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Essay: On Ronan Bouroullec's Spiritual Exercise and Board Sports

Martin Béthenod discusses the legendary artist and designer.

On the release of a new series of exclusive Ronan Bouroullec posters, we revisit the text Spiritual Exercise and Board Sports from Martin Béthenod (Managing Director for the Bourse de Commerce – Museum of the Pinault Collection). Ronan's drawings are meditative yet concrete, bold yet quiet. A fluid collage where drawing and design meet. Scroll on to read more and discover Ronan's Drawings poster series here.


"Unlike a sketch, indispensable tool in the designer’s creative process, Ronan Bouroullec’s drawings are defined by the rejection of concerns with a problem, criteria or results, by a refusal to engage with any definition of the work: it is drawing without design."

Nulla dies sine linea
. Like Appelles, the painter described by Pliny the Elder, Ronan Bouroullec does not let a day go by without spending time drawing. A series of exhibitions – in 2011 at Arc en Rêve in Bordeaux, in 2013 at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, as well as at the Kréo and Giorgio Mastinu galleries – and books – such as Drawings (JRP Ringier, 2013), and the eight artist zines published by Nieves – has begun, over the last 10 years, to reveal the scale, depth and complexity of the long-secret universe that we can today recognize as a vital aspect of his work.

But it is only the beginning, because this vast body – 200 to 300 drawings every year – remains largely unpublished. Since the 1990s the drawings have been collected in countless sketchbooks and portfolios, stored in chronological order, with the aim of conserving everything – or almost everything – without classifying by type, theme, format or technique. The editing process happens – if it needs to happen – later, as part of a reflection on their publication. This desire to suspend ideas of choice and intention, to relegate the drawings to a time entirely unconnected with the moment of their creation, is part of the rigorous protocol that presides over Ronan Bouroullec’s drawings. A protocol marked by the question of absence of premeditation.

The absence of premeditation means firstly that there is no specific place for drawing: in the train, at home, in a hotel room, around the house, anywhere except the studio. Nor is there any specific moment: on a trip, at night, during the frozen time of the 2020 lockdown, summers in Brittany – long consecrated exclusively to drawing and surfing, disciplines that bring together the same movements of liberty and fluidity, but also the same solitary dimension. And no specific materials: paper picked out of off-cuts from the printer next door, pens old or new, dry or faded, whatever comes to hand determining the colours of the drawing and the texture of its lines. No plan or initial idea: the form unfolds progressively through repeated gestures, starting at the centre of the sheet and building up adjacently. Unlike a sketch, indispensable tool in the designer’s creative process, Ronan Bouroullec’s drawings are defined by the rejection of concerns with a problem, criteria or results, by a refusal to engage with any definition of the work: it is drawing without design.

The asserted absence of intention renders questions of subject or aesthetic inspiration of little relevance, as the impression of a relationship with form, the apparition of a figure that might be anthropomorphic (a heart, a head), organic (wood, feathers) or architectonic (a platform, a barrier), cannot be anything other than a chance encounter. This ‘automatic’ dimension is not so much a surrealist logic embracing the unconscious, but rather something approaching meditation, or the martial arts with their Zen philosophy, whereby, in the words of Emmanuel Carrère, “it is not a question of accomplishing a performance, but of instigating something within oneself”. In drawing as in Tai-chi, the abolition of intention is linked to the regularity of the exercise and to the absolute focus on gesture: in Ronan Bouroullec’s case, his (left) hand resting lightly on the paper, the movement of his body around the page, the pulse of the line, the rhythm of the drawing in synchronicity with his breathing.

Drawing 14, Ronan Bouroullec, Oak Framed Poster

It is around this notion of synchronicity that the opposition between time for drawing and time for designing clearly establishes itself. The latter is distended, stretching over a very long period, from initial idea to delivery, with pauses, steps backwards, lost time. It is the time for projects, for socializing, negotium. In contrast, drawing time is linear, continuous, in synchrony with the time as it is experienced. It is marked by immediacy, by the accord between the gesture and its result. It is the time for self-awareness, for spiritual exercise, otium.

"Beyond any intention, satisfaction or finished result, the pleasure of gliding, more or less fluidly, more or less quickly, depending on the resistance of the paper and the viscosity of the ink. The pleasure of the slowness of a biro, of the speed of a felt-tip on coated paper, the liquid sensuality of watercolour pencils or brush pens."

But it is also a time for pleasure. Beyond any intention, satisfaction or finished result, the pleasure of gliding, more or less fluidly, more or less quickly, depending on the resistance of the paper and the viscosity of the ink. The pleasure of the slowness of a biro, of the speed of a felt-tip on coated paper, the liquid sensuality of watercolour pencils or brush pens. The pleasure of drawing evoked by Vasari about the young Michelangelo, who “spent as much time as he could [drawing] on the sly, which his elders scolded him for”. The pleasure in drawing, according to Jean-Luc Nancy’s formulation, whereby drawing is the place where, more than with any other artform, is found “the expression of the pleasure of wanting to give form and presence to that which goes beyond all presence and all form”.


Martin Béthenod is Managing Director of the Bourse de Commerce – museum of the Collection Pinault – Paris to open in 2019. He is also the CEO of Palazzo Grassi – Punta della Dogana (Venice), a position he has occupied since June 1, 2010. Bethenod previously worked in a number of roles in the worlds of art and culture. He began his career as project manager assisting the director of cultural affairs for the City of Paris (1993–96), going on to work as chief of staff for the president of the Centre Pompidou (1996–98) before creating and chairing the department of publications at the museum (1998–2001). He also worked at the French Ministry of Culture and Communication, as arts delegate (2003–04).

This text was first published on the occasion of the exhibition “Ronan Bouroullec, ceramics, drawings, bas-reliefs”, presented from April to June 2022 at the Giorgio Mastinu Gallery in Venice.

Installation photos by Delfino Sisto Legnani for Mutina.

Discover more of Ronan Bouroullec's work here.

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