Elena and Michel Gran seamlessly combine age-old tradition with a unique and very modern sense of irony and playfulness in their art.
This approach extends to the creative unity of their painting process. They work together on the same canvases, a method usually associated with Renaissance masters and their apprentices. The Grans’ styles are so well-attuned that even they often cannot tell afterwards who painted which part of a painting.
This curious method of working together began more than 40 years ago, in art school.
Born in Soviet Russia in 1941 and 1942, Michel and Elena had been surrounded by the art world from an early age. Elena came from a family of painters and architects in St Petersburg. Michel hailed from Moscow, where his father worked in theatre as an artist.
Their paths crossed at the Academy of Theatre, Music and Cinematography in St Petersburg, where they were studying set design. It was a chance assignment that first brought them together creatively, when they were tasked with doing the costumes and backdrops for a play. It was the beginning of a lifelong partnership.
They married and began to work in everything from book illustrating, television and film work, set design for plays and for the circus. It was only after they moved to Paris in 1981 that the couple were able to fully dedicate themselves to their true passion – painting.
Their knowledge and experience of set design gave them an interesting perspective on composition. It allowed them to play with realism and illusion, the combination of which is what makes their work so enthralling.
The Grans went on to become the most notable trompe l’oeil artists of their time. What distances them from the classical, more decorative school is that there is often so much more than meets the eye with their paintings. They go beyond the mere tricks of making objects appear real on a canvas to incorporate a depth of feeling, a historical context and a phantasmagorical element that was previously unseen in much of the trompe l’oeil genre.
It is this ability to convey a mood with their lifelike objects and their flair for the imaginative that separates them out from the hyper-realists of today.
The Grans are avid collectors of antiques, and are fascinated by the history and life story behind each object. Their Paris studio is a treasure trove of old books, scientific devices, mathematical puzzles, playing and tarot cards. Boxes of all shapes, sizes and provenances are scattered around every surface. Some of these, particularly the playing cards, regularly occur in their work.
One of the central ideas behind these still lifes is that the marks on a book, box or map tell a story behind the object in the same way that wrinkles do about a person.
The sombre, subdued tones, reminiscent of Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin’s paintings, lend an air of mysticism to the Grans’ work. The stacked, complex arrangements of objects are take the viewer into their special world of riddles, paradoxes, irony and playful charm. A fondness for visual dialogue that draws people into this world is present throughout their art.
There have been more than 20 solo exhibitions of the Grans’ work, including in Paris, Rome, London, New York and Chicago. Their paintings belong to numerous important public and private collections around the world. In 1996, the Louvre Museum purchased a work called ‘Red and Black’ for the French National Museum of Cards.
This exhibition consists of the work the couple has completed in the past few months. Fans will be delighted at the chance to see their new output so quickly – on some, the paint on the canvases has not even fully dried.