Tuesday, June 30, 2020

From Douanier Rousseau to Séraphine; Flora and Fauna...


Before the heavy, grey mist of lockdown descended in early March, I was lifted into a universe of light, bright colour ; the exhibition From Douanier Rousseau to Séraphine at the Musée Maillol in Paris. Brought together for this experience of a world parallel were the paintings of the artists collectively referred to as ‘modern primitives’ or les NaïfsKey to the exhibition was the art of le Douanier-Rousseau and one of his jungle scenes figures on the poster, already setting the tone. His name alone is familiar to us today – curiously synonymous with the exotic, painted in a bold, direct manner. The glaring, bestial eyes that peer out from luxuriant yet oddly flattened undergrowth, with their expressive yet undefinable gaze no longer have the shock of the new, but still mesmerize us, drawing us in, with the same power as William Blake’s poem The Tyger. Here, however, were the exhibits of other Naïve artists, assembled as a stunning whole, largely from the collection of Dina Vierny (1919-2009) - creator of the Musée Maillol - Fondation Maillol – and private collections. 
Rousseau - Détail Deux lions à l’affût dans la jungle - 1909
Overlooked for many decades, the unique artistic vision and productivity of these other grands maîtres naïfs is brought to our attention. These were artists living some hundred years ago in unprecedented times and often extreme circumstances, and their lives fascinate us today. Séraphine de Senlis (1864–1942) is a case in point. Dazzling portraits of flowers, fruit and foliage burst out from the canvas, all born from the humble hand of this recluse whose existence was one of drudgery and ended in the confines of a lunatic asylum. Yet her vision soared high and free and found expression in a form of art unlike any other. Over the last decade, Séraphine has risen out of oblivion, largely thanks to the 2008 film, Séraphine, and the display of her art in Musée Maillol and in her home town, Senlis, where I first saw her paintings. With this latest exhibition, at the Maillol, other great artists are now able to shine out, their art illuminating the rooms on a dull winter’s day ; André Bauchant, Camille Bombois, Ferdinand Desnos, Dominique Peyronner, Louis Vivin, Jean eve and René Rimbert. I definitely had a weak spot for Bauchant’s myriads of beautiful flowers and jewel-like birds !
Séraphine - Pomme aux Feuilles - 1928-1930.
The work of these modern primitives is displayed as a retrospective whole ; all is different, yet characteristics overlap. Dizzying colour arrangements abound – either subtle, monochromatic tones, or bright, blazing colours ; odd perspectives puzzle us whilst unsettling content focus troubles our assumptions ; a wide range of theme and subject matter nevertheless lead us to a shared response of questioning. As the references we expect to find are absent, or are used in a seemingly non-sensical manner, we wonder what the artist is driving at. Is there a message to be read ? If so, how do we interpret it ? Or are we quite literally been led up the garden path – as in the case of Bauchant’s work ? Are we permitted to just enjoy art, without finding a meaning ?
Séraphine - Pomme aux Feuilles - 1928-1930.
In fact, we are fascinated by an artistic approach that is not part of an acknowledged school. These artists brought together here for our benefit were not actually affliated to some established movement at a set moment in time. Rousseau may have been considered lynchpin to this naïve artistic style, inspiring many over the decades, yet he was not necessarily a recognized catalystic inspiration for all the artists featured in the exhibition. 
We might now identify common traits and shared elements in the art displayed, but the individuals themselves did not openly exchange ideas and aspirations in their lifetime. Each worked in isolation, having their own personal agenda which was in turn affected by their own specific circumstances – both material and private. Many of them were self-taught, coming to art at a later stage in life, having no artistic background or formal training and certainly did not refer to themselves using the naïve label. The absence of inflated theories and set terminology adds to the strange charm operated by this unique artistic style and merits the play on words used to describe its creators ; des génies ingénus.
Rousseau 
Gauguin described the primitive as being ‘the milk of sustenance’ for art. Without a reliance on the academic, the paintings of the modern primitive artists were not weighed down by strict, normalising codes in terms of content or technique and could grow unfettered. From such freedom rose a certain legerity ; modern primitive art flows towards other spaces, places and values. The artists’ vision of the world around them is reflected in a figurative manner ; it is representational, not realist or symbolist. Furthermore, the customary references that prop up our typical experience and understanding of a piece of art become mere visual props, providing no real guide as to how we should actually read the work. Unsurprisingly, an anthropocentric world view is largely absent here. Equal importance is placed on inanimate objects , static urban scenes, the natural world and the animal kingdom. 
André Bauchant - Oiseaux Exotiques - 1947
In the realm of Naïve art, Man does not necessarily reign absolute. As a result, the key actors in the various settings are not pinned down by meaning and we too are liberated from it. We instinctively understand that this apparent ‘artistic anarchy’ does not hide some heavy message or secret agenda. There are none. Just as the artists, we too enter a naîve world of simple observation and appreciation. We may not know where the objective ends and the subjective starts in this imaginary, dream-like world that resembles our own, but we can simply enjoy our experience of it. Without needing to justify ourselves, or act as responsible adults we are likewise free to meander, child-like, from A to Z in a naïve aesthetic. In 1891, the artist Félix Vallotton drew attention to this very quality in Rousseau’s work; a juvenile self-sufficiency. He went on to  declare that Rousseau’s Surpris ! (1891) was ‘the alpha and omega' of painting. 
André Bauchant - Ours dans la Forêt - 1925
Just as some of the paintings are lifted by an almost spiritual quality, the devotion of these artists to their art transcended the constraining practicalities of life. And yet he majority of the primitifs modernes did not come from privileged backgrounds – far from it - and had to work hard all their lives. Frequently beset by financial concerns, they were only able to paint at night, on Sundays or later in life on retirement. Often, they barely managed to make ends meet and had to make personal sacrifices and/or impose these on their families. It is difficult to know how far the different milieux and life experiences formed and forged the art of these artists and vice versa, but these individuals frequently followed a trajectory peppered with events that would be deemed ‘colourful’ by anyone’s standards. 
André Bauchant -
Traits of quirkiness, blatant eccentricity, or plain insanity often governed the artists’ lives. These implacable artistic impluses led them to create their art regardless of their situation in life – to remarkable ends. Like the incomparable home of Picassiette or the Facteur Cheval’s ‘ideal palace’, their artistic careers were constructed piece by piece, built up stone by stone. 
Rousseau never failed to believe in his own legend, despite the indifference or scorn that his work actually inspired in the art world for most of his life. His stubborn view of his own worth and capacity developed undaunted, as did his devotion to his art, even when he had to resort to busking as a violinist to survive. His mythomaniac proclamations merely added to his reputation as ‘un original’, both endearing and well-meaning.
André Bauchant - Tigres - 1925
His few, fervent supporters from the art world even perpetuated the myth – notably the poet Apollinaire who had been captivated by the work, Le Rêve (1910). This avant-garde talent was finally recognized by the German art collector, Wilhelm Uhde, in 1907, and likewise drew the attention of Picasso who acquired several of his works. Nevertheless, Rousseau’s real success was to be posthumous. Whilst Uhde and Apollinaire were obliged to organise an auction of Rousseau’s art to pay for funeral costs on his death in 1910, within several decades, the price of his pieces had exploded. The fact that Rousseau never actually ventured onto the exotic soils of distant Mexico now seems irrelevant and makes of him an even greater figure that, like his art, defies categorisation. 
André Bauchant - Self-portrait - 1938
In André Bauchant (1973-1958), the art collector Uhde identified an artist with ‘le cœur sacré’ ; a pure and pious heart like Séraphine. His profilic creativity that had started during his involvement in the First World War led to work covering numerous themes. Most of his compositions, however, present intricate static scenes that use strange perspective which lead to a unique enigmatic mood, close to the mystical. For Uhde, Bauchant’s art bore the primitive simplicity of the Middle Age artists, and was reminiscent of quattrocento frescoes and in particular the work of Giotto. He was one the first painters in this style to be noticed by Dina Vierny and she supported his work over the years, exhibiting it in the inauguration of the Musée Maillol – Foundation Dina Vierny in 1995.
Originally a gardener/ horticulturist, he turned to art in his late forties and vibrant, jewel-like studies of flowers frequently feature in his work – especially dahlias. His beautiful bird portraits create the same calm quality as in his other pieces, with ‘frozen’ feathered forms floating on the foliage. Many of these were apparently inspired and copied from stuffed birds in a nearby aviary. Like many of the other Naïfs, he would use sources where he could find them, thus gaining access to the most exotic realms from the most humdrum. 
In the 1920s, Bauchant worked in collaboration with the Delamain brothers for the publishing house Editions Stock, with a project to illustrate a book on ornithology. Although this was never actually realised, the studies were exhibited by Jeanne Bucher, the art gallerist who had already held exhibitions of his work in the late 1920s. This connection enabled Uhde to make his discovery of this unique ‘jardinier-peintre’ and brought the artist to public attention.
André Bauchant 
The architect Le Corbusier went on to become a collector of Bauchant’s art whilst Diaghilev commisioned works for his ballet stage sets. Unlike Rousseau, Bauchant indeed gained notable recognition and acclaim during his lifetime, in spite of living a largely isolated life. Discovering that the war years had led to his wife’s insanity, he set up home in an old mill in the middle of woods in the Indre-et-Loire region and devoted himself to his painting. Surrounded by nature, his artistic career seemed to flourish just as the plants that he had tended from his early years, and just as the flowers he painted, his life was pervaded by a mystical air.

 Ferdinand Desnos - Sangliers au Clair de Lune
Ferdinand Desnos (1901-1958) was likewise drawn to a strange ‘otherness’ and a similar overriding need to follow his artistic instinct, despite all the obstacles that poor health, poverty and relative obscurity lay before him. Like Séraphine, he was one of the most spiritual primitive artists. His work evokes what is hidden behind the visible and shifts the hierarchy of content to enigmatic effect.
Ferdinand Desnos - Portrait Paul Léautaud et Chats - 1953
A love of nature and animals is evident, however, and infuses everything. His portrait of Paul Léautaud and his cats 1953 focuses our attention on the antics of the rather sketchy felines that stare out at us blankly, as does a monkey ! So too in his self-portrait, where the artist does not truly reign centre stage, although I would conclude that here was a man who certainly knew a thing or two about cats. Rousseau likewise gave as much detail and importance to the odd-looking domestic (sour) puss at the feet of the protagonist in his Portrait of Madame M (1890). 
Rousseau - Chat sur Coussin - 1890
In fact, before turning to the drama of exotic beasts in jungles real and imagined at the turn of the century, Rousseau seems to have painted a number of curious pets – from rather lumpen hounds and somewhat mishapen moggies. Nevertheless, It is the creatures depicted in Louis Vivin’s paintings which take animal portraiture onto another level entirely, with a naive approach that attracted Uhde from the outset. 
Louis Vivin - La chasse aux Sangliers - 1926 
Sadly, neither these nor the cityscapes, painted from all manner of supports brought him success, either then or in the ensuing decades. His devotion to his art had been total, all the more remarkable since he had no formal training as such, had never been to an exhibition nor had he ever read any art criticism. It was in the last years before his dealth that he finally become known at the art market (foire aux croûtes) at Montmartre. 
Camille Bombois - Nature morte au Homard - 1932
Animals and flowers also feature in the large repertoire of themes covered by the ‘gentle giant’, Camille Bombois (1883-1970). He followed a different approach to the others, however. Whilst Rousseau was attracted to the somewhat surreal, Bombois favoured everyday scenes. He had worked as a farm labourer before joining the circus as a strong man and then being mobilized in the First World War. He was the only modern primitive to paint nudes, and each portrayal of ‘flesh’ creates a strange atmosphere.
Camille Bombois - Fillette à la Poupée - 1925
The well-built, young girl carressing the odd-looking doll whilst disproportionate cats watch on reminded me of the edginess in Balthus’ work. His use of dense black as a colour, next to red and green, produces a striking effect – rather as in Manet’s work - and I loved the delicate poppies by the robust female form in Nu de Face (1935). Such contrasts seem to reflect and run through the artist’s life too, the powerful man who would execute flower paintings with grace, or paint still lives of such intense, blinding colour that they are almost animate. 
Camille Bombois - Nu de Face - 1935
The exhibition was a feast for the senses in every sense. The weird simplicity of the pieces was invigorating and uplifting. While you initially wonder if these Naïve works really are as simple as they appear to be, you ultimately learn to experience them as you wish to. In response to the remark that ‘anyone’ could paint like this, it is worth remembering that few people actually do, to such natural effect. You cannot force freedom and few of us are able to let go spontaneously, but this exhibition helps to liberate us. 

Camille Bombois - Gerbe de Fleurs -  1932

Thursday, June 4, 2020

Dance, dance, dance... Poppies and Cornflowers...

Poppies and Cornflowers
Over lockdown, this poster below graced an ugly, non-descript electrical enclosure in the town centre and seemed to bear some beautiful yet cautionary message.
Had the music just come to an end? Were we simply left to take stock of the silence, since we had taken all for granted beforehand? Or was this a warning too late, to make the most of everything we have, and not simply to be deaf to all but the noise of materialist gain?
Perhaps it was a combination of all these things.
In fact, it was a quote from the Japanese writer Haruki Murakami, and is taken from the novel Dance, dance, dance, written some 30 years ago. I haven't read this particular book - I loved South of the Border, West of the Sun - but some of its other quotes seem eerily relevant, given the current context.
Advanced capitalism has transcended itself. Not to overstate things, financial dealings have practically become a religious activity. The new mysticism. People worship capital, adore its aura, genuflect before Porsches and Tokyo land values. Worshiping everything their shiny Porsches symbolize. It's the only stuff of myth that's left in the world.    Haruki Murakami
How do we surmount what is seemingly unsurmountable?
We have to make the most of what we have around us - open our eyes beyond ourselves and our lifestyle choices - and dance.
                                              Just don’t let your feet stop.    Haruki Murakami
Life is a lot more fragile than we think. So you should treat others in a way that leaves no regrets. Fairly, and if possible, sincerely.    Haruki Murakami,

Tuesday, June 2, 2020

Sleep-walking along the Waterways... Un Somnambule à Reims...


The world as we know it was put on hold during lockdown, inactive and unproductive, while we held our breath, bracing ourselves, watching on from behind our windows and screens or from the front line, for every fluctuation in the normality of our lives. But outside, in the natural world, life went on as normal; business as usual. Whilst our lives were pared and scaled down to what was deemed essential, Nature flourished regardless, in its glorious fullness, no longer held back by human endeavours.


Now, however, our housebound status - weighed down by teleworking for those fortunate enough to salvage their jobs - has been slipping away like a heavy, dull load, as we venture out into the airy brightness of a spectacularly pretty Spring.


Blinking, we emerge from the confines - the shade and shelter of our domestic spaces - instinctively walking out towards the light, drawn like moths to all that we consider to be Normal. I can't help but think that much of what we hold to be normal has led us into this unprecedented situation, and that we have simply been sleep-walking in our lives, failing to see our the faults in the system and the errors of our lifestyle choices. Like moths, we have burnt our wings and I just hope that this whole affair will enable us to reconsider, to flex our wings.


Along the canal parallel to the city centre are some of the latest Levalet works, presumably post-lockdown. These seemed particularly appropriate.


The sleep-walker - le somnambule - is a recurrent theme in Levalet's form of street art which brings an ephemeral new vision to the urban walls, doors, gates, bridges and subways that are an integral part of our civilised spaces us and yet typically go unnoticed. We tend to walk on by, oblivious, focusing on some journey, but not even sure of the destination or indeed the need to go there.


These true scale, Indian ink posters are stuck in their carefully-selected sites and so remain in place until the elements finally wear them away but hopefully not before they have made passers-by ponder over this fictive reality that reflects all around us and ultimately our role therein.


During this extended period of reflection, we have all expressed intentions to make changes in our lives, and perhaps considered the consequences these may have on the world around us. I now wonder how these will translate into concrete acts. We can no longer sleep-walk; our eyes have been opened, even if but fleetingly. Mine included...

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Grand Gateways - ¨Porte de Mars

During lockdown, venturing down the newly-barren streets, I wondered about the vagaries and vicissitudes that have left their mark on this particular part of town, in this specific city. Reims today is principally known for its cathedral and prestigious champagne houses – these certainly draw in millions of visitors each year, until now, of course.
Knowledge of the city generally tends to be somewhat sketchy, however, beyond a few keys dates and events. The coronation of the kings of France, including the march of Joan of Arc and Charles VII to the city in 1429 and the destruction of the cathedral during WWI are familar to most, but in fact the historical importance of Reims goes far beyond. 
During the Gallo-Roman era, Durocortorum, as it was then known, was the capital of Gallia Belgica, the second largest city after Rome itself and the last civilized city of the north. Mention is made by Pliny of the ‘federal Remi’ amongst other Gallic nations, thus highlighting its alliance (foedus) to the Romans and notable legal status. The 18th century historian and travel writer Thomas Nugent refers to Civitas Rhemorum in his travelogue, The Grand Tour (1749).
Vestiges of ancient Roman edifices and artifacts are still visible in modern-day Reims today and my years in the city have often been traced out by proximity to these. The most famous of these ancient sites - La Porte de Mars - dates back to the 3rd century AD and is indeed at the end of my street, no less. 
As confinement rules only allowed for exercise within a kilometre radius, with parks and grounds closed, the Porte was an obvious focal point, all the more so as it has recently been revealed to the public after years of renovation work.
Since 2015, its massive form had been covered up for conservation purposes, emerging in 2019 from its cocoon lattice of tarpaulins and boards on Les Hautes Promenades like a giant, squat pupa, surrounded by a newly-planted array of meadow-themed plants and shrubs. 
The past importance of Reims is highlighted by the fact that La Porte de Mars – some 33 metres in length - is the widest arch of the Roman world. It was one of four built at each cardinal point of the city limits of Reims.
These arches punctuated the cardo or 'heart' in Roman urban planning that covered an oval-shaped area and led onto the different Roman roads. Porte de Mars was at the northern entrance of the cardo maximus - the main or central north–south-oriented street - with La Porte Bazée (Porte de Bacchus) at the other end, at the southern point. 
Perpendicular to the cardo maximus, lay the decumanus major – the east-west access – with La Porte de Vénus and La Porte de Cérès ; both were destroyed in 1755 and 1798 respectively. The two axes intersected at the Place Royale of the city. Contrary to common opinion, none of these imposing edifices were triumphal arches (reserved to Rome) but entrance monuments of monumental proportions !
Evidence of the heavy passage of carts, chariots and carriages is visible today in the ruts worn into the stone slabs at the base of the central archway. Porte de Mars was named after the god of war, in reference to a nearby temple dedicated to Mars but was built in honour of Augustus at the end of the 2nd century, when the city began to thrive under a period of peace ; pax romana.
The journey over the centuries to the present day has, of course, been far from peaceful, as one would expect over a one-thousand – seven – hundred-year time span ! The Porte de Mars has not only witnessed the numerous upheavals that the city has undergone, it has been the object of momentous change too. Strangely enough, its survival today is largely down to the most extreme of these.
As I was looking at it during lockdown, I thought about the stories it could tell about life in the city from the time of its construction. As you look at the carved stonework, you wonder about the lives of those who carried out this work ; who these individuals were, what their experiences and aspirations were… 
What could be learnt from the countless others who have encountered this imposing monument over the vast expanse of time? As we live through unprecedented times right now, I wonder how past generations survived periods of great hardship, navigating the unchartered terrorities that they too were exposed to ? 
We all believe ourselves to be so unique, with an existence that is incomparable to those of the beings around us, let alone those of our ancestors, but the sheer age and size of such an edifice puts a different perspective on this. Our time here is in fact so short and perhaps even insignificant, even though modern existence largely glosses over this and is geared towards a 21st century decadent take of carpe diem as opposed to a dour memento mori acknowledgement of life. The ability of COVID-19 to take lives and above all, to sweep our modern-day sense of security and our notion of individuality seems to a be a blunt reminder that no civilisation is immune to the unsentimental force of Nature, and never has been. 
Even during the darkest hours of the current crisis, it seemed as if the spring sun was at its brightest and most persistent. Squinting up at the arch, against the glare of daylight and the dazzling blue sky, I tried to travel in time ; anything to get away from the present-day reality of relentless télétravail. Even in the early evening this was no mean feat; the sunlight was softer, but looking up without getting a crick in the neck was harder. 
Of the original sculpted decoration of the arch, much has been lost and that which remains is severely damaged. The pillar of the last archway - facing outwards towards le faubourg de Laon - initially appears to be relatively well conserved but is in fact the result of restoration work. Nevertheless the fragments of fluted Corinthian columns give us some indication as to the appearance of the whole. Our understanding of the rest of the decor depends largely on the architectural studies and drawings from the 19th century.
The vaulted forms of the inside curve of the arches – the intrados -represent Gallic harvest scenes, set out in medallions over the calendar months, yet only a few details can be clearly indentified today. The remains of other medallions illustrate scenes and symbols from ancient mythology ; the Roman wolf feeding Romulus and Remus, Leda with Zeus turning into a swan, and repeated swastika patterns symbolizing the lightning bolts of the king of the gods.
All four great arches of Reims survived the subsequent invasions of pillaging Vandals and Huns during the Late Roman Empire. Nevertheless, the need for fortification meant that they were incorporated into the city ramparts and employed as gateways in the 4th century. The arches even survived the conversion to the Christian faith when Clovis became the first Catholic royal of the Occident in 498. However the Porte de Mars was later to be walled into the vast fortified Medieval archbishops' château of 1228.
No trace remains of the château today – except for the Roman arch itself - as the building was destroyed at the very end of the 16th century on the order of Henri IV. The top part of Porte de Mars was later unearthed in 1677, finally revealed in its entirety in 1816 and freed from the ramparts decades later. Despite surviving a somewhat perillous path over time, its future was still not secured when it finally re-emerged from its earthen cache. Concerns linked to urban planning and financial considerations, no doubt, meant that the Porte de Mars was seen as a cumbersome vestige of the past by certain council dignataries who had the power to decide on its fate. Without the intervention of the novelist Prosper Mérimée – the author of Carmen – who was actively involved in the conservation of historical architecture, Porte de Mars might have been lost forever. It was listed as a classified historical monument and under the rémois architect Narcisse Brunette, restoration work was undertaken. 
Amazingly, the monument came through the years of the First World War with little damage - miraculous given the extent of the destruction of the city as the ‘martyr of the French nation’. It even emerged unscathed from the WW2, which is more than can be said for the war memorial for WWI that is on the far side of Place de la République, victim to devasting bomb damage. 
In spite of its current display, restoration work on Porte de Mars is due to be resumed next year, again with the backing of the Fondation du Patrimoine, and the monument will be hidden from public view once more in its long history. The spatial planning of the walkways of Les Hautes Promenades from the arch to the city centre, has proved to be a great success as stretches of concrete parking spaces have given way to picnic areas amongst greenery that has even managed to create a feeling of urban countryside throughout the seasons, attracting all generations of the general public in the process. 
The area surrounding the other vestige of the Roman Empire – the cryptoportique - was likewise the object of urban re-organisation some 25 years ago. The site of this underground gallery and warehouse (horreum), built in the 1st century, has become the focal point for many musical performances today. The Place du Forum, has been vastly improved by its transformation from former coach drop-off point to elegant square, with espalier trees and the café terrasses and I spent several happy years living in its pleasant atmosphere.
Now of course, we are out of confinement ; the vehicles generating a continual background thrum to my life here are back on the roads, the eerily empty lockdown trams are filling up again and the Hautes Promenades are open to the public once more, all watched over by the Porte de Mars – until it goes into hibernation yet again. Let's just hope that we will not follow suit with another period of lockdown...