Whitehot Magazine

A Conversation between David Hiroshi Jager and Francois Xavier Saint Pierre

François Xavier Saint Pierre posters in Venice 2022 (showing Traghetto). Photo: Edward Smith

By DAVID JAGER May 10, 2024

François Xavier Saint Pierre is a Canadian painter who moved to Venice Italy from Toronto mid-pandemic, at a time when he was just beginning to show in Europe. The move has paid off, and he’s thriving in what he calls “the most cosmopolitan village on the planet.” He is referring to Venice’s modest but internationally diverse and creative population of just shy of 50,000 inhabitants, as well as its reputation as an important international center for contemporary art. I visited him in April to attend the previews of the Venice Biennale, and, between what seemed like a million openings, we walked through the press preview of the current Willem de Kooning exhibition now on at the Galleria dell ’Accademia. Featuring 75 works by the NY School master, it centers on the influence of Italy specifically on De Kooning’s work, including his lesser known sculptures. Given that they are both ex-pat North Americans and painters in love with Italy, a conversation on his move and his thoughts on De Kooning’s painting was in order. 

François Xavier Saint Pierre in Venice, 2023. Photo: Laurel Saint Pierre.

DHJ: You mentioned that you have long had an admiration for De Kooning. What draws you to his work? What specific tensions in his approach really resonate for you? 

De Kooning had a rigorous academic background, and I admire the fact that he exchanged elegance for the expressive power of awkwardness. I like the way in which he tests the integration of a background into a foreground or vice versa. And his openness to experience and materials, as seen, for example, in the random bits of metal that made their way into the clay of his sculptures, or his willingness to give Rauschenberg a drawing of his to erase – he agreed to the request, but supposedly insisted that it be a really good drawing, something he would miss. 

The drawings in the Venice show are exciting for me because the artist has nowhere to hide. They are achromatic and sparse; you can’t savor the wet surfaces or a thrilling collision of liquid colours. The flat black ink, charcoal, and graphite are blunt-force rapid-fire events. In them, De Kooning's movements are not those of a surgeon but rather of a drunk using semaphores. In quick dispatches, he abandons elegance in favor of speed. 

Some of the drawings from 1969 focus on masses of broken lines that form grotesque quivering figures; elsewhere, the drawings from this period appear to focus on the idea of extremities, like feet. There are a couple of drawings I admired for a while, suggesting ankles and toes: a 1975-80 charcoal on vellum and another intimate-sized charcoal drawing that fills a page with an almost grid-like sequence of clustered lines, evoking numerous iterations of the bony distended feet of a crucified Christ. 

DHJ: You had been establishing your career in Canada, as a finalist in the RBC Canadian Painting Competition that saw your work presented in museums for the first time, taking part in residencies around the world, teaching, and showing across Canada, with a recent survey exhibition in Toronto. Yet you chose to move to Italy. Why? 

FXSP: The decision to relocate to Italy, a country steeped in artistic heritage and the epicentre of a large part of my artistic interests, was a significant turning point in my life. The move, prompted by the COVID situation in Canada, was a chance to create new opportunities. Previously, I had discovered Rome during a residency at the French Academy in Rome, Villa Medici. This event, along with an invitation to exhibit at König London as part of a group show in 2020, gave me a sense of serendipity and a strong pull towards Europe. I had also visited Venice a few times. It seemed like a good idea at the time, in the uncertain days of the pandemic – and indeed it was an incredible experience to live in almost empty Venice. I’ve been here over three years now and it’s still fascinating every day.

DHJ: The De Kooning show currently on in Venice is entirely about the effect of Italy on his painting. Venice and Rome, the quality of light, the landscape, the Italian way of life. These are also the places where you have lived and worked. How have these places influenced you?

Venice offers a wealth of historical imagery that is the fusion of two distinct pictorial traditions: those from the Eastern Byzantine Empire and, later, Western Renaissance imagery that relied on conventions of Catholicism. Both traditions, although they differ in their formal characteristics (flat, static, and stylized icons from the East and more complicated compositions highlighting bodies in motion within illusionistic space in the West), invoke ideas of likeness and presence and the protective power of imagery. 

Historical Venetian painting is the epicentre of floating colour, broken brushstrokes, and atmospheric colour effects. It is the site of multiple interests for me: the elegance of the brush, or in Titian's case, the elegance of painting with your fingers. 

Venetian light has an astonishing array of hues. The lagoon microclimate can alter the illumination on an almost minute-to-minute basis. We may think of the famed Venetian reds of textiles, the deep reddish purple of Porphyry, the pale bluish grey, cream, and pale pink of its marbles, but for me the essence of the Venetian color experience is the huge washes of long shifting clouds across the blue sky with red and yellow ochre building façades reflected in the waters of the canals that depending on the weather shift from milky grey greens, to a dark jade hue, to turquoise to indigo.  

It's interesting to think about Rome at the time of De Kooning’s visits - the exhibition considers his stays in 1959 and 1969. After WWII, Rome had superseded Paris as a place of artistic activity and artists were flocking there from the US. Twombly, Guston, Calder, and Rauschenberg come to mind. That was not necessarily the case when I visited. 

I was struck in particular by the detritus of culture there, the accretion, and the variety of forms. I loved more out of the way places, like the Centrale Montemartini (which juxtaposes obsolete industrial machinery with remnants of classical statuary), or the Doria Pamphilj, a wonderful, dusty old place full of major works by lesser-known painters. There are so many branching histories of painting there. 

But the effects of these things often come after. There can be a kind of unconscious gestation period. De Kooning painted Villa Borghese (1960) – the painting that’s used as the poster image for this exhibition – after he returned from Italy. This painting is structured around a saturated chromatic triad of chrome yellow, grass green, and deep blue. Although these colours, to me, are more suggestive of the blue-yellow pairings found in many 17th-century Dutch paintings.  

Likewise, I made the painting Traghetto in Canada after my first trip to Venice. At the time, I was thinking about 18th-century print culture and emblems, but the Venetian vibe seeped in. I like to think of it as a proleptic painting.

Willem De Kooning poster in Venice 2024 (showing Villa Borghese, 1960). Photo: Laurel Saint Pierre

DHJ: The De Kooning exhibition also speaks to his ongoing shuttling between figuration and abstraction, how he was constantly pushing past the legibility of the figure. Your own painting also deals with perennial and classical themes and toys with the legibility of figuration, often invoking modernism and the history of painting. What parallels do you see between your journey and De Kooning’s specifically in this regard? 

FXSP: In terms of pictorial affinities with de Kooning, my images also favor frontality; Red Man with Moustache (1971) in the exhibition, although full of gestural noises, offers a simple front-facing figure without any of the accidents of vision that foreshortening provides.

I’m interested in the fertile period before high modernism evacuated the symbol, and the tension between the name of a thing depicted and its representation. De Kooning, like Guston (who also went to Rome), was likewise keen on exploring the idea of impurity. 

De Kooning was disparaged for his use of a nameable form, the woman. His desire to anchor the painting process with a nameable form went against the grain of Greenberg's teleology of painting, or its purification of form into flatness. But De Kooning believed that the categories of abstract and figurative were not irreconcilable binaries but rather the same thing, differing only by degrees. He said, “Even abstract shapes must have a likeness.” 

I’m not really interested in such distinctions either. Rather, I’m interested in the active participation involved in perception, and the fact that no matter how familiar a form may seem, its appearance is never predetermined or fixed. Which is why, in Rome, I was attracted by the strangeness of things, and sought out the real heterogeneity of classical forms. (I’m also a real fan of late De Chirico.) This is also behind my tendency to work serially, as many modernists often did.  

Within De Kooning’s training was the standard practice of drawing from plaster models, and it’s interesting to think about how he also wrestled with the legacy of classical forms. I am thinking of his frontal figure, Seated Male (Classic Form) circa 1940: a muscular male nude that, in direct contrast to antique Roman and Baroque prototypes and conventions, is quite a static, unemotive figure. It’s an integration of flat planes of closed forms and chromatic dissonances vying for your attention. It is De Kooning’s arena to eschew volumes and test the integration of a background into the foreground or vice versa. Of course, it’s also fascinating to consider how radically different the discussions around abstraction and figuration were in North America and Italy at the time De Kooning came here – in Italy, it could be quite political.

DHJ: De Kooning often used technical innovations in the make-up of his paints and the size and heft of his brushes, and other methods to invoke spontaneity, create happy accidents, and to 'make things difficult'. Are there specific techniques you use yourself to 'break out' of conventional ways of painting or seeing?   

FXSP: Yes, but they are trade secrets!  

DHJ: De Kooning spoke of the influence of art in churches, namely, that they looked good from whatever angle you approached them. He also had thoughts on the suspension of the figure in space. 

“I remember everything half-suspended or projected into space.” De Kooning said this about his experience of viewing art in the churches of Italy. “The paintings look right from whatever angle you choose to look at them. The whole secret is to free yourself from gravity.”

One of the most satisfying tasks of a painter is to defy predictability, for yourself and the viewer; my interpretation of this remark by De Kooning is that many ceiling fresco conventions he admired on visits to Italy are unbound by the conventions and expectations of easel painting, the top-bottom-left-right of the rectangle.

Paolo Veronese and Giambattista Tiepolo after him are just two examples among many painters who created dizzying ceiling scenes whose pictorial organization did not dictate a viewer’s ideal vantage point. There was no point in space or correct position to interpret the scene, like in many Renaissance perspectival paintings.

The distribution of forms and the visual weights of the various saintly or allegorical protagonists meant that these works could be seen from any position in the church space below and were legible as a multi-viewpoint event or narrative. As a viewer we are freed from our expectations of how gravity, or the weight on the body, makes a figure behave.  

DHJ: You left Canada and immediately had a show during the last Biennale, where your poster [of the painting Traghetto] was hung in the streets alongside posters for Anselm Kiefer, Georg Baselitz, Marlene Dumas. Then you had a show at the Palazzo Borghese in Rome, the former location of the collection of Baroque Cardinal Scipione Borghese. How has the transition to Italy been for you? And what was it like to show in such a historically significant location? 

FXSP: Venice is a contemporary, living city, where you have to walk everywhere. There’s a real sense of community. So the 1849-style advertising whereby posters are plastered around the city is surprisingly effective. It’s all a bit random – you deliver your posters to the city and they can post them wherever they want. I suppose I got lucky – there were also some incredible painting exhibitions on at the same time during that Biennale (as at this one), and the people who affixed the posters tended to group us all together. It really did drive people to my show, at a new foundation here. This led to an opportunity to exhibit in Rome, at Palazzo Borghese. My works hung beneath eighteenth-century frescoes there, and I was told I couldn’t move the furniture, because it had belonged to Paolina Bonaparte. You entered the gallery through a garden filled with antique statuary…. which also featured in some of my work, created after the Rome residency a few years back. It was truly a highlight in my career so far, exhibiting in rooms where Titians and Caravaggios had hung, an opportunity not available to me in North America. 

François Xavier Saint Pierre, Tiepolesco, 2023

DHJ: At least from the outside, we’re witnessing a lot of change and ferment in Venice, in terms of the artworld starting to put down roots. What’s your take on this? And what do you recommend for visitors to the Biennale?

Yeah, it feels like some kind of post-COVID cultural goldrush. Several new foundations and galleries are opening permanent spaces. Berggruen Arts & Culture, galleries like Lorcan O'Neill (from Rome), Tommaso Calabro (from Milan), Patricia Low (from Gstaad), and Michele Barbati, who is also showing Venetian artists, so a big shoutout to him!

As for recommendations in Venice during the Biennale,  the Accademia Galleries have on view some modern paintings on loan from the Berggruen Museum hung next to historical works. For example, you can see Giorgione’s La Vecchia next to Picasso’s Dora Maar with Green Fingernails.

Outside the Giardini, the Walton Ford show at Ateneo Veneto, Lion of God, is also incredibly thoughtful and generous. Ford's dramatic large-format gouache and watercolour paintings are integrated into a historical space in dialogue with Venetian painting and imagery. It's a rare opportunity for lovers of painting: he goes head to head with Tintoretto.

And the Vatican Pavilion has initiated a form of cultural diplomacy by embracing contemporary art and creating a marvelous social experiment with the innates of the women’s prison on the Guidecca where I live. (The pope visited this morning!)

DHJ: What’s next for you? What’s in the works?

I’m continuing some research into eighteenth-century techniques, with a focus on Chardin, preparing for an exhibition, and taking advantage of the incredible historical libraries of Venice. It’s great that there is such a wealth of exhibitions on right now here, and I’ll take time to see them, but I also look forward to spending more time in the lagoon this summer. It is a lesser-known and underrated aspect of Venice that I think more people should explore. WM 

David Jager

David Jager is an arts and culture writer based in New York City. He contributed to Toronto's NOW magazine for over a decade, and continues to write for numerous other publications. He has also worked as a curator. David received his PhD in philosophy from the University of Toronto in 2021. He also writes screenplays and rock musicals. 

view all articles from this author