Monday, 19 August 2019

Selfie Success

One of my daughters is an illustrator who has slightly serendipitously developed a second string painting murals and sets for festivals. When she sent me a video of the piece of work she has just completed, I glimpsed within the clip this scene of people taking selfies. What a thoroughly modern accolade - I love your work, therefore I want to be pictured in front of it. Right now, is there a higher form of praise?:

Sunday, 18 August 2019

Gerard Dorville

As well as Nicolas Rolin’s magnificent hospital for the poor, with its Rogier van der Weyden Last Judgment, Beaune also tempts the eager sightseer with its own small museum.

I love small museums. They usually contain something interesting, an object that gives you a glimpse into a bit of history or a way of life that you didn't know about, or a display that introduces you to a talent you would never have heard of otherwise.

In the Beaune museum when we were there, they had an exhibition of the work of a cartoonist called Gerard Dorville, who lived between 1933 and 1976 and, as the museum put it, "created, with much humour and irony, cartoon strips showing people typical of French post-war society in amusing and comical situations of everyday life."

Dorville's work was published in magazines such as Record, Vaillant and Pilote. This blogger claims that he is pretty much forgotten now, which may be partly explained, I suppose, by the fact that his life was shorter than most.

In the poster here, it seems to me that Dorville shows similarities in his style to Ronald Searle (I have an idea that this could be set against some of Searle's drawings of schoolmasters)

Dorville's series depicting the various types of French person who can be described as "con" did not really enlighten me further on exactly how that strange term could be translated into English, but it did help me understand its meaning better, even if I am no closer to articulating it in my own native tongue:

Dorville seems to have created many characters for his cartoon strips but the one that won my heart was a man called Arsène. He appears to spend most of his life as a cleaner. 

In this strip, he notices that all the clerks where he works are going into the director's office, offering him bunches of lily of the valley. He wracks his brain and realises it is the 1st of May, which, I presume is a day when people do this in France. He is worried because he ought to be following suit but as he says he doesn't have the same resources as all the suits. Finally, he resolves his problem and in the last frame we see Arsène burst into the director's office clutching a bunch of lily of the valley, which he offers to his boss. "But it's the 15th", his boss cries. "I know, and I'm sorry", replies Arsène, "my financial means are extremely limited and so I had to wait until the price of lily of the valley had dropped." 

I love Arsène's optimistic innocence, his tousled hair, I love the simple line with which so much personality is created; how can someone so endearing be conjured out of so little?

In the next sequence of pictures, Arsène is given the job of clearing out all the office's old newspapers. "They collect these tons and tons of old paper and apparently it's my fault" he mutters to himself, opening the cupboard he is supposed to be emptying. The entire contents fall out on top of him. "Look at all these old yellowing papers", he mutters, and then he picks up one and begins to read. "How gripping", he exclaims, "strikes, barricades, protests!" And then it comes to him - he's missed the lot, (the paper, from May, is, presumably from 1968, perhaps some years before). "When I think," he cries, "that I did nothing, with my usual lateness". Somehow again, this simple tale is made charming and amusing by the artist's brilliant characterisation through line. Dear, silly Arsène, a dreamer, rather than a player:
Far too late, he decides to set up his own protest, occupying the director's office, with a sign attached to his broom handle reading "Power to Arsène" and a stream of claims about contesting authority and going on strike. 

In the next strip, we see an unknown citizen trying to make a telephone call from a public telephone box to a Monsieur Goscinny (he of Asterix fame perhaps?) He has absolutely no success, and reflects on the better conditions given to astronauts - air conditioning, food and drink, the possibility of sitting down and stretching their legs - in their equally cramped cabins. A crowd gathers as our unknown hero continues to try, without success, to put his call through, and eventually a gendarme arrives. The failed caller exits the booth, exclaiming about how scandalous it is that a heroic citizen who has the courage to spend three hours in a telephone box is treated with such lack of respect while, when astronauts emerge from their confined surroundings,  they are acclaimed by the entire world:

While the exhibition gave really very few details of the life of Dorville, my life was improved by being introduced to his cheerful affectionate drawings, and I was left wondering if it is a particularly Francophone talent, this creation of little worlds of drawn personalities (Tintin, of course, comes to mind, first and foremost, but also Sempé and the above mentioned Goscinny)

This is the last picture I took in the exhibition. Here are the captions, roughly translated to English:

Along the top: "If, when looking at these images you say to yourself, "how is it possible that a magazine like Pilot which is supposed to be at the avant garde of humour and is always looking out for new graphic directions, allows itself, presumably for low reasons to do with publicity, to publish this hackneyed gag that nobody could possibly want?"

Down the side: Well the reason we did so is quite simple - this scene (which proves once and for all the quality of our magazine) unfolded under the gaze of one of our number, on the 6th May, on a pavement in Jussieu street in the 5th arrondismenet of Paris. If this female reader recognises herself in the picture we would ask her to introduce herself to the editorial team who would like to congratulate her  on the obvious interest she takes in Pilot, while advising her to enjoy the magazine at home in future, so as to avoid further such incidents.

Saturday, 17 August 2019

Beaune Altarpiece

Tourism is strangely haphazard. While some places are nowadays overrun by busloads of people, (who do not always look as affected by what they see as they might have hoped, considering they have often come to Europe from as far away as China and no doubt have spent a pretty penny to do so), other places, although replete with treasures, are virtually ignored by the global tourist trade, (hurray, hurray, hurray).

Beaune, the capital of Burgundy, is a town that falls into the second category. We didn't really know anything about it when we decided it might be an interesting stop off point on our way from Hungary to visit our children in England. It turned out to be a really pretty little town which houses one of the great paintings of the world.

The painting is by Rogier van der Weyden, and was commissioned by Nicolas Rolin. A many-panelled altarpiece, it was commissioned for the hospital for paupers that Rolin established in Beaune. That hospital is astoundingly lovely and has wonderful beamed ceilings, each beam decorated with its own, highly individual face, I will spare you photographs of these, as, having attended the odd holiday snaps slide night in my time, I am aware that there are only so many pictures that anyone can absorb in one sitting.

Instead I will restrict myself to the contents of the room that houses the many-panelled altarpiece.

Here is the whole thing. As you can probably tell, it depict the Last Judgment. The figure in red, to the left of the Virgin, is St Peter and beside him sit St John the Evangelist, and St  James the Younger (?) On the right, there is St John the Baptist, St Andrew, St James the Older, St Paul, and Mary Magdalene. In the centre is the Archangel Michael, beneath Christ. Beside Christ are two inscriptions: "Come, the blessed of the Lord, to inherit the kingdom prepared for you since the beginning of the world" (Matthew 25) and "Depart from me, sinners, to the eternal fire, prepared for the devil and his lost angels" (Matthew 25).

On the left, behind St Peter, the figure in red, is a group of four men, one of whom is a pope, another a crowned male and a third a bishop. A fourth figure, who is bald, appears to have been added later. Historians agree that: the papal figure is probably Eugene IV, who gave permission for Rolin's hospital to be established; the crowned figure is probably Philippe the Good of Burgundy; the bishop is John Rolin, the son of the hospital's founder; and the bald man may be the artist himself.

The group of three women on the right are probably: Phillipote Rolin, one of the daughters of the founder of the hospital; Isabel of Portugal and Duchess of Burgundy; and either Mary Magdalene or one of Rolin's family:

In the 1870s the altarpiece was taken to the Louvre and the panels at the back were removed, so that they could be displayed separately from the front. They depict Nicolas Rolin and his wife Guigone des Salins. Rolin was born in 1376 at Autun and died in 1462. There is a wonderful painting in the Louvre by van Eyk that features him, so he clearly was a keen patron of the arts, with a good eye for the best painters working in his time, (some might argue that van Eyk and van der Weyden are among the best painters working in any time [certainly, I would]). 

The red angel behind Rolin is a seraphim, which, the museum caption explained, is a rather superior rank in the hierarchy of angels and therefore is a token of the high social status of Rolin. 

Rolin's wife was born in 1403 and married Rolin in 1423. When he died, she dedicated herself to the service of the poor until her own death on Christmas Eve in 1470. She is shown surrounded by Rolin family arms and symbols, including presumably the coat of arms borne by the grey winged angel.

In van der Weyden's annunciation scene on another of the altarpiece's back panels, Mary is reading the Book of Isaiah when the archangel Gabriel comes to tell her that she will give birth to the sun of god. The lily beside her symbolises her virginity and the dove represents the Holy Spirit.
I marvelled at this astonishing work of art and felt, as I do so often when I look at the masterpieces of hundreds of years ago, that we cannot really claim great progress when we are now so bad at creating beauty. As I was thinking this, a rather swanky American tour guide came in with a small group of serious, well-heeled looking travellers. She nodded to the room attendant and apparently from nowhere an enormous magnifying glass glided across into the centre of the painting so that it was possible to see even more clearly the exquisite detail of the artist's skill. This kind of technology was impossible of course in the time of van der Weyden, whereas that is the achievement of our age - technological advance. It would be wrong of me to say that I would choose the ability to create beauty over the ability to create extraordinary technology, but I do wonder whether there ever had to be a trade off and why we cannot sustain both at the same time.

Also in the room where the van der Weyden work was displayed were some huge tapestries. The red ones were made in the 15th century and used to decorate the seats near the alter in the chapel. The others tell the tale of Saint Eloi, an arrogant man, until Jesus revealed himself to him and taught him humility. They were made early in the 16th century. Finally, there is a 15th century annunciation with a background of silk onto which have been embroidered gold and silver threads