Robert Combas – ascension of one of France’s enfant terrible painters


A leading light of the French ‘Figuration libre’ movement, Robert Combas began his artistic adventure in the Mediterranean coastal town of Sète in the 1970s. Forty years later, his latest auction record has confirmed him as one of the primary representatives of French painting on the Contemporary Art Market.

Born in Lyon in 1957, Robert COMBAS began his highly colorful career in the southern French town of Sète, which spawned Figuration Libre, inspired by an anarchic cocktail of rock music and punk counterculture. Another highly respected French artist, Ben, first coined the term Figuration Libre (Free figuration) in 1981 when he described the movement in an interview as a cocktail of 30% anti-culture provocation, 30% free figuration, 30% art brut, and 10% madness… generating something altogether new1. Its four principal artists – Rémi Blanchard, François Boisrond, Robert Combas and Hervé Di Rosa – began using an uninhibited form of figurative representation inspired by rock culture and popular imagery, and they gained international recognition via exhibitions in Germany, Italy and Holland

A singular artist

Although key to Figuration Libre, Robert Combas is also a very singular artist whose work has always aroused passionate discussion. His jubilant paintings represent something of a UFO for the art world, drawing from sources as diverse as rock, pornography, comics, as well as Biblical and/or ‘art historical’ myths and legends. Combas’s imagination finds inspiration almost anywhere and he expresses himself in a wide variety of media and techniques: paintings, clothes, sheets, brushes, ceramics, flea market drawings… practically everything he sees ends up being recreated or triggering a creative response.

Very popular in France since the 1980s, Robert Combas is not only the most famous of the Figuration Libre artists, he is also France’s second most successful living artist after Pierre Soulages, thanks to an extremely dynamic market that has already generated more than 5,000 auction results

2017-2019 … record years

The value of Robert Combas paintings has risen 72% over the past two years. Today, his large acrylics, especially those painted in the late 1980s, regularly fetch over $100,000 at auction. His most recent auction results suggest a very rapid increase in his prices, with repercussions as far away as Asia.

In June 2017, the Chinese auction house Ravenel set a new auction record for Combas by selling his Le Roi Soleil (1987) for $214,500 in Taiwan proving that the artist is beginning to be appreciated in Asia. The following year – on 4 April 2018 – in Paris, La Prize de la Bastille (c.1989) and The Brawl of Zozo (1986) were acquired for $220,000 each.

In 2018, no less than 184 Combas works changed hands generating a total of $4.75 million, a remarkable annual record for the French artist. Indeed, his market is dense with more than forty years of artistic creation being traded on the secondary market, from his first paintings the year he graduated from the Saint-Etienne School of Fine Arts (1979), up to his most recent works. However, demand is strongest for the paintings he made between 1985 and 1995. Encouraged by the price inflation, more and more collectors are selling works they have sometimes kept for over twenty years, creating a kind of virtuous circle for the artist’s market as the release of major pieces generates additional visibility

A record at $303,700

Combas’s current auction record was hammered last April at Cornette de Saint-Cyr in Paris for a 3-metre canvas entitled Hecatombe (1992). A very dense and busy work, it attracted intense bidding, starting from a low estimate equivalent to $101,000.

This result proves that Robert Combas is indeed a favorite among French collectors, for whom he embodies an early manifestation of a veritable renewal of painting that began in the 1980s. Several collectors in the United States and Asia are also closely interested in his work, but the artist’s work is still very rare in foreign auction houses (since early 2018, 87% of his auction turnover has been hammered in France). Nevertheless… Combas is enjoying a superb price ascent. His overall price index is up a 513% since 2000 and the French artist now has a good position in our Top 500 Contemporary Artists (global ranking by auction turnover), in 50th place ahead of David Salle and Tony Cragg.

1 Interview of Ben by Jim Palette for the newspaper Libération, 29 September 1981.