Painter Michel Castaignet / Nomad Living and Painting in Three Routines

If you’ve ever been wondering, how to combine your super busy agenda with short weekend trips and two-times-a year-holidays somewhere South, look at Michel Castaignet. This French painter can hardly imagine living in one place - eats breakfast in Berlin and his next dinner in Sicily. No business class flights, just many hours on the road with his cats. And quite a bucket of stories he collects living this nomadic routine. Actually, three routines. And in between these Michel also visits Art Fair Art Vilnius almost annually. This year will be no exception for him. 

29 May, 2019


cover photo by: ANJA TESKE

Photo by: Anja Teske

Photo by: Anja Teske

You call yourself a nomadic artist. Escaping usual routine always seemed like a romantic choice only an artist, a free-spirited creator can make. Is it still a privilege of an artist, or maybe the ability to mix and match travels, work and your whole life became a habit of 21 century? Is there any romance in nomadic living left these days?

I’m a nomad and that is different from someone who travels a lot. Most artists travel all year round to visit arts events. Throughout history, art has always been international, and artists were active in several countries. Everybody travels a lot in the art world, so yes, it’s kind of romantic or glamorous to fly from champagne glass to champagne glass. I do that kind of travelling but I consider myself a nomad more because I live in three different locations, France, Germany and Sicily. So, I see myself as going from place to place rather than travelling. I’m like a migrating bird. When Berlin gets cold, I go to work in Siracusa. When the tourists arrive there, I’m off to France. 

It sounds super romantic, but it involves many days of driving my car, full of the art material and also my screaming cats in the back, sleeping on motorways, eating junk food in petrol stations and always arriving to a place which is super dirty because I haven’t been there for months. Plus, I have to deal with paperwork in each country, so I’m not exactly escaping the usual routine. It’s more like three routines than no routine. 

In Berlin, I start my day of work with a 30 min bike ride, in Champagne with a coffee at my neighbours with a view on the countryside, in Sicily with a coffee in a bar full of loud workers and plenty of sunshine. So, in a way I can live several lives simultaneously, I’m not exactly the same person everywhere, and maybe that is super romantic.  

Another reason I call myself a nomadic artist is that I’m totally European, so it pisses me off to have to say I’m a French artist educated in England and living between Germany and Italy, that’s far too many words to just say I’m here. 


After all of these travels-non-travels, if you could choose only one nomadic destination in the near future what would it be?

It has to be two destinations, otherwise, you’re not nomadic, you’re just somewhere. The first would be a capital city with culture and the second one – a remote place, a counterpoint that is totally different. Berlin is good for now, but it attracts so many people I’m afraid it will become overcrowded like London and Paris. So maybe for the future, I would choose Madrid, which is super attractive but not too crowded. And a counterpoint could maybe be a little picturesque city like Kuldiga. That would be cool to commute between those two places.

“Backstage” by Michel Castaignet, 2018. 150x180cm, acrylic on canvas.

“Backstage” by Michel Castaignet, 2018. 150x180cm, acrylic on canvas.

“im Park” by Michel Castaignet, 2018. 89x116 cm, oil on canvas.

“im Park” by Michel Castaignet, 2018. 89x116 cm, oil on canvas.


Any trend gets its antidote these days – there are opinions that we might be exaggerating traveling the world a bit too much, that there are other alternatives to learning, collecting knowledge and experiences? Would you agree to that? Do you see equal or even better alternatives for experiencing the world?

Yes, traveling has become tricky. Hundred years ago only artists, merchants and scientists travelled and that was good, these professions need cultural exchanges. I belong to this tradition, but with global warming it’s difficult to sustain. I’m a real pessimist in terms of ecology. I’m now planting a forest around my atelier in Sicily. Maybe not enough to balance my consumption of petrol, but at least it will provide me with a bit of oxygen in my old age.  

Even if we find a source of green energy quickly, I think we’re doomed anyway, because mass tourism is destroying everything. How can we prevent people from traveling? Everybody wants to visit Paris at least once in their lifetime, who are we to tell them they shouldn’t? Maybe virtual reality will replace tourism one day, but I’m afraid it will come too late. All the ecological problems should have been addressed thirty years ago, it’s kind of too late now, we’re surfing on the downfall. 

On one hand you have more and more people who adopt a responsible attitude towards consumption and ecology and on the other hand we’re building bigger ships to transport more tourists and we aggressively promote having children who themselves will want to travel. The future is made of masses of people moving all over the world made of tarmac, shopping malls and hotels with a view. Lovely. Ironically, this grim situation is also an incentive for the lover of nature to travel now before it’s too late. You can still find yourself a spot somewhere where you can feel good and live many different experiences, so you should go and get it now before it disappears. 

Because nothing replaces traveling in terms of experience and knowledge of oneself. You can watch a movie, that’s one hour, read a book, that’s four hours, drop an acid, that’s twelve hours, but if you travel you put yourself in a situation where everything is new for days or weeks and that changes you deeply.

“Last mimosa” by Michel Castaignet, 2017. 73x54 cm, oil on canvas.

“Last mimosa” by Michel Castaignet, 2017. 73x54 cm, oil on canvas.


Ok, let’s get on a trip through your art now. Abstract landscapes of yours look pretty detached from any context, differently from other paintings in which one can almost hear people chatting – these situations seem pretty real. How important are the exact stories behind your works? Do you want to tell some, or the interpretation of the viewer is more important to you?

My landscapes look indeed pretty detached from reality but that’s because they come from many sketches I do over time. I sketch a landscape, then over the months I think about it, I sketch a few lines I remember from the original drawing, I set it aside and work on other stuff then some lines or shapes hunt me, so I draw them again etc. So, when I decide I will finally paint the landscape, the resemblance with the original scenery is very little. 

I also do genre painting which is basically a landscape with figures. Here the landscape is a bit less matured because it’s not the main subject so it’s easier to understand it for the viewer. The figures, I have a lot of fun painting them, and that’s why the result is often joyful – they are only in awkward shapes and yet they are immediately recognisable as figures. For years, I have collected family photos I found in various flea markets, I have used them as some kind of documentation a lot. I like their muteness, very often we can only guess why those people are in the photo, so it’s up to the viewer to make up the story behind the scene.  

Nowadays, I don’t rely on photo for my paintings anymore, but I have all these images in mind, so I can reconstruct endless compositions that speak to the viewer. In a way, the story behind the scene is not super important. I have a little narrative in mind that helps me to find a title, but sometimes I totally forget where the title comes from. The story is not important because my work is more about the balance of shapes and colours, rather than about the narrative that could explain the depicted scene. 


Could we try an experiment and create a little dialogue to one painting of your choice: what could possibly these ladies be talking about here?

This one, I called it Backstage, most probably because I painted a guitar. If I would have painted a plant instead it would have been called Lazy Sunday or something like that. But Backstage it is, so we have to imagine that it’s a band relaxing before or after a concert or two friends joining a singer backstage. I prefer to think it’s a band. It’s obviously in the countryside. The band comes from Berlin, they played in a small village in a barn in front of a scattered crowd, enveloped by the smoke of grilled sausages. I let you now imagine the conversation: – Prosit, girls! …

Sicily, courtesy of the artist.

Sicily, courtesy of the artist.


Our monthly topic is Romance, so could we continue with the little dialogues: what was the most romantic chat that never happened to you, although you had it all planned in your head? 

Well, I’ve been married for 15 years, so I totally forgot what is romance 😊 Only joking of course, but I don’t remember a romantic chat in particular, I find more romance in situations than in words. A few years ago we arrived in Como, in Northern Italy. It is the middle of the night after 17 hours driving, too late to find a room, the car is full of paintings, so we can’t sleep in the back, super tired and cranky. I parked in front of the lake. And as we shortly walk along the water, a huge storm starts. Suddenly, we’re alone under the stars in front of massive waves with the mountain in the backdrop under a violent wind and that is super romantic. You instantly forget all your problems, you lose yourself in the depth of nature, it’s only you two, love and the gods, it is as romantic as a painting of Gaspard Friedrich. High romanticism. 

Another romantic anecdote, funnier one, took place in Vilnius many years ago. I was in Café de Paris, it was very late, all my friends had left, and two Lithuanian soldiers came in and sat next to me. So, we chatted, and they told me many French singers were famous in Lithuania in the 70’s, so they asked me if I knew Adamo, who’s the typical crooner my parents would listen to when they were young. Well, I didn’t know him really, so they started to sing “Tombe la neige” to me. It’s a beautifully sad and romantic song and these two big guys had very good voices. It was like I had my own Red Army Choir serenading me. It was both romantic and awkward, I loved it. Since then I have the song in my playlist and when it’s aired, I always think of those guys.


What chats and talks are you expecting in Vilnius while visiting Art Vilnius – will it be one more nomadic experience to you or more like a sweet homecoming?

First, I’m pleased that it focuses on France, because I haven’t been much in Paris these past two years, so I hope I will meet friends there. What I really enjoy in Vilnius is the numerous gatherings in the evening. The fair is very generous and organizes many events where you can meet other participants in a relaxed way. I am also pleased to see that some top of the range French galleries are coming this year, that’s very good news for the public, so you don’t have to go to Fiac or Frieze to see them. 

And you’re right to say that I feel a bit like home because I’ve been to nearly all the editions since the first year. This year I will be exhibiting with Maksla Xo from Riga. I actually met this gallery at the first edition of Art Vilnius ten years ago, so for me Vilnius is really a synonym of a long-term relationship. This year I will come for the opening but unfortunately, I cannot stay for the whole fair because I’m going to a residency in France, so I will miss the weekend, which is always a nice experience when all the public comes and you realize how popular the fair is in Vilnius. 

Anybody willing to explore more landscapes and figures in Michel’s paintings or maybe hear more nomadic stories can do that at the Art Fair Art Vilnius starting from tomorrow till Sunday. So help yourself and get on this little nomadic art travel this weekend.

“Olivenbaum am morgen” by Michel Castaignet, 2019. 200x200 cm, oil and acrylic on canvas.

“Olivenbaum am morgen” by Michel Castaignet, 2019. 200x200 cm, oil and acrylic on canvas.