Evelyne Axell and the sixties
Text by Pierre Restany (1930 – 2003)
Evelyne Axell was brutally torn from life on the 10th of September 1972. Her creative period coincided with the sixties, a period now seen as one of the most innovative in the second half of the 20th century.
The work of Axell, although highly singular, bears the strong imprint of this period, and its liberation of lifestyles, bodies, mindsets and taboos of all kinds.
The strictly pictorial works of Axell were produced over the seven years from 1965 to 1972. The seven previous years, from 1955 to 1962, had been devoted to her career as an actress. There were thus two transitional years between the two symmetrically successive phases of her vocation. These were also years of initiation: film director Jean Antoine, who made a film with her, introduced her to Magritte. The first became her husband, and the second her pictorial mentor. From Jean Antoine, she had a son, Philippe, from Magritte, she had an initiation that brought her to become one of the major player in the European artistic scene of the 1960’s.
When Axell began to assert her painting talents, young people all over the globe were living in a world of Pop. Her seven years of painting took place against the background of the great period of cultural globalisation of the sixties and its culminating events. The urban metropolitan lifestyle of a district of New York had become a planetary existential model: Pop Art was at the centre of a socio-cultural constellation alongside pop songs, pop music, hamburgers, jeans and popcorn. The leaders of the new European realism were consolidating the second wave of their affirmation. Niki de Saint-Phalle was celebrating triumphant feminism with her generously curved women, César was switching from compressions of cars to polyurethane expansions. Warhol was making infinite reproductions of screen-printed portraits of stars.
From the beginning, Axell painted in fiat tint, and cut out stylised shapes in the fabric which she then superimposed on backgrounds reflecting the influence of Op Art. As though in a premonition of the future, the car is a recurrent theme.
And then the effervescence of the second half of the sixties proclaims the rebirth of otherness and the right to be different: others in terms of ail their protesting minorities. May ‘68 was a symptom pointing the way forward to a change in society, to the transition from the industrial world to the post-industrial world.
It is in this dynamic whirlwind that the work of Axell developed, and its expansive force was never relaxed for a moment.
As though reflecting her wholehearted adherence to the dynamic movement of her time, she quite naturally abandoned oil painting to explore the range of plastic resins, and particularly Clartex – a material produced for the space of only one year – and which she used for works including “La grande sortie dans l’espace”, Plexiglas, and methyl polymetacrylate, which she readily used in its opaline colour form. Ail these synthetic plastics were being experimentally developed or improved during this period; on several occasions, she had to stop using a material because it had been discontinued.
Axell was able to play with the translucidity and transparency possibilities of plastic resins by colouring them with enamel. The medium of the painted image thus contributed to its modernity, and over the seven years of Axell’s production it is possible to retrace the parallel development of plastic technology during the same period. The opaline Plexiglas which she finally chose was a well-adapted solution for the problems of her expressive language.
It was through the body of the woman, and primarily her own, that Axell conveyed to us the breath of life which animated the whole of her pictorial career. As early as 1966, the originality of her style was clearly asserted. Without hesitation or repentance, the artist imposes her definition of the image froni the outset, in the midst of the expansive phase of the consumer society. She is determined to show us that a woman’s body is not a consumer good.
Her determined stance of erotic extroversion is asserted throughout her work. Whether she is an odalisk, a Persian, a Czech or a little pink feline, Axell’s woman asserts – in the subtle immanence of her presence – her right to bear witness to the organic perenniality of desire. The Axell woman, beautiful and sensual, launches herself into a Matissean round dance.
Sensitive to the events of 1968, Axell made a triptych portraying a group of naked young people, dominated in the background by the silhouette of a young woman brandishing the red flag. Two other major expressions of her ideological commitment date from 1970: “L ‘Assemblée libre” in which her old friend Dypréau is shown in the centre, and “La Participation”. The same political mutation of mass desire is to be found: raw eroticism liberates energy to challenge the existing order, and becomes the driving force of communication with other people.
And then she was to be the painter of the idyllic woman, blooming in the midst of luxuriant and rather exotic nature – she loved both Mexico and Guatemala – waiting for the Tarzan who was to take her to seventh heaven, a kind of oasis or terrestrial paradise. The animals there are colourful – blue for the elephant. orange for the monkey, multi-coloured for the birds of paradise.
In seven years of painting, Axell experienced the global modernity of her period with exceptional intensity, and entered into a carnal bonding with its changing dynamic. Evelyne Axell lived her art like a destiny, violently dramatic, demanding, absolute. Through it she has left us the breath of life, a life which she rode bareback like an Amazon.