Light illuminates the gloomy workshop. Water beats against the panes and runs down the large bay windows. In the distance, the rumble of thunder seems to shake Berlin. The storm hovers over Prenzlauer Berg, the trendy arty area of the German capital. “What a storm! I hope it won’t last,” remarks Valérie Favre. Dressed simply in jeans and a T-shirt covered in paint, her hair simply tied back, she wanders among the empty pots of paint and canvasses. Her slim silhouette sinks into an old leather armchair, beer in hand.
My host has a sparkle in her eyes and a nonchalant allure, contrasting with her output and fame in the world of contemporary art. An actress, painter and teacher at the Beaux-Arts, Valérie Favre however claims to be “a lazybones who hides herself away”.
In Berlin, “an underground city where things happen on impulse,” my interviewee likes to say that she “doesn’t do much. I chose this existence, which is rather reclusive and hidden from the world”. Wild at times, Favre says, “I’m so caught up in what I do that I don’t need anything – whether it’s food or a car!”
Born in 1959 in Evrilard, Switzerland, Favre soon decided to leave behind the subtle charm of the Swiss meadows. “Prophets are never accepted in their own land, after all. Switzerland was too small and I saw Paris as the temple of culture”. Favre didn’t even finish school. “My lack of diplomas embarrassed me for ages, but I made up for it with work or passion.” She headed for France to tread the boards of Parisian theatres. “When you’re young, you don’t have anything to say and you’re a bit stupid. You need to gain maturity and understand how to deal with solitude in order to paint”.
At twenty, she was transported into the world of cinema, changed her life, stockpiled meetings and increased her experience. “One day, I was lucky enough to meet Jean-Luc Godard. We had a simple chat and I gained 10 years’ worth of lessons about life”. She then adds, lucidly, “The meetings which made the greatest impressions on me were those with complete strangers”.
Four years of short films and plays later, just as her career was starting to take off, Favre’s life took an unexpected turn: she gave everything up. “In my heart of hearts, I felt I wasn’t cut out for life as an actress,” she now says. “I wanted to tell stories, and a career as an actress wouldn’t let me do this.” To earn her crust, she now admits, with a touch of humour, to having “done a lot of shit”. Favre wrote for a while, notably in a children’s magazine called ‘Je Bouqine’, before going back to her first activity, painting.
In 1987, she took part in ‘Usine Ephémère’, a project seeking to convert barren Parisian industrial ground into centres of contemporary creation. Seizing the opportunity, Favre developed a network of contacts, although she refused to become a socialite. She learnt that in painting, just as in life, “you have to know to take your time because everything comes naturally”. In 1996, she holds an exhibition in Berlin and fell in love with a city she saw as “much more adventurous than Paris, even if the underground culture is less present than before the fall of the wall”. Favre settled there.
Would Germany be the new Promised Land for painters? “The German market listens to its artists and sponsors and collectors are much more active,” says Favre. “In France, there’s a form of permanent self-flagellation.” In her opinion, “being European today is not necessarily the best visiting card for an artist. China and North Africa boast some very promising talents. Young artists need to move and experience other cultures”.
Favre stretches out her long legs then stands. The time has come for her to clean her painting materials. At the back of the shaded workshop, I hear her clear voice ring out. “It’s true that the contemporary art world is a mish-mash of business. Of course, art is done for the rich, for those who have the means to think about it”.
Favre then adds, quite openly, “Being an artist today has become a well-oiled concept, a far cry from Van Gogh’s period. If many are starving to death, others are major machines. Jeff Koons, for example, has his own entourage of assistants who paint for him”. The line between masquerade and realism seems more blurred than ever. “The artist needs to be pragmatic but most also be able to take a stand,” Favre says. “Even if painting is something emotional, my life style is romantic, up to a certain point. It’s all a question of balance”.
With her series on the “Universe of female rabbits”, started in 1999 and representing an “animal woman somewhere between Lara Croft and the Playboy Bunny,” Favre is quite a feminist. She says, “I use this rabbit like a phallus”. Is it a form of revenge on misogynistic artists? “Of course the art scene is a rather chauvinistic; it’s a dirty medium, slow and complicated which has lost its glory. It has been dethroned by video and other facilities. I get a lot of pleasure from touching the material and mixing colours, but it’s difficult to compete with men in terms of the physical power needed to master the medium,” she explains at length. “Now you have to hedge your bets – doing less, but making it more pertinent”.
Referring to the provocative wave, she says, “we’ve seen everything: from Duchamp’s urinal to the death of animals. I think that we need to look for our own individuality and the best way of expressing it”. There is constant progress in her work. “We are, as artists, translators. With experience, I can see more clearly in my head and I can express my ‘scatterbrained’ ideas better”. Defiantly, Favre ends by standing in front of her latest canvas and saying, “Ultimately I feel more like a movie director than a painter”.
Valérie Favre exhibited with the Foundation Hippocrène for the project "Propos d'Europe V"