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Philippe Thélin

About Philippe Thélin

Notes for a portrait

by François Debluë, writer and poet (2014)


It’s been fifty years -we will soon be sixty-four one and another! - since Philippe is my closest friend, the most intimately linked, like a brother.

We were never torn apart since our first boyhood. The trust never failed between us. It is a miracle! I know it and thus I size my luck. A friendship like ours is a gift from life.


Philippe has always been an ardent, a wolfish one, a being that is both powerful and fragile. It is quite obvious when you see his stature: he is an stately man! But Philippe is a colossus with feet of clay. His sensitivity is significant, his intelligence is extraordinary and his culture- or cultures! - are really impressive.

Philippe Thélin is a real humanist, just like in the Renaissance, and there are no many left in our time, because it is more and more difficult to be one in a time that “sparkles itself in a thousand pieces of unenlightened knowledge”, like the French Philosopher Edgar Morin described it. Philippe’s knowledge is on one hand scientific- he gained a doctorate in Sciences, is a specialist in alpine petrology. He directed for several years the mineralogy laboratory of University of Lausanne- where he taught and is still today a well known reference. He is also interested in chemistry, he is still reading books about fundamental physics … All this is not enough for Philippe, his literary and historical cultures are mind-blowing. Napoleon has no secret for him, nor than each World War. On all these subjects Philippe read avidly library shelves. But Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms or Wagner are familiar to Philippe too. Even if he did not practice instrumental music himself, he can name a composition after hearing a few notes!


Due to my career and my passion, I am a literary one. On this side too my friend leaves me speechless! Most of the time he is aware of the newest publications and already read them before I even heard about them! Poets, memoirists and novelists are in his close environment: Saint-Simon, Chateaubriand, Balzac, Dostoevsky, Kafka, Proust or Bernanos… He read them and read them again, as well as Baudelaire, Verlaine, Rimbaud and Mallarmé, and they are only a few examples.


I did not say anything about painting, it is true. It will be time to begin a bit later. I would like to explain first that everything that was said until this time could be only linked with “culture”. It would not be wrong, but to Philippe Thélin, it is much more like vital emergency, he would never see all this knowledge as a varnish that makes him gleam in society.


Now the time has come to draught about painting.

For twenty years- with an interruption, a break of seven years, Philippe gave himself to painting. Silently, for a long time as a secret, and wilfully. This activity too- and more than any other- became necessary, from the day he realised, not easily, that the gesture of painting or taking a paintbrush was possible, that a huge new world was here for him, and that was where he could express whole pans of his personality.

When he was twenty, Philippe wrote poetry. He published two collections. There are some more- I know- that are still in process of writing or rewriting. He works on them as much as they work on him. But the painting is stronger than words. He is not only a spectator in museums where he often goes or in books he often reads but the painting is a new language where he can the most easily, the most truly express.


Back to our teen years, we discovered together, in the Musée du Jeu de Paume, how it was at this time in Paris, at the same moment, Van Gogh, Cezanne, Pissarro, Soutine, Rouault and all the others.

Philippe goes on questioning them. He will later discover the Flemish primitives, the Italians from Middle Ages and Renaissance, and also the Norwegian Edvard Munch, the German and Scandinavian expressionists, plus the greats contemporaries.

From the time he paints too, Philippe observes them with a greater acuity, he reads avidly books of art, questions the technics, looks for pieces of information every time – and experiments in a daily duel with his paintings, his colours and his paint brushes, paper and pencils.


But – I know- it says almost nothing about his painting and his drawing properly!


I knew– I was the only one, I think, with Annabelle, his far too early departed wife- that may enter his first workshop, and then the second. No one could enter in. Philippe would have supported no intrusive look, nor superficial commentary, maybe would not he have supported the critic. His own doubts were enough! For him, it was more important to forge a style, to explore his intimate universe, to find his way.

When I entered his workshop for the first time, I discovered with stupor- and even with fright some times, I admit- a disturbing world, “spectacularly” and tormented paintings. Munch went there, the works were the witness of deep ravages. But Philippe was already engaged in his way, comparable to not any another’s. An artwork was being born!


Dizziness, anguish, obsessions, haunt: obviously, Philippe Thélin’s paintings were and will stay inhabited. He would not express only one half of what he wanted to say, nor in half taints, nor making things littler. He will be doing this for a long time in the deepest silence and loneliness. He will be doing it apart.


What did he paint? Dislocated landscapes -the ones that Chagall painted look like peaceful fantasies! - Russian novels scenes (more Dostoevsky than Tolstoy), enigmatic characters, torn, hurt, helpless, haunted with death. There was nothing here to do with a figure of speech or a vain seek for easy effects. It was in their being that these characters were hurt, in their bodies and souls!


From these years of hard work, it remains precious, essential tracks, but it is important to know that they are always the ones the painter wanted to save et keep. Many of Philippe’s works has been destroyed by him. He judged them insufficient, awkward or outdated.


If I consider what he finally consented to show until this day he opened his doors, with fear and reluctance, only from year 2012, there are mostly self-portraits.


I could not tell it instead of the painter.

But I can tell something evident to me: there is no stain here of narcissism. Temptation must be strong though. Everything is in the history of self-portrait itself through some moments of Rembrandt’s story for instance. But some are represented without bluntly (I am thinking of a self-portrait of Pierre Bonnard, like an old emaciated boxer…)

With himself, Philippe Thélin has no complaisance. It is not only about not sparing himself but he bullies himself! His head is full of bandages, plasters, his look is low, over heavy glasses- the colours are fierce and provocative, there are great aplats, all these variations of ruthlessness.

Pitiless for himself- not because of a lack of suffer- the painter never appeals the spectator to pity, never appeals the one he takes for direct witness of his questionings and torments. He seems to say “Look, I am only a ridiculous wreck, only a character -or maybe a clown- almost a monkey (I bet Philippe likes them tenderly!)”.

Here and there, the gun against the temple has alas nothing of a theatrical gesture.

But from this tragic vision, this questioning always extended, on self and from self, must not make everyone forget Philippe’s look on the world. There are some figures he likes to work on: the anonymous. A “Passant” (No 400), a tramp (No 169), Judas at the foot of the Cross (No 68) and, of course, the Christ himself. This last one is not the least regarding the artist, it is maybe an intimate and central figure for him…

The humanity that streams before each and everyone is not that much helpless at the material state (though it may be of course) comparing to the spiritual and metaphysical states.

Philippe Thélin’s work is asking henceforth, in an original way, the great questions: “Who are we?” “Where do we go?”

Familiar with mathematics and physics, Philippe Thélin knows that they will not solve these previous questions, nor this new one: “What is the point of all this?”.


The painter’s work does not answer these question in a discursive way. The painting has never been, and has never had to be a theology or a philosophy. Just like the the highest music and the greatest poetry are! It is a language irreducible to no other, but a language that brings testimony.


Philippe Thélin’s testimony seems capital to me. He explains, in his language, the adventure of being a man, the adventure of being alive.

This life is present in his drawings and I did not say how they are important to me.

In a general way, drawing is the structure of painting, it is like the prose a poet needs before he puts in order what he wants to express in a sonnet or something else.

Drawing is the touchstone.

It makes me think about Thyrsus, just like Baudelaire defined it wonderfully in one of his poems in prose from Spleen de Paris. It is the rigorous line, stripped, around which ivy or vine walk their “fantasies”, their free variations of colour or form.


That brings back to the use of colour in Philippe Thélin’s work: the choice he makes in his portraits and in the “decor” of his paintings or when he paints flowers or still life or even animals (a parrot for instance!). These are often bright colours, the most outspoken and the most intense.


In the centre of disarray, no matter if he draws or paints, what Philippe shows each and everyone seems to me, every time, like an irreplaceable proof of his taste to the world and his passion for life.