Since the early 1980s, Robert Combas has established himself as the undeniable founder of the Free Figuration by dusting off painting and enriching it with new chapters that he never ceases to develop. Combas desacralizes art and claims as the punks do in music that everyone can be an artist, in the street art rising against the establishment. In his work every support and medium is welcome: drawing, engraving, painting, sculpture, music, cinema, poetry, video, reworked photography... His work is colossal and as Catherine Millet adds with tenderness: "Combas’ pictorial greed can only be measured to Ubu’s insatiable rapacity. Francis Ponge’s words on Jean Fautrier, can also resonate with Robert Combas: "he is the world’s most revolutionary painter since Picasso. Like the master of Malaga, the gifted Combas shows an amazing creative energy that keeps him alive, to constantly keep producing and remain true to himself.
Combas entered the Montpellier Fine Arts School from 1975 to 1977. He published BATO magazine with his friend Hervé Di Rosa, with their collages, photomontages, drawings and texts influenced by rock culture. At the same time, he founded his pop music group "Les Démodés". Accompanied by guitarist Lucas Mancione, he continues expressing his talent as a singer-songwriter with his band "Les Sans Pattes". In 1980, spotted by Bernard Ceysson, Director of the Fine Arts School in Saint Etienne, he was part of the exhibition Après le classicisme at the Museum of Art and Industry of the city where he imposed his pictorial style. In a joyful exuberance, Combas mixes a visual vocabulary from "high school graffiti", funny drawings for his crowd of friends, with the creation of a style "with the means at hand" close to Art Brut. He more importantly develops his "Arab Pop", an imagery of the South and developing countries sometimes inspired by the creativity and sophistication of the signs of African hairdressers. With a jubilant fantasy, his canvases are saturated with words, some with a clearly expressed meaning, others erased and corrected with a broad black line but perfectly readable, others written with an elementary spelling. He even produces "false writings" that invite the viewer to take part in clever calligraphic games close to oriental ornamentalism. He aspires to create a language without borders and specifies: "Small heads are born everywhere, feet, sexes, words grow and oversaturate the meaning. The senses are unleashed. The writing gives the word to the images in the symbolic and real space of the imagination in the making.” His entire production, fruit of the gestural pleasure, is opposed to the intellectualism marked by conceptual art and the minimalism of the 1970s . His sources of inspiration are diverse and above all not classified in hierarchy: school books, comic books, advertisements, ancient or religious mythologies, television images... In his paintings, the accumulation of factors from multiple origins and the recurrence of extraordinary situations will not provoke a confused or helpless feeling. They, quite on the contrary, push us to find a hidden arrangement in the apparent disorder, in the maze of connections, in the combinations, networks, and in the entangled abundance of elements and characters. These myriads of entities which fit together like the pieces of a puzzle remind us of the sixteenth century Moghol miniatures bustling with life, or Arcimboldo's grotesque pieces composed of plants, animals and various intermingled objects. Using bright colors and a black outline that defines the represented figures, his very distinctive, immediately recognizable graphic style is both free and spontaneous. The
drawing, which constantly surrounds the color, gives it all its vigor. Both essential and striking, it occupies the entire canvas leaving no empty spaces. During the 1990s Combas began a cycle called "Spiritual Period in the First Degree”. After rediscovering the cathedral’s stained glass windows, but also the art of icons, he pursued his aesthetic adventure with works on black backgrounds, like "The Dark Night" where the colors seem to come straight from the cosmos and drip on the figures. This research resulted in an important exhibition in San Francisco in 1989, a piece on Toulouse Lautrec shown in the Albi Museum and the creation in 1994 of a major painting of 2x5 meters entitled The Autist in the Forest of Flowers which reminds us of the wheat fields and Van Gogh’s Sunflowers. As it is often the case with his work, this pictorial masterpiece is accompanied by a fabulous poem: "The Sad Fool loves life but he is autistic and can only interact with his forest of flowers of which he is the king. His subjects honor and adorn him with their multicolored petals, and their illuminated perfumes shoot cannonballs of a luxuriant scent. The sad fool is in paradise but he is autistic, when will he be given back his life that is passing by? He knows that he is on the right track. The lunar world has already disappeared to give way for all the flowers of mental creation. How much longer will he have to wait, disabled from speaking, singing and laughing? He has already deleted Winter and Autumn from his cerebral calendar. This meditative period, although it remains frantic, is also highlighted with the creation between 2003 and 2005 of a moving Way of the Cross with his friend, the painter Ladislas Kijno. Combas enjoys pushing his plastic inventions to their limits and is endlessly renewing the foundations of his art. The Sans Filet series of 2010 where men are depicted falling evolves towards a monumental reinterpretation of John Milton’s Paradise Lost. In this body of work he invents what he calls "sequence paintings", with a series of drawings pasted one next to the other, where some are even reversible, like playing cards. With his Labyrinth of Heads, produced during the lockdown between 2020 and 2021, he brought us back to an eternal subject in painting, the art of the portrait, with more than one hundred faces. His human figures do not merely convey a trivial resemblance. Combas attempts to express anxiety, uncertainty, displacement, the presence in the absence, the subject facing the impossible, the dream, the force of desire and love, the mysteries of the subconscious, the crossing of the mirror ... but also his relationship to the other, and his personal relationship to his own image through the eyes of the other. As Jean-Luc Parant says: "The displacements in Robert Combas’ paintings (...) the labyrinthic contours, the effervescence of its bestiary, make us aware that what we all have in common, is to be alive at the same time, in the same moment. Everything is impermanent, and now is the time to live. Combas is a Rimbaldian and Baudelairean character at the same time, who would probably add, with a humoristic tone, like on the sign that sits behind him in a famous photograph where we see him guitar in hand: "Live, yes, but, drunk!" His old mentor Kijno urged him to do so by declaring, "We must put Rimbaud in our glasses and Gauguin in our plates!" I will add that we must also put Robert Combas in front of our eyes and in our hearts.