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Catcher of the light: Giacomo de Pass

After New York to Washington, Venice, Moscow and Tokyo, now Peymeinade; that’s how they introduced Giacomo de Pass’ exhibition. The question is not only ‘Why Peymeinade?’, but also ‘Why now?’ This artist of global renown has been living here for almost 40 years, but his presence has gone largely unnoticed by the public – until now. 

Giacomo de Pass doesn’t like to hear people talking about his work. He doesn’t like being the focus of buzz. The mayor of Peymeinade, a friend of Giacomo’s long before he assumed office at the town hall (see page 55), had to almost push him to hold a retrospective exhibition last year in the town, which is the adopted home of both men. Since then, four sculptural works by the artist – red and yellow metal cats with their backs dramatically arched – have held a prominent place on the roundabout on the way towards Grasse.

During de Pass’ height of commercial success in the galleries of Paris and New York almost 40 years ago, he purchased an old bastide in sleepy Peymeinade. He was looking for peace and quiet, somewhere he could escape the tumult of the fashionable capital and the inundation of people desperate to visit his studio. Of course, this popularity was a mark of recognition for the artist, but he longed for a more natural and tranquil environment. All this he found in a huge old property from 1830. When he first bought it, there were no other homes nearby, but today urban development is slowly creeping in. His home, however, has the magical allure of a fairytale castle. The garden is a vision of creativity and has been transformed by an array of brightly coloured metal and polished steel sculptures on the lawns and hidden amongst the plants. Sometimes in the form of creatures, sometimes human, the sculptures are composed of thin strips of metal, perforated and fine so as to reflect the light. That’s why he calls them Pièges à lumière: they are catchers of the light.

Giacomo works on the upper floor of the property under the beams of the roof. He is 78 now, but continues tirelessly. He has erected two enormous computer screens of artificial light between his easels, paintings and canvas-covered frames. “I can’t help it. It directs me,” says de Pass of his affinity with artifical light.

As a child, no scrap of paper in the de Pass household was free of his doodles. “I just had to let it out,” he says. While at the École des Beaux Arts in Paris, he sketched in a standing position – one drawing after another – rather than seated like his classmates. This endless energy is still present in the diminutive man; he stands before the easel with several brushes and a spatula in hand, mischievous eyes darting across the canvas. He works with flourish and grand gesture – it is the picture of an artist internally young and restless.

The art he creates cannot be categorized or defined. There’s simply no precise style to what Giacomo produces, especially as he is always reinventing.

Of course, he did have stages of certain passions. At one point, women dominated his paintings then it was women and cats. Games have caught his attention too. For one decade, he created various depressive and grey works - comédie humaine - a social criticism of humanity. He reveals that time and time again, this lover of music has tried to paint it. “How can you paint music?” he asks himself aloud.

His work is inspired by his moments in his life; the beautiful and the sad. “Every canvas captures a part of my life,” he says very precisely. “Everything in life is creation.” In every painting, he discovers traces of his unconsciousness. "What's inside of me comes out and that relieves me," he says. Every piece of work carries him on. It’s as if painting is therapy for him.

If you ask him if he has idols or role models, he responds with an anecdote from his youth. He was barely 16 when he entered the École des Beaux Arts and not much older when he left the institution all together.

“You have to protect yourself against the influence of others,” his professor told him one day as he took de Pass’ brushes away from him. He had recognised the talent of his protégé and sent him away from the school in the hope that it would allow Giacomo to retain his uniqueness and individuality. “You can talk to other artists,” his teacher told him, “but be careful not to visit their studios.” De Pass was in shock; only his mother was able to explain to him his professor’s reasonings.

Throughout his career, de Pass did meet countless other artists. The life of a successful artist means that these encounters are almost inevitable. He got to know Picasso, Dalí, Bernard Buffet and many others, but he didn’t pursue any real friendships.

He doesn’t hold back when discussing Dalí, who he describes as a disappointment because of the way he presents himself. De Pass understands the game of this narcissistic man who, for the public, is a very eccentric, arrogant and sometimes even happy man, but in reality is very impatient, tyrannical and in a bad mood. He says that Dalí can drag down the atmosphere of a room. Dealing with this kind of personality must be difficult for someone as amiable as de Pass, although he does recognise Dalí’s genius.

Nor has Giacomo ever joined a group of artists; his inspiration always comes from himself - "Even if this is the most difficult; to seek the source within yourself."

Recently de Pass devoted himself to virtual encounters as a response to the internet and its online worlds. Currently it is light. His bright, radiant and speckled works, full of joie de vivre, could not be further from his gloomy phase of comédie humaine and for the artist, they are very abstract productions. “I’m not trying to capture any of my own emotions, but materialising life,” he says. “Perhaps it’s my age.”

Painting and drawing give de Pass a complete sense of creative freedom: “I want to lose myself, to take off.” If he wants to feel grounded, he makes a sculpture. Only here are there physical limits to his work.

Riviera Insider asks if he feels proud to have his sculptures in the town of Peymeinade, but he seems entirely unaffected. It makes him even more personable and perhaps explains why he isn’t in the global set of super-successful artists. He lacks the ego and the eccentricity. Even in quiet Peymeinade, de Pass keeps to himself and avoids any crowd. Those with the greatest success are the ones with the biggest mouth and Giacomo de Pass is far too modest and sensitive for that. 


Aila Stöckmann