Born in Lyon in 1957, Robert Combas moved to Sete with his parents and five siblings in 1961. His parents were working class, ascribing to communist values. Both encouraged him to pursue his passion for making art and enrolled him when he was nine into the fine arts programme for children in Sete, marking the beginning of his career as an artist. He describes his need to paint; a need which has never left him and which continues to drive him to seek new ways of expressing through his art work.
After leaving lycée at 17, Combas spent a year at the Beaux Arts in Sete; from there he attended the Beaux Arts, Montpellier, then finally St. Etienne in the south west of France where he was awarded his diploma in painting. It was during his last three years in Montpellier, at a time when conceptual art dominated the art scene in France that he first began to create works which would lead to the establishment of new art movement later called ‘La Figuration Libre’.
In hindsight, it is perhaps thanks to the limits of how and what to paint that many of his art professors tried to impose on him that spurred the young Combas to freeing himself from them through his attempts to redefine the use of space, colour and figurative art: “j'étais libre, je faisais ce qui me plaisait” (“I was free, I did what I liked”). These early canvases, their black humour and sometimes violence, were colourful, full of energetic characters fighting one another or playing pranks. He would often depict battles, inspired from the doodles he had scribbled on his desk and in his school books as a distraction for him and his friends from the tedium of lessons:
“J'ai toujours voulu faire quelque chose de complètement nouveau, j'ai toujours eu le besoin de me démarquer par rapport aux autres, je pense être un "dandy".
(I always wanted to do something completely new, I always had the need to distinguish myself from others, I think of myself as being a dandy.”)
Assuming that "all things, anyway, had already been done," Combas adopted the great clichés of art, opening up new possibilities for representation. There is a raw vitality in this period of his early works, his haphazard arrangement of images, the use of recurrent characters such as Mickey Mouse and a kind of nostalgia for childhood, for the illustrations in primary school history text books and his doodles of battles, a style which shares an affinity with l’Art Brut - a term invented by the painter Jean Dubuffet in 1945 to describe the production of those without artistic culture.
Combas was invited by Bernard Ceysson, director of the Museum of Art and Industry in Saint-Etienne, to exhibit in a show entitled ‘After Classicism’. Ceysson was one of the jury who had awarded Combas his diploma at St. Etienne. He was struck by the uniqueness of Combas’ work, elements of which reminded him of the ‘Transavantgarde’, an Italian version of Neo-classicism which emerged in the late 70s and the German ‘Nouveaux Fauves’ of early 80s Germany. His participation in the exhibition brought him into contact with artists and attendees of the show who recognised the freshness of his work, some of whom duly purchased a number of them. With cash in his pocket, Combas left for Paris to live with his childhood friend and co-instigator of the ‘Liberation Libre’, Hervé Di Rosa and another artist friend Louis Jammes.
In Paris, Combas discovered the vibrant immigrant quartiers which stirred in him a connection with his own southern roots and the notion of coming from the South. His creative response was a collection of works in a style Combas calls the “Pop Arab” (le “Pop Arabe”), a sort of impecunious pop art which portrays an image of the South, of developing and Mediterranean countries; and of distorted accounts of the South, art works which aspire to create a language without frontiers.
It was during this period of artistic activity, following an invitation to Combas and Di Rosa by a Dadaïste artist called Ben to exhibit in his gallery in Nice (“2 Setois à Nice”), that the notion “La Figuration Libre” came into being; giving birth to a new generation of painters - Rémi Blanchard, François Boisrond, Robert Combas, Hervé Di Rosa, and the solitary Ludovic Marchand - who were animated by enthusiasm and a lack of self-consciousness, in marked contrast to the severity of 70s minimalism and conceptualism. However, these painters, unlike their transavantgarde and néo-expressionist contemporaries, did not seek refuge in nostalgia. Rather they unashamedly sought to reflect the actuality of their time, using bold colour and a graphic, simple style, inspired by cartoon strips, science fiction, children’s illustrations and the culture of the suburbs.
“Moi, je travaille des fois abstrait par jets de peinture, une sorte d'expressionnisme abstrait. Le figuratif c'est le côté amusant, pied sur terre; au départ c'était une réaction dérisoire contre les peintures intellectuelles du milieu de l'art des années 70. Moi je viens du milieu populaire, je vivais dans deux mondes différents. Il y a quand même des messages dans ma peinture : au départ c'est une certaine énergie, j'ai voulu peindre ce que je voulais. Dans la B.D. (bande dessinée) on est coincé par les personnages, tandis que, dans cette peinture, je suis libre complètement libre, même par le format. "
"I work in both abstract using gushes of paint and in a kind of abstract expressionism. The figurative is the fun side, feet on the ground; at first it was a reaction against the ridiculous intellectual paintings of the art of the mid ‘70s. Me, I'm from the working classes, I lived in two different worlds. There are still messages in my paintings: initially it was a certain energy, I wanted to paint what I wanted. In cartoons one is constrained by the characters, while in this painting, I am free completely free, even by the format."
The world of evolving Combas moves ever onward, to one of sophistication and elaboration, in which there is a kind of convergence of earlier styles: colour takes on more importance, filling the canvas, leaving no space empty. He uses black to systematically outline the colour, giving the work a real life force.
In the late ‘80s Combas explores spirituality in his work; the background of the canvas is painted black like ‘the obscure night’, the colours seeming to come out of the cosmos. His explorations of this former period culminated in exhibitions from as far afield as San Francisco in ‘89 and the Museum of Toulouse-Lautrec in Albi in 1990.
Later, during the ‘90s Combas expands his practise by revisiting earlier drafts and reworking them. He creates sculptures, such as ‘Les Pinceaux Peints’ (‘Paint Brushes’), in which discarded waste is transformed into works of art, exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art, Paris and ‘Les sculptures assises brut’, also shown at the Paris Museum of Modern Art. ‘La Sanguine’ (exhibited in Paris and Lisbon in ’96 and ’97) demonstrated another side of his creativity in a series of more classically inspired works.
His artistic freedom continues to express itself through a diverse range of subjects. For Combas, everything can trigger the imagination, a woman, a historical subject or event, a scene, an animal or something ‘unclassifiable’ that pours from the subconscious.
Painters that inspire Combas are those who touch him, good and bad, who are driven by their work and who continually seek/or have sought to push their boundaries - Paolo Uccello, Tintoret, Dürer, Carpaccio, Boltanski and Picasso, all of the artists in the L’Art Brut movement, as well as Corpet and Kijno, artists who he feels have lived and practised their art with a passion; qualities which in turn have helped Combas find his own creative voice. Significantly, Combas identifies less with artists of today, as he finds among them an increased pretentiousness, in a world where the making of art has become progressively based on money and the method of production.
There is a clarity and intelligence to Combas’ work. His paintings are not supported by long discourses or obscure justifications; neither does he communicate his message with over seriousness, instead he uses a raw and ferocious humour, offering multiple readings. Overall the message is abstract; it is a mixture of images and colours representing multifarious cultures. He is interested in the interpretation of subjects. In his paintings he is obsessed with detail, for example of costume and ornament. I am, he says, like a creator of clothes and I’m not aware of any other painters who treat their subjects in this way.
In the broader sense, Combas sees his work as only a ‘link in the chain’, believing that diversity is essential in art. However, he defends the medium of painting as key in the context of ‘visual arts’ and is incensed when it is denigrated by certain elements of the art world, who embrace new trends for the sake of novelty, quickly forgetting those artists who have gone before. Combas is passionate about the need to keep making work, and with that the need to continue fighting for spaces in which to exhibit, particularly as he sees those opportunities becoming more restricted for painters.
“Moi, j'essaie vraiment de faire du nouveau, j'essaie de sortir de moi-même et de ne pas m'occuper de la ressemblance avec quelqu'un. J'essaie d’être le plus honnête possible, et dans l'art on pensait qu'il était impossible de faire quelque chose qu'on puisse pas expliquer."
(Me, I’m really trying to do something new, I am trying to bring something out from me and not preoccupy myself with being like anyone else. I try to be as honest as possible; in art it is thought impossible to do anything that can’t be explained.”)
Robert Combas www.combas.com
All images © Robert Combas