Mind-blowing cityscapes unravel on paper in Thomas Henriot’s Across The City

The Calcutta Arts Club has brought French artist Thomas Henriot’s works in ink on paper Across The City to Chennai. Thomas Henriot has worldwide representation by galleries, and he lives among Rio de Janeiro, Havana and Paris. He is currently in India as part of the Calcutta Arts Club’s artist’s residency programme.

Beginning strokes

“The Chinese say the first stroke is the beginning of life,” says Thomas. Every stroke alters the composition, and Thomas works with an inherent rhythm, letting his drawing play out like a dance. Fascinated by Chinese painters such as Shitao and Zuta, Thomas formally studied the art. Tradition required that he modify his stroke under his master’s directive, which he never could. “Perhaps if I tried, in 10 years, it could happen!” The realm of ink and wash reaches grandiose proportions in Thomas’ multiple panels, lengthy scrolls and piano folds. “I start small and then the painting just grows. I don’t worry about getting the perspective or proportion right. Of course, I have the skill as an artist to progressively achieve the look I want.” For Thomas, there is no first drawing. He makes no attempt to control the final composition: an implicit belief in his ability and acquired skills evolve his travelogues on paper.

We are standing in front of his multi panel work of Harlem 2013, a church in New York. “I always start at the centre,” he answers, pointing to a figure in the entrance arch. Curiously, it is exactly the point I zeroed in the first time I saw Harlem 2013, confirming his innate connect with people and place. Paris, a triptych, has bones amidst corrals of roses, death within life. Thomas was inspired by a dream to make the large and complex work titled Tanger In Morocco. The building rendition appears like caricatured trompe l’oeil with intricate details concealed between ornate grills, windows and nooks. A 22-metre-long work on Cuba and the newspaper as symptom of society occupies an entire gallery wall. Thomas’ ink and brush techniques reference the art of architectural sketches and graphic art, inviting a direct engagement to explore his enigmatic storylines.

Interactive process

For Thomas, the process is more important than the outcome and the freedom to work by improvising and experimentation. “I like it that I cannot always know the size of the paper and not all the panels match exactly.” He paints as we see the world, part views, never all at once. Unlike illustrative art where the story comes first, for Thomas it is “first drawing, then story”. Inks and rice paper are both long lasting media. Placing Japanese rice paper on surfaces, Thomas rubs an inked brush over to get various textures through. He always uses a brush, never a pencil, saying, “Ink becomes the paper.”

I ask him, “How do you work? Do you put up the sheets on a wall?” “I put them on the floor. I learned ballet and being on the floor is natural. Coming down to earth is a humbling experience. It does not matter it is me; I am just a medium and I happen to be there to receive.” Working in crowded places, sometimes in prohibitive areas, Thomas engages with his audience who watch him paint, making it a collective experience. He always finds a protective force. “People gather round me, but they make sure nothing interferes. The space of painting becomes a human space.” India is crucial for both Henriot’s meditative approach to painting and in discovering the closeness of life to death. “India makes you conscious of this. Even as an old building was deteriorating, I found it full of life, birds and animals. Next to death, life begins.”

(The exhibition is on at Lalit Kala Akademi till January 19 from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.)