Among Alain Bertrand’s works for his latest Catto show is Car Dealer. It depicts a smartly dressed salesman persuading an eager looking 1950s husband and wife to shell out for a majestic 1939 Chevrolet.
The couple’s body language and smiles say it all. They’re ready to buy. And why wouldn’t they be? Yes, the salesman is pitching an automobile. But really he’s selling the post-war American dream.
And in that sense, he’s no different from Alain Bertrand himself.
Alain Bertrand’s paintings make you long for the endless horizons, the primary colours and the joyful optimism of post war America. The icons are all there in his fastidiously skilful works: the cars, the skyscrapers, the diners, the gas stations.
They are his love letters to 1950s USA, and he’s been painting them for 40 years.
Of course, Alain’s ardour reflects his age and nationality. Children growing up in a traumatised and impoverished France just after the war were bound to look longingly at the symbols of affluent America. A young Alain witnessed these symbols first hand.
He was born in Paris a year after VE Day in 1946, but was educated in Normandy. His school was located next to the Evreux-Fauville American Air Base. Every day he would watch the GIs drive in and out in their jeeps, with their CocaColas and their chewing gum. He was smitten.
Soon Alain discovered a natural flair for drawing. He was self-taught, but good enough to make a career as a draughtsman after a short spell in the the French army. Inevitably, perhaps, he worked in the design department of car maker Renault.
Later his talent as an industrial illustrator brought him to the attention of many more well-known brands. He created campaigns for Pirelli, Peugeot, Nestlé and others. He also designed movie posters for films such as One From The Heart, for Mommie Dearest and Jurassic Park 2: The Lost World.
This period of Alain’s life concluded in 1976, after a trip to the USA. His latent passion for America was reignited. He resolved to become a full-time artist and to concentrate solely on painting bittersweet vignettes of Eisenhower-era USA.
Alain chose to render these works in a photo-realistic style that mimics the prevailing advertising language of the time.
Even his signature resembles something you’d see on a poster for Buick or Oldsmobile. The skill and love that pours out of these paintings has brought Alain acclaim and commercial success all over the world.
But the artist has not stood still. For example, in his latest collection for the Catto Alain has produced a series of arresting black and white works. Brooklyn Bridge is a stand out, with late afternoon sunshine throwing dramatic shadows across the floorspace of a nearby lounge.
Elsewhere, there are many of his trademark full colour cityscapes, each vivid in period detail and executed with flawless technique. Alain’s comic book scenes are back too. In The Coyote Pursuit an army of cartoon characters from Snoopy to Superman peer down at an oblivious motorist stuck in a rainy traffic jam. The contrast is delightful.
In other works, Alain goes further in the blurring of fantasy and fact. He has fun with T Rex on the Strip, in which a dinosaur runs riot across one of Alain’s usually idyllic city boulevards. And there’s another interesting detour in a series of aeronautic paintings.
Spitfires is the most British painting in the show, and then there’s Mission Complete. This is a skilfully composed depiction of the air bound allied war effort. Military history enthusiasts will love it.
Mission Complete depicts the heroes that made post-war America possible. In this sense, they made Alain Bertrand’s wonderful work possible too. This painting is a beautiful tribute.
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