Yahne Le Toumelin: painting the only light

- through Sophie Solere

Published on

“The joke of waking up in the light of the spirit is surely the best and the longest”, wrote Yahne Le Toumelin with humor in his collection of aphorisms. Light laughing from the sky. For the Buddhist nun and painter “with a thousand paintings at once”, who has traversed the entire history of modern art, this luminous “joke” has lasted 97 years!

Born July 27, 1923 in Paris, Yahne Le Toumelin grew up in Le Croisic, on the Atlantic coast. She is the daughter of a long-distance captain, a former Cape Horner and the sister of the famous navigator Jacques-Yves Le Toumelin. On a rock, the teenager listens to the surf of the ocean, reads the Gita ou Ramakrishna's life by Romain Rolland, dreams of going to India and Tibet: "I wrote 'T', my secret, in my school notebooks". His father promises to offer him this trip after obtaining his baccalaureate, but this plan will be delayed because of the war.

The call of the sea and of art

In 1940, the young girl entered the prestigious Académie de la Grande Chaumière, launched at the beginning of the XNUMXth century by Delacroix, Manet, Picasso, Cézanne... What inspires Yahne is light: "My first painting teacher offered me to take vitamins, because I could no longer see either the bodies or the forms”. She then joined the studio of André Lhote, one of the leaders of the cubist movement, whose works she admired. Landscape and figure treatises. In confidence, she began to paint freely. Lhote will display her first abstract paintings as an example: “Look how she telescopes the subjects. It is pure light”. The student flees the “growing nihilism of modern art” and, with her, her friend Henri Cartier-Bresson: “This cult of nothingness was not for us”.

Two years later, Yahne met the composer and spiritual teacher Georges Gurdjieff: “I was received in the dark, Gurdjieff turned his back on me grumbling and invited me to drink a coffee. He played me his curious button accordion, some nostalgic tunes. I cried and said "I'm in jail". He answered : “I love you for that sentence. Me take you on my shoulders”. The philosopher, "a sort of Socrates crossed with Diogenes", then 80 years old, became his guide. Yahne's quest is burning: “I suffer from having only physical sensations, I would like to be more spiritual”. Gurdjieff, whom she bombards with questions, baptizes her “Mademoiselle Pourquoiaaaa” (with her Caucasian accent!). In her entourage, she rubs shoulders with astonishing characters such as René Daumal, Luc Dietrich and Lanza Del Vasto.

In 1945, Yahne married Jean-François Ricard (his pen name: Jean-François Revel). From their union will be born Matthieu (in 1946) and Eve (in 1948), who will become a writer and speech therapist. A teacher of literature, her husband was appointed to Algeria and Mexico. In Mexico, she became friends with the English painter Leonora Carrington, who introduced her to Surrealism. Yahne is having a field day! On her return to Paris, she crossed paths with the poet André Breton. This one will exhibit his works in his gallery À L'Étoile sealed, in 1957, and devotes a chapter to him in his book Le Surréalisme et la peinture: of this essential truth: the success of a work depends on the inner state – assuming balance at the highest degree of tension towards wisdom – of the one who creates it”. The same year, a large exhibition of a hundred of his paintings took place at the Galerie d'Orsay, to which all the surrealists of the time came. Then, her complicity with the cantor of "Outrenoir", Pierre Soulages, and one of the fathers of Lyrical Abstraction, Georges Mathieu, made her change course: "I discovered the space of large canvases with an intoxication which foreshadowed my stages of spiritual liberation".

After his divorce in 1966, Yahne moved to Val d'Oise. Committed to the Nouvel Observateur, she wrote there, under the pseudonym of “Piéton de Paris”, a chronicle on art. In 1968, with about thirty student friends, she marched in the rue de Bourgogne brandishing a painting mounted as a banner entitled: “Long live the revolution of the heart! ". " For what ? ask the journalists. “To free the creative imagination,” she replies. It was a prosperous period: Yahne painted a lot, exhibited and even opened his own gallery, the Center d'Expression (1967), but it was far from fulfilled: "I suffered from not having met my master, from not not have been to Tibet".

Towards the shores of wisdom

This is the film by Arnaud Desjardins The message of the Tibetans (1966) which will ignite his destiny, and that of Matthieu: “Kangyour Rinpoche appeared there briefly. Matthieu had the intuition to have found his master and went like an arrow to Darjeeling. On his return to France, he showed us the photo of Kangyur Rinpoche, which had an irresistible radiance. That's when my life began." Yahne left in turn, in 1968, for the foothills of the Himalayas: “I felt that I had arrived at the port! ". She will stay with Kangyur Rinpoche for three months, staying first near the small two-room wooden cabin where he lives with his family. Then, she is invited to come and live with them: “Kangyour Rinpoche sat almost all day (and a good part of the night), meditating and reciting his prayers, leaning against a window (…) I was meditating in front of Rinpoche” . Shortly before her return to France, she went to Sikkim to renew her visa and meet the XVIth Karmapa. There, a decisive event occurs: “At dawn, a monk knocked on the door and said to me: “You will be ordained in an hour”. I was very surprised, but what to do? His Holiness Karmapa took me to his apartments where a thousand Buddhas were presented to me: "This is your family." This is how I returned to Paris with a shaved head, a Buddhist nun without knowing anything about Buddhism”. Yahne is given the name "Karma Dolma" - in Sanskrit "Dolma" means "Tara, the liberator." On her arrival in Paris, she sends a card to Kangyour Rinpoche: "You have transformed the lead I brought you into gold".

 “You turned the lead I brought you into gold.” Message from Yahne Le Toumelin to Kangyour Rinpoche

Yahne prepares to return to India for a second long trip. But an artistic "rendezvous" will upset his project. As she attends a screening of a film on Karmapa, in the company ofArnaud Desjardins and Taisen Deshimaru, she met Maurice Béjart. The dancer and choreographer will invite him to create the sets for his adaptation of Les Vainqueurs by Wagner, in which the hero, instead of dying to life, dies to the illusion of the world. This bias seduces the Buddhist nun! She accepts. "In three weeks, days and nights, on the floor of the Opera, I painted ten meters of ocean, boats and Taras and more than one hundred and eighty meters of forests". The show presented in Brussels on December 10, 1969 was a huge success.

She falls ill, and once back on her feet, flies to Darjeeling. Yahne Le Toumelin lived with Kangyour Rinpoche from 1969 to 1975. The teachings are transmitted in Tibetan, but whatever, what she receives from her master goes beyond language. His daily life is punctuated by prostrations, prayers, offerings or the making of a mandala. She admits to not always intellectually understanding what she is practicing, but in Tibetan Buddhism, the progression of the mind is compared to an ordinary log of wood that eventually takes on the scent of fragrant wood. “This is what we call “Guru Yoga”, explains Matthieu Ricard. Unite with the awakened nature of the master's mind. Every gesture, every word is a manifestation of his wisdom, his awakening and his compassion.

Kangyour Rinpoche died in 1975. Yahne returned to France and resumed painting: “Every morning, I got up with the motif of a paradise in mind, which I then painted during the day”. In 1979, she gave a "one woman's show" at the FIAC (International Contemporary Art Fair), an exhibition of thirty paintings on the subject of "dazzling paradise". The following year, a Retrospective Yahne Le Toumelin (1939-1979) was organized at the Maison de la Culture in Rennes.

It was in 1985 that she settled in her small hermitage, in the Dordogne, near a Buddhist monastery. In the morning, she goes to the Stupa to place offerings and prayers. She cooks for Tibetan masters. From friends or lamas, she learns her technique of painting, summed up in one question: "How to remove enough so that only one light remains?" Invited to schools, she has children paint large suns, and urges them to trust: "You will grow up, don't stay small inside".

Then, encouraged by another great Tibetan master established in the Dordogne, Dudjom Rinpoche, Yahne Le Toumelin made a contemplative retreat of three years, three months, three days, in the company of about twenty other practitioners, under the direction of Pema Wangyal Rinpoche, the eldest son of Kangyur Rinpoche. Speaking of the master-disciple relationship, the nun ironically says: “The master can pour his blessing into you on three conditions: 1-That the container is not returned. 2-That there are no holes. 3-That there are no poisons involved. When you find a well, if you are thirsty, you drink. You are not getting into well tourism! ".

In the 1980s and 1990s, Yahne Le Toumelin entered a new pictorial period, with her “portraits or mirrors of the void”: “A true magician, she wrote, the empty mirror bubbles with the energies of painting”. In 1999, at the Linden Museum in Stuttgart, she exhibited around twenty paintings with evocative names, "The Smile of Buddha", "Seraphic Moment", "Elevation", "Wonderment"... "In my youth, I painted in suffering, she confides. Now I feel the inner sun that naturally radiates.” For the writer Michel Random, “a painting by Yahne is called the happiness of living, of actually living all the beyonds that are within us”. This dazzling joy, Matthieu Ricard testifies to it in the beautiful book Lumière rire du ciel, published by La Martinière, in 2016: "What strikes me, in my mother, is that as her bodily envelope becomes more and more more frail (…), its interior light radiates more towards those which surround it”.

Today, when someone tells Yahne Le Toumelin that she is "bright", she turns gratefully to her master and replies: "It's because I have a good department manager!" ".

photo of author

Sophie Solere

Sophie Solère is an economic and social journalist who has been interested for years in the environment and interdependence. She works for Buddhist News, a media platform dedicated to Buddhist spirituality and wisdom. By practicing yoga and meditative dance, Sophie discovered the power of spiritual journeys, which offer so many paths to (re)find yourself. She is dedicated to sharing inspiring stories and valuable advice on spiritual practice and the environment with Buddhist News readers.

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