April 15, what an horrific heart stopping night. In 1996 Paris was a delicious wonderment to me, my daughter was living on the Quai des Grands Augustins, Notre Dame was the view from the apartment windows, a stones throw. Solitary early morning walks around the Ile de la Cite, before the bustle, were a joy. Pleasure made treasure when I discovered that tucked away amongst the grand bourgeois town houses was the studio of Camille Claudel. She had lived at 19 Quai de Bourbon. If you had been fortunate enough to be tutored by marble chipping, bronze casting wax fiddlers then Rodin would have been part of your staple diet, and in the great shadow cast by the master you might have caught sight of the precocious and precious talent of Camille Claudel.
Camille was Rodin's pupil, assistant, lover and ultimately artistic rival. Rodin loved her then scorned and abandoned her. She was also abandoned by her family after her father's death and committed to an asylum by her brother, where she spent the last thirty years of her life, despite efforts by many to get her released. Her life reads like a beach holiday novel but her work was sublime, it offers a tenderness and insight that Rodin's work seldom exhibited. She is now considered France's foremost female sculptor
So watching the tragedy of the great Cathedral burning on France 24 took me back to those few days, two decades ago, when I daily stalked the ghost of Camille on the Quai de Bourbon, happier Paris times.
I recently caught a programme on the painter Sean Scully. I was greatly taken with his work back in the eighties but had lost sight of him, not difficult as he has been cruising the stratosphere. The paintings were vibrant and exciting and above all painterly when paint was losing it's flavour. Spectacular to watch him paint, aggression and intellect in harmony, and wonderful to see an artist of his stature working without an army of assistants to prop him up. What drove the programme, you couldn't afford to blink, was witnessing the enormity of Scully's ego. He has stormed through the art world, Europe and America like an unstoppable cyclops, bursting with vigour, energy, anger and the unblinking rightness of his mission to conquer the world with his brand of abstract painting. Also fascinating was the frank insight into the wheeler dealer head an artist needs to become a superstar. Bald statements like " I want to be as famous as Matisse" set the entire tone, not you will note " I want to paint as well as Matisse". Great stuff, catch it if you can, absolutely nauseating but utterly splendid.
Life at the end of my lane, my pastoral patch with it's meadow grazing milkers grows less tranquil by the day. The growing clamour beyond the orchards and pastures is now difficult to ignore. The boil that is Brexit is reaching it's lancing head. " How can a poor man stand such times and live". They are gathered on the distant horizon, Farage and his Falangists, Johnson's Jingoists and Rees Mogg and his Mosleyites, all intent on creating a freebooting, carpetbagging Brexit, poor Britain, desperate and sinking and where to look for an image to conjure the moment. It takes an overwrought johnny foreigner to provide that perfect, all encapsulating vision.
'The Raft of the Medusa', the young Gericault's masterpiece, painted in 1818 a hundred years before the present calamity it so perfectly mirrors. It depicts an historic disaster, 147 survivors of a terrible sinking, adrift and clinging to a hurriedly constructed raft. Fifteen were rescued, the remainder perished. A great disaster and a national scandal ensued when the blame was attributed to the poor captaincy of the sunk vessel. Ring any bells! This French masterpiece won't cause the Brexiteers to blink, you won't find a print of this hanging on the walls of Johnson Villas. Closer to home of course you could reference the work of a truly British genius, Turner. His greatest work 'The Fighting Temeraire', a celebrated gunship that had fought at Trafalgar is being towed away to the breakers by an ugly little tug boat. One suspects that the consuming poignancy of this great image would not penetrate the rhino hide of the bigoted right.
I would go to an old friend for my prophetic viewing, James Pryde. The Scottish artist conjures perfectly for me the depressed, troubled and gloomy Brexit Britain steeped in it's dilemma's and moral decay. Pryde is often dismissed as a 'one trick painter' but it's a classy trick. His fantastic interiors and cityscapes are filled with uncertainty, tiny figures dwarfed in ominous murky interiors or diminished by towering buildings in varying states of disrepair and collapse. The conjured landscapes are not ones where optimism thrives, paintings for our times I would suggest.
AGED AND AWKWARD