Friday, August 26, 2016

Grey Skies before the Sunshine...

Early morning fishing

Just back from Cornwall, where the weather was very variable, as is generally the case in coastal areas. I vowed to go out for mornings walks, whatever the conditions, from Penzance. This resolution proved a little difficult to carry out fully, as those conditions were quite challenging!

Mount's Bay
Reaching Mousehole was fairly easy, along those familar routes, with St Michael's Mount on the horizon, either streaked with sheets of rain, or highlighted by beams of light or else shrouded in or obscured by mist,

Newlyn harbour
I love passing the fleets of fishing boats at Newlyn, which look majestic in any conditions, and in fact look even more striking with a backcloth of extreme weather.

Cormorant at Newlyn
It took three attempts to finally get to Marazion! Determined drizzle and gusts of wiind somehow seem to be just as efficient at drenching you as heavy rain...

On the path from Penzance
One of the best aspects of the walk is the exchange of greetings (Mornin') with the people you encounter all along, not to mention the pleasure of seeing dogs running freely and rabbits darting off across the marshlands on the outskirts of Marazion.

And of course, the pleasure of walking on the pebbles, with their particular flinty crunch and slide, eyes ever on the look-out for the special one to retrieve and gloat over...

Seaholly en route to Longrock
And beyond the blocks of granite, The Mount. I really did want to capture it in the mist and rain, but the camera couldn't rise to the climatic challenge and nor could I.

The Mount
On leaving Cornwall, the temperature crept up and the heat on the London pavements made Penzance seem distant in every sense. Since then, back in France, 34° has become a constant, completing the cultural shock of returning to city life in another country. However, even as I write, I have this year's special pebble with me, its smooth shape fitting perfectly into the palm, speckled like some kind of granite seagull's egg. In this crazy, concrete sprawl of searing heat and soaring temperatures, this sleek piece of Cornwall is keeping me grounded. Its strange streak of black running throughout the stone underlines all its history and is a perfect foil to all the mad modernity of urban life, zooming past outside.

The 'one'.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Town Hall at Saint Quentin - Hôtel de Ville Saint Quentin

I recently heard of the beautiful Art Déco buildings in the town of Saint Quentin in the region Nord-Pas-de-Calais-Picardy, so was curious to see these.

 As it turned out, on the grey, overcast day that I visited, I didn't come across anything remarkable.

However, that may be because there are a number of very striking buildings and façades here in Reims so that has made me more difficult to impress.

Also, I might not have found the area where the best Art Déco examples actually were.

The weather did nothing to encourage any kind of wandering; quite the contrary. Nevertheless, the trip was certainly not wasted as I did see the magnificent Hôtel de Ville.

This town hall dates back to the 16th century, although prior to that, the site was occupied by another building of civic function, as aldermen gathered to discuss various affairs.

The current edifice was completed in 1509, and its flamboyant Gothic style dominates the work, whilst reflecting the transition towards the Renaissance.

 The whole is quite harmonious, with the façade divided by six octagonal pillars on the ground floor, creating seven arcades of unequal width. Above this, there is the 'noble' floor, with its nine window openings and finally the three gables that look over the town square.

While the overall effect is sober and elegant, on drawing nearer to the façade the visitor is amazed by the wealth of detail, and its very nature.

Perhaps the most surprising of all, is the mere fact that the hôtel has managed to survive the turbulent 500 years of its existence.

The bell tower that we see above the central gable today, is but one of a succession since the mid-17th century. It houses an impressive thirty-seven bells which mark a triumph over the destructive years of the First World War when the citizens left the occupied town and the bells fell silent.

Incredibly, most of the façade today is much as it was in its heyday - quite some feat. The fate of Saint Quentin during the Great War years was like that of other towns.

Many of the buildings surrounding the hôtel were flattened, hence the emergence of the Art Déco architecture to mark the rebirth of the city. The townhall itself suffered minimal damage.

This was not the first time that the saint-quentinais had undergone great hardship. The symbolic imagery of the dog and the monkey that decorates the hôtel testifies to the fidelity, tenacity and ingenuity of the town inhabitants.

In 1557, the advancing troups of the Spanish king, Philip II, fought to overpower Saint Quentin in their march towards Paris to triumph over Henry II. The people of Saint Quentin resisted valiantly and the ensuing siege meant that the Spanish lost valuable momentum in the battle strategy.

Saint Quentin made huge sacrifices, but in so doing, it saved France from greater losses still. Inside the arcade of the hôtel de ville, a marble plaque bearing a Latin inscription immortalizes the bravery of Saint Quentin.

The devastation at Saint Quentin left its mark on Philip II himself and he decided to construct an expiatory monument; the Royal Site of San Lorenzo de El Escorial,near Madrid...

I just loved looking at all the details of the façade - to the point that I literally had pains in my neck from all the contortions.

Since the sculpture is not specifically religious, the works have not suffered the same fate as the many that had adorned places of worship, with decapitated and truncated bodies that mark the Revolutionary years from 1789 onwards.

Here, the bawdy tone of some of the sculpted works seems to celebrate the foibles of Man and Beast and bears a general fascination for life, that even encompasses its lewdness and lasciviousness.

Musicians lean over to welcome you along the arcades, whilst more sober characters carry out their serious civic functions and administrative tasks to maintain order amongst the somewhat mischievious town-dwellers.

Various creatures inhabit the creeping, crawling foliage around the façade and either look down at you in mocking defiance or seem to ignore you and any restrictions you might wish to lay down.

The vitality of the façade just seems to bridge the centuries that separate us today and all those who must have acted as models for the sculptors, acting out all those weakenesses that make us so human...

Saturday, July 30, 2016

A bit of Serenity...

Church at Ville-Dommange, near Reims
Between sessions of (unsuccessfully) trying to get to grips with the theoretical aspects of driving, I've been watching the 2007 series The Tudors. Watching this dramatisation of the tyrannical ravings and ravaging of Henry VIII towards anything and anyone who thwarted his rather flexible personal agenda was both fascinating and horrific. Simply from an architectural/aesthetic point of view, his determination to disband the monasteries, convents, friaries and priories was fearful and the result one of wanton destruction.

I've also had the chance to visit a few towns and cities here recently, all with their own cathedrals and churches, and each with their own history. Again, the havoc wreaked by war and Revolution is shocking and you can't help wondering what the landscape would be like today if the past had not been so punctuated by political, social and cultural reactions and counter-reactions, each leaving its own mark.
Right, back to that highway code. Driving.... Hmm. It's driving me MAD and I end up ranting at the computer screen in frustration. Not one little bit of serenity or smoothness in this particular learning curve!!!

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Stencils in the Street - C215 in Reims

I enjoy looking at/out for some of the new 'tags' that appear on the city walls, spaces and street furniture from time to time. Some of them really are striking in their content and colour and truly liven up the dullest concrete landscape. The one above caught my eye a little while ago, and I then noticed similar tags, in the same vein, with a piercing regard and expressive line work.

Since April, an exhibition has been held in the old cellars of the Jaquart champagne house - Le Cellier - and only when I visited it last week did I realise that the work on show was by the same artist.

Contrary to what I had assumed, 'C215'(alias Christian Guémy) may well be French, but he is not a rémois street artist, nor is his art limited to the urban landscapes of Reims, or indeed France.

In fact, born in Bondy, a banlieue of Paris, in 1973, C215 produces his stencilled pieces all around world and will surely soon have the same kind of renown as Banksy...

What I like about this particular artist is that he brings to life, or rather gives another facette to, the lives of inanimate, unloved and unlovable street surfaces and objects that are part of our daily lives, yet we pay little attention to them.

Many of the objects that have been the object of his attention are, in fact, rather mysterious to the public, myself included. Above is Joan of Arc on a La Poste 'container', here in Rue Libergier, along which Joan indeed led Charles VII for coronation in the cathedral in 1429.

La Poste seems to offer the ideal support to the art, but this is more than just from a practical point of view.

The very notion of the postal service, with its associations of travel, exchange, change and communication, seems to suit this artistic vision.

C215 has certainly left his mark on La Poste objects in Reims, but these themselves fit into an image of art as part of the flux and fluidity of the street - transformative and interactive.

These marks are not indelible, or immutable; they will change, by the movement, conditions and life of the street, just as they have altered its initial face, or surface.

Each support chosen bears the traces of all aspects of its previous lives and uses and hints to the metamorphoses to come.

A 'blank-canvas' surface would be contrary to the living, transformational element of street art, born in the street and of the street. This is art in contextual space not a sterile, conceptual work.

As C215 points out, the city led its own existence before his art and his role is to add to this existence, completing it. This sensitivity to the past must stem in part from the study of Art History, and work as an historian for the Compagnons du Devoir, yet C215 has dabbled in many areas.

The stencil work he has developed over the past decade is an art of alteration that is in "perpetual evolution" which highlights the traces of human activity and change and is, in turn, marked by these too. 

Exhibition - not apparent here, but the box is HUGE!
I think les graffeurs have a certain code of honour, and would not work over pieces such as C215's, but should that happen, it would be in the natural order of street life. C215 claims that for him, the contemporary visual artist Ernest Pignon-Ernest was the first "street artist français".


Time will work away at the stencils; weather conditions will flake the paintwork, the supports will themselves age with the emergence of cracks, chips and caked-up rust.

And yet in this unique vision such alterations will simply add to their art, not necessarily take away from their vitality or beauty.

La Poste has unwittingly provided C215 with ample ground to spread and share his art, and mark inhuman urban wastelands with his humanity and stamp them with that unmistakable logo. 


However, as the Le Cellier exhibition demonstrates, any 'civilized' surface offers potential...

These go from the more obvious walls...

Around barb-wired prison areas...

Or in common cityscape spaces...

Doors and gates...


To wartime obuses....

Or worn cardboard suitcases, a weathered flying jacket, well-used scientific paraphernalia that reflect revolutionary discoveries such as radiation. The latter were part of a commission carried out for the Commissariat à l’Energie Atomique to order to attract a younger public to the world of science. 

Radiation gloves - Commissariat à l’Energie Atomique 
To more basic functions...

Wall maps, charts and tables...

And travel routes...

In this manner, his art re-appropriates urban zones that seem inhospitable, injecting them with a poetic beauty that allows us to feel part of these expanses of concrete and metal, enabling us to reconnect with them and find ourselves in that process.

The stencilled work of C215 largely started after the birth of his daughter. He set about creating a visual expression of his love around the unappealing streets of Vitry and further used it to build a bridge of communication when others were insufficient.

Work commissioned by Ubisoft to be incorporated into a video game...
But this art seems to come from a rough, tested support itself. Just as the stencils rely on the essence of the subject, be that man or beast, and use the base as an integral part of the creative process, the art of C215 seems to arise from a depth of emotion and a drive that goes beyond aesthetic endeavour.

For Ubisoft...
He may give life to art, but art has given him life, or a way to cope with life, maybe.

For Ubisoft.
The exhibition led to reflection on several different issues....Never before have we had such ease of communication, but the means to do so are changing the way that we exchange..

Just as the handwritten letter has been fallen out of favour, in the pursuit of speed and efficiency, the public phone box and the cord phone are fading away from sight in high street and home, respectively.

The letter boxes at the exhibition reminded me of just how much has changed in our private and public lives over the past two decades. This is most noticeable in our notion of spreading and sharing information and art...

Reims - along with one of the hideous 'Cone' tags that are everywhere here. Was it there before or after C215?
And then, of course, we are brought to the age-old subject of what can be considered artistic and aesthetic...

What I appreciated the most in these works, is that beauty is not vitally linked to the smooth, the flawless and eternally young, in an era when these are generally deemed essential.

The essential in stencilled work is precisely the etched lines and broad traits of the face that give character and expression in an unique manner.

The stark, linear quality of the stencilled work gives a strange, fluidity of expression and depth that are denied many photos or full paintings today. This is a type of art that adds the least in terms of detail, and yet seems to create the most in terms of rich effect.

Of course, the 'young and fresh' has its virtues, but the art of C215 shows that all that reflects the temporal and life itself, is part of life's vitality, not the reflection of its decline. This is not Botox art - quite the contrary.

There is also the argument about how far the production of street art can be seen to be a deviation from the norms of civil propriety. Is this the misappropriation and/or the wanton defacement of public property?

To a degree, opinions are divided on the subject of street art, but the workof C215 should be seen as a social expression and civilised/civilising gesture in society. It invites the spectator to reflect and respond, socially and aesthetically.

Above all else, this art clothes the grey, drab anonymity of our urban landscapes in a cloak of colour and stimuli.

A judge in Spain came to the wise decision concerning C215's alleged defacement of the streets of Barcelona; such art cannot damage or deface something that is visually displeasing by nature or has already been rendered unaesthetic. This art surely embellishes and enriches... 

In Reims, it would seem that certain minds are still famously indecisive on this issue. While the city commissioned work from C215 and held the Le Cellier exhibition, the hygiene services were uninformed and merrily proceeded to remove the offending graffiti!

Reims - Not C215
Needless to say, I just love the C215 cats!