PARIS -- Jean-Michel Folon's afternoon is crowded. Busy with the things of his world and ours -- butterflies, phone calls, rainbow factories, South American packages, soft red pastel hearts, visitors, politics, details.
And a forgotten film crew.
At 54, dressed in peach sweater and tie, soft gray wool smock and khakis over impossibly long legs, Europe's most celebrated poster artist bears a striking resemblance to a young, lankier Yves Montand. Through etchings, watercolors and poster illustrations, his touch is immediately recognizable. Viewers are drawn into Folon's bright pastel worlds where small men in hats and coats perform ordinary tasks transformed into the extraordinary.
A ship smokestack arches into a rainbow.
A tightrope walker nears a red heart dangling at the center.
Fingertips kindle a candle flame of hope.
A gondola formed of lips sails to a far horizon.
After two decades of illumination, his images and muted palette remain simple and childlike -- qualities that in many ways reflect and define the Belgian-born artist himself. Such is the ease and pervasive power of his images that artist (and longtime collaborator) Milton Glaser suggests that Folon now "seems to own certain objects: arrows, sphinxes, the colors red and blue."
Others, such as writer Ray Bradbury ("May God keep Folon's rainbows in peace") and film director Federico Fellini ("He gives the impression of drawing only for you"), praise his point of view as a touchstone of dreams. As one writer commented, "To view Folon is as if you've gone to sleep in another's bed and dreamt his dreams."
At 3 o'clock, a car will take him to the Bastille for final proofing of his design, selected as the French bicentennial logo. Clearly pleased with the honor of winning the commission in open competition, he is the next moment filled with sly winks and self-effacing humor.
At 2 p.m., he is still in slippers ambling around his houseboat on the Seine near the Eiffel Tower, waving scissors playfully at a ringing telephone. "I don't know," he tells the unanswered phone, "... so don't ring!"
He fields it reluctantly to handle details concerning three upcoming exhibitions of original works, two shows already touring, films and other new projects. Moments later, he returns to an earlier discussion of waterfalls, swallows and rainbows, just as a Canadian television crew arrives quayside for a forgotten appointment. Onboard, the crew members exchange shoes for slippers chosen from a wicker basket by the cabin door and ready their equipment, as Folon explains that birds will dominate his next year's work.
Indeed, birds inspire and form the very simple, very official bicentennial design that, Folon laughs, "will be very famous when the officials introduce it to the press and television in three weeks." As he says this, a deliveryman knocks on the cabin door.
Despite appearances, the houseboat, with its gently rocking views of passing barge traffic, is actually Folon's retreat, his Paris salon and refuge. His studio remains in an old farmhouse outside Fontainebleau. There, from amid an avalanche of paper, toys and kites, emerge designs for silk-screen posters, etchings, watercolors, books, tapestries, magazine covers, films and the "three-dimensional sculptures and 'small theaters' " (dioramas) he'll debut in his next three major exhibitions -- at Brussels' La Botanique museum in December; at Paris' Georges Pompidou Centre in 1989; and at "an important New York museum" as part of a still-unannounced agreement for a U.S. tour in 1990. (Currently, he has two shows in Italy, a joint exhibition in Argentina and a retrospective touring Japan that has just added six months to its two-year stay.)
Folon, it seems, occupies some serene corner of a disordered world -- an island, unhurried by sweeping winds. He appears distanced from rushing details, as though his extensive travels and role as Daumier-style graphic commentator afford a vantaged position.
"It seems the world is broken into little pieces," he says, explaining a history of poster donations to Amnesty International, CARE, Me'decins Sans Frontie`res and other human rights and ecological causes. "I never refuse to do something to promote liberty," he says. "One never speaks enough of freedom. An artist's way of life is an example of liberty. It's an artist's responsibility," he says slowly, forming words with precision, "to relate with politics but to go beyond politics because it concerns the right of existence. The right of life."
The joint Folon/Glaser exhibit opening at Buenos Aires' Fine Arts Museum, he says, underlined this belief last month. "It was extraordinary," he says, his blue eyes edging with tears. "It's been two years since Argentina's military dictatorship ended. The situation's very unstable ... but young people are drunk with liberty and thirsting for culture."
Four thousand students crammed into a room designed for half as many to hear Glaser and Folon speak for three hours, he says. "We spoke about everything with them -- art, war, peace, military, freedom, torture, panic, solitude, love. It was one of the most wonderful remembrances of my life. The students sharing their courage, their attitude and behavior gave meaning to our mission as artists. We spoke about human rights, of course, and discussed what an artist can do about it.
"For instance, Matisse was painting the most beautiful images of his life during the blackest years of the war. Why? Because he felt that beauty was in danger of being lost.
"The images I draw want to speak to the eye of people, even before they speak to their mind. The images I draw invite people to participate -- to bring their own interpretations as they wish to the image ... Eyes are the best butterflies," he adds, "because a butterfly lands wherever he wants and so do the eyes."
The falls of Iguacu' enchanted Folon during his South American journey -- "They're the best factory in the world for rainbows," he says.
"You walk for hours over a tiny bridge and arrive as close as two meters from the falls. From there you look into the bottom of Hell. And these tiny swallows nest behind these falls three times taller than Niagara. What attracts me is the contrast of life and death existing in such fragile balance. It's really a magic place with this strength of water and this most delicate bird. Life, death, nature, water, space, beauty, wind ...
"Next year," he says, "I want to go back there and draw a lot on rainbows."
Since first appearing in the middle 1960s, Folon's work has always intimated unusual qualities, especially a subtle Saul Steinberg-like humor. His posters, even his cover designs for L'Express, The New Yorker, Time and Fortune often only hint at issues contained within fantastic allegories. As the artist has grayed, his early success has been distinguished by two decades of exhibitions and drawn him into a dozen other roles, including those of film actor, animator, Kafka and Camus illustrator, muralist, opera set and balloon designer. Like his images, he conveys a sense of constancy through change.
"I like to change the different media," he says, his large hand making soft circles, as warm afternoon sun filters through the stained-glass skylight and bathes the blue-tinted gallery in rare light. "Watercolor is a dialogue between water and color," he declares. "It's very quick. It's a matter of transparency, space and light, whereas etching is exactly the opposite. With your steel mind, you have to engrave copper, which requires a much more introverted attitude. Watercolor is freedom. Etching is more precise. I like to use both," he smiles, "and the third day, do a poster."
To the casual viewer, the images now emerging from his studio have never been more realized or accessible. They seem to portray life's tightrope as a broadening path.
"I'm the meeting point of everything my eyes see," Folon says. "They make choices and they reject things. Today, I'm more influenced by life than art. For example, if I go to Egypt and visit the Valley of the Queens, I view it as the most modern form of art for miles on end. I see a thousand Matisses everywhere. The Egyptian speaks in terms of simplicity -- the topics, the symbols are very simple. Colors are vivid. The sunlight's yellow, beautiful and very specific. Reds, deep blues, greens, all these things remind me of Matisse's paintings, but at the same time, I see life around me.
"The first time I was there, it was during the Six-Day War with Israel. The Egyptian children were painting war scenes on the walls. They painted planes and they also painted flowers because they wished for peace. In a way, those children painted simply -- spontaneously, freely, like Paul Klee, so I was as influenced by the Matisses of a thousand years ago as by the children's street art. Formerly, when I went to museums, I'd look at a painting of Monet's with flowers.
"Now," he says, "I try to look at the flowers themselves, imagining the way Monet saw them. Life influences me more than art."
The camera crew is ready. The deliveryman drives away along the cobbled river bank. The telephone ringing ceases.
"Even if he doesn't mean to," Folon says, fixing his eyes on Eiffel's tower, "every artist, abstract or figurative, conveys his observations of life in what he does. Each image," he winks, "invented by an artist is a page from his life."