Alexandra Mas is a lovely artist who lives and works in Bordeaux, France. We met online and when I saw her stunning work www.alexandramas.com, I knew I had to chat with her. Her elegant paintings harken back to antiquity and are stunningly rich lush and cultured. What inspires such work? Here’s our cool chat…
MICHAEL: Hello Alexandra, Your work is beautiful, fragile and human. It's also multi-layered and highly-cultural. It also seems to be harkening back to stories from ancient times. I don't know. How do you describe your work?
ALEXANDRA: Hello Michael, when you talk about ancient times, it melts my heart. There must be something about this that even I cannot actually feel it as I am working. I come from a very ancient family. My genealogical tree goes back to year 700. It’s a tragic and Romanesque story that I believe is there in the deepest part of my genes.
When I was young and had no experience of life, I would produce art, incapable of explaining why and what it meant. It just came out of my hand. This is also the reason for some years I decided to travel and understand more about human feelings, in order to bring words to my art. Not as much to justify it, because you know, at the end, you can pretend and intellectualize art as you wish. But for myself, I try to understand the path I am taking.
Here we must also find the reason of my multi-layers, as you call them. I have three major themes that dance along with my emotions and state of mind. This allows me to be real and honest in my work. When I start to paint one of my dance canvases in action, painting is not at all the same mental position as when I work on the Vanités. One has a minimal approach and it comes from my womb, the other is totally intellectual.
MICHAEL: What are your three, major themes? Why are they important?
ALEXANDRA: There are three current subjects in my work. The oldest is the emotion of a body in movement; the depth of the feelings they communicate. This is universal, ageless and instinctive. And the technique is as well instinctive. I start the paintings in dynamic, action painting. Most of the canvas is there in the first act. I capture the emotion as fast as I can, as long as it lives fresh in my mind. Afterward, there is a long, anatomical work for the love of human bodies, but some of them remain there, at that point of pure emotional rendering. Take for example "Light Try" and "Bloody Final.”
The second one is introspection. This exists whether I express a personal quest or a universal one. This is what I would call an intellectual work. I know from the beginning what most of the canvas will be like. I can talk long about each painting. The composition and each color have a precise place. The vibrational power of colors gives them that place and role in the painting. Of course, this mind setting took me to do “Vanities.” They are part of the human inner question since centuries and more than ever present in the popular items.
The third one is the pictography. It came quite late in my work. The first was a timid solo show in London where I presented a work on collective memory. This technique is in a certain way the quintessence of my whole work. Painting, body painting, photography, free hand and digital weave together an imagery with a common theme. In 2013, I presented "Time Dawn," which portrays nature’s indignation for the wrongs humans are doing. The pictographies from this series illustrate natural forces under a human envelope, hoping to communicate their distress to humans. Today, I’m working on "Preconceived," after several years of talking to women of different social strata and goals and after assuming my own experiences, I’m illustrating several feelings felt by women with regard to others. I made self portraits so I can push the ideas to the border of tragedy and ridiculousness under the same face.
So the third theme is more a third technique, with precise subjects that can be presented all together to have the complete story or separately for a strong, aesthetic experience.
MICHAEL: How do you know when a work is finished? Since you invest so much of yourself in this work, isn't it difficult to finish them and let them go?
ALEXANDRA: Well, that is the ever-tormented question! When I was a student 15 or 16, I had a professor who tried to show me that magical moment when you have to say, “Stop, it's done.”
Sometimes, it’s at the very early stage of the work because everything there is to say is there. I wish I would have a little voice telling me this today. It is very hard, especially when you know you can go further technically. I think especially The Dancers will evolve in time into something much more "abstract " in a sense that the idea of movement and the emotion in it will appear in just a few strokes. Today, I am still the slave of my own hand. I should not say that…
For the pictography part, it’s much easier because in the digital stage of the work, I can try out things, go farther and come back to a previous stage. I give myself time to find that gracious moment. And letting go of a work, do you mean selling it? I like to see that a painting has its own home. It’s almost like it has its very own act of accomplishment, the art piece, at that moment when it is free from myself. As long as they are in my studio, they are in danger of being transformed. It happens that I take over a painting years after. That is bad, because I add a new emotion to it. It's impossible to see the same soul in a painting years after. So yes, when an art piece is bought, I am happy. It means my art work has now it's own life.
MICHAEL: When did you first become aware of yourself as an artist? Do you come from an artistic family? Is your talent more about giftedness or hard work?
ALEXANDRA: Since I was a child, I went to museums and galleries, I asked for it very young. At three years, I was already spending a lot of time on my own painting and drowning in it. Unfortunately, only one tiny painting like a landscape was saved by a family friend. It’s framed and marked, “Alexandra Three Years Old.” You can imagine my surprise when I saw it. Around six years old, my mother thought of enrolling me into art school. I remember that moment even today. I can tell you the smell of the studio and the light and the trees. I can even find the address. A few weeks later, I came home from the class and declared I am never going to paint again because the professor is silly. We had to do the portrait of an old man, my first model work. I made his face blue and I was told I was wrong, never a person has been blue. He showed me the skin color mix. I declared that I believe he is blue so I can paint him blue. I was told off and that was it. I never took a brush again until I was 13.
Being passionate about anatomy and biology, everybody thought I would continue my family's tradition and become a doctor. I have artists in the family, they were too far removed to influence me. My mother's cousin is a beautiful sculptor, Mircea Milcovitch, a far cousin is a marvelous pianist, Ilya Yakushev. Mircea, I met him when I first moved to Paris. I was already 19 years old. Ilya, I saw him at 14 years old. He was already in the conservatoire and myself in the art academy. Today, we meet in New York or St. Petersburg, where he gives concerts. Maybe talent runs in our blood but influence was impossible.
So how I went back to art? For a period, I just went as usual to museums and galleries, my friends hated this. I was often only with my grandmother. At 13 years, almost 14, a friend of my mother, sculptor Serban Cretoiu, a professor in the young art academy, made me come to his studio and he showed me all the works I gathered, scattered throughout the years. He told me the exam to enter the academy was in three months and I could make it, but I was totally unprepared. All the students would have at least one year of intense art work. So during this three months, I went, secretly, my grandmother covered me, to do intense art classes. I told my mother only a few weeks before when my subscription arrived. My uncle made a big scandal, for him art was not a career for a lady. My mother was almost sure I wouldn’t make it and I would lose one year of school, but as I was a year in advance she agreed.
At 14 years old, I was enrolled. Then, the hard work started because my colleagues were good. I spent nights copying Dürer and Rembrandt, also the Japanese masters, to have that delicate and nonchalant precise line. I remember my uncle mocking me calling them superficial Japonism. My mother and my grandmother, bless them, they stood by me.
At the end of my first year, I was introduced to Marcel Chirnoaga and I would go to his art studio all the time. He was already old and many actors, historians and other artists would come to have a chat with him. I was doing my etching work listening to them. I was very shy, almost wild. When I went to the Fine Art Academy, I was a lonely girl, doing things incapable of explaining. That scared me a bit. I needed to live, to break that comfort shell. I wanted to earn my own money. I was already doing some art shows, they came easily to me. I was selling a little bit, but thought no value of my work. I started to work as a model and that helped me psychologically and gave me the opportunity to travel, meet the world, understand a little more of it.
Being in Paris, I entered the Modern Art and Design School, even today I have no idea why I did not go to the fine art academy there. I think it was my silly opinion about myself. I finished first of the architecture and design class that year in Paris. I was also already working at the Louvre Museum in the historical monuments chief architect's office. My life was on a straight path, but far from the art again. Design, muses, graphical architecture, teaching kids, I was lying to myself. In reality, I was feeling this pain in my left hand when not creating something and from time to time, I would make a painting or a drawing to calm down my urge.
One day, out of the blue, I decided to give up everything and dedicate myself to my first passion and love. I also realized all the time I had lost. I took a jump into the void being convinced that I had a talent to save me. So I believe this is the moment when I accepted my burden, my path, my love and life. Ever since then, I’ve worked and even better, today I know why I am doing this or that. It’s as if all of this "lost time" actually coordinated my brain to my hand and my emotions to my will. I realized that art is a road, a path that goes back and forth between my experiences and my soul. Art is a road in time and time is not the same for an artist as for an office employee.
Somehow, time goes by so slowly for me. But when I paint or sculpt, when I am doing a drawing or digital work, I live eight hours as one. I am not hungry, nor tired or cold, I am, just me. So, for your question about hard work or gift? I believe they are both part of me. Some of the paintings are born so fast, like poetry that you put on paper and not remember how it came. Others are six months of work, applied technique and intellectual will.
MICHAEL: Lovely story Alexandra. Do you see any differences in how Europeans view art compared to Americans? Do Europeans respect art more?
ALEXANDRA: Europeans have a long history of arts, all of them. Therefore, you might believe their respect is bigger. Maybe they know a lot. In old families, art is very present. You have great museums all around Europe so if you want to educate yourself, you can. This history respect is beautiful and lifting, but when you look at today's art, bigger efforts are made in the U.S.
Since the big, American collections have appeared, they have given the chance to contemporary artists from the 1930s and 1940s until today. I believe that today, America still keeps this leading role in discovering and showing new talent. The London art landscape is very courageous as well. Berlin has been a new platform with its fresh and optimistic spirit after the fall of the wall. Paris? Well, Paris fell asleep on her modern artists, and even though they are saying arts and culture are very protected, they’ve become, at least in fine arts, the followers. I hope this will be changing a bit, but even today, big French galleries do not invest in new artists unless they have already a built career.
MICHAEL: Where do you live most of the time? How does your environment impact your creativity and work?
ALEXANDRA: Since three years, I moved my studio to Bordeaux, in southwestern France. There, I have a bubble where I can get away from the world. But my inspiration is my Parisian life. I am still going very often, my friends are over there and two galleries representing me are Parisian.
My muse is Parisian as well. So, most of my pictographic work starts over there. Also, the ballet shows I attend to get inspiration. I am lucky because some of the Garnier stars will come in Arcachon, not far from Bordeaux , in the summer time, so I will be able to work in a more intimate way with them during the summer ballet classes.
MICHAEL: You know Alexandra, some people think that Parisians are rude. Please tell me this is not true. Can this be true?
ALEXANDRA: You make me laugh! Parisians are not rude. A lot of people that live around Paris are quite rude and snobbish, but real Parisians are the loveliest people you may meet. Now, telling the difference when one is there for a week or two is basically impossible. Plus, there is this facade problem. In the Anglo-Saxon world, it’s elegant to smile and meet the eyes, but the French from the northern half of the country consider that intrusive.
They all harbor a grumpy, serious face. It is not elegant to look at someone you don't know, nor to show you are too happy. You will say, “But that is ridiculous!”, but believe me, it is true. When I came back from three years in Los Angeles, I was myself socked. But I got used again to those faces. I keep smiling, some ask me what I want, Hahaha! So I tell them, "have a good day" and I go on trying to look serious.
MICHAEL: Do middle class Parisians buy contemporary art? How do they see contemporary art?
ALEXANDRA: The middle class, they buy art at a certain price level. And the thing that I realized is that they look at the art pieces more as a decoration element. You can hear comments like, "The red is too strong for my living room!" as if they chose a couch throw. I am not generalizing, but it can be quite frustrating for an artist that the message, even the technique appears to be the last thought of the buyer.
It also happened to me, several times, mostly with pieces from "Aurore des temps" that the wife won't accept the art piece at home because of the beauty of my muse. As if, all the art work that makes that beauty feeling is only a question of human physical comparison. Who on earth compares to an art element? As beautiful as she can be, it is an idea, a thought, more than a woman and more than meat on bones.
The beautiful thing about middle class art lovers is that they do go to galleries, they talk to the artist and get interested. Some wish to buy, but cannot when too expensive for them. After 2008, selling was harder. And as my prices went a bit up, I found myself between two worlds. Not as known and not as expensive to interest high class buyers (even though I just sold two pieces from the beginning of the year to such people), but I am today too expensive for those for whom over 2000 euros is already a hard decision.
I don't know if I answered your question. I know artists that keep on doing very small pieces so they can sell under a certain price level. And that is wrong, especially because they do not do commercial art. Also, some do prints of their work and sell it around 200 euros.
MICHAEL: Finally Alexandra, When you're gone and your work is still here, what do you want people to see? Is there are message to your body of work thus far? What does it say?
ALEXANDRA: I believe my main quest and the message is the “divine in the humans.” When you look through my three themes they are strongly bound by this quest; the eternal beauty of all things, those shortcuts to pure emotions. For me, art is a road between our souls and our minds and experiences and by souls I am thinking of our emotional consciousness. This is why quite often I am exploring a universal subject like love, protection, indignation or creation; even an infant has the keys to this. The quintessence of my work today is, in my opinion, “A King's Head II.” Here you have the divine, the immortality, the self questioning and the return to pure elements.
MICHAEL: Very nice. Thank you Alexandra. This has been lovely.
ALEXANDRA: Michael, it went too fast! I actually enjoyed having a question each day. Thank you so much for taking an interest in my art work.
Check out Alexandra Mas and her work at www.alexandramas.com.