If one examines Eugène Leroy’s painting, much could be said regarding the debate about abstract and figurative art, which has constantly caused feelings to run high among critics and artists. From the beginning of his artistic work until his death at an old age in 2000, Leroy, born in 1910 in the French town of Tourcoing, experienced the development of a wide range of art trends. He was sixteen when Claude Monet died and was a contemporary of Kasimir Malewitsch, Marcel Duchamp, Pablo Picasso, Jean Fautrier, Jackson Pollock, Lucian Freud and Georg Baselitz. However, the painter developed his own approach at a very early age. He had a passion for earlier works such as the frescoes by Masaccio, the expressive paintings by Goya and El Greco, the portraits of Rembrandt or the paintings of Cézanne. He constantly travelled abroad to study their works. However, the deliberate, thoughtful painter spent most of his time in his place of residency, Wasquehal, in northern France, where he had a studio from 1958 onwards.
It was here that he created an œuvre, which in the 1930s and 1940s was evidently based on what he could see around him, yet without being naturalistic. However very soon, and this also applies to the entire œuvre that followed, a direct rendering of the motif ceased to be the main focus. The textured layers of paint, at times several centimetres thick, are superimposed, forming a seemingly unstructured, multi-layered relief. If we take a little time to look at the works intensely – above all with a certain amount of distance – the subject slowly appears and takes shape. The subtly differentiated shades of colour come together to form a figure, a face or a landscape, permeated by light and shadow. The shapes we are familiar with are merely implied, they pulsate back and forth and have no outlines and hence appear to be one with the mass of colour. However, once we have perceived them, we can no longer imagine them not being there.
It soon becomes very evident that Leroy is not concerned with the ideological separation of figuration and abstraction. His motifs neither dissolve to become completely abstract, nor are they completely recognizable as something specific. The painted image is a response to something outside of the picture. This is in particular the reason why these works are perhaps closer to reality than Leroy’s early, more tangible works. His nudes, portraits, landscapes or the man on the cross are not isolated but are integrated directly into their environment. For example, the contours of the women’s bodies, who are in reality standing in front of him while he is working, almost dissolve on the canvas. Like a permeable membrane, the separation between the figure and the surroundings has been revoked. The person’s skin seems to forgo its protective function, and hence the delicacy and vulnerability of the human body finds its counterpart. There is no foreground or background and everything seems to be inseparably linked. With the help of the pastose painting, a material continuum is created, in which the motif oscillates between the air, light and surroundings. As viewers we are actively involved because this dynamic can only develop as a result of our gaze. This is Eugène Leroy’s great skill: with the help of oil paint as a material he is able to find an aesthetic form of expression to depict what is outside of the picture, as well as the abstract contents. His paintings become metaphors for the wholeness of existence and the perpetual cycle of material, as well as for everything that comes into existence and vanishes.