Man in black: Soulages gets Louvre tribute for 100th birthday

Pierre Soulages in 2007

They call him art's man in black.

Artist Pierre Soulages has painted primarily in black for eight decades -- foreswearing all other colours since 1979.

Now the Louvre museum in Paris is marking his 100th birthday with a rare tribute to a living artist.

Twenty works -- out of more than 1,700 canvasses he has produced over his long career -- will be shown in a special three-month show, which opens Wednesday.

The French master, still working despite turning 100 on Christmas Eve, may yet make the opening in the face of a national strike which has paralysed France's rail network.

The Pompidou Centre in Paris, which staged a huge Soulages retrospective in 2009, is also getting in on the celebrations by showing 14 of its collection of 25 paintings.

Having worked mostly in black since 1946, Soulages began his voyage to the dark heart of the colour in 1979 with a series of paintings called "outrenoir", or beyond black.

Since then, no other colour has appeared on his canvasses.

Naturally, he also dresses in black.

"Black is never the same because the light is always changing it," Soulages told AFP in his studio earlier this year.

- Dark obsession -

He described black as "a very active colour" that "lights up when you put it next to a dark colour".

"Black isn't the colour of mourning, white is," he said in his spotless atelier in the Mediterranean town of Sete.

Soulages is France's most celebrated and expensive artist, with one of his black canvasses selling for 9.6 million euros ($10.5 million) at auction in Paris last month.

He is also the first living painter ever to be exhibited at the Hermitage museum in Saint Petersburg.

Hailed as "the world's greatest living artist" by former French president Francois Hollande, Soulages admits to being a fierce perfectionist.

If a painting is not 100 percent satisfactory, it will never see the light of day. "I burn the canvas outside. If it is mediocre, it goes," he told AFP.

The Louvre exhibition will trace the development of Soulages's work from the end of World War II to the present day.

His principal technique involves scraping, digging and etching thick layers of paint with rubber spoons or tiny rakes to create different textures that absorb or reject light, subtly changing the monotonous black.

Born in 1919 in Rodez, southern France -- where a museum is now dedicated to his work -- even as a child he was obsessed with black.

Soulages was fascinated by the dark sheen of ink, making his mother laugh at his black "snow".

With all his "black marks on paper", his mother would tease him that he "was already mourning her death", he said.

He showed his first works in 1947 and seven years later, at the age of 33, he exhibited at the Venice Biennale.

His first solo New York exhibition followed two years later.

Today he has around 230 pieces in museums around the world, including the Guggenheim in New York and London's Tate Modern.