editorial by Dominique Pitoiset

The painter and the philosopher

Allow me to begin with a quotation from the philosopher Nicolas Grimaldi, from his book: L’effervescence du vide.

"As in a fable, imagine a place where, amidst a deafening din, everyone is beating on drums and banging on pots and pans. Then a violinist arrives. Everyone in the crowd is clearly surprised by this strange new type of drum, but no one prevents the newcomer from playing. Now let me ask you this: do you think the violinist will play?

This says a lot about why we need institutions such as ours, and the purpose they serve. This public space that the philosopher asks us to imagine is firstly a marketplace, a place for the exchange of everything, and where, some might say, everything is assigned a value. It is therefore ruled by the laws of the market. But this sage philosopher is quite right: if we allow such laws to reign without any mitigating notion of the need to share, then we cannot count on the famous "invisible hand of the market" to invite artists to express their unique melody and expect the crowd to hear it. This invisible hand does not have ears. Nor does it have guts or a heart.

What is needed is a helping hand. The mission of an opera house, such as the Opéra de Dijon, is to reach out to all the violinists in this fable, and help them rise above the general cacophony. In the service of its audiences and its artists, our Opera owes a safe haven to all these "strange drums" that many of you — an increasing number, judging by the results — obstinately still want to hear. Can the shows and concerts hosted by these institutions of public service survive without the safe space they offer?

It is doubtful, alas. It is but a small step to say that all forms of art have become threatened species, a step I hesitate to take ... even if we touch here upon one of the reasons for which we wished to punctuate the programme of this new season with images freely drawn from the work of the painter Gilles Aillaud.

Let’s take the hand extended to us by this artist. Let’s take the time to examine his pachyderms, his wild beasts of land and air that we find on the pages of this catalogue. Admittedly, they certainly only have a relative connection with the works we propose to you in these pages. Allow us to offer this gift of free and pure beauty, and invite you to share briefly the vision of a unique creator, so far removed from fashion. The Pompidou Centre in Paris recently hosted an entire exhibition devoted to Gilles Aillaud, an opportunity to see a part of the work of a major artist who is still not sufficiently known, who also worked as scenographer for some of the greatest stage directors of our time: Luc Bondy, Klaus-Michael Grüber and André Engel, among others. 

Early in my career, I was the assistant to Jean Jourdheuil and Jean-François Peyret on a show for which he wrote the text: Vermeer and Spinoza. The painter and the philosopher… it’s appropriate for a man who said he became the first because he could not become the latter. We sought to interweave some of his images into our programme, so that their silence could accompany the promises of our new season.

His paintings testify to a passion for a world attacked and threated by modern society. Since his childhood, when he would fill his schoolbooks with splendid portraits of rhinoceros accompanied by beautifully handwritten notes, Aillaud approached this universe before the arrival of humans with a curiosity both attentive and filled with immense respect.

The picture that opens our brochure, Intérieur, is also the one that greeted visitors at Beaubourg in Paris. The first image is of a seal emerging from the green waters of his basin and fixing you in the eyes. The animal, not without a certain comic tenderness, exudes a certain calm melancholy. Its gaze is profound, impenetrable, enigmatic in its proximity. We might be tempted into a rather facile anthropomorphism. Is this animal not just like us, this living being who studies us, as if with silent reproach? But Aillaud’s intransigent realism prevents us from completely giving way. If its sad, captured existence seems to reflect our own human condition, this goes far beyond any superficial resemblance. The title of the work, Intérieur, refers to the situation imposed on the captive seal: torn from its world, exiled in a concrete enclosure, this being of almost childlike innocence looks at us with its two black eyes revealing an inexpressible interiority.

Those eyes dive into ours, in resonance with our own interiority, our own "interior", our own conditions of life. What, indeed, does this animal see in us? Are we as profound in its eyes as it is in ours? In this silent exchange, far from the nightmarish place described by Grimaldi, Aillaud reminds us that it is precisely this that we need: interiors. And yet, these interiors must not be cages, or boxes. If we wish not to be imprisoned within them, like our brother the captive seal, then the "music longed for by our desire ", as Rimbaud said, must not simply resonate in our heads or in the secrecy of our living rooms, under the sad algorithms with which our "personalized" playlists direct us. Despite the ambient hubbub, we must cultivate the void within us, and create a space in which this music can be heard. And shared. Our auditorium, as is true for any major cultural institution, is partly a conservatory, but it also exists for the creation of rare and beautiful expressive forms, far from the chaos of the world. Beyond the mere survival of art, it is to its life, its vitality, that it must be devoted. And this life is inseparable from its own environment, its own necessary utopia: for the greatest number of us all.

We shouldn’t be surprised that Aillaud ended up going out to meet with these animals (these ’beings like anyone else’, as he often jokingly said, but with greater seriousness than one might assume), all the way to the African Savanah, to collect the last traces of their native freedom. This voyage of a painter, from the zoological garden to a dreamy Garden of Eden, this aspiration to an inaccessible and impossible freedom, that nonetheless we should never cease to seek, this liberty that we know is lost but whose image must be preserved for oneself and for others, made present through beauty, to be seen and heard as it is, with the furtive hope of one day finding it again, as indispensable as truth: that indeed is what fills the life of an artist, that indeed is what inspires and animates an institution.

I wish to thank the City of Dijon, as well as the Région Bourgogne-Franche-Comté, the Ministry of Culture and all the generous patrons who, despite these troubled times, accompany our actions. Without their continued support, we wouldn’t have the opportunity today to offer you another rich programme full of emotions, discoveries, encounters and reunions, which I now invite you to explore.

Dominique Pitoiset
February 2024