A black marble ladybird, sitting on a cedarwood leaf, a furious toothed whale, a kestrel, a black panter, a crane… Stepping into Alain Courtaigne’s workshop is like setting sail on the ark of a new Noah. Here, animals rule, and they all seem to be mineralised in mid-action. They are wild and glorified, and their refined outlines and summarized movements transform them into something totemic or heraldic. A patient and demanding man, this artist has been exalting the freedom of wildlife for well-nigh thirty years – bringing animals to life and endowing them with a soul.
When young, the future artist was already handling the chisel and mallet, experimenting with direct carving as a self-taught man. “But to reassure my parents, or myself, I set forth on a career in architecture,” he says. In the mid-60s, at the Ecole Nationale Supérieure d’Architecture et des Beaux-Arts in Paris, he designed several assemblages, particularly out of fabric. Animals were already his main focus, drawn from dreams and steeped in memories – for example, of photos from the magazine La Vie des Bêtes to which he subscribed as a child: articles on endangered species have always fascinated him. Or memories of a certain poisonous ray fish, which he was warned to look out for on family holidays in the Bassin d’Arcachon. “I remember a fisherman who was having difficulty catching one. To harpoon it, he was helped by a young boy who was scared out of his wits!” At the time, Alain Courtaigne read adventure novels by James Oliver Curwood, Jack London and Rudyard Kipling, without forgetting Herman Melville and his Moby Dick.
The young architect qualified in 1970 and set out for Africa. Inspired by the lessons of the modernist Georges-Henri Pingusson – a disciple of Le Corbusier’s “New Spirit” – and of Aymeric Zublena (best-known for the Saint Denis Stadium near Paris), he designed buildings. He discovered a spectacular collection of sculpted wood: “In the Kinshasa bush, a few rooms in the Père Blancs mission were filled with Bakongo fetishes. They were, and remain, outlandish to me.”
Next he went to London, then the University of Pennsylvania, to work in Louis Kahn’s workshop, where he produced his first etchings, silkscreen prints and lithographs. What he recalls from the latter training is “space as an essential value in architecture”. Sculpture still interested him, but his teacher considered that it shouldn’t be confused with architecture.
Back in Paris, Alain Courtaigne was full of dreams of space and light, and a passion for materials. He embarked on a career as a builder, which was both flourishing and frustrating. He struggled for 25 years, stifled by obligations, regulations and budgetary considerations. Only the drawing phase of a given project enchanted him.
In 1992 he threw in the towel and grabbed hold of the chisel once again. For three years, in Paris workshops, he devoted himself to modelling, drawing nudes from live models and studying direct carving and morphogenesis under the instruction of Sylvie Lejeune. “It was always animals that emerged at once. Imaginary animals.” A collector commissioned a hippopotamus from him. “Africa returned.” And this time it didn’t let go of him. The same could be said of animals. “One year there were lots of butterflies, and I made a butterfly. Then I moved to the country, where stone martens ate my pigeons. So I made stone martens.” A few patron saints, commissioned by religious institutions, also occupied his workshop. Saint Francis in particular, the man who spoke to birds.
As his creations increased in number, so they increased in sobriety and majesty, with simpler contours, honed through an ever more calligraphic approach to drawing. And they became denser in mass, hedging at times around the verge of abstraction, without ever crossing that line. “It’s important for me to remain legible. This is not a limitation but an ambition.”
A monumental block of wood or stone is carefully selected and smoothed down without being denatured: the animal form that emerges fits it admirably. Tense, captured in action, it occupies the space intensely and, in doing so, pays tribute to it. “The starting point is often a commission – a black panther leaning on a tree, for example. Next, the block of stone selected must contain the form. Direct carving is all about knowing what the block of stone holds within it.”
At the outset, “the minimum is to give tangible form to an idea through a small sketch. This is already a compromise, because direct carving should be intuitive. But in theory mastering excorporation is impossible.” Today, Alain Courtaigne enjoys “the pleasure of developing an instant in time. It doesn’t take long to capture an image. Next, one helps it grow.” He is a sculptor of appearances rather than definitions. If the animals he designs are emblematic to this point - discreet, and never trivial or even anecdotal - it is because the precision of their attitude is perfected to the same degree as the dream of their mystery.
“I try to represent the animal in an environment. As far as I can, I suggest this environment. I am more of a naturalist than an animal sculptor.” The quintessence of this particularity, characteristic of a sculptor with an architectural training, is to be found in figures which surface or skim past: jellyfish with long filaments that barely touch fish, ducks skirting reeds, or those famous ray fish, emerging from the water. “As a child, they fascinated me because they went by just under the surface. They looked like ghosts. And then, while I was still a child, I saw a whole world disappear under the waters of the Bin el Ouidane dam which my father helped build in Morocco. Ruined towns interest me particularly. They make me think of madrepores, of coral networks. Louis Kahn used to say that a town is a treasure of spaces. And one of his students said that the monumental is that which is destined to fill an absence. This reminds me of the monument to sailors lost at sea in Arcachon.”
To rekindle his inspiration, the artist prefers collecting photos and films to visiting zoos and, of late, hunting down images on the Internet, with a preference for photo-reportage “that reveals animals in their own environment, their burrows, their private lives. Recently I found a documentary about hummingbirds. They vibrate like bumblebees, filmed in slow motion. The complex motion of their wings, their flight with head held low, is mind-boggling. As, indeed, is the motion of the frogs that attack them. Or their minuscule nests, which look like cocoons.”
So many animals! But what about people? “I hardly ever sculpt them, it’s true. Doubtless through modesty. Portraits? Humanity? For me, that’s too big a chunk to swallow. And I prefer representing animals that are becoming scare. People don’t need me. There are already enough of them. And the animal world is more welcoming than theirs, and free from strategies – in a word, different. Though that difference is indefinable. I don’t sculpt domestic animals, because they aren’t endangered either. In fact, their ecosystem expands at the expense of the wild ecosystem.”
The apotheosis of this adventure is his “Our World” sculpture, a colossal tower, six metres high, sculpted in 2013 out of a sequoia trunk. At the bottom is the “primal chaos”, while above “eternal time symbolised by the tortoise, then dynamic time embodied by the dragon, then the animals of sea, land and air, the clouds and lastly, right at the top, a deserted town. A crescendo towards civilisation and a threat looming over everything.” Alain Courtaigne is perhaps a militant ecologist. He is certainly an eternal romantic.


Bio


Born 1947
1965/1970 Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-arts in Paris, architecture
1971/1972 architect and city planner in Congo (RDC)
1973/1974 back to school in Louis KAHN's studio of the Graduate School of Fine Arts, University of Pennsylvania. Master of Architecture in 1974
1975/1993 architect and city planner in Paris
1994/1997 Ateliers des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris :
  • Eva GODSICK workshop (clay and anatomy)
  • Sylvie LEJEUNE workshop (stone and wood carving)

Recent exhibitions:


- April 2018, International art show "Ligne et Couleur", City Hall Paris
- September 2017, Aranima art fair Paris
- May 2017, guest of honor, art show in L'Aigle, Normandy
- December 2015, collective exhibition, Thuillier gallery in Paris
- November 2014 guest of honor, animal artshow, HIP gallery Paris
- Decembre 2013 Exhibition in Galerie François Bansard, Paris
- October 2013 Animal sculpture biennale in Rambouillet
- September-october 2013 - ArAnima exhibitions in Normandy hospitals (Alençon, Argentan, Caen)
- June-September 2013 Monument's exhibition Chateau de Goulaine near Nantes
- May 2013 - Art show in Millau public's prize
- April 2013 - Art show in L’Aigle (Normandy) sculpture prize
- Mars 2013 - International art show "Ligne et Couleur", City Hall Paris
- November 2012 - National salon of wildlife artists, Bry-sur-Marne
- May 2012 - Animal artists art fair in Montreuil
- April 2012 - International art show "Ligne et Couleur", City Hall Paris
- December 2011 - Centre Culturel Christiane Peugeot, Paris
- October 2011 - Salon Aranima, Paris
- September 2011 - National salon of wildlife artists, Bry-sur-Marne
- June 2011 - HIP Galerie d’art, Paris
- September 2010 - animal art biennal salon , Rambouillet
- May 2009 - Exhibition Chapelle Saint-Jacques Mantes-la-Jolie
- December 2008 - Exhibition Galerie Edipro-de Moisans, Paris
- December 2008 - Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts in the Louvre, Paris



permanent exhibition


LES ARTISTES ET LA MER 9 rue de la Blatrerie Saint-Malo
Alain-Courtaigne - portrait

About Alain Courtaigne by Françoise Monnin, editor-in-chief of Artension magazine.