Welcome to the archive of the John Barleycorn blog, produced by Howard Gayton and Rex Van Ryn during the process of creating their graphic novel John Barleycorn Must Die. As part of that process, you'll find discussions of magic, of creativity, and 'Around the Table' discussions with a range of internationally known artists, writers and film makers. The graphic novel was printed in a limited edition, so if you managed to get one, good for you! Although this project is over now, we're leaving this blog online as an archive and as a snap shot in time.

Friday, 1 July 2011

Around the table with...Yoann Lossel. Part 1.

Yoann, Claire, Howard and Rex.

French painter, illustrator, and designer Yoann Lossel was born in 1985, studied at the Ecole Pivaut in Nantes, and now lives in the Forest of Broceliande in Brittany, a landscape steeped in Celtic and Arthurian myth. Yoann is an attentive and contemplative traveler through mythic and imaginary lands, seeking to weave colour and light into pathways of connection between body and spirit. In this he is inspired by his immoderate love of the Masters: the compositions of Velasquez, the colours and atmosphere of Monet, the light of Turner, and the symbolism of Morreau, as well as by a passion for ancient tales and the mysteries of the natural world. His paintings have been published in a number of books including Le Chaudron Magique, L'Univers des Dragons II,  and The "Sir Lanval" Exhibition Catalog; his distinctive book designs have appeared in Le Chant des Brumes and other volumes. 
Yoann lives and works in an old stone farmhouse with his partner Claire Briant, a writer and potter whose ceramics have been exhibited both in Brittany and elsewhere. Both artists joined us "around the table" during their most recent visit to Devon. We should note that this discussion, in its original form, was conducted in both French and English. Claire speaks both languages fluently (and did a valiant job of translation in both directions), Howard speaks French, Yoann speaks some English, and Rex speaks English only -- so conversation ranged back and forth between the two languages. In transcribing it into English for this blog, we've tried to keep the sense and spirit of our talk intact.

Dramatis Personae:
R - Rex                Y - Yoann
H - Howard         C - Claire
H - Hello to you both; it's great to see you again. I remember that the last time you were here in Devon, we sat in a pub until the early hours having a very deep metaphysical conversation about art. 
Y - Yes. I remember.
H - So I’d like to start our conversation by asking: In what way do you find art to be a spiritual practice? An easy question to begin with!
Y - I think that there is no difference at all between my spirituality and my painting, because those things all come together. I develop my spirituality by painting, and painting develops my spirituality as well. My look (the way that I view things) continually strengthens my perception that there are many different ways of looking at things -- so if painting develops my spirituality, I also, in turn, use my spirituality to look at my art in a different way. My work demands that I do a lot of research, and this increases my knowledge  -- which has an impact, again, on my perception, and most of all on my intuition. 
H - As a theatre practitioner, my theatre work and my spiritual understanding have been linked -- in large part because I work with masks, which have long been used in spiritual practices world-wide. But the theatre that I produce isn’t necessarily spiritual. It has spirit deep within it, but it doesn’t necessarily…
C - It’s not religious.
H - No, it’s not religious. Do you see your finished product, your art, as spiritual?
Y - There are two kinds of painting that are very different, one must remember. At first, historically, a painting was intended to deliver a message. The message was in the painting. Then, in the 19th and 20th centuries, there were illustrators, like Rackham, whose paintings or illustrations were at the service of the message, but were not the message itself....
R - It’s said here in England that illustration sells something, but a painting sells itself.
Y – Yes, and this difference is something I keep in mind. Before the First World War, in France, there was something very pure in art, and then between the wars, something broke. After that came a time of commerce, marketing, and we're still in that time today. I want to be back in the period where art was pure, and to deliver a message.
R - Certainly that timeline rings true in England too.
H - Do you think it was the war that “broke” this purity?
R - I think this possibly began with the First World War, and then continued during the Second, but certainly the big World Wars did change many things, including art.
C - Probably our favourite period of art history is the Art Nouveau period
R – At the turn of the 19th century. 
C - Yes, so just before the First World War.
H - I’m going to change the subject a little here.... I tend to think of French artists and dramatist (and this is probably a stereo-type) as very deep philosophical thinkers...which I don’t believe is necessarily the same in England. Is there any truth in that, do you think?
C – No, I don’t think that's so in France.
H - Clearly I'm entirely wrong, then!
R - That's just nonsense, Howard! That's just your projection. Your fantasy.
H - I have the image of the French artist-philosopher, like Camus, with a Gitanes hanging out of the corner of his mouth, sitting in a cafe….
Y – But there are also a lot of English artist who I admire a great deal. It can be easy, when you admire someone, to make them over philosophic in your imagination! 
H – So perhaps it’s just artists in general, then, and not a French trait.
C – It's about the personal, not the general…. But thank you!
H - It’s a pleasure.
R - I’ve experienced some of this projection, myself. When I was a child I was left-handed, and at school they made me use my right hand. About twenty years ago I started to use my left hand again, so now sometimes I use the left hand for drawing and the right hand for inking. Some people have seen me do this and have made it out to be very mystical. I once heard a story about myself where, apparently, I was working with both hands at once!
Y - It is interesting, the history of the idea of the left hand being ‘wrong.’ It goes back about two thousand years.
H - In Italian, left is sinsitra. “Sinister,”  of course.
R - In my first school, I was hit with a ruler if I used my left hand, so I didn’t. I would use it privately, of course, in secret. This was in the early sixties, so not that long ago. They were still doing things like that. To me!
H - Of all people!
C - This was happening in France too.
R - It’s a tragedy!
H - Yoann, I get the impression that you do a lot of research into the esoteric when you create art. We had a comment on our blog a while ago, from Rima Staines, talking about artists' use of the Golden Section. I wonder, when you do your work and plan it out, do you specifically put esoteric design into your paintings?
Y - “Esoteric” is very subjective. Symbolic, of course. I deliberately use symbols in my painting. Esoteric...what is esoteric? Esoteric for whom? Can you define it?
H – Yes. Hmmm.... No.
R - You just said “yes,” Howard.
H - And then I said “no,” Rex, but I'm going to say: maybe. Yoann, you ask: “Esoteric for whom?” --  which I think is an interesting question. What is “esoteric”? There are strands of philosophy that one can define as esoteric threaded throughout Western history, from Plato and the mystery religions through gnosticism and the Renaissance, right up to the present day. Scholars such as Antoine Faivre point out four main characteristics related to esoteric concepts, one of which is the notion that there are  “correspondences” between different levels of being, so that the material realm, the realm of ideas, and the spiritual realm have links between them.
Y - It is like a tree.
H - Yes, that is a common symbol. Another characteristic of esotericism is a sense of “living nature,” which is that the whole of nature is alive, conscious….
Y – Okay, okay! Yes, then, it’s very, very esoteric, my work! The role of the artist is to wake up consciousness. What you say is very true. We are all connected to an ancient memory -- a humankind memory deep inside us. And as artists, we are under an obligation to create something new out of it. For example, where we live, in the forest of Broceliande, we have a strong Celtic tradition and the myths are very present. Some people who are living there are trying to dig up the ancient Druidic tradition, and to walk this path. But it is a path with no path, because it was an oral tradition, so nobody today can know what the old traditions really were. You can walk this path if you want to, but if you are aware that the old path is not existing anymore, you have to walk, I don’t know, along beside it, or below it. We can recreate a new path, because we are aware of what once was and what we can do now.
R - As artists?
C - Yes, of course.
H - Before I studied Western Esotericism, I would look at traditions from other parts of the world and be inspired by them . . . and they were very good, you know: Taoism, Buddhism, etc...the spiritual side of religion. We have this sense, here in the West, from these old myths of Europe, that there was once a Golden Age from which we have fallen -- as if somehow the ancients “knew” more than us. But actually we can start right here, now. We don’t have to look back to ancient times and say: what did they do? We can be inspired by traditions of the past, but we're human, just as the ancients were, and we have the same ability to create our own path. It’s just a path of the heart, after all, of rising consciousness.... 
Reflet de L'Autre Monde
C - The Golden Age is a myth, a story; it isn't necessarily real in a literal sense.
R – Exactly.
Y - It's important not to make a confusion between spirituality and the acts related to spirituality, like ritual. You can base your work on the ancient spirituality and philosophy, but to base your work on the ancient rituals created for different people in a different time, is meaningless.
H - In my own field, Commedia dell'Arte, what my theatre company tried to do was to base our work on the spirit of Commedia, not the historicity. Some people look back to the work of the Comédie-Française in the 19th century, or the earlier Commedia of Italy, and try to replicate it -- but those historical form of Commedia have no meaning to audiences today. Actually the meaning of Commedia passed through the Comédie-Française: it inspired their work and then passed on. If you try to go back,you create a museum piece, not living theatre. It no longer resonates. We have to take the spirit of the form and create Commedia that relates to the modern world.
Y - Bien sûr, bien sûr.
H - Can we just go back a little now? You said that the job of the artist is to raise consciousness, and you obviously believe that strongly....
Y - It is more than obvious. It is the basis of my personality and choices in life. I am not here to save the world. Politicians are here to make laws, and the religious are here to help people to reveal themselves. Artists are here to show very clearly the social contexts, and maybe to critique them. They walk alongside the change in paradigm.

Don't miss Part 2, next week....


  1. This is a wonderful discussion, full of food for thought, humor, and passionately expressed convictions about the role of the artist in society. Thank you, Yoann and Claire, for your words and your art; once again you have inspired me. And thank you, Rex and Howard, for providing the forum for discussions like these. (Now please pass the croissants....)

  2. Great post! As an artist and a ritualist, I want to respond to what Howard says about how his theatre co. approached Commedia dell'Arte as it reminds me of what I experience with Earth-based spiritual practice today. When I attend a ritual that uses an old form but fails to address the present moment, it feels flat to me - I love what you say, Howard, it is a "museum piece" - that hits the nail on the head. I much prefer, and find more depth in creating rituals that are alive and contemporary - related to the old forms, but created for what is going on right now. Reading an invocation from a script just doesn't work for me. An improvisational form and in-the-moment response to energies infuses the work with life. After all, surrendering to the mystery allows magic to flow. Its the same for me in painting. Finding the balance between controlling and allowing invites something unexpected to come through - and that's magic.

  3. Wonderful post. I concur with what everyone has said, I only wish I had the courage of my convictions when it comes to authenticity both in my art practice and my spiritual leanings (learnings!)...although I FEEL something is right, I often feel it's not valid unless I can somehow authenticate it historically. Even though I know it's often not possible, and as you point out, not even desirable, to do so. Although, when it comes to theatre, I usually can let go of that mental block...some of the most exciting theatre I've ever seen have been productions of Shakespeare, and a recreation of the medieval mystery cycle, which completely turned any ideas of stuffy tradition on their heads. It keeps them alive!

  4. It was a great time, thank you all for this moment. A fascinating subject that we would enrich, hour after hour, around the table...
    I often think back to our various discussions during this week, and sometimes I find myself alone extend them. Terri, undeniably, you inspire us too.

  5. A fascinating interview, thank you. It's good to read the thoughts of artists from other parts of the world. So many issues and ideas in common.