As the months went by and news spread of the upcoming Robert Combas retrospective at the Musée d’Art Contemporain in Lyon, a prospect that filled collectors of his work with infectious enthusiasm, the paintings started coming in thick and fast. Works we thought were lost forever suddenly turned up in some individual’s home or in the storerooms of a museum abroad. At the same time, we were exhuming others from the studio, emblematic works or works that had never been exhibited before, and were finding that the youthful paintings had lost none of their old impact while the more recent ones were just as strong. This patient and productive harvesting proved an extremely stimulating way to start preparing this show.

Comparing works from different periods revealed the remarkable coherence of a very singular career. Not that Combas paints and treats his subjects exactly the same way today as he did at the start of his career. A quick survey, from his first battles of the 1970s to the falling angels in the 2010 exhibition Sans filet, les Goulamas sont dans le trou would show how he has gradually come to master the third dimension. How the treatment of his themes over the years has gained in sophistication from his reading and visual interpretation of texts such as Paradise Lost by John Milton, and, more generally, how his painting has managed to keep renewing itself by reference to other works, by revisiting masterpieces from art history and by transforming academic drawings or photographs. It would thus become clear that his art has gained extraordinarily in complexity, to the extent that some series are like a kind of pictorial filigree—I am thinking, here, of the magnificent paintings executed in 2010 and based on Gaspard de la nuit, the poetic text by Aloysius Bertrand that Maurice Ravel translated into music. At the same time, Combas has also shown a masterful new lightness and simplicity, notably in the prolific series of Tatouages académiques. However, beyond these formal and thematic evolutions, what comes across very clearly is the constancy of the artist’s highly personal approach to painting, which he experiences as a noble adventure to be pursued with every ounce of energy and commitment.

Nowadays, we seem to be at a loss to say what painting is—or art, for that matter. The contemporary tendency to conflate aesthetic judgement with the hair-raising prices clocked up in New York sales and the caprices of a handful of mega-collectors are certainly no help. Painting is not just a matter of pressing tubes of colour so as to cover a flat surface, and assembling them in a certain order. Pretty much anyone could do that. No, painting is something else. It comes at a cost. It means expressing your inner visions because you simply can’t do otherwise, in order to create images unlike anything ever seen before. It means putting your life into what you do, as honestly as you can, without making concessions to the times, without cheating or cynicism, without hiding what you have done with that life, except behind the masks of metaphor, fable and humour, which to some extent mitigate the violence of it all and give individual experience a universal, even mythical dimension, thanks to a subtle process of distancing. In other words, what comes out of the tube isn’t just paint, it’s the artist’s life.

Meeting Robert Combas for the first time, what is most striking is the sheer force of his character, the breadth of the spectrum that he fills. His heroic dimension. But also his fragility, his acute sensitivity. Combas has lived a thousand lives. His existence has been a saw-tooth series of breaks and fresh starts—of all kinds (with women, with gallerists, etc.). It is a dizzying sequence of highs and lows, of peaks of fame and troughs of obscurity, but never losing its base note of intense creativity. In Combas’ art we find several self-portraits showing endless falling, the sudden and disturbing falling sensation we sometimes get when ambushed by sleep. But there are also bodies resuscitating, amazing ascensions and, above all, moments of grace. Once again, authentic art, which in fact is rare, has a cost. It has a dark side. You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs. What would Caravaggio’s painting have been like if his life had been less dissolute? Would Marianne Faithfull and the Rolling Stones have written Sister Morphine if they hadn’t taken opiates? Could Phil Spector have come up with his “Wall of Sound” if he hadn’t been a tad cracked? The lives of artists are engraved in their work like music in the grooves of an LP, for everything that makes them what they are – good and bad—can feed their art.

Our age wants artworks to fill its museums and art centres, but deep down it does not want artists, or rather, it only wants artists who are clean-cut businessmen purveying a disembodied, sterile and often very impersonal vision of the world. But art is not supposed to be clean. It is something that is torn from the artist, and the process can be painful. To cut art off from its heroic dimension is to dehumanise it, to slowly kill it off. A hero is someone who is fully aware of his humanity, and therefore his flaws, and this awareness enables the hero to push back his limitations by the catharsis of art and to rise above common mortals. The art of Robert Combas is eminently human in its manifestations and its aims. “What I seek out is the magic part of the human,” he says.

It is a colossal body of work, if only because of the number and variety of directions explored. Thirty-five years of painting, but not just that: the corpus also includes sculptures (sometimes monumental ones), painted photographs, prints made using various techniques, furniture covered with proliferating graphic signs, reworked drawings, stained glass—all the efforts that Combas calls his “Satellites”. The structure of this corpus is indeed atomic, or galactic – whichever. Around the core of painting, which the artist calls the “Combas classical style,” which has evolved considerably over the years, there gravitates a myriad of methods that continue to feed off each other, sparking a plethora of chain reactions that in turn contaminate the paintings. Added to this, while the appearance of these various methods can be precisely dated, they follow parallel trajectories, sometimes breaking off only to reappear a few years later, regenerated by the discovery of new techniques. For proof of this you only have to look at Combas’ studio and the works-in-progress hanging there: the concomitance of the various series is the prerequisite for the emergence of new forms. The works engender one another, just as one idea leads to another in a conversation with the artist: digressive analogies sometimes take us very far from the initial destination. Time becomes elastic, we think we have got lost, only to realise that we have been given the answer to the question we asked. To reach it, it was necessary to follow deviations, to pause, to double back. With Combas there is no such thing as a straight line. Generally speaking, geometry is virtually absent, except in the slightly twisted form of a few Triangle figures at the beginning of his career, a set of rowdy characters who are like charming if depraved little devils.

Combas’ work never lets itself be constricted by rules. It’s all about “Figuration Libre”. For a while, Combas thought of calling his work “fun painting”. It was another artist, Benjamin Vautier (alias Ben), who coined this name for a new kind of figuration originally created by the brushes of Robert Combas and Hervé Di Rosa, who were subsequently joined by François Boisrond and Rémi Blanchard. “These are the rules of Figuration Libre,” says Combas: “it is to do what you want as much as possible, as personally and freely as possible… Figuration Libre means freely using all the recipes you can to improve your work when it’s not right… Figuration Libre is when I make a cartoon with a funny hero and the next day I drop it all to make a big canvas about the Battle of Waterloo. I am not Hergé or Andy Warhol nor am I like all the great painters who are often the prisoners of a kind of painting, of an established order, who change only every six years or, in some cases, not once in their whole lifetime. Life is change.

We change our car, we change our girlfriend, we change our socks, we change our underwear. So, you must keep changing your painting, your drawing and your ideas.

One day meticulous, the next, undisciplined. Well made stuff, badly done stuff, but your own stuff.”

The keyword with Combas is therefore freedom, which is clearly manifested in the diversity of the themes he addresses and the latitude of his approach. However hard I look, I cannot find another body of work in which the powers of imagination play such an uninhibited score—the only equivalent, in a Surrealist vein that is ultimately very alien to Combas’ world, could be Salvador Dalí. Have you ever seen a horsey woman flirting with an anthropomorphic daisy? A woman’s legs thrusting out of a flowerpot, feet pointing towards the sky like sunflowers following the light? And the Siege of Troy, have you ever seen it narrated like this in painting, in an almost cinematographic format, in a composition that resonates powerfully with the click of weapons and the crackling of flames licking around the city, yet with the feeling that behind this profusion of haemoglobin we can hear a great big laugh? Each painting tells a story, the story of individuals trapped by their excesses—the abuse of drugs and drink, wallowing in love, sadness and hatred. It speaks of lewd characters and animals hiding none of their obsessive, priapic desire. Each work is a world of its own and opens onto a parallel dimension, an amplified reflection of the real world seen by the artist. Combas’ work develops in a complex and arborescent way, chaotic at first glance, and yet each element mysteriously finds its place.

Now, with an exhibition to be organised, how can this rhizomatic collection be presented without fossilising its vitality by the effect of retrospection? In other words, where do we start, what part do we begin with? “We’ll start at the beginning, and end with the end,” says the artist. All right, but what exactly are we to do between the alpha and omega? “We’ll improvise, like you sometimes do in music.”

This exhibition is much more than a retrospective. What we are inaugurating with this show is a new format, something more alive—a “retrospectlive,” you might say, especially since music plays such a prominent part. The artist is in fact taking over the museum, occupying ever corner. He is installing his studio here for two months and, visible to visitors, painting new works, living and holding meetings and conversations. This is where he is organising the rehearsals of his rock group, Les Sans Pattes (founded with Lucas Mancione), where he is holding debates and conversations and playing for the public on a regular basis. All this in a retrospective that is being updated daily.

In the belief that form cannot be separated from content, nor the artist from his work, we have therefore opted for a sequence that is chronological, biographic and thematic, while at the same time highlights developments in form and technique. Certainly, Combas’ work is structured by a fair number of recurring themes, such as battles, women, religion, mysticism and music. In this exhibition and in this catalogue each theme has its own section, so that paintings from different periods on the same subject can be compared and their variations assessed.

In keeping with the artist’s wishes, then, we will “start at the beginning, and end with the end”. Between these two poles we will attempt to say as much as we can, while being fully aware that it’s impossible to say or show everything. The beginning is a young man in Sète in the mid-1970s with a passion for rock who formed a group, Les Démodés, with Ketty and Richard Di Rosa, just at the time he was going to study at art school in Montpellier. It is important to realise that music is not a secondary activity for Combas; it is, and has been from the beginning, the basis of his relation to painting. The end, here, is the music that the artist is playing now with Les Sans Pattes, and that he presents in astonishing videos. Music is a beginning and a culmination that is a fresh start. It goes full circle. From the punk years to winter 2011-2012, from Les Démodés to Les Sans Pattes, and of course with a few paintings in the middle,this exhibition tells the story of a snake that bites its own tail.

Richard Leydier