Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Seraphine of Senlis at the Maillol...

Sculpture by Maillol, Musée Maillol Paris.

Several years ago, in 2008, there was an exhibition at the Musée Maillol Paris of the Primitive art works of Seraphine of Senlis. This coincided with the 2008  film Seraphine which traced her discovery as an artist by art collector, Wilhelm Uhde.

I missed both of these at the time, although I have since seen the film and went to see the collection of Seraphine's paintings at the Maillol this weekend.

I covered much of what I have understood of her life and art in my post Seraphine of Senlis. This time I just wanted to get a closer look at the paintings exhibited in order to see the brushstrokes and details of her work.
Most of the work on display is from the period 1920-1930, a time just after the First World War during which Seraphine had not yet been re-united with Uhde.

Pommes aux feuilles 1928-30
These apples actually do look more like ripe tomatoes, especially with the crackled effect that perhaps came as a result of ageing due to the composition of the paint materials used. Seraphine used her own 'secret' ingredients to create concoctions that are still not fully understood today.

These look so ripe you can almost sense the skin splitting...

The richness and density of paint application in some parts is contrasted by that in other areas where the canvas is visible below a thin layer of colour.

The vivid colours are set in contrast with pitch black, in turn offset by bright white paint strokes.

Many of the flower paintings (flowers and plants made up the vast majority of her work) seem to burst from a base in the lower part of her art work. This pattern seems to repeat itself even when trees, bushes and other hybrid plants are portrayed. A whirling mass of foliage rises upwards from a darker zone on the canvas, leading our eyes up towards the bright colours at the top of each work. These two areas are often delineated by a horizontal band that divides the painting.

Here a flurry of leaves lead up to a bright blue 'sky', and while the main tone of the mass of foliage appears in tones of autumnal brown, in detail each leaf bears jewel-like marks.

Other paintings seem to be wholly based on this bejewelled aspect.

Feuilles diaprées sur fond bleu  - 1929.
With their intricate beading and dashes these remind me of Aboriginal art...

Even the paintings which seem to be more traditional in their floral composition have exotic leaves and foliage that bear little resemblance with reality.

Bouquet de fleurs sur fond rouge - 1925-30     

These daisy-like flowers dazzle on the canvas.

Other flowers look feathery and billow across the canvas....leading me to wonder which way the painting should be hanging!

Marguerites - 1925

I prefer the wilder flowers in the later works because of their exuberance and force. Here strange forms are emphasized by tendrils that seem to furrow out from amongst the leaves and crawl like caterpillars.

The grapes here sprout out from bizarre vines. Thick leaves, like those of cabbage plants break out from a structure that looks like a palm trunk.

The paint composition seems to be less dense on this painting so that we can see the overlapping effect as leaves and stems cover each other.

The tendrils at the end of branches and buds add extra vitality to this painting.

The following painting, with its bright, irridescent colours and density looks like a stained-glass window. The blue set off against the orange creates such a vivid effect which the white buds seem to accentuate even further.

 The tiny touches of yellow and blue sparkle from these flowers, whilst the differing angles of the flowers give the painting a strange movement or animation.

As ever, on the right-hand side of her works is Seraphine's signature - S. Louis -that of the artist who rightly described herself as "Sans rivale".

All these paintings are at the Musée Maillol in Paris, waiting to be seen in the flesh which has to better than looking at the photos.

Musée Maillol:
  • 59-61 rue de Grenelle
    75007 Paris
    Tel :
  • Métro :
    Rue du Bac
  • Opening hours :From 11h to 18h,everyday except Tuesday.

 My favourite Seraphine work is however at the museum at Senlis - The Tree of Life.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Fire and Rain... Unleashing my inner witch.

Transported thoughts... (From FAERIES by Brian Froud and Alan Lee- Pan Books - 1978)
 A wedding will take place tomorrow. Not surprisingly, I’m not included on the guest list but my thoughts will be wending their way to the veritable castle that will act as backdrop to this age-old fairy tale set-up. 

Spying... (From FAERIES...)
Part of me would like to be a voyeuristic fly on the wall, but I shall just content myself by playing the time-honoured role of the uninvited witch, in my head. However, the wish I would make for the couple in question is actually being realized – that they should live together forever after.

Third time lucky, after all...

The Three Witches... Ex-wives PAST, PRESENT AND FUTURE .(FAERIES...)
 Whenever I hear the below record, Fire and Rain by James Taylor, I just feel its beauty and no longer take it as a litany to “see me through another day”. People may change so much that you never see them again; they are beyond recognition, out of reach and have simply gone – out of your life but also away from all that had seemed to make up theirs. 

Worse still, the change is so radical that you don’t even want to acknowledge or see the person they have become, and in their eyes you are just a dead weight from the past. Then the one 'left behind' finally has to change in turn, passing through all the related emotional states and getting bogged down and stuck fast in certain ones! You oughta know.... However, this long drawn-out baptism of fire leads you onward towards the things that really do count in the present so it must be beneficial ultimately. You learn.

                  Just yesterday morning they let me know you were gone,
                  Susanne the plans they made put an end to you.
                  I walked out this morning and I wrote down this song,
                  I just can't remember who to send it to.

                 I've seen fire and I've seen rain,
                 I've seen sunny days that I thought would never end.
                 I've seen lonely times when I could not find a friend,
                 But I always thought that I'd see you again.

                 Won't you look down upon me, Jesus,
                 You've got to help me make a stand.
                 You've just got to see me through another day.
                 My body's aching and my time is at hand,
                 And I won't make it any other way.

                 Oh, I've seen fire and I've seen rain,
                 I've seen sunny days that I thought would never end.
                 I've seen lonely times when I could not find a friend,
                 But I always thought that I'd see you again.

                 Been walking my mind to an easy time my back turned towards the sun,
                 Lord knows when the cold wind blows it'll turn your head around.
                 Well, there's hours of time on the telephone line to talk about things to come,
                 Sweet dreams and flying machines in pieces on the ground.

                 Oh, I've seen fire and I've seen rain,
                 I've seen sunny days that I thought would never end.
                 I've seen lonely times when I could not find a friend,
                 But I always thought that I'd see you, baby, one more time again, now.

                 Thought I'd see you one more time again,
                 There's just a few things coming my way this time around, now.
                 Thought I'd see you, thought I'd see you fire and rain, now.

As for fairy-tales endings; no one remains spellbound for eternity. 
And now I shall return my inner witch to its rightful place....

FAERIES - Published by Pan 1978

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Time in a Bottle - Blog Birthday....

I started writing this blog two years ago today. I wanted to track and leave a trace of all the things that had caught my eye or imagination in the past and present so that they would remain even after everything else had moved on. It felt like a means of keeping things preserved in a bottle, one floating in space and time, buffeted around and weathered by the elements but still the same in content. It was meant to be personal because I intended it to reflect the things that had caught my attention, but not an account of my personal life – with all its dull meanderings and often very pedestrian preoccupations that seem to take me away from what gives my life extra meaning and substance. So I suppose it has become a form of scrapbook, but it has itself led me along different paths of interests which I have enjoyed, as one path seems to open out onto other paths. I can’t imagine ever having nothing whatsoever to look at and wonder over! Having a blog finally gave me a concrete reason to work out how to use a digital camera on a basic level and to want to take photos!

Writing a post seems to be like sending out a cyber soap bubble, or feathery dandelion seed that parachutes off into the unknown, carried off in the currents around the planet. However, although they fly off they’re still present on my computer screen in this strange process – they remain personal and yet totally impersonal in their dispersal. I do wish that mine had met with some reaction; they all seem to meet a great resounding silence. Well, I suppose that means I can just carry on as ever, in my own private soap bubble, blowing on dandelion clocks! 

So, from a personal level it’s been enriching and quite indulgent too – just focusing on the things that I like, and excluding the rest which monopolize normal life. In addition, that’s without mentioning all the beautiful blogs that I’ve come across along the way, giving inspiration and ideas and opening up my eyes and changing my view of the world around me, beyond my daily routines and concerns! 

So, this is another dandelion seed to add to the collection. Apparently if you succeed in blowing away all the seeds at once from a dandelion head, any wish you make will be granted. A few remaining seeds means that you will have to wait before fulfillment – so I’d recommend just getting another dandelion clock until you get satisfaction! 

 Below is a clip of Jim Croce’s song Time in a Bottle (1972). He wrote it for his son, the little boy who features in the video. Shortly after the video was filmed, aged only thirty, Croce died in a tragic plane crash and so never actually saw his child grow up to become a singer too.
 The music is already moving, but put in that context, it is all the more so… 

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Les Lilas et Les Roses...

Darker lilac
 O mois des floraisons mois des métamorphoses
Mai qui fut sans nuage et Juin poignardé
Je n’oublierai jamais les lilas ni les roses
Ni ceux que le printemps dans les plis a gardés

Je n’oublierai jamais l’illusion tragique
Le cortège les cris la foule et le soleil
Les chars chargés d’amour les dons de la Belgique
L’air qui tremble et la route à ce bourdon d’abeilles
Le triomphe imprudent qui prime la querelle
Le sang que préfigure en carmin le baiser
Et ceux qui vont mourir debout dans les tourelles
Entourés de lilas par un peuple grisé

Je n’oublierai jamais les jardins de la France
Semblables aux missels des siècles disparus
Ni le trouble des soirs l’énigme du silence
Les roses tout le long du chemin parcouru
Le démenti des fleurs au vent de la panique
Aux soldats qui passaient sur l’aile de la peur
Aux vélos délirants aux canons ironiques
Au pitoyable accoutrement des faux campeurs

Mais je ne sais pourquoi ce tourbillon d’images
Me ramène toujours au même point d’arrêt
A Sainte-Marthe Un général De noirs ramages
Une villa normande au bord de la forêt
Tout se tait L’ennemi dans l’ombre se repose
On nous a dit ce soir que Paris s’est rendu
Je n’oublierai jamais les lilas ni les roses
Et ni les deux amours que nous avons perdus

Bouquets du premier jour lilas lilas des Flandres
Douceur de l’ombre dont la mort farde les joues
Et vous bouquets de la retraite roses tendres
Couleur de l’incendie au loin roses d’Anjou

Louis Aragon, Le Crève-coeur, 1941

Les Lilas et Les Roses was written by Louis Aragon (1897-1982) to recount the trauma of war that France experienced following the Blitzkrieg advance of the German army in May and June 1940.

 Having crossed the neutral zones of Holland, Belgium and Luxemburg with lightening speed and brute force, within five weeks the Wehrmacht arrived on France soil via Flanders and Sedan.
Charles de Gaulle who organised the Free French Forces from England.
Thousands of citizens were desperate to flee the advancing German army and the Exode was set in motion, as panic-striken inhabitants of towns and cities took to the road to find safer territory. One quarter of the French population fled, giving rise to chaotic, horrific scenes as hordes of people tried to escape yet were blocked in by the sheer volume of human traffic and fell easy prey to the brutal aerial attacks of the Stuka bombers. In the space of a week Paris was largely emptied, by mid-June the French flag had been confiscated as France fell to the Occupying forces. 

In Aragon’s poem the imagery of flowers, and the gardens of eternal France are quickly torn apart by ironic references to the brutality of this hellish spring, this lightning war. 

Pale lilac
 I hadn’t really been thinking of this war poem this morning, the 8th of May, which marks the end of the Second World War, but when my daughter pointed out the lilac growing in the park I remembered it again.

It was actually in Reims that the first Instrument of Surrender was signed on the 7th of the month in 1945, although this was not announced until another had been signed the following day in Berlin.

 As a result we ended up watching the film that I always associate with this period and the poem; Les Jeux Interdits. I still can’t watch this without crying, as even the music sets it off, and this time there wasn’t a dry eye in the house!

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Seraphine of Senlis

L'arbre de Vie : Seraphine de Senlis 1928
Seraphine of Senlis, with the name of an angel from those closest to divinity, guardian of God’s throne, leads us from the monochrome of her menial existence to a spiritual plane of heightened colour and senses. Seraphine's creativity was an act of worship that enabled her to find a guiding light in order to reach a level of ecstasy hidden to the world around her. Grounded in its own indefinable form of spirituality and unique aesthetic, the art of Seraphine flourished like some exotic bloom, growing up and away from the all-pervasive grey surroundings in a frenetic burst of colour and vigour. 
Streets of  Senlis

 Escaping the platitudes of a colourless existence, the paintings illuminate life itself in vivid colours and a vitality that overwhelm observers. Like the vast Gothic cathedral that dominates the town, guiding our eyes away from the pedestrian level of the winding streets and alleys, the work of Seraphine captivates us. It leads our gaze upwards to the heights, to reflection, just as the stained glass and intricate stonework that adorn the spires. 
One of the many churches - not the cathedral which is under restoration and huge netting....
 Wilhelm Uhde, the art collector of German nationality and future patron of Seraphine, said that he liked to view Senlis from the cathedral from where one could see all the hidden gardens, secreted away from view on ground level by imposing walls and gates, yet from the heights visible to those ready to see. It was he who discovered Seraphine, herself hidden away in this labyrinth of grey cobbled streets, the richest, most intriguing garden of all, masked by the impenetrable façade of her mundane life and plain unassuming physique. 

Seraphine, whose name would seem both apt and grossly inappropriate at the same time, was indeed an angel with feet of clay. Like some unfortunate character from a Zola novel, she was born to a lowly existence in a humble milieu that offered but few chances. Yet Seraphine, flawed by her splintering sanity and destined to a life or deprivation and drudgery, did indeed fly up to the heights of creative ecstasy. 

Born in late 1864, Seraphine Louis tragically lost her mother on the day of her first birthday and was orphaned by the age of seven, left to be brought up by her older sister. Perhaps idealized by the child she had never really known, the missing mother was sought and prayed to in church, associating the maternal link with that of the spiritual, Mary, Mother of God. Whatever the ultimate association at the heart of Seraphine’s faith, she was to remain devote all her life, she who appeared to have been handed over or abandoned by all those with whom she had any link. 
 Seraphine's life was marked by solitude and a nomadic quality. She moved from town to town, from one household to another without ever establishing roots anywhere or entering into any real intimacy with anybody. Without any family bonds, or concrete status to ground her Seraphine would always be an outsider.

Initially working as a farm hand, caring for animals around her home town of Arsy Seraphine eventually became a domestic help in Compiègne, carrying out dull, dirty, physically-demanding tasks that others would shun. After working at a girls’ institution and various bourgeois homes in Senlis, at eighteen, she entered the convent Saint Joseph de Cluny where she continued to perform her menial tasks for the nuns. 

Wherever she found herself, the observance of her faith, her appreciation of the natural world with its own unique spirituality were central to her life – her ‘real’ life.

 During the twenty years she spent in the convent Seraphine’s existence was measured out by the ecclesiastical  routine with its rituals; services, prayers, hymns, contemplative silences, candle-light and incense. A little like Madame Bovary, Seraphine surrounded herself with images, hymns and art that romantically heightened her senses and receptivity. 

Below her placid exterior a frenetic vitality was taking form, as yet unsure to the way in which it would manifest itself and burst to the surface. There was no apparent artistic inclination at this stage, although it is said that Seraphine had liked to watch the drawing lessons carried out in the girls’ school. She discreetly observed and absorbed yet let nothing show on her impassive exterior for the moment.

Although the reason remains unclear, Seraphine decided to leave the convent at the age of 38. Perhaps this was a late act of rebellion or expression of independence. In spite of her placid façade Seraphine had a determined, decided streak like that displayed by animals, following some inborn vital instinct. 

Outside the museum - Senlis
She refused to attend the early Mass provided for the humble folk such as herself and insisted on going to the 11 o’clock service reserved for the bourgeois; it was her right. 
Senlis streets - often used as backclothes for films
 Freed from the rigid confines imposed by a life isolated from the active world beyond grey walls Seraphine would nevertheless follow a similar cloistered path for the rest of her days. Her existence was indeed dominated by degrees of seclusion, isolation, exclusion, withdrawal and finally internment in a mental asylum where she was kept behind walls till the end of her life. However Seraphine’s life went far beyond any confines, or restrictions set upon it and was about to enter a wholly new plane as she reached middle age. 
More cobbled streets that have attracted film directors.
 Whilst Zola’s characters are portrayed in urban and rural scenes of unremitting poverty, squalor, promiscuity and violence, the hardships endured by Seraphine are rendered insignificant by the beauty and richness of her burgeoning private world. She was not just another beast of burden like the others of her lowly cast; her spiritually-inspired art propelled her into a higher realm, inaccessible to lesser mortals. 
Chartres cathedral
Inspired like Picassiette before her, Seraphine was mesmerized by the stained-glass of the cathedral and churches . The imposing sculptures and paintings awoke in her the nascent spiritual drive to artistic creativity. 
Mural decoration from the House of Picassiette
Claiming that an angel had addressed her in church, Seraphine declared that she had been given the holy mission of creating art devoted to Our Lady. While she felt uncomfortable drawing or working with watercolour, Seraphine found her medium in paint. From around 1906 she devoted her nights to her nocturnal ecstasy of creation. Behind closed doors, using nature as her altar (Françoise Cloarec) and her creation as a gesture of worship Seraphine painted. 

With no formal training whatsoever or any concrete knowledge of art Seraphine asked for advice from the local artist, a certain Charles Hallo. He must have recognized a vitality in her art since he claimed she did not need help, but probably saw too that she was not adapted to any conventional painting class. Again, like Picassiette, she lived her art. She created instinctively and surrounding herself with her creations. 
Seraphine's tin of paints.
 Yet it would have been difficult to imagine that this peasant woman could feel such an impulse, let alone possess the skill to realize her art. While Picassiette lived in his artistic construction, this giant patchwork castle of porcelain, pottery and pieces of glass, visible to all, Seraphine’s art was largely hidden away. Her room was a secret shrine, materially impoverished since Seraphine possessed the strict minimum, yet aesthetically rich. Every surface was overcome with a wealth of flowers, real or painted whilst religious images decorated the walls of this very private personal space.
From the museum at Senlis.
 To the outside world, Seraphine struck an odd figure, eccentric yet unremarkable. Dressed in black, with her painted straw hat and wicker basket, she would scurry from one arduous task to another, seemingly content to follow unquestioningly the life fate had served her. Little revealed the rich internal life inside her, the vividness of her vision, the spirituality that was the base of her life. The wealth and fecundity of Seraphine’s art, in theme and production, would not find a parallel in her actual life. Her existence was sterile of any emotional and physical intimacy, and left her without children; barren. More tragic still, the end of this artist’s life was devoid of any artistic creation, Seraphine had been abandoned by her spiritual muse, deserted by all.

Using the industrial paint Ripolin as her base medium, Seraphine had taught herself to mix in other ‘secret’ ingredients to produce the vibrant colours, rich textures and enamelled finishes that still stun observers today and continue to baffle art experts as to their exact composition. One such ingredient was holy oil taken from the churches to give the painting a special force, thus continuing this spiritual bond in the actual creative process. While the theme of Seraphine’s art defies simple narrative, its visual impact is no less powerful. There are no human portraits – or representations of any living sentient creature – except for a bursting, rustling abundance of flowers, fruit, plants and trees that defy categorization. Flowers that look like feathers, flourish alongside buds like ambling caterpillars, fruit that resembles mystic eyes and leaves that rise upwards like ceremonial candles. This communion with the natural world did not however give rise to organic, or cyclical work. Indeed, piece was unique; self-contained, closed in on itself yet open to the spiritual. The paintings appear to have been conceived and realized in a spontaneous manner, carried out directly onto the canvas without preliminary work. 
 Guided by the Virgin, Seraphine claimed that she was a mere instrument, to whom spiritual forces would dictate. She herself would immerse herself in an atmosphere of other-worldlinesss. As she painted, Seraphine continually sang hymns, leaving the window to her modest room open to maintain this communication with the ‘above’. As her vibrant painted prayers counterbalanced the dismal nature of her day-time work (“les travaux noirs”) Seraphine devoted increasing amounts of time to her luminous nocturnal activities. Neighbours would be disturbed by a singing voice that was far from angelic, children would laugh at the gruff, hunched figure passing in the streets, scavenging for old wood and board on which to paint, sharp-tongued women would mock this “slattern”. Nothing, however, distracted Seraphine from her mission. With her frugal means she had just enough money to live her modest life – her only luxury being the purchase of her painting materials and the wine which she claimed ‘fortified’ her. Many of her basic needs were met by offering her artwork in exchange, to the point that the town must have had a considerable number of paintings, all dismissed, at best, as the strange dabblings of the poor village singleton/simpleton. It was one such painting that caught the eye of Wilhelm Uhde in a chance meeting of artistic genius in 1912.

 Coming across a painting that Seraphine had given her employers, Uhde no doubt found it inconceivable that the plain, simple woman who cleaned his private rooms could produce such intense work. The piece in question, a painting of apples, left Uhde physically affected, such was the effect it had on him. He said that he was literally dumbfounded by the powerful representation of the fruit. He immediately recognized in Seraphine, by her own description “unparalled” (“sans rivale”), a unique artist. Her work recalled the visceral drive – the vital force “élan vital” of Gothic art bursting upwards in a vertical movement of spiritual spontaneity, unlike the classical work of the Renaissance with its studied, horizontal growth (Françoise Cloarec). Seraphine herself admitted that she liked to experience the unleashed energy and force of the natural world through the violence of stormy weather, with its lashing rain and driving winds. Demanding to see other work, Seraphine began to present Uhde with other paintings that she had produced. So commenced a strange relationship that was based on a mutual need of art; on the one side the driven artist, on the other the connoisseur who became patron and ‘enabler’ to this singular woman . 

Although from two different worlds in almost every respect, not least in affluence, privilege and education, the lives of Uhde and Seraphine shared certain elements. Uhde’s refusal to follow through his parent’s professional ambitions for him in the legal field, his determination to forge a career in art appreciation, his unshakeable faith in his artistic protégés, his rejection of Nazi ideology and finally even his homosexuality at this time in history made of this German a unique figure. To a degree, his determined drive found a parallel in the dogged, blunt direction of Seraphine – both her art and personality – refusing to compromise or deviate. 

After an intense period spent in Paris, organizing exhibitions for Le Douannier Rousseau, Uhde had wanted to lose himself in calmer environment. Senlis represented a retreat from the hectic professional and city life of Paris, situated at one hour’s distance from the capital. Like Seraphine, he appreciated the secluded atmosphere of the Medieval town. Initially founded on an important crossroad by the Romans, Senlis later housed the Kings of France over ten centuries. This then was a town of royalty and religion; it was in Senlis that Clovis decided to embrace the Christian faith. Here Uhde felt that the myriad of streets afforded him a certain anonymity and he appreciated the calm, reflective atmosphere offered by this town of twenty churches. He found the quality of the light unique in this grey town, where the skies overhead offered a strange, pure luminosity. The townsfolk of Senlis may have muttered about this foreigner, yet they largely left him to get on with his personal business. This again mirrored the attitude of the inhabitants towards Seraphine; people left her to her odd behaviour. Her initial displays of oddness, such as painting a church statue of the Virgin Mary pink, were “des caprices” to be tolerated, albeit grudgingly. Uhde, like the unsophisticated “paysanne” Seraphine, was to be perceived as an outsider, a German in post-1871 France. The art that he managed to collect in the years prior to the First World War was confiscated by the French state once war was declared. When later returning to France after the Great War he was treated with suspicion. Not surprisingly, he was also later vilified by the Nazis for his interest in “perverse” art forms such as Cubism and Fauvism, and for daring to associate a landmark figure in German history with a representative of such foreign perversion; Picasso (cf Uhde’s biography.De Bismarck à Picasso). 

Above all, it was Uhde’s skill at recognizing, actually feeling great art, that brought he and Seraphine together. While this simple, comparatively inexpressive woman found it hard to reveal herself adequately in conversation with Uhde, she struck a chord with him aesthetically. In art Uhde and Seraphine met on an essential, visceral primitive level that preceeded words. The feeling that Uhde experienced in front of one of Seraphine’s works recalled those that he was subject to when faced with other great innovative art. The work of such artists as that of Le Douannier Rousseau, Cézanne, Braque, Gauguin, Bonnard and of course Picasso, all affected him. Seraphine, however, was different from his other artists. These artists, whatever their milieu, had some notion of the creative process; they exchanged ideas in the artistic circle and studied the work of others. Seraphine meanwhile was a virgin, an innocent who painted instinctively out of some primitive need. Uhde had fallen upon Seraphine’s strange meandering path in a chance encounter in this slumbering fairy-tale town whereas his meeting with the other artists had been less serendipitous. Some had been presented to him - his wife from his lavender mariage (the future Sonia Delauney) had introduced him to Le Dounnier Rousseau - or they had presented themselves to him in the heady city of Paris which favoured such creative contact. 

In Uhde, Seraphine was finally given the recognition and récompense for all her labour of love. Here indeed was a person of discerning taste, able to see beyond, or rather below the surface of her paintings, someone who could feel the pulsating vitality of her work. With his enthusiasm and encouragement Seraphine created prodigiously, eager to present Uhde with her latest works on his frequent visits to Senlis. Albeit a devoted, faithful servant Seraphine remained ever-resistant to any outside suggestion that she modify her style. She would execute her art but essentially it was her spiritual inspiration, her devotion to Mary that guided her hand, not a terrestrial lead or influence. Little by little the menial chores that earned her but a pittance were of increasing insignificance in the life of Seraphine. The execution of her painting took up more and more of Seraphine’s time and thoughts, an activity verging on the obsessional. The resulting art was flamboyant, ever-more vital and vivid and started to take on imposing proportions. 
Detail of L'arbre de la Vie
It was around this early period of creative fruition that historical events took precedence in the harmonious world of Senlis. These events would finally put a halt on the symbiotic relationship between Uhde and Seraphine, and tear apart the peace and tranquility that had reigned in Northern France. Even before the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, Uhde had been warned to leave France for his own safety. Thus obliged to abandon all his artistic missions, he left behind his rich collections and turn his back on his protégés; Seraphine was now alone.

Fully immersed in her art, Seraphine tried to buffer herself against the outside reality – the war-torn town beyond her own room, her inner sanctum. Yet despite being used to solitude and the life of a loner, Seraphine was to be changed irremediably. The four years of hostilites spent in the town she refused to leave made of Seraphine a scarred recluse. Senlis had witnessed the mass exodus of inhabitants fearful of the bombings, the trench warfare and the marauding troups of German soldiers who had taken over Northern France. Seraphine, however, chose to stay on resolutely, occupying her familiar territory. Besieged in her room in a deserted town she incorporated into her art such patriotic elements as the tricolour flag as a mark of resistance against the occupying forces. The town was ransacked and partly ravaged by fire, but Seraphine remained in place with just sufficient means for physical survival. And survive she did, but the psychological scars of her war experience could not be removed. 

The pulsions and imaginings that had always run current to Seraphine’s artistic drive started to assume a strange, unstoppable force. Her appearance and behaviour were changed, her bizarre gait and layered clothing gave her a strange aspect that alarmed the townsfolk. Perhaps a little like the Mad Meg of Brueghel’s painting, Seraphine no longer faded into the background; she was visibly odd. During the war years Seraphine had patiently waited for Uhde to return. She expected him to reappear, unannounced, to deliver her from her isolation, liberate her from her total state of deprivation. The scarcity of food and sleep, the constant emotional stress and the lack of the basics essential to rudimentary comfort were perhaps of little consequence compared to the absence of Seraphine’s creative confident, Uhde. Possibly convinced that she had abandoned the town for good, or had perhaps been killed during the occupation, Uhde did not return to Senlis after the war to recover Seraphine. Indeed, he and his sister settled in the nearby town of Chantilly. Seraphine was left to wait for an increasingly improbable return, left to perform her menial tasks and accomplish her art. Yet Uhde and Seraphine’s paths had not separated definitively, but would not cross for some thirteen years.

Hearing of an exhibition of the work of local artists in the town hall of Senlis in October 1927 Uhde was taken aback to find several large paintings by Seraphine. These dominated the walls, shadowing the insignificant Sunday creations of ‘worthier’ townsfolk. Although Seraphine’s art was belittled by the narrow-minded people of Senlis, the interest it generated in Paris was electrifying. An article in the press concerning these works sparked a growing curiosity in this peasant woman’s art so that Seraphine’s art became the object of much attention and subsequent praise. Avant-garde in his taste, Uhde had correctly recognised Seraphine to be an artist like few others.

 Other art critics now sensed that same primal force which Uhde had initially identified. Even the local newspaper, both obsequious and mocking in tone, was obliged to acknowledge  ‘their’ Seraphine, referred to as the local Le Douanier Rousseau. Nevertheless the acknowledgment of Seraphine’s art was finally set in motion. Fearing that some other critic would snatch up these unique pieces, Uhde bought the exhibition paintings and later presented himself again to their creator, after all the years of silence.

Recognizing an artistic phenomenon rarely encountered, even in the modern art he so favoured, Uhde became Seraphine’s patron, actively encouraging her to devote herself solely to her art. How strange it was to find such an “immense and complex world” born from a woman whose life could be resumed in a few basic sentences. He compared her trajectory to that of Joan of Arc’s; both women led by a calling from God, ready to burn for their mission. From that moment Seraphine would hand over her work to her new master and mentor, Uhde. He prepared the paintings for exhibit and sale not just in Paris, but in Germany too. 

With new means, and an overwhelming urge to paint, Seraphine’s art entered a period of great productivity and aesthetic wonder. L’Arbre Rouge, L’Arbre de Vie and Les Lilas Blancs date from this period and expose the mastery of Seraphine’s vision and technique. Largely rejecting the expensive paints brought in from Paris, in preference of her secret concoctions, Seraphine would nevertheless devore the ever-bigger canvases that were now delivered to Senlis for her benefit. Her paintings grew significantly in size, ever larger and taller in order to be closer to her source of inspiration, the Virgin. The application of paint became increasingly elaborate as touches of colour added a jewel-like quality to the finish, flowers, adorned with beads and feathers, would assume other forms and the whole would glow and vibrate with an inner light and vitality. Seraphine claimed that she did not need much light with which to work since the paintings themselves provided their own luminosity. Uhde’s sister Anne-Marie remarked that the life bursting out from one painting of flowers would prevent her from sleeping, such was the force exuded from the efflorescence of the blooms. 

Seraphine herself had no doubts as to the significance of her art. She shrugged off any comparison to the paintings of Uhde’s other, naturally lesser, Modern Primitive discoveries. Camille Bombois and Louis Vivin were for Seraphine mere dabblers since their work bore no spiritual essence; her painting was Art in the most sacred sense of the term. For Seraphine art was not a leisure, it was the result of a calling; creation was a duty. From a tone that was initially exhilarating yet increasingly disquietening, Seraphine’s art was to enter a new phase. 

Manic in her drive to paint, Seraphine would lose herself in her work, literally depriving herself of food and sleep through her labour of love, using only her fervent devotion and special wine to sustain her. The whispering spiritual voices that had always accompanied her now became more insistent and Seraphine’s conversations with them louder and louder. No longer acts and visual representations of devotion to God, Seraphine’s art seemed to assume a worrying, mutating aspect There was now a sense of latent threat and approaching apocalypse. The harmony and beatitude of Seraphine’s art now gave way to a hint of discord and unease. Parallel to this, Seraphine herself changed from a relatively docile, unassuming figure to one that was capricious, demanding, over-proud and given to the extravagant purchase of frivolous articles. Sadly these were not the simple caprices of the artist discovering the heady effect of fame and success; these excessive acts would mark the beginning of an irremediable decline.

Following the 1929 exhibition, Les peintres du Cœur sacré, that Uhde organized Seraphine gained more renown and received a significant sum of money for her work. Relative fame fed distortions in her self-perception whilst the spending of the ‘serious’ money that her painting could now generate distracted Seraphine. Indulging in a new-found materialism, Seraphine took no heed of Uhde’s warnings of the dangers of such excess at this time. On the contrary she felt hostile when admonished for her spending and became secretive and reclusive. She would add to the numerous paddocks and chains that already ‘protected’ her room from intruders, taunters and the Evil Eye, refusing to receive visitors, even Uhde or his sister. 

The artistic climate was indeed beginning to feel the repercussions of the post-war Great Depression, whilst the clouds of political unrest in Europe cast a shadow over Parisian art markets. The demand for art was diminishing and consequently Seraphine’s painting was selling less. Unable to keep up with the exorbitant bills that Seraphine’s expenses were producing, feeling frustrated and perhaps a little frightened by the behaviour of his protégée, Uhde started to distance himself from his protégée. This may not have been wholly intentional on Uhde’s part, but Seraphine certainly felt the full impact of this ‘abandon’. Fearing that her art would fall into oblivion, her means of a living cut off, her source of recognition and encouragement denied her Seraphine slipped into unsafe territory.

 Little by little Seraphine seemed to lose the sense of direction and security that her art afforded her. The more she was invaded by the material concerns of the ‘real’ world, the more she lost her grip on all sense of reality. Away from the safe confines of her own visionary universe, Seraphine could not cope with the multitude of demands that the concrete world seemed to make of her. Inborn eccentricities were no longer contained, stabilized and channeled by her painting but were given free rein. The artist was overwhelmed, finally rendered powerless and unproductive as she entered a grey void.
Winding, anonymous streets of the town of Senlis.
 The voices that now filled Seraphine’s head gave her headaches, drowning out the peaceful words of the Virgin. Seraphine no longer heard the gentle poetry of her inspiration; now she was simply subject to the discordant cries of hysterical messages. She was ‘told’ to buy her wedding trousseau for her approaching marriage to a certain Cyrille – possibly a pure figment of her imagination and wishful thinking – and later given orders to act as a messenger to herald oncoming doom. Increasingly vocal in her missions, Seraphine strayed from her room, dismissing her painting as she started to haunt the streets of Senlis. Preaching and muttering to fleeing passers-by Seraphine became an image of insanity like Dulle Driet. 
Dulle Griet - Pieter Bruegel - 1562
Feeling shunned by Uhde, forgotten by the art world, abandoned by her creative inspiration, no longer able to converse with the Virgin Mary, Seraphine felt herself to be insignificant and believed that her art was now redundant. While she felt herself to be invisible to the world, she nevertheless drew the attention of the townsfolk around her. Disapproval grew as Seraphine’s eccentricities took on an increasingly anti-social, manic form. Seraphine was convinced that she was being persecuted by certain members of the town, targeted by a campaign to poison her, and yet also believed herself witness to several criminal acts of sex abuse and murder on the part of members of the clergy.
Asile psychiatrique Clermont (men's block).
Perhaps in an attempt to redeem her extravagant material sins, or to prepare for her ‘imminent’ departure to Spain to marry her fictive fiancé Cyrille, Seraphine began to lighten herself of her worldly possessions. Desperate to accomplish this new mission Seraphine was finally apprehended by the police as she was found depositing strange bundles of her belongings around the town. The doctors who examined her soon declared that Seraphine was victim to serious psychosis and represented a danger to herself and the community. Once sectioned, Seraphine was physically removed from the ‘real’ world which she had ceased to inhabit for some time. At first sent to a local hospital, Seraphine was then transferred to the large mental asylum in Clermont-de-l’Oise where she would spend the next ten years, until her death in 1942.
Witches' Sabbath - Goya 1821
Uhde attempted to visit Seraphine in the institution but was warned that this could destabilize her condition further, as would any pursuit of her artistic activities. Nevertheless he did manage to fund her care in a private wing so that she finally escaped the Bedlam-like scenes that had become her daily lot. From the calm and spiritual reflection that had made up her life alongside the nuns, Seraphine discovered herself to be in a nightmare community of the insane, surrounded by mad sisters like herself, worthy of a Goya painting. Although she perhaps found a certain comfort in the private room Uhde financed, Seraphine never expressed any desire to paint again, stating that “everything opposes it here”. Like her peer, the similarly-interned sculptress Camille Claudel (1864-1943), Seraphine turned her back on her art definitively. Indeed both women plunged into the darkness and sterility of insanity as they failed to regain either mental equilibrium or artistic inspiration. 
Camille Claudel

The voices that had invaded Seraphine’s head and led to her downfall were never silenced; on the contrary. She demanded paper on which to compose the voluminous, rambling letters she felt compelled to write. Such letters were addressed to figures of authority in the institution, the police or clergy – never to Uhde. The missives generally aimed to warn those concerned of imminent danger, to throw light on some heinous crime that she was privy to, or simply to indicate that she was the victim of vile plots. The writings were never the direct, conscious expression of a woman trying to give voice to the demons inside her. Their voices were all too apparent, her madness all too visible but Seraphine seemed to be unaware of their hold on her. Her letters never offered her a therapeutic release, they simply remained the sprawling transcripts of the play being acted out in Seraphine’s head. 

While Seraphine’s creative life had ended in barrenness, she herself became obsessed with the notion of procreation and pregnancy. She believed herself to be pregnant with twins and spent large amounts of time fretting over their well-being. Severe deprivation began to make itself felt on every level in the mental institution during the war years. The task of feeding her imaginary infants and protecting them from the imminent dangers was Seraphine’s principal concern. Her condition further deteriorated as her mental health spiralled downwards when her fears shackled her and psychosis gripped her in its vice. The breast that had never fed any child was now the source of much suffering as a cancerous tumour was discovered. In pain, yet racked by worry for her starving infants Seraphine would try to find food in any form possible in an institution that had nothing more to offer. At night, like the beasts of burden she had once cared for, she would graze on the grass in the gardens like a cow, on all fours, cowering in pain and hunger.
Celle qui fut la belle heaulmière : Rodin 1887

At the age of 78 Seraphine finally died, just like thousands of other inmates of psychiatric institutions under the Vichy regime during the war years and like Camille Claudel herself; ill and starved to death. While Seraphine had always dreamt of a grand funeral for a “happy resurrection” she became an anonymous figure, buried in a mass grave. She who had envisioned the flowers and angels of the world above became a living version of Claudel’s Clotho, or Rodin’s Celle qui fut la belle Heaulmière
 Uhde never saw his protégée after her internment and believed that she had died years before her actual death. He himself died five years after her in 1947, having spent years fleeing the Gestapo due to his support of degenerates such as Seraphine. Uhde lost his German nationality and was never to obtain that of the French nation yet he was finally buried on French soil – in the cemetery Montparnasse in Paris. An exhibition room was named in Uhde’s honour in the Musée National d’Art Moderne of Paris in 1948 in recognition of the German who had contributed so much to French art. Two paintings by Seraphine of Senlis were exhibited there.

Louis Wain's cats portraying his decline in mental health
The biggest injust suffered by Seraphine the artist was the lack of acknowledgement of her art for many years after her death. Her very real talent was perceived as some kind of freak, chance occurrence from the moment that she was labelled insane. Nevertheless the nature of her work still defies today any concrete categorization or wholly satisfying explanation. Although her mind inevitably unraveled, her art remained intact. Her work was halted abruptly in its prime and does not track the full descent into insanity or reflect any decline in artistic technique. The work of Louis Wain mirrored the deterioration of the artist’s mental health, as his beloved cats morphed into kaleidoscopic, psychedelic cats; Seraphine’s art remained whole.

 A beautiful French film was made in 2008, Séraphine de Senlis. Directed by Martin Provost, the film was awarded seven Cesars from the French Academy, including best film and best actress for for Yolande Moreau’s incredible interpretation of the artist. However it somehow failed to do justice to the full luminosity and vibrancy of Seraphine’s work, as the breath-taking colours of the paintings were rather submerged and subdued by the dark scenes of the sets. Seraphine’s vivid art seems somewhat toned down and trapped in the grisaille and discretion of the town of Senlis. 

Several books have been written (in French) which have truly brought Seraphine to life – the two that I read (Alain Vircondelet: Séraphine: de la Peinture à la Folie. Albin Michel 2008 and Séraphine by Françoise Cloarec. Libretto 2011) gave form to the art and artist. More importantly still, there was a large exhibition of Seraphine’s work in the Musée Maillol, Paris in 2008, which I missed since I’d never heard of this artist! 
The poster that I bought during my recent visit to the Musée d’Art et d’Archéologie at Senlis is now on the wall at the foot of my bed; I look at it every day and wonder about the enigmatic process of artistic creation

Should you be interested, I wrote another post on Seraphine after this one: 
Seraphine of Senlis at the Maillol.