After 15 minutes gazing at a new retrospective by Sam Szafran, I am close to vertigo. In the Piranesian interiors that are the hallmark of the Parisian artist, the recurring motif is the staircase: a perilous flight of steps that spirals through Escher-like roomscapes, plunges towards banks of Delaunay-bright colours and hurtles past windows gazing out on to undulating rooftops. Mostly, the stairs are drafted with a clarity that belies their hallucinatory peregrinations, but occasionally they are reduced to the ghosts of their banisters; single lines that skim and stutter across the surface in a gesture that is both abstract and figurative, chaotic and controlled.
I am also dizzy with astonishment that the creator of such bravura work is still so little-known.
“Sam doesn’t care about fame,” says Daniel Marchesseau, who has curated – quite superbly – the exhibition at the Pierre Gianadda Foundation in Martigny, Switzerland. “Also he has had a challenging life. And he stayed faithful to the figure when it was not fashionable.”
To be fair, a handful of connoisseurs have long championed Szafran. Léonard Gianadda, founder of the institution hosting the current show, came across his work in 1994. The Swiss collector, who owns pieces by Rodin, Chagall and Henry Moore, was visiting the Metropolitan Museum for an exhibition of the outstanding collection of modernist paintings assembled by Natasha and Jacques Gelman.
“Sam was one of only four artists still alive in the exhibition,” recalls Gianadda, when I speak to him at Szafran’s opening. “The other three were Francis Bacon, Balthus and François Rouan.” Among those present at Szafran’s inauguration are Countess Balthus, hedge-fund titan and art patron Emmanuel Roman and the French sculptress Roseline Granet, who has supported Szafran since his early days when he was, quite literally, starving in his studio.
“When the stomach is yelling, you can’t work,” rasps Szafran himself, when we talk earlier that afternoon in the dining room of a nearby hotel. In navy shirt and black leather jacket, cigarettes and red wine never far from his hands’ graceful gesticulations, he cuts a louche yet rugged figure. Gazing about him with eyes of a visionary yet expressing himself with candour, he narrates a life story that is both astonishing and profoundly moving.
Born in Paris in 1934 to a family of Polish émigré Jews, Szafran and his family were all but destroyed by the second world war. His father, a tailor, died in Auschwitz; his aunt, who fought in the French Resistance, was fatally tortured by the Gestapo; Szafran barely escaped deportation himself. “From the age of seven, I lost my innocence,” he recalls, his translucent blue eyes intense with memory. “I was hunted like an animal by the Germans. It has never left me.”
To hide him, Szafran’s mother consigned him to his uncle, a sadistic character who used to hang the little boy from the stairwell.
Yet even without the horror, it’s unlikely that mundanity would have prevailed. Always rebellious, Szafran would skip school to go to the movies, where his heroes included Hitchcock and Orson Welles. “My artistic education is cinema,” he asserts. “Everything I do is a cut.” Indeed, it is easy to imagine James Stewart or Tippi Hedren running desperately through his reeling, unstable spaces.
From an early age he copied Walt Disney cartoons. Then, as puberty hit – he recalls with a phlegm-filled laugh – he took to capturing the pin-up girls of Peruvian artist Alberto Vargas. By then he was in Australia, where he had settled briefly with his mother after the war. The sojourn was responsible not only for his flawless English (and his Melbourne accent) but also for his first forays into museums, where he was mesmerised by the apocalyptic fantasies of 19th-century British painters such as Richard Dadd and John Martin.
In the early 1950s, he returned to Paris. “I was a delinquent,” he whispers of an epoch that saw him steal cars and battle a heroin addiction. A series of dead-end jobs included courier for American Express – “I tried to deliver the post naked one day so I lost that job” – and bathing corpses mutilated by traffic accidents in the morgue. (He thinks the trauma of this work contributed to his problem with drugs).
Often he had no money for food – let alone artistic materials – yet he kept working. “I knew that either I could go to jail for the rest of my life or become an artist,” he recalls. Early works suggest that the outcome was never in doubt. Rhinoceroses outlined with precision, yet painted with soaked-in skins of colour, seem to emerge out of the surface itself. By the 1960s he had turned to still-lifes of vegetables: ecstatic, blowsy orgies of florid roots and floppy leaves in mineral hues of jade, amethyst and ochre.
He straddled both the fringes and the mainstream of the art world. Describing himself as a “jazz-cat”, he spent nights in clubs listening to Django Reinhardt and Chet Baker, “a good friend”. His mentor Alberto Giacometti invited him to his studio after he approached him at Le Dôme café in Paris. Now, he hails the sculptor as the greatest of all 20th-century artists for his sense of “l’essentiel”. Hence the provenance of the thin, lonely, Giacometti-like figures that haunt Sfrazan’s dystopic chambers.
As international taste swung to pop art and minimalism, Szafran’s own revolution was the discovery of pastel – in particular the handmade crayons made by the Roché sisters in Paris’s Rue Rambuteau. “So tactile, so sensual,” is how he describes his passion for a material from which he would waver only to work in watercolour and occasionally mix the two. “I like to marry the wet and the dry,” he says, adding elliptically: “That comes from my love of poetry.” Among his favourite poets is William Blake. “So clever, so subtle. And a great artist too.”
His first monograph came in 1965 at the gallery of Jacques Kerchache. By then, he had married Lilette, a student of tapestry from the Swiss Jura. Still boasting a fine-boned prettiness, her sympathetic manner as she ensures that her husband answers my questions without overtiring himself hints at the stability she has given him over the years. In 1964, their son Sébastian was born with meningoencephalitis. Today, almost 50, he remains severely handicapped, yet the mutual affection between father and son shines out of a 2010 photograph in the catalogue.
Gradually, Szafran’s vision consolidated into a pantheon that includes vertiginous interiors, sometimes colonised by vast, swarming plants dwarfing Lilette’s kimono-clad figure below; and solitary, black-crayoned figures abandoned on the blank page like the children of Giacometti’s existential wanderers. The pastels become model as well as material; it is their rainbow brightness that glows satanically at the foot of his recurring staircases.
In 1999 he had his first retrospective in a European museum when Leonard Gianadda invited him to Martigny for the first time. A Parisian solo show followed, at the Musée de la Vie Romantique. By now Szafran’s enthusiasts included French art historian Jean Clair, author of a fine monograph on Szafran (Skira, 1996) who contributed a text to the Martigny catalogue.
“I will quote Giacometti,” Szafran replies, when I ask him why he never embraced abstraction. “Reality is always more interesting.” The French accent glazing his English tells me he is tired now but I have to inquire into the symbolism of his staircases. It may be a legacy of his uncle’s cruelty, but is clearly much more besides. “I can’t say,” he wheezes. “I am too much in it. But I haven’t finished with it. When I’ve got the answer, I’ll be able to leave it. It’s a perturbation in my life because I’d like to change the subject.” He stubs out his cigarette then speaks with renewed passion. “I long to express fire.”
‘Sam Szafran: 50 ans de peinture’, Fondation Pierre Gianadda, Martigny, Switzerland, until June 16. www.gianadda.ch
Fondation Pierre Gianadda
A memorial park in the mountains
Martigny in the Rhone valley in southern Switzerland was an important Roman centre, and the town has a fine amphitheatre and other remains to show for it, writes Jan Dalley. Unwittingly, those Romans also had a hand in the creation of the Pierre Gianadda Foundation, near Martigny, which comes with a tale attached.
Here, roughly, is how it goes. In the spring of 1976, Swiss engineer Léonard Gianadda discovered on his land the remains of a Roman temple, the oldest in Switzerland. This presumably happy event was followed just a few months later by another, this one of great sadness: Gianadda’s younger brother Pierre was killed in a plane crash, at the age of 38.
The two occurrences seem to have been a turning point for Léonard. He decided to create a culture centre, named for his brother and as a memorial to him, around the temple ruins. The ravishing setting, with views of snow-capped mountains, makes a perfect backdrop for – among other sculptural works – a giant Calder mobile, and the sculpture park also includes a striking, large-scale bronze head by Joan Miró and a perfect Henry Moore reclining figure, while dotted round the town and surroundings are other dramatic sculptures.
Within the low white modernist block that houses the centre itself are a concert hall and an exhibition space, where the latest temporary exhibition – of Sam Szafran’s work – reflects a long friendship between the artist and Léonard Gianadda.
The first retrospective of Szafran’s work that Gianadda mounted was in 1999, when series such as the “Staircases”, “Attics” and “Rocking Chairs” were brought to public notice. In 2004 Gianadda went further, creating the Pavillon Szafran in the park, two huge ceramic structures on the “Staircases” theme. They were created by Joan Gardy Artigas, ceramicist for Miró and many others: a concrete version of Szafran’s unique vision.