Raoul Ubac, a non-figurative French painter of Belgian origin, belonging to the new School of Paris, was born in Malmedy (Wallonia) the 31st August 1910. His mother’s family ran a tannery and his father was a magistrate. He studied in Belgium, travelling a part of Europe on foot and made his first stay in Paris in 1928. After enrolling at the Sorbonne to follow literary studies, he changed his career path and decided to attend the Art Academy of Montparnasse, where he established contact with the Surrealists.
Ubac was passionate about surrealist photography. He enrolled in the School of applied arts in Cologne, where he worked on drawing and photography. He distanced himself from painting. Whilst travelling in Dalmatia in 1932, he assembled stones which he then drew and photographed. In collaboration with Camille Bryen, Raoul Ubac published a collection of poems and photographs in 1934, under the name of Raoul Michelet. Starting in 1930’s, he devoted himself to lithography, more specifically to engraving. He went regularly to Stanley William Hayter’s Workshop 17 between 1935 and 1938 where he trained to engrave using a chisel, a technique which he associated with photography. Between 1936 and 1939 he shared all the activities of the surrealists, rubbing shoulders with Hans Bellmer, Benjamin Péret, Victor Brauner and Raoul Hausmann. From 1936, he embarked on a series of photographs about the Struggle of Penthesilea, which he made from multiple processes: the combination of negatives, the double exposure and solarisation, superposition or the gap between negative and positive, which gives the impression of petrifaction, blowing, smoking, burning or the snapshot of a net curtain. These “burnouts” made his art evolve towards a lyric abstraction. Some of his photographs were published in the review Minotaur; in 1938 André Breton commissioned him to photograph models, presenting them in the Surrealist’s International Exhibition.
In 1940, he ran the Collective Invention review with René Magritte. In 1941, he participated in his last photography exhibition. At the same time, he met the poet Jean Lescure (illustrating his Exercise of Purity) and participated in the review Messages. Through this, he met Paul Eluard, André Frénaud, Raymond Queneau and Jean Bazaine.
Little by little, the war moved him away from surrealism: from 1939 he started to draw simple objects with a pen (glasses and bottles, fruits and breads, scissors or knives placed on a table). He abandoned photography in 1945. Then in 1946 he picked up a chip of slate and started engraving it with a nail and made gouaches on the theme of Heads. He created prints where he tried to combine both sculpture and engraving. The lines were scrutinized and the work was given a mysterious character. Researching the forms and colours used by non-figurative artists helped him he said, “To make an effort to tackle problems without passing by phantasms” which he had been dependant on. Raoul Ubac approached painting from a new perspective, using egg, for a series of Sleeping People.
From 1951, the Aimé Maeght gallery regularly exhibited his gouaches and his canvases and edited the engravings and lithographs of the artist. The review « Minotaur » published his photo-reliefs. Ubac continued engraving slates which became reliefs and he introduced fragments of these into his works in 1955. His work, serious and profound, was creating his name. His engagement in his creation was full-hearted, almost religious; his style became more simplified, more in line with that of the primitive arts. Contemplating, the artist declared in the interview: “I would like a state of innocence that would reflect the splendor of the world across my work”.
In the 1960’s, Raoul Ubac did paintings on big notice boards, recovered with mixed resin (on the Labours and Furrows, the Bodies and Torsos) as well as high reliefs and mural paintings for public and private buildings. He made, amongst other things, the stained glass windows of Varengeville-sur-Mer Church (in 1961, with Georges Braque), mosaics and also tapestries for the Maegt foundation chapel in Saint-Paul de Vence (1967). He illustrated about thirty books with his drawings, engravings and lithographs: those of André Frénaud, Yves Bonnefoy, Christian Dotremont, Lucien Scheler, Claude Esteban, Jacques Dupin. He also created the cover of the review Argile which was published by Maeght between 1973 and 1981.
Ubac’s works are displayed in numerous museums in France and Europe. Raoul Ubac died in 1985 in Dieudonné.