Sunday, April 25, 2010

Bare bottoms, zebras: the art of Sarkozy senior

PARIS — The naked women and tattooed giraffes look like something from a fantasy comic strip but, with prices of up to 16 thousand euros (21,000 dollars) per canvas, something must make these pictures special.
Is it the Daliesque darkness of the religious visions? The fighting bulls like Picasso's? More likely, it's the story of the artist behind them: Pal Sarkozy, the 82-year-old father of France's president, Nicolas.
"You must understand that it's not just a naked woman or a portrait. Every picture tells a story," Pal Sarkozy told AFP, strolling round the Espace Cardin gallery where the show opened Saturday, a stone's throw from his son's offices in the Elysee palace.
He stops by "Happy Dolores", a rear view of a shapely woman in suspenders with a wooden stump where her right leg should be.
"It's not just for the sake of showing a girl," he says. "It's to illustrate her story -- she was able to build a new life, even after losing a leg."
Next to it, "Noah Help" depicts a Biblical ark perched atop a female backside and legs in black stockings. The pictures are based on drawings by Sarkozy senior, digitally coloured by his collaborator, Werner Hornung.
While the president has seen record low approval ratings in recent months, his father has drawn a mixture of interest and derision on his own account, first for publishing a memoir of his life and loves and now for his art.
"Everyone on the right-wing says it is very good. Everyone on the left says it's very bad," he said. "It doesn't matter to me. There are very few painters who were recognised in their lifetime."
Among the works in the current show is a portrait of France's first lady, the supermodel-turned-singer Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, playing a guitar. Pal Sarkozy gave it to the presidential couple as a marriage gift.
A portrait he painted of the president has been left out of the show however. "People are always talking about that picture. I want them to talk about the others," he said.
"In a way it's a handicap having a son who is exceptional like Nicolas."
The pictures have received scant critical attention and the artist -- who separated from Nicolas Sarkozy's mother when the future president was a child -- has been accused of seeking to cash in on the family name.
Asked to give a critical appraisal of Pal Sarkozy's paintings, Le Monde newspaper's art critic Harry Bellet laughed out loud and refused.
"They're very colourful, I'll say that much," Bellet told AFP. "I don't think that someone who has started late like that would gain such international media coverage without some link to his son.
"I think the day Pal Sarkozy is exhibited at the Guggenheim in Venice we will start to take him seriously. But since I don't think that's going to be in the news soon, we'll wait a bit," Bellet added.
But with opinion polls showing almost two thirds of the public against the president, name recognition can cut both ways. His father says that through his exhibitions, he has got used to criticism too.
"Criticism is always useful to drive you on and improve your art, or improve your political discourse," he said.
He points to a picture of a zebra wearing a baseball cap in New York, titled "The Immigrant", which he says is relevant to his own story.
As well as describing his first sexual experience with a nanny at the age of 11, his recent autobiography told of arriving in Paris as a penniless Hungarian immigrant in the 1940s and his subsequent career designing adverts.
Through that he met Hornung, the friend who digitally manipulated his pictures.
"Some say they're wonderful, some say they're rubbish," said Hornung. "You can like it or not, say it's kitsch or whatever, but you should forget the name and just consider the pictures."
Hornung lists several airings the pictures have had in Spain, Hungary and elsewhere. Aside from a small number already shown at a Paris art fair, the new exhibition is the first main hanging of their works in France.
"We are always better treated abroad than in France," Hornung added. "Abroad Nicolas Sarkozy is criticised much less than he is here."
The president and his wife had been invited to Saturday night's opening of the show, but declined in order to avoid the crowds of journalists, Pal Sarkozy said. They were expected to view it later in the week.
"It's original. I find it interesting but it's a bit 1960s," said Dimitri Parant, a 51-year-old artist who came to the opening.
"I like the fantasy and the originality," said his friend, Galdino Barbieri, 83. "Not just because there are buttocks in it, though I do look at those too, of course."

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