GILLES AILLAUD : From Picture to Stage

This exhibition, as well as showing that in his work Aillaud drew a great deal from classic painting, also illustrates his persistence in searching until the last moment for some quote, adjusting a costume or painted curtain or seeking for a sign to make the performance immediately identifiable. 

Giorgio Ursini Uršič

About the Gilles Aillaud´s exhibition in Zagreb

The Art Pavilion in Zagreb presents a great exhibition dedicated to the oeuvre of Gilles Aillaud, unique French painter and great set designer, who died on March 24, 2005 in Paris, at the age of 77.

Before he became a set designer, Gilles Aillaud was a great painter, who, however, never wished to take part in the various movements of artistic exploration that shook the art world in the 1940s and 1950s. He was quite simply an independent painter whose canvases can be understood as an outstanding example of a personal fight against the absurdity of the transformation of rural society into the victim of out-of-control, runaway consumerism.

G_Aillaud scenografija1 web2

Aillaud did not become a recognised landscape artist by accident, but had to thank for this his numerous journeys and the creation of endlessly open spaces. The only figures inside these somewhat unreal spaces were animals.  Precisely for this reason, art critics classified his painting as that of “the animal world”. Giorgio Ursini Uršič

In fact, Aillaud often put his animals in places far from the endless spaces, shutting them up in cages and enclosures as in some kind of zoo in which lions, tigers, serpents, elephants and crocodiles were anything but at liberty.

After he turned his attention to the theatre in 1972 Aillaud put forward a vision of set design that the actors could use, in parallel with the text, as a basic resource for their work and treatment. Since he was in the habit of working with the director, he never considered the stage a toy or a simple stage setting for the purpose of achieving dramatic effect.

For Aillaud the space of the performance was a structural element that he stripped (for example in Hamlet in the Schaubuhne in Berlin in 1982), enriched with details (Faust Salpetriere in Paris in 1975) or the floor of which he could decorate with mosaics (Berenice, 1984), tracks in the snow (Lear, 1985) or from which he could strip the blocks of the parquet (Les Bacchantes, 1974).

The stage objects that he created were in fact poetical or figurative bodies that inclined the critics to start thinking of Aillaud as a kind of artistic philosopher, since he linked the abstraction of his work with the concrete elements of the stage.

The pieces shown at the exhibition (paintings, drawings, watercolours, sketches, photographs, original posters and advertising panels and the rest), the curator of which is Giorgio Ursini Uršić, the set-up being confided to Gabriele Bellingeri, tells of the deep connection of this artist with directors like Klaus Michael Gruber, Jean Jourdheuil, Luc Bondy, and constitutes a cross-section of various phases of his work: from the performance of Faust Salpetriere put on in 1975 with Gruber The Coronation of Poppaea in 2002, and the presentation of Don Carlos in the Theatre du Chatelet in 1996 to the performance of Pierrot Lunaire at the Festival in Aix-en-Provence in 2003.

Gilles Aillaud was not just a set designer but also a great creator of illusions, an artist who was able to lay bare the mystery of reality and attempted to reproduce it in his pictures or in the open cage of the theatre.  He was more than a set designer, at least, more than is usually understood by the concept of set designer in the theatre performances of the 20th century. He was a rigorous philosopher, a visionary painter, a complex poet and of course a creator of theatrical spaces. But he always addressed his work as something completely creative, as if he were wanting to set forth the ideas of his directors and his authors.  It was said that Aillaud was neither a figurative nor an abstract painter, and that is the truth. He thought up spaces in which ideas could be made concrete at the moment when they were turned into emotions.

This exhibition, dedicated to the theatre work of Aillaud, closes off a long and clear cycle that  spurred me to reconstruct the creative path of many artists from the stage of the time, from Luciano Damiano to Dionisis Fotopoulos, from Ezi Frigeri to Jose Svoboda, from Emanuel Luzzati to Wilfried Minks, from Fabio Puigserver to Alejandro Luna. In fact, this exhibition commemorating Allaud, in spite its closing materially the path mentioned, was one of the first exhibitions in commemoration – if not the very first – that I wanted to produce. While I was working on this study I came across various difficulties.  I concluded that perhaps Aillaud had paid for his inspiration with absolute austerity.  He never made any concessions to the market or to his pleasure in working in theatrical circles.  When I say this of course I do not wish to say that the other set designers who with him changed the art of set design radically in the second half of the 20th century did make concessions to the market or the institutions.   I would only say that Aillaud always persistently wanted to be his own man and not accept suggestions that were not his own ideas.  He often opposed clients, his fellow workers, to affect them, set them off in his own direction.

In Aillaud’s creative work one can see a practically frenzied devotion to craft work, which is after all the basic task of anyone who works in the theatre. Aillaud expressed his craft skills not only in the material production of the sets, but also in the preparation of objects, stage machinery, in the search for iconographic references with which to make his ideas concrete, or the ideas of the director for whom he was working, of the authors he was illustrating. It came out in the preparation of posters, the making of advertising panels and murals for his performances.  This was an uninterrupted sequence of paintings and suggestions that Aillaud would make from the first rehearsal to the first night.  This exhibition, as well as showing that in his work Aillaud drew a great deal from classic painting, also illustrates his persistence in searching until the last moment for some quote, adjusting a costume or painted curtain or seeking for a sign to make the performance immediately identifiable.  In this Aillaud was perhaps the first theatrical panoramic person in communication   He had such an influence that in many unforgettable performances in which he diligently worked for director Klaus Michael Grüber it was difficult to determine how much of the creative burden was on him and how much on the director.

What impressed me most during the work on this exhibition, more than the predictable feeling of envy, was the feeling of total dedication of a group of artists (Aillaud, Grüber, Jourdheuil and Sobel) to the common project on which they would be working day after day, year after year, performance after performance, in order to give shape to a very particular idea of the theatre according to which every scene created a mental space.  A space that was created both on the basic of classic and of current examples too, on the basis of myths and contemporary metaphors. A space in which the visitors of this exhibition, or so I hope at least, might walk again, thinking that they are comfortably sitting back in a seat in a theatre in any part of the world. A space that during the decades changed us until it made us the people and audiences we are today. Thanks to the oneiric and creative partnership of Gilles Aillaud.

Curator of the exhibition is Giorgio Ursini Uršič.