25 October 2012

La Jeune Anglaise

A weekend in Paris. There was too much to do/see/absorb that I can write about and do justice to. So, I'm going to briefly touch on padlocks on bridges. I know that folk attach padlocks to the railings and bars of bridges in all sorts of places, in many different cities and countries. But I really took the time to see them in Paris. Golden nuggets clustered like barnacles over La Seine. Couples (romantics/best-friends/soul-mates) lock padlocks onto bridges between two separate shores, connecting them and making them one, to signify everlasting relationships, everlasting love. I'm not so sure about the everlasting part, but I do like the idea of remembering particular moments with particular people for ever and ever and marking these with something tangible. Tangible and, of course, highly romanticised. But in the French language, everything seems a little romanticised... And husky, gorgeously gutteral.

Padlocking things, for instance, like reading the denouement of Kate Chopin's The Awakening while listening to the incessant rain pelting down outside our Paris hotel. Like gulping red wine with my mother on a boat trip at sunset along La Seine and watching young women eat bread and drink with each other with their legs dangling over the edge above the water. Like seeing the Apocalypse all sun-bright in a sky-high stained glass window in the shape of a rose, one petal depicting the Whore of Babylon being carried away by the Beast. Like reading a novel based on Ernest and Hadley Hemingway's life in Paris in the upstairs library of Shakespeare and Company then buying a hardback pink-covered Ronald Firbank. Like coming across a rain-soaked leafy little museum in Renoir's studio and gardens all about Montmartre and the 'histoire, boheme, cabarets' in amongst all the glorious tat surrounding the Sacre Coeur. Like being floored by water lilies in an old orangery. Eight enormous canvasses curved around the walls painted deeply and heart-wringingly by Monet. I fell head-over-heels into that pond.

Like finding a revelation of an artist in a little room beneath these masterpieces. We found Chaïm Soutine. He was born in Jewish province in Minsk in 1893, then moved to Paris aged twenty, where he lived in Montparnasse along with other Eastern European artists. We stayed in Montparnasse for the weekend, purely by accident. Or, indeed, serendipitously. Soutine visited the Louvre regularly, and was enthralled by the old masters. He met Modigliani a couple of years after coming to Paris. Well, this friendship sealed my interest in Soutine, as I have a long-held adolescent love for Modigliani. [A framed blow-up study of one of his portraits as re-imagined by my thirteen-year-old self in oil pastel and batik hanging in the living room of my family home is an embarrassing testament to this.] Soutine was also befriended and sponsored by Madeleine Castaing. She had previously been an actress in silent films, then became an antique dealer. Soutine painted her portrait and it is STRONG. She is wearing a red dress and a fur coat, she has red lips and a long nose, she is beautiful, expressive, distinctive. Her eyes droop slightly at the outside corners and her her hands seem distracted, like her fingers are worrying each other...

The portraits have a wit, a humour, yet they show more. Like the haunting eyes of a little girl in La petite fille à la poupée. He was also an obsessive, as evidenced by his many series. Series of turkeys, rabbits, head waiters, valets, choirboys, plucked chickens and endless beef carcasses. It was all the idolising of Rembrandt that did it. Though Andrew Forge did say of Soutine that 'he can paint a dozen turkeys, and each picture is like the discovery of a turkey'. The many canvasses of beef carcasses are rather a treat. As the exhibition pamphlet describes, 'the viscera of the spread-eagled animal glisten with vivid reds'. Well, Soutine did have fresh carcasses delivered from abattoirs which he then sprayed with fresh blood to maintain the colour, so I guess they would glisten... Trees were another big thing of his. Sometimes many, at sharp and fluid angles in the wind, painted in a way to both contain and emphasise their wildness, sometimes a single focal point in the foreground. Soutine spent his childhood in Minsk where the idea of tree as protector was central to traditional rites and customs. A childhood in Minsk, then a death at the age of fifty in Paris. He is buried in Montparnasse Cemetery. Picasso, Max Jacob and Cocteau all attended the funeral. This cemetery was first place we walked around on our weekend. We saw so many family plots, so many plaques, statues, all-out temples. Bodies piled down inside the earth so beautifully. We found the joint grave of Sartre and de Beauvoir, the pale stone covered in red and pink lipstick kisses. If only I had also tracked down both Seburg and Sontag, lying there beneath our wandering feet.

La Jeune Anglaise
I'm so glad Soutine came to light. I'm padlocking him for sure. This Young English Girl discovered him. La Jeune Anglaise. Though she resembles my mother a great deal more than she does me. Fitting, as this portrait is her favourite. Along with Woman Entering Water, the white-clad Rembrandtian figure flaunting what she thinks are knees like hers.

1 comment:

Ma said...

A beautiful tribute to a terrific weekend, despite the pouring rain!