Friday, November 20, 2015

In our thoughts...

I went to the cathedral last night for the peaceful atmosphere I knew I would find there.
This has been a long week for everyone here, with a great deal sadness over what has happened and what this will mean, not just for the people in France but everywhere, all over the world. Two of the victims came from the school, so the horror of the situation really hit hard, and yet is still so difficult to absorb.

Jeanne d'Arc - Greg Tricker
The stained glass piece above was part of an exhibition in the cathedral and is the work of the British sculptor, Greg Tricker. Inspired by Jeanne d'Arc for her "communion with the angelic realms" he has produced many works that provide comfort in the "Godless age" in which we live. His pieces - sculpted, painted or stained glass - are often accompanied by the music of composer John Tavener.

Perhaps we have lost our spiritual direction in these times; but maybe losing sight of what is sacred in life itself is far worse .

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Here was a Royal Fellowship..... Armistice Day

Royal Artillery Memorial - Hyde Park Corner -  London
Little by little, as the years pass, the original purpose of this public holiday in France on the 11th November seems to be overlooked. And yet it is Armistice Day, and whilst I'll be undoubtedly and very, very grudgingly doing even more work, I do want to remind myself of all that I have, and for which I should be grateful. Actually, I think that I am already aware of that, but am far more conscious of the fact that I have to limit my active appreciation of what I possess on every level due to an enormous proportion of my time being eaten up by ever-increasing workloads that do not 'pay' in any sense of the word. Time might well be 'money', as the saying goes, but when you have no time you really are impoverished.The concept of 'free' time is something that  I've lost sight of, as it seems to be more a case of stolen time, for which I feel guilty. So today I will try to refocus and think of people and populations, from the past and present, who have lost all freedom and have known true deprivation.

The Driver
Over a number of years, I dragged the big suitcase, children in tow, from Victoria coach station through Hyde Park and towards Paddington station... Invariably, we would pass the memorial to the Great War on the corner of Hyde Park, but daunted by all that traffic, and eager to enter the main park grounds, never crossed over to see it at close quarters. Literally each time, I swore we would do so, especially once we'd read Stoneheart by Charlie Fletcher and were more observant of the impressive statues that are part of the city landscape. Even from afar, the striking form of the Driver, who looks on from the west flank of the Royal Artillery memorial, draws your attention. Finally, when I travelled to London alone last year, I seized the opportunity to look at the statues on this traffic island.
This was at the beginning of December, and therefore poppy wreathes still lay at the feet of the four soldiers who are positioned like sentinels around the massive memorial block of Portland stone. This itself bears sculpted reliefs showing uncompromising scenes of conflict. These were in line with the sculptor's intention to depict the events of war which would not shy away from its brutal reality and could in no way be taken as a symbol of Peace. Charles Sargeant Jagger (1885-1934) was commissioned to carry out the work to commemorate the fallen Royal Artillery servicemen in 1922, and he duly stated that  “experience in the trenches persuaded me of the necessity for frankness and truth”. The result attests to this, but its refusal to present anything that could comfort or reassure the public of the nature of 'the Great War to end all wars' drew mixed reactions from the public and press alike. The spectre of Death, symbolized in the form of the fallen artilleryman, lain out and shrouded by his trench cape, was perceived as "a terrible revelation long overdue" (Manchester Guardian)  but also as 'inappropriate' by other parties. Jagger was insistant that this figure be an integral part of the memorial, and refused to give in to disapproval.

The fallen artillery man
A large sculpted howitzer, the heavy siege gun that was prevalent in trench warfare, is set on the top of the monument, its cold stone overshadowing the artillery men below - cannon fodder indeed. The Driver seems to stare onward towards the continual flow of pedestrians opposite him, oblivious to the noise of cars and buses, but his eyes are virtually covered by his metal helmet, and you have the feeling that underneath that, his vision is glazed. As one of the military ranks, his duty was to drive the teams of horses. Here, he is supposedly resting, although his pose is more that of exhausted resignation, rather than true respite.

The Driver
As he leans back against the stone, he holds the whip used to force his beasts onwards and the chains to shackle them to their fate, but he himself seems to be no more than a human cog in the inhuman machine of war. Man and beast all belong to the "fellowship of Death", that is alluded to on the plinth of the dead gunner and is fact drawn from lines in Shakespeare's Henry V in reference to the losses at Agincourt. As the other two standing forms, the Driver's poise seems both bold, here with his arms out-stretched and legs apart, yet ultimately is truly vulnerable.

The Artillery Lieutenant
An artillery lieutenant stands facing south. Initially, he too looks bold and full of aplomb, but this impression soon gives way to the feeling that he is weighed down by his duty, just as he is loaded down by his cumbersome clothing and wartime kit. He may lead men with his swagger stick, but he is led by events and must follow passively.

To the east stands the Shell Carrier, aptly named for huge cannister shells shored in the pockets of greatcoat. With feet firmly planted in heavy miltary boots he looks invincible, yet his sinewy arms look unprotected and the vulnerable veins on his clenched hands contrast the vein-like cords that hold the shells in place, ready to pulverise flesh on the 'other side'.

The Shell Carrier
The hobnails visible on the soles of the dead gunner's boots show the fraility of all things, as do his fingers, slightly crooked, no longer trying to keep a grip on life itself. Apparently Jagger was greatly inspired by the sculpture of Rodin, and this is seen in his study of hands. We cannot see the dead man's facial expression, but the hands say enough. Even the rough fabric of the clothing seems to speak to us - carefully created by Jagger's modelling technique of building up layers of clay to leave a textured finish.

The Gunner

The memorial is dedicated to the artillery men who died in service, and the names of the countries and regions where they fought are inscribed in its stone - France, Africa, Persia, Egypt, Central Asia, Palestine, Russia, Italy, India, Arabia, Mesopotamia, Macedonia, Dardanelles and Flanders.... Almost 50,000 men died.

Jagger's career only spanned 16 years, and war seems to have shaped much of those, directly or indirectly. Son of a colliery manager in a pit village near Rotherham, he became interested in sculpture as a young child, and later went on to study metal engraving, before attending the Royal College of Art in 1907. Although he won a prestigious scholarship to study in Rome in 1914 (Le Prix de Rome) he declined this and chose to serve King and Country in joining the Artists' Rifles. He was injured several times in service, was awarded the Military Cross for gallantry, yet survived the war years. Nevertheless, he never freed himself from war in the sense that his eventual career largely centred on depictions of the Great War in the numerous memorials for which he was commissioned. Jagger died of pneumonia at the age of 49, just a few years before the start of the Second World War....

Paddington War Memorial - Jagger - photo by Cnbrb - English Wikipedia
What I did not know, until looking into Jagger's career for this post, is that the imposing statue in front of which we have always passed when boarding the train at Paddington station was also sculpted by Jagger... That one has always caught my attention, but I had never made the association between that figure and those of the Hyde Park memorial.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

The Rood Screen at St Etienne-du-Mont in Paris...

As I had the opportunity to go to Paris for a very fleeting afternoon visit, I decided to see the church of St Etienne-du-Mont, whose rood screen is one of the very few in France that still remain intact and in their original place.

Side view of St Etienne-du Mont
The church is in the 5th arrondissement, near the Panthéon and the Jardin du Luxembourg, and draws its name from the fact that it is set on the Sainte Geneviève mountain. The latter is a modest 61 metres above sea level, but the edifice of St Etienne is rather imposing and certainly appears to draw in the visitors, if their numbers yesterday were anything to go by… Unfortunately, they, like me, had to wait until four o’clock before being able to enter the church, but it was worth the wait.

In fact, crowds are nothing new to the area, once site of the Abbey of Saint Geneviève. Indeed, the église St Etienne-du-Mont was initially built in response to the needs of the ever-growing worshippers who came to offer their devotion to the female patron saint of Paris. Geneviève had symbolized courage and piety during her lifetime, having bravely defended Paris, and stood up for its people, thus thwarting the intentions of Attila the Hun to seize city. Following canonisation after her death in the early 6th century, prayers to Saint Geneviève offered the faithful citizens hope of salvation from the plagues, flooding and general misery that visited the city in biblical proportions. The Merovingian king Clovis and his wife Clotilde ordered the construction of the church dedicated to St Paul and St Peter on a former paleochristian cemetery that eventually became the church and abbey of Saint Geneviève. The crypt and church itself became the royal necropolis for the first Merovingians, including Clovis and his wife, and drew pilgrims in large numbers. The sacred remains of Geneviève, carried each year by procession to the cathedral would lead to numerous miraculous occurences but themselves fell victim to the violence of the Revolution years at the beginning of the 18th century, as too did the eponymous abbey.

Having emerged alongside the north wall of the abbey of Sainte Geneviève, the church that would become St Etienne-du-Mont grew in size, stature and structure, a process that took many, many years. Authorisation was given to establish this autonomous church, devoted to Saint Etienne (St Stephen in English), the first martyr of Christianity. This indeed became a truly independant edifice on the destruction of the abbey in 1808, along with the creation of the road Rue Clovis. All that remains of the ancient abbey of Saint Geneviève is the tower – la Tour de Clovis - which now forms part of the Lycée Henri IV. The church of St Etienne-du-Mont finally inherited the relics of Saint Geneviève.
So it is that the church we see today was built over a considerable period of time, although the most intense activity was the hundred odd years between the architectural direction under Viguier and the posing of the façade stone by Marguerite de Valois in 1610. Naturally, the time span is reflected in the composite form of the church, its structure and decoration. This commenced with the Gothic apse from the reign of Charles VIII and ended with the Renaissance with its greco-roman porch of the façade, finished in the years of Louis XIII, and restored by Baltard during the Second Empire in the 1860s. Inside the church, the pointed Gothic arches give way to rounded arches in the nave which turn are echoed in the rounded forms of the ornate gallery that runs along the choir area and high altar. Striking Renaissance ornamentation is offset by the delicately decorated keystones on the vaulted ceilings, high above.

And of course, there is the rood screen. Built in white marble, constructed and sculpted by Biard Père in the early 16th century, there are few of the features that characterize the roodscreen of Sainte Madeleine of Troyes (cerca 1517). In Troyes, the intricacy and density of the sculpture is just breathtaking, here in Paris, the sheer mass and dramatic forms are otherwise striking. The ‘screen’ is a huge single arch that spans the choir area, with two spiral staircase forms on either side, leading up to the gallery above and the crucified Christ that towers above us. The geometric sculpted formations and interlaced patterns of the staircase demand our attention.

Unfortunately, a great deal of the ornamentation was difficult to approach as everything had been cordoned off for Mass, I imagine, and rightfully so. In addition to this, just as a bad workman always blames his tools, I wanted to jump up and down on my camera from frustration as it would not deliver its usual Luddite-friendly promise of point-and-click reliability. It really did not appreciate the limited overall lighting, combined with the shards of light beams coming through the stained-glass windows.

However, if truth be told, the whole experience of visiting St Etienne just made me realise how marvellous my visit of Sainte Madeleine had been. I was not disappointed to see the rood screen at St Etienne-du-Mont, but Classically-inspired art and architecture rarely move me the way those of the Medieval/early Renaissance period can. All those quirky details of human fallibility and the glimpses of the humanity - warts and all - within each being, seem to reach out over the centuries to make you feel the vitality behind them. Every gurning Gothic gargoyle seems to tell a story, a knowing wink from times long past, but the narration does not seem so distant. I duly admired the beauty within St Etienne, for beautiful it is, but I missed the unique atmosphere of Sainte Madeleine. This, of course, probably stems from the fact that I do not actually have any religious affiliations at all, and as much as I love visiting all these incredible ecclesiastical edifices I do not actually have any true spiritual connection. I do feel like an intruder, but if the aesthetic beauty and peace of a church or cathedral can draw you closer to Man and Nature, it surely can’t be all bad.

St Etienne-du-Mont continued to act as necropolis to great men, but finally the construction of a vast Neo-Classical edifice in the latter part of the 18th century – the Panthéon – took over this function. With the inhumation of Victor Hugo in 1885, the Panthéon ceased its own function as a church and became a temple devoted to the glory of the Nation. Although it had been decided that the relics of Saint Geneviève would be housed there too, but this was not realised and so the annual procession of Saint Geneviève still sets out from St Etienne-du-Mont to the Cathedral of Notre Dame as they always have. Notre Dame itself is built on the grounds of the initial cathedral of St Etienne…

Beautiful blue skies before opening hours...

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Along and on the Autumn Canal..

The autumn crept up whilst the weeks have sped by, even if weighed down by heavy workloads and plain old hassle. No time for bike rides or blogs even if I had always sworn that I'd try to post something for the latter, three times a month, just to keep my head above water and to prove to myself that I hadn't gone under!

So, nearly the end of the month of the October...

Despite everything, I still have been able to appreciate the beautiful colours of the autumn months, at close quarters and float along all the same, in more ways than one!

Having spent so many years walking across the canal and riding along it, at the beginning of September I joined one of the local rowing clubs and so now I am able to actually go on it. No photos of that feat for the moment as I take minimal belongings with me, knowing that there is quite a good chance of my ending up in the canal waters; the camera stays at home!

It is interesting to see the familiar habitat of all those creatures that live along the canal, from a very unfamiliar angle, but most of the birds and beasts seem very indignant to have such an intrusion made upon their territory.
'My' muskrat...
Rats race along muddy tracks worn into the banks and ducks scatter in the most disgruntled fashion, squawking in that mocking way they must have perfected just to scorn beginner rowers. The human fauna - in the form of fishermen - just look up to the heavens as yet another boat veers towards their tackle.

As the clocks went back this weekend, but the cats' timing did not adjust accordingly, I decided to ride along the canal after having been woken up in the rather early hours. It was beautifully murky in places...The misty conditions concealed much of the industrial backcloth that surrounds parts of canal landscape and seemed to muffle the noise of the growing rush-hour traffic.

Like the water-based wildlife of this environment, I am learning to focus on the natural world around me. I largely block out the concrete, tarmac and metal from my vision or try to find a certain beauty in their vast forms, silhouetted against the sky line or reflected on the water. However, the barges that transport material along the canal for the manufacture of the glass bottles for the champagne industry, no less, serve as a reminder that you may well encounter a bigger water-borne beast than yourself on the canal. The eight-rower boat (the 'octuple scull') might make you feel like an invincible Viking, but you would still be no match against the massive barges that make their way silently towards you!

From the cycle path, I managed to see a very sizeable muskrat industriously getting on with his business, oblivious to all those people racing off to theirs. At first I thought it was either a coypu or a young otter, but even if it was 'just' a rat, I was thrilled to see it. A feeling certainly not shared by the moorhen nearby...

Monday, October 26, 2015

M'asseoir sur un banc...

Old photo, old times.... 
The 'Mistral Gagnant' of the song's title referred to a type of sherbet dip in which you would find a paper indicating that you had either got the winning ticket which enabled you to have another 
Mistral Gagnant 'for free' or you had lost out.... 
Renaud wrote this song for his daughter many years ago, and it was voted 'Chanson préférée' of the French in 2015. 

 Produced by Renaud Séchan - Virgin FRANCE 1985

Mistral Gagnant seems to have a bitter-sweet, evocative flavour that never fails to move whoever hears it.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

The Paintings of Jean Marrel...Nature in Art, Art in Nature...

While visiting the town of Troyes in the Champagne-Ardenne region at the beginning of July, I noticed a poster for an art exhibition that literally made me stop dead in my tracks. I often see things that make me pause, but the total stand-still moments are a little rarer. The vivid colours and evocative forms in the poster reproduction of the plant painting caught my attention straight away.

I was very pleased to see that the exhibition was still being held at the Maison du Boulanger, one of the many Medieval buildings in the heart of the old town. Unfortunately, the opening hours being incompatible with my timetable, I wasn’t able to see the amazing work of the artist in question; Jean Marrel.

To say that I was disappointed is an understatement, but I vowed there and then that I would come back before the end of the month just before the final days of the exhibition… That project lost a little momentum as I went back to England, but then I resolved to return to Troyes as soon as I got back to Reims. And indeed, this was a trip that I certainly did not regret, despite a wait of 6 hours for the exhibition opening (3pm)!

Troyes is a town simply full of the most incredible churches, edifices and museums, whilst the whole of its historical centre is crisscrossed by streets and meandering alleys composed of buildings that date back to the Middle Ages.

Suffice it to say that I had no trouble passing the intervening hours…

With its typical colombage troyen, the Maison du Boulanger is a suitable setting for any exhibition; calm and peaceful, with its centuries-old wooden beams creating a unique atmosphere.

Access to the first floor is at the back of the building, via a wooden staircase that overlooks a tranquil courtyard and leads onto the subdued lighting of rooms illuminated in this case by the colour of these works.

Jonchée 3 - Jean Marrel - Exhibition at the Maison du Boulanger - Troyes
The poster that so mesmerized me on my first encounter was but one of this artist’s many studies of floral and vegetal forms to be seen at the Maison du Boulanger. More of Jean Marrel's work can, of course, be seen on his site (
Most of the photos below in this post are details of the full paintings. As the original works themselves are often quite large, that magical quality is magnified all the more....

The imposing forms of exotic amaryllis and iris lead onto flurries of nasturtium, the ‘stencilled’ starkness of flowering courgette, the dense bodies of ripe figs and the dramatic stalks, leaves and petals of other more unassuming plant types. All of these seem to vie for your attention; their bold contours and colours drawing you in. At this point, you are caught by a strange quality.

Deux Iris - Jean Marrel
Indeed, while these works are realistic in that you can ‘sense’ the vital essence of each plant, this is no slavish, faithful reproduction of the each detail. However, this is no impressionist approach either; it goes beyond a fleeting impression of vitality.

Fleurs de Courgette - Jean Marrel
While I could not appreciate this quality from the street poster alone, I was able to 'live' it in the exhibition. Be it the spindly roots of a radish plant or beet; the twisted, convoluted leaves of garlic; the radiating stalks of an umbel; the bulbous forms of quince fruit or the pitted skin of a lemon, each study makes you ‘feel’ the life of the subject both from a distance and at close quarters.

Detail of Le Bal des Capucins - Jean Marrel
Viewed from afar, the essential shape of each subject with its defining characteristics is rendered. This is just as valid for the plant studies as for those of the farmyard chickens, for example. Sadly, the latter were not part of the exhibition, but can be seen on the artist’s site.

Jean Marrel
As you will see there, Jean Marrel’s paintings of hens truly capture the busy, bossy, no-nonsense aspect unique to such birds, intent on going about their business, head cocked, feet strutting… and yet without a single discernable feather!

Jean Marrel
Apparently the artist does not seek to represent a 3-dimensional reality that is reliant on perspective and detail, but instead leans towards a more 2-dimensional approach that recreates the vital essence of the subject, be that flora or fauna.

In some ways this reminded me a little of the Japanese woodblock art that Baudelaire termed “the Asian image d’Epinal technique” with its evocative forms and blocks of colour.

However, that would not be sufficient to fully describe the studies here.

Capucins - Jean Marrel.
Apparently, Jean Marrel frequently presses his plants and flowers to produce a 2D view that he then recreates on a given medium. Dramatic contours, sinuous lines and bizarre shapes are captured in the flattened version of the original subject, but this process also releases a new energy and creates new forms that may lead onto other interpretations.

Far from being caught prisoner on canvas, with their life suspended, the subjects seem to germinate and metamorphose. They indeed grow outward, with the rustle of intertwining shoots and leaves, a flourish of petals that float and dance and often seem to assume the billowing outlines of human forms or the flight of birds. Rather than a dull study of nature morte, these paintings ultimately have a poetic force of their own, like a form of static electricity that catches you unawares.

Ciel - Jean Marrel
Although the English term, 'still life', is more appropriate than the French nature morte, it still falls short as a description of this work…. This is no trompe-l’oeil to show the transience, futility and Vanity of our existence. Indeed, this deceptive ‘flat’ approach produces a depth that serves to emphasize the hidden existence of all things in the natural world and their gradual growth and transformation towards new forms and movements.

Detail Amaryllis - Jean Marrel
Central to this process of contemplation and recreation, is the actual technical aspects of the creative process. Jean Marrel’s work does not simply create an overall image of vitality at a distance, which dissolves into a seemingly haphazard group of paint strokes and layers when seen up close. Indeed, here the painting technique become an essential part of the subjects’ vitality.

Amaryllis - Jean Marrel
The paint work and its reworking, the contrasting textures, effects and responses of the materials used, are at the heart of this organic process of creation, and thus seem to become a living part of the organism studied. In this manner, the rough surface acquired by several applications of paint or from scraping, scratching or worrying the paint layers, may either be harnessed to reflect the essential vitality of a living form, or may actually ‘lead’ the artist in his design.

Detail of Amaryllis - Jean Marrel
Rugged edges followed by smoother patches may represent silky petals with their strange veins and markings; ridges may become essential in the portrayal of stalks; cracking, spotting and stress may highlight leaves, seeds and pods… Likewise, the texture of the paint itself seems to emphasise the vitality of the colours employed. In this way, smooth liquid paint seems to bring out the fluid vibrancy of certain tones; chalky mediums highlight contrasting colours; dull milky layers of paint underline the enameled shine of other areas. It goes without saying that the colours themselves are just beautiful…

Detail Amaryllis - Jean Marrel
The whole of this approach creates an art that I thought was really unique and I spent quite some time looking at these works, from near and afar, appreciating their skill. These works make the viewer ‘feel’ the vital tension within, and the life force that radiates out. The whole visual experience stimulates other senses; in a strange form of synaesthesia, I suppose. As I love some of the weirdly beautiful forms to be found in the plant world, precisely for this same quality, this exhibition was really interesting.

Physalis (photo)
Jean Marrel’s art seems to have no dark undertones. However, the hidden vitality of his subjects, their capacity to assume almost human forms and above all the disconcerting ability of the art to mimic life and the organic living process reminded me a little of the novel by the fin-de-siècle writer J.-K. Huysmans (1848-1907) – A Rebours – which was published in 1884. It must be said that the morbid, extreme aestheticism and the premise of the supremacy of cold artifice over Nature of Huysman’s writing finds no trace in the paintings of Jean Marrel; quite the contrary.

Detail of Jonchée 3 - Jean Marrel

Nevertheless, Against Nature (the English title) is a novel well worth reading, with the ultimate message that you cannot go against the current of the life forces of Nature or those of (the Catholic) faith; these will all inevitably overpower you. The story focuses on the withdrawal from bourgeois society of its protagonist, Des Esseintes, into a world of Decadence. This universe of mystical symbolism, aesthetic and intellectual (over)stimulation eventually implodes, leading the anti-hero to flee this stifling, bewelled anti-life…

Below is part of the description of the exotic plants Des Esseintes has chosen precisely for their ability to go ‘against nature’.

This wonderful art had held him entranced for a long while, but now he was dreaming of another experiment. He wished to go one step beyond. Instead of artificial flowers imitating  real flowers, natural flowers should mimic the artificial ones.
He directed his ideas to this end and had not to seek long or go far, since his house lay in the  very heart of a famous horticultural region. He visited the conservatories of the Avenue de Chatillon and of the Aunay valley, and returned exhausted, his purse empty, astonished at the strange forms of vegetation he had seen, thinking of nothing but the species he had acquired and continually haunted by memories of magnificent and fantastic plants.
The flowers came several days later.
Des Esseintes holding a list in his hands, verified each one of his purchases. The gardeners from their wagons brought a collection of caladiums which sustained enormous heartshaped leaves on turgid hairy stalks; while preserving an air of relationship with its neighbor, no one leaf repeated the same pattern.
Others were equally extraordinary. The roses like the Virginale seemed cut out of varnished cloth or oil-silks; the white ones, like the Albano, appeared to have been cut out of an ox's transparent pleura, or the diaphanous bladder of a pig. Some, particularly the Madame Mame, imitated zinc and parodied pieces of stamped metal having a hue of emperor green, stained by drops of oil paint and by spots of white and red lead; others like the Bosphorous, gave the illusion of a starched calico in crimson and myrtle green; still others, like the Aurora Borealis, displayed leaves having the color of raw meat, streaked with purple sides, violet fibrils, tumefied leaves from which oozed blue wine and blood....

As I said, this decadent vision of Nature is far removed from the world view that sems to emerge through Jean Marrel’s work. The artist here appears to view Nature as a means to embark on an almost spiritual quest of vitality, using art to embrace life in all its changing forms.

Again, if you want to see the 'real thing', just check out those chickens!