialogue with the world. If I stop working, I become dumb; I do not have a deep relation anymore with the world. It is a need to communicate with a sensitive level. Moreover, this language is built as far as I am a symbolic artist. I really build a language for myself. The simplest example of my language is my meeting with the bud of a cherry tree.
One evening, in a previous house, I was in the middle of winter in front of a cherry tree covered with buds. That profoundly questioned me, on the notions of duality, yin and yang, potential of life, because the bud bears in it the potential of the flower and fruit to come. Already for a long time I use the bud when I want to speak out about the life.
If I understand well there is nothing free in what you are doing?
Everything is absolutely voluntary. There is a conscious thought, which guides steps at the beginning of the sculpture, and then it is necessary to appeal to other things. The religious Jews have a technique to reach other levels of consciousness that is the swinging. To reach other levels of consciousness these techniques allow to bring to the foreground bubbles of unconscious in the conscious. That is completely precious. We cannot and especially, we should not master everything.
Elisabeth Benoualid, journalist.