Robert Combas (1957)


Robert Combas was born in 1957 in Sète, France to a modest family. He left school at age 17 to study at the École des Beaux-Arts, Sète and then Montpellier from 1975 until 1979. He sought a new aesthetic to counter the conceptual art movement that dominated the practice of French artists during this time. He sought to reinvent figurative representation and the handling of both colour and space. To serve his development he made stencils of the great artistic works of the past, such as the Batailles, but also icons of popular culture such as Mickey Mouse. Thereafter he invented Pop Arab art, a style inspired by advertising images of Maghreb countries embellished with pseudo-Arab writing.
In 1979 in Sète he created the review Bato with Hervé Di Rosa and Catherine ‘Ketty’ Brindel. The review marked the birth of an artistic movement that also encompassed Rémi Blanchard and François Boisrond: ‘La Figuration Libre’ (Free Figuration). The movement was baptised by the artist Ben in 1981 and had Combas for its uncontested leader throughout the 1980s. The simultaneous formation of rock group ‘Les Démodés’, with Ketty and Hervé Di Rosa’s brother is significant. Passionate about this music, Combas established a fundamental correspondence between the two arts right away. ‘My painting is ‘rock’ [music], he affirmed.
The mission of La Figuration Libre according to Combas was ‘to liberate us to make the most out of that which we desire personally.’ This reclaimed freedom, that can go as far as provocation, is expressed in the range of themes the artist explored simultaneously in a single work: historical or mythological references, popular images from textbooks or children’s books, Arab and African imagery, and subjects from daily life from violence, suffering, joy, sexuality, to stupidity.
Combas manipulated all these themes at his convenience, corrupting that which is conventional and appropriate, such as an academic drawing. Liberated from complexity, he used a simplified, saturated graphic style of bright colours applied flatly, recalling graphic novel illustrations, urban graffiti, and children’s drawings. The formal result is always a concentrated density of lines, forms, and colours.
In 1984, on the occasion of the exhibition 5/5, Figuration Libre France/USA, which brought together American graphic artists and French members of La Figuration Libre, the critic Otto Hahn spoke of their ‘puerility that gives the sensation of liberty’ and of their ‘joyous vitality.’ After the austerity and severity of French art in the 1970s which originated from Minimal Art, Conceptual Art, Arte Povera, etc., this new form of art propelled by Robert Combas deliberately revived nonchalance, sensuality, and humour.

(Martine Heudron)

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