Robert Combas with his father and his brother, 1961 Sete
Robert Combas with his father and his brother, 1961 Sete

1957 : Birth

Born in Lyon on May 25th,1957, Robert Combas spent his childhood and youth in Sète. He has lived and worked in Paris since 1980.Entry in the dictionary Le Petit Larousse, Edition 2005.

Robert Combas: He manipulates images of everyday life, combining them with historical and mythological quotations. Inspired by comic strips and graffiti culture, his style and creations are unashamed and humorous, as well as violent and sensual.

First period : 1977 – 1983 / The Art Academy period, and the first years in Paris.

Paintings are quickly executed in a very rough style, and are exhibited in an utter disorder. Hero-subjects characters are recurrent, such as the Triangles, Mickey, Kill…During this period, three pictorial styles are already emerging

–         High-school graffiti, the kind that are hidden in notebooks to make fun, and to laugh with friends during boring classes.

–         A style with “what is at hand”, closer to the Outsider Art sensibility. His “battle” paintings are permeated with childhood nostalgia, images from primary school history textbooks, memories of battles drawn on school notebooks. Use of salvaged and recycled materials.

–         The « Pop Arab », Robert Combas comes to Paris where he discovers the “melting pot” areas of the French capital. In Paris, he becomes a “southerner”, claiming his cultural sensibility for the South. The Pop Arab is like a poor Pop Art, working on the imagery of the Southern regions, of emerging/developing countries, of Mediterranean countries, of African hairdressers, and fake calligraphies, aspiring to create a language without borders.

This period is the source of the “Figuration Libre” movement: «  Freedom to grasp all sorts of influences, all imposed images, that is, a superficial but extended visual culture. »

Robert Combas 1979
Robert Combas 1979
Photo ©Louis Jammes, 1982
Photo ©Louis Jammes, 1982
Cahors, 1987 Remi Blanchard, Herve Di Rosa, Robert Combas, François Boisrond
Cahors, 1987 Remi Blanchard, Herve Di Rosa, Robert Combas, François Boisrond

Second Period : 1984 – 1988

This second period is one of sophistication and the realization of Combas’ specific style, which is a combination of the three styles defined in the first period. Work on colour becomes the main issue. Now, colour fills the whole surface of the canvas, leaving no white space. Quite obsessional, a black outline systematically underlines color, giving it a truly vital force.

« Small heads spring up from everywhere, feet, genitalia and words grow and oversaturate the sense. The senses run riot. Writing allows images to express their meaning in the symbolic and real space of the rising imagination. »

In this period, imagination is uninhibited. In art history an artist has rarely treated as much different subjects as Combas.

1990 Photo ©François Lagarde
1990 Photo ©François Lagarde

Third Period : 1988 – 1994 / “Literal spiritual period”.

Robert Combas visits churches, cathedrals for their stained glasses, Venice, the icons, … He reads literature, historic, and esoteric books. During this period, he establishes a spiritual and mystic pictorial style.

Like the « pitch dark night », his painting background is black, and colours seem to emerge from the night or from the cosmos. Streaks of colors run down on the subject, allowing to catch only a glimpse at it through this liquidity. The medieval influence as an unconscious memory is at stake in the paintings. This research work results in two exhibitions : in 1980 in San Fransisco, and then in 1990 in Albi on Toulouse-Lautrec, and later on a monumental painting “L’autiste dans la forêt de fleurs” (The autistic man in the forest of flowers) (1994), that Robert Combas considers to be the culmination of his research.

Fourth period : 1992 – 2000

This period is marked by an evolution through several phases. Combas turns to unfinished works, sketches and reworks them.

– He takes old paintbrushes and makes sculptures out of them, where they transformed into crucifix (shown at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris).

– “Raw seated sculptures” (shown at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris).

– Sanguine makes him discover another technique, more sophisticated, more classical, (shows in Paris in 1996 and Lisbon 1997).

– The Academic Tattoos, he draws and tattoos his modernity over academic studies drawn by art students, found at flea markets.

– Painted clothes.

– Performances that develop onto a photographic work.

– Music, recording of musical poetic texts.

– Glitter rich paintings.

– 3D paintings, while using the last findings of leisure painting, found photographs are stuck on the canvas which is created in three dimensions. He frames this new paintings into plexyglass and glass onto which he paints again.

Combas' studio Rue Quincampoix, Paris 2000
Combas' studio Rue Quincampoix, Paris 2000
Photo ©Harald Gottschalk, 2010
Photo ©Harald Gottschalk, 2010

2000, and the following years

Work on photograph on which Combas writes notes and scribbles. He intervenes again on the glass frame, and sometimes shatters it. Taking distance with himself and with these years spent in his workshop, he creates the life-size self-portrait of a character who dances and drowns himself. Shown at the 2000 Fiac, this “self-portrait” character is to be found again in the “sequences-works”.

Robert has always liked rhythm, he likes to say “I am a born drummer”, and he invents a new way of painting. These are to become the “sequence works” , that function like in musical sampling. Rhymned  paintings according to the strips and squares, made out of drawings found at flea market, Robert reworks each of them like a single painting. He ends the composition of these works with a character that resembles him.

2002 is also the year when Combas meets Guy Pieters, who becomes his main seller and director. This new relationship provokes a new phase in the evolution of Combas. The North Sea Belgian and the Mediterranean man from Sète have both a Rabelaisian appetite for life and creation. The first exhibition “Nouvel Atelier” (New Workshop) at Knooke le Zoute in 2003, is a great ensemble of more than 20 monumental canvases of 4 square metres. It proved to be a great day !

The Academic Tattoos of 2006.

Ten years ago, I used a new technique for my first exhibition in Switzerland in 1994. I had collected some old drawings that are called « academic studies », technique and stylistic drawings that can be found in flea markets.

At first, I was looking for drawings representing busts and later full-scale characters, and then three-quarter profile, and later architectural studies. Most of these anonymous drawings by Art academy students represent historical and literary subjects, characters, scientists, famous sculptures, or imposed subjects meant to teach classical techniques of drawing and sculptures, and I re-drew over them.

It was like a game, I enjoyed tattooing these academic figures with my own lines. Invented, fantasied representations have emerged and transformed the vision of the academic image, which is turned into a background.

By doing many drawings with a rough thick line on these academic drawings, I found interesting to conjure with both the primitive aspect (which is modern too) and the European art classicism. It is a reflection on representation, a sort of discourse.

When I started this work twelve years ago, tattoos where becoming popular again. It has now become a trend. The practice of scarification was used by modern tribes, gangs and clans. The outcome is different but it was interesting to use this different technique and the relationship with this living art.

The Academic Tattoos, of the exhibition at Knokke, and the exhibition we had at Guy Pieters in Paris in 2006, became more and more complex. One day, I stuck the drawings on a canvas, framing them with a line, and painting a background with metal paint and bright colours. With this metal paint, I made flat areas of colors, one for the frame and the other for the background underlined with matt paint. The bright effect on the background and matt paint over-drawn results into an ensemble that plays with the variations of light. The drawings over the black and white characters have also been developed, and I gave them a sculptural effect while adding them extravagant hairstyles, with an academic basis. That is how the academic tattoo which was only a drawing came to be a truly painted canvas with many collages, light and colours play.

Photo: © Harald Gottschalk
Photo: © Harald Gottschalk