“Moments of humanity”
Interview with courtroom artist Dominique Lemarié
Almost 40 years of painting in the court rooms of Europe and North America. The Watergate scandal, Ronald Reagans' assassination attempt, Klaus Barbies' war crimes, the Saint-Michel train station attack, the (fake) Clearstream corruption network... Dominique Lemarié from Le Pouliguen (Nantes region) has covered an impressive series of great trials for some of the world’s leading press agencies such as AP, AFP, Reuters and national French television France 3 as a courtroom artist. An undertaking which lies somewhere between art and journalism, above all one that requires great humanity.
Dominique Lemarié: I started to draw when I was five. My father wanted to be a painter and I suppose I fulfilled his dream by becoming one. Then I went to a Graphic Arts school in Paris and also studied fashion drawing.
The major change was flying off to the United States of America?
DL: All doors were closed to me in France so I left on an impulse. I had no idea the door would be so wide open overseas that I wouldn't come back. I had an American uncle who was married to a French aunt of mine. His name was Bob Fleischer, a cameraman and photographer during the Vietnam War who was working for local WMAR television in Washington DC. It was in 1974: President Richard Nixon had just resigned at the time. My uncle told me: “Tomorrow you're going to give us a hand, you’ll be our courtroom artist during the Watergate trial”. I said to myself, that I would sit there and stand still just for one day. In fact I sat and worked 15 years in the USA as an artist. Even if I only spoke poor English at the start, step by step I discovered that this work was fascinating because it’s a cross over between art, justice, and press.
More specifically what happens when you arrive in a court room?
DL: You find a chair in the room and you remain silent. People are always on the move and you have to paint them very quickly. This constant movement made it difficult to start with, but nowadays I am used to it. I can memorize a scene, picture it and draw it. Another problem is you don't have a desk. For example, at the end of the Klaus Barbie trial [Waffen SS war criminal known as the 'Butcher of Lyon', sentenced to life imprisonment in July 1987 in Lyon] I was in hurry and when I sat in the chambre correctionnelle I realized I had left my
There is a contrast between the languor of justice and the quickness of your work.
DL: A rush against the clock indeed - it's unbelievable ! The newspaper, the television, the press agency - you work for a deadline. If you get out of the court room at 12:05 instead of noon the TV crew just leaves you there. Sometimes the trial is so intense, especially regarding testimonies that you forget to do your job. But it doesn't happen that much.
Is you art work frustrating?
DL: Always. But I can only work under pressure. Actually I have watercolors that have to be delivered by tomorrow at 9. I am going to work on it tonight even thought they were ordered 6 months ago. Since I was 19 years old I have been drawing to tight deadlines. I suppose it’s become my style.
In fact you are journalist, not far from a press photographer?
DL: Sometimes I have to behave like a journalist when I run with one of my pictures or when I have to battle with my colleagues to get some information. On the other hand, when I have one hour of free time to paint I become an artist. But there is no contradiction. I feel I am a journalist that's all.
DL: Or moments of humanity. On the last day of the Yvan Colonna trial last June [Corsican nationalist convicted of assassinating Claude Erignac, préfet of Corsica, on February 1998] the gendarmes authorized him to take the hand of his pregnant wife. It was a ray of light at the end of a gloomy trial. I call it my 'stolen picture' because I had no idea he would agree to a media broadcasting of this moment.
Will you stop painting ever ?
DL: As a matter of fact, it is inevitable that courtroom video recordings will one day be available in France as a result of pressure from the media. French journalists always complain: "We don't have pictures". I'll be out of a job. It's a pity because it's a real passion of mine. Surprisingly, in the USA they are turning back time a bit. Journalists often say they'd rather have a painting than a video footage. Today I am working for Reuters press agency because they are on this wavelength.