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The would-be painter who became a singing provocateur

by Alison Hird

Article published on the 2008-11-23 Latest update 2008-11-30 15:49 TU

After major retrospectives devoted to rock icons John Lennon, Pink Floyd and Jimi Hendrix, Paris’s Cité de la musique has finally turned to a local boy. Serge Gainsbourg is France’s most renowned cult musician. He would have been 80 this year and seems as modern as ever. “Gainsbourg 2008” offers a fascinating glimpse into his singular universe.

Culture: Gainsbourg's journey from visual to aural

23/11/2008 by Alison Hird

The “Gainsbourg 2008” poster sets the tone – a photo of Gainsbourg in the 80s, holding not a microphone but an F2 Nikon. Throughout his 40-year career he remained committed to the visual arts, creating links between words, images and music. 

(Photo: Serge Anton)

(Photo: Serge Anton)

Even if Gainsbourg is a master of French song, he has more in common with British rock musicians David Bowie, Brian Ferry and Jimmy Page than his compatriots, says exhibition curator Frederic Sanchez.

“They come from art school and Gainsbourg is kind of unique in his genre in France because he also comes from painting."

Born into an artistic family of Russian-Jewish origin, Gainsbourg's father was a struggling pianist, but Serge dreamed of being a painter, convinced it was the highest form of artistic expression. He graduated from the prestigious Ecole des Beaux Arts.

“As a painter, I would have made a masterpiece,” he told Franck Maubert in an interview.

He never did, at least to our knowledge, abandoning painting when he realised it wouldn’t make him famous or rich. While the exhibition shows an accomplished self-portrait from 1957, withGainsbourg heavy-lidded, sneering, and a sketch he did of daughter Charlotte, he burnt the majority of his artworks.

It was the jazz trumpeter, journalist and poet Boris Vian, whom Gainsbourg so admired, that convinced young Serge he could make something of singing and raise it from a minor to major art form by combining the aural and visual.

“He wanted to do images with words or images with music,” adds Sanchez. “This is the important thing, the multi-disciplinary thing. Gainsbourg doesn’t talk only about music. He talks about film, literature, poetry. So it’s another way to approach culture. And it’s what I really want to show in this exhibition”

The result is a multimedia installation with video footage and film interviews projected onto screens on two sides of metal pillars; the other two devoted to photos and text.

A haunting sound installation echoes around the room with stars who knew or worked with Gainsbourg - like Catherine Deneuve, Brigitte Bardot, Jane Birkin - half-speaking, half-whispering his poetic texts.

In one of the 120 film extracts on show, we see Gainsbourg sampling three notes from Dvorak’s New World Symphony. They formed the basis of his song Initials BB which he wrote following the break up of his brief affair with Brigitte Bardot.

Chopin was another life-long inspiration. Gainsbourg kept a portrait of the composer on his piano while living at the Cité des Arts as a student between 1965 and1968.

When he later moved to rue Verneuil in Paris’s St Germain, Chopin was joined by a portrait of Sid Vicious. It was typical of Gainsbourg’s approach to life –  inspired by the geniuses of the past, determined to live very much with the times.

Sometimes painters directly influenced his work. His home in rue Verneuil, painted entirely in black, was inspired by the surrealist painter Salvador Dali.

La Chasse aux papillons, Salvador Dali.(Photo : Serge Anton)

La Chasse aux papillons, Salvador Dali.
(Photo : Serge Anton)

Gainsbourg was fascinated by the legendary character Dali had created for himself as much as his talent as a painter and bought his La Chasse aus papillons.

Musically, Gainsbourg pushed back the boundaries.

He reworked yéyé (American-inspired French pop) and wrote the hit Poupée de cire, Poupée de son in 1965. It won a Eurovision prize for yéyé star France Gall who personified the Lolita-type woman Serge Gainsbourg was drawn to.

The score of Poupée de cire

The score of Poupée de cire

 He also wrote the hit Les Sucettes – ostensibly about a lollipop. Miss Gall was horrified on discovering it was actually about oral sex.

Gainsbourg recorded the first ever French reggae album Aux armes et caetera in 1976.  The title track was a reggae version of the French national anthem La Marseillaise. It caused a scandal, not least when, in 1981, he sang it a capella in Strasbourg to a group of parachutists. Just one of many scandals. 

Yet, typically Jeckyll and Hyde, Gainsbourg showed commitment to national tradition, despite, or perhaps because of, his Russian Jewish origins. In 1981 he acquired the original manuscript of L’Hymne des Marseillais by Rouget de Lisle, also on show at the exhibition.  

L'homme à tête de chou

L'homme à tête de chou

Pride of place surely goes to the original Homme à tête de chou sculpture (cabbage-headed man) by Lalanne. It inspired the concept album of the same name.

“I found it in the window of a contemporary art gallery,” Gainsbourg is quoted as saying. “Under hypnosis, I pushed the door open, paid in cash and had it delivered to my home." 

"At first, he stayed silent, then he warmed up and told me his story," Gainsbourg said. "A tabloid journalist who fell in love with a little shampoo girl, chou (cute) enough to cheat on him with rock-and-roll artists, he killed her with a fire-extinguisher, lapsed little by little into insanity and lost his head which became chou (a cabbage).”

Sadly for non-French speakers, the exhibition's captions are not translated and much of Gainsbourg’s renowned wordplay will remain a mystery.

But he’s finally gaining recognition abroad. The concept album L’histoire de Melody Nelson has been sampled by artists in the US , UK and Japan, Placebo, Portishead, and Beck to name but three. The exhibition is set to travel to the US and Japan next year. Should you be heading that way….

Gainsbourg 2008, 21 October 2008 to 1 March 2009, entry 8 euros, Cité de la musique, 221 aveune Jean Jaurès, 75019 Paris


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