Thursday, 31 March 2011

August Macke, 1887-1914

Lady in a Green Coat by August Macke

A man in Paris went to see a doctor.
“Doctor“, he pleaded, “you must help me. I’m so sad. I sit in my room all day long and the tears flow down my cheeks. I can’t stop weeping, I’m so sad”.
“Tush, tush!” dismissively replied the doctor. “This is nothing! The great clown Pagliacci is in town. Go and see him. He’ll cure you of your sadness”.
“But, doctor”, said the man pitifully. “I am Pagliacci”.

Louis-Ferdinand Céline wondered why we refuse to be cured of our loneliness. Albert Einstein believed that two things were infinite, the universe and human stupidity, though he wasn’t sure about the universe. John Lennon said that he was the walrus, goo goo g’joob. And German artist August Macke loved light, colour and beauty and was killed in the mud of the ‘Great War for the Civilisation of the World’, that universal mockery to human dignity.

Market in Tunisia by August Macke

Great Zoological Garden by August Macke

Kairouan by August Macke

Opinion mongers, moral authority & Nice 'la belle ville'


I felt her heaving under me, moving up and down, up and down, and each movement sent a shuddering pulse through my body.

It lasted about ten minutes, then the lady sitting next to me looked at me and said: “That was the worst turbulence I’ve known in 20 years of flying. I’ve never known anything so scary. How about you?”
“Well,” I told her, “there’s was that time I visited the offices of a giant Japanese corporation only to find that the building had been taken over by a gang of international terrorists and I had to save the lives of the hostages wearing only a pair of trousers and a cotton vest.”
“Wow!” the lady said. 
“Oh no,” I said, “what am I saying, that wasn’t me, I’m getting confused, that was Bruce Willis in Die Hard.

The plane stabilised and we continued our journey. Thirty minutes later we were skimming a few hundred feet over the Mediterranean in our approach to Nice-Côte d’Azur Airport. I could see the Promenade des Anglais and the prominent dome of the Negresco. We touched the tarmac, the captain put the engines into reverse thrust, and we taxied to a halt at the terminal building.

Nice has become my destination of choice. It is large enough to have everything you could want - restaurants, museums, art galleries, theatres, clubs, a large public library - but not too big that you can lost in it. It is also a hub for excursions - Antibes and Cannes to the west, Monaco and Menton to the east, Grasse and the mountains to the north.

On one such excursion an American lady sat next to me on the train and began to give me her opinions on global warming and abortion. She asked what my opinion was on abortion and was surprised when I told her that I didn’t have one. 

Now I realise that not having an opinion on this important question makes me very unfashionable. After all, isn’t this the age of the opinion monger, when people are expected to have instant opinions on any topic you care to name? Some who are particularly adept at the art (if that indeed is what it is) get highly paid jobs as media pundits, and some even aspire to their own TV show where they can impress and delight their army of attentive and admiring fans with their insightful opinions on everything and nothing. Some of their followers even start to talk in the same technical media jargon as they do. They aren’t content to watch a TV set, they have to talk like one, too! Well, I may be many things, but I’m not a TV set. And I don’t have many opinions, either - although I do have this one.

The train was heading east along the littoral, and the lady got off at Monaco. I continued to Menton, a seaside town of around 30,000 inhabitants close to the Italian border.

It was a warm day in October, the sky was an impossible blue, and the palm trees were glistening in the sunshine. I headed straight for the front and along the Promenade du Soleil, passed an empty beach, and arrived at the Quai Gordon Bennett (it’s true!) and the Quai Napoléon III. The port was full of luxury yachts set against the backdrop of the old town, happily still preserving at least a vestige of its old fishing village charm.

Menton Vieux Port

The town, in fact, is full of charming niches. I stumbled upon one wonderful square (see photo at top of post), and could easily understand why the English and Russian aristocracy made Menton their winter watering hole in the Nineteenth century.
After a while I headed back to the station and took the first train the few miles over the border to Ventimiglia in Italy.  

Ventimiglia is situated on the Gulf of Genoa and is about double the size of Menton. The River Roia flows through the town, dividing it in two. It has a small port, but none of the luxury yachts of Menton. Many smart apartment blocks overlook the river, though there is also a lower income zone complete with washing hanging from lines across the narrow streets. For me it all added to the character of the town which I liked very much.


I had lunch on a terrace of a seafront restaurant where a refined, elderly Italian lady was eating a plate of mussels in the traditional style, with her fingers.  I spent a couple of hours moping around then took a rickety Italian railways train back to Nice.

Back in my hotel I switched on the TV where an American senator on CNN was saying that ‘America needs to regain its moral authority’. I’ve heard politicians talk about this so-called moral authority before, but have never quite understood what it is. Is it a gift? Something which is bestowed upon you by God? And if you believe that you are blessed with moral authority how do you persuade others that you are? I wanted the interviewer to ask a few probing questions of the senator, but he just let him drone on, so I switched channels to a mindless French game show called Attention à la marche (Mind the Step), which seemed to be more about the presenter than the contestants. It was bland and cheap, not too different to the senator and his moral authority, in fact, though I quite enjoyed it.

Let’s talk about Nice for a moment. One of my favourite areas is Cimiez in the north of city. It was the site of the original Roman settlement, but the main attraction now is the Musée Matisse. The artist spent much of his time in Nice and many of his works are on display in the museum. The museum itself is in a small park where the alleys are named after jazz musicians, such as Louis Armstrong, Dizzie Gillespie and Charlie Parker. But none with the names of two of my own favourites - Charles ‘the Mighty Burner’ Earland and Sun Ra.

I like too the Musée des Beaux-Arts for its collection of paintings by Raoul Dufy (see post ‘Raoul Dufy‘). Here’s one of the Bay of Angels.

Some more images of Nice.....

Down on the beach

The communist inspired CGT trade union 
contemplates a more just world

 Quai des Etats-Unis

La cours Saleya

A shiny new tram makes its way down the main thoroughfare

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Monet, Zola and the Gare Saint-Lazare

Arrival of the Normandy train at Gare Saint-Lazare 
by Monet (1877)

Among the many inventions of the Industrial Revolution, the one which was destined to have the greatest impact on our lives was undoubtedly the railways. For the first time in human history people were able to rapidly travel large distances in comparative comfort. Thus in was that in The Boscombe Valley Mystery Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson could be ’flying westwards at fifty miles an hour’ to the scene of their investigation. If you had the time, and the money to go with it, the world had become your oyster.

To accompany the new innovation magnificent railway stations were built with their unique architectural design. Among them was the Gare St-Lazare in Paris, opened in 1837 by the wife of the unfortunate Louis-Philippe, and enlarged in 1854. It is sandwiched between Rue de Rome, Rue de Londres and Rue d’Amsterdam, with a viewpoint on the Pont de l’Europe. Observing the station from the bridge, Emile Zola wrote in his notes: 'The steam emitted from the locomotives is red and black, it rises and fills the air in large dark swirls'.

Gare Saint-Lazare in 1868 with Pont de l'Europe in the foreground

The 1870s was the age of the Impressionists and many of the artists of the movement were attracted by this cloud-like atmosphere of the steam of the locomotives and by the changes in light and colour. Most closely associated with the Gare St. Lazare was Monet, who rented a flat nearby, and who painted the station no fewer than 11 times. He became friends with the station master, so if he wanted steam he had only to ask and the chef de gare would instruct a train engineer to produce some. 

The artist exhibited some of his canvases at an impressionist exhibition in 1877 at which Zola attended. Zola wrote of Monet’s paintings of the station: ‘One can hear the surging rumble of the trains, see the rush of steam rolling under the vast hangars. There is where painting is today, inside these modern structures of such beautiful breadth’.

Pont de l'Europe by Monet (1877)

The railways had a great fascination for Zola, and in 1889 he began preparing his notes for La Bête humaine, his political crime thriller set against the background of the railways and the approaching Franco-Prussian war of 1870. He took photographs of the Gare Saint-Lazare and along the Paris-Le Havre line where the murder in the story takes place. As he wrote to a friend: ‘Throughout the winter I have frequented the Gare Saint-Lazare, I have travelled the Western line, observing, engaging people in conversation, filling my pockets with notes….’ In April 1889 he was permitted to ride in the cab of a locomotive from Paris to Mantes alongside the fireman and the driver.

Zola begins his novel on a grey afternoon in the middle of February 1869 at the Gare Saint-Lazare, where we see Roubaud, the deputy station master, leaning from a window and gazing out at the impasse d’Amsterdam. Thereafter the action revolves around the railway until the final dramatic dénouement of the driverless train carrying its cargo of drunken soldiers to the front line, for Zola a symbol both of death and of the future. As he wrote in his notes for the novel: 'War is declared, the trains perhaps transporting the troops......these trains going to the 20th century becoming the instrument of the terrible massacre'.

Early Livre de poche edition of Zola's novel

The Gare Saint-Lazare attracted other artists of the period, most notably Manet and his painting Le Chemin de fer, but it is always with Monet that it will be particularly associated, and with Zola's classic novel.

Saturday, 26 March 2011

Wandering exiles, Joyce's Dyoublong & custard pie

O'Connell Bridge and Sackville Street (now O'Connell Street), Dublin circa 1900

"So this is Dyoublong?"    [Finnegan's Wake]

I once had a long conversation in a bar in Paris with a man from Lithuania. We talked just for the sake of it, and because we were both fairly drunk, exchanging lies and anecdotes about our various travels. He was an educated man who spoke four or five languages, though, as I impertinently pointed out to him, he wouldn’t get far in the world if he only spoke Lithuanian. 

Among the many things he spoke of was his great admiration for James Joyce, who he lauded as the funniest man that ever lived, and his ambition was to go to Dublin and follow in the footsteps of Leopold Bloom in Ulysses. I’ve seen the bronze pavement plaques on the streets in Dublin marking the lunchtime route that Bloom took from the Evening Telegraph office on Prince‘s Street to the National Library, where Stephen Dedalus holds forth his theory that Hamlet reflects Shakespeare’s rage at being cuckolded. I have also been in the alley off O’Connell Street where Bloom placed his ad in Freeman’s Urinal and Weekly Arsewiper, but have never done, or wanted to do, the full odyssey.

Ulysses is undoubtedly the most celebrated novel in English of the twentieth century, but how many people, I wonder, who set out to read it, get further than the first two pages? And of those who manage to read it from cover to cover, how many actually enjoy it? And of those who say that they did enjoy it, how many enjoyed it as much as they say they did? Not many, I’ll bet. I read it once, and at times it was like running a literary marathon, though very funny in parts. But I couldn’t manage Samuel Beckett’s The Unnameable (known as The Unreadable), the 200 page monologue delivered by a man with no limbs who lives in a bin outside a restaurant. It ends with the words I can’t go on, you must go on, I’ll go on. Well I couldn’t! Maybe because I couldn’t understand it. We can’t understand everything, after all. I once had a girlfriend who thought Led Zeppelin’s Custard Pie was a song about custard pie.

Entrance to 7 Eccles Street,
home of Leopold Bloom in Ulysses
Joyce has become the tourist attraction of Dublin. There are two Joyce museums: the James Joyce Centre at 35 North Great George’s Street, at which is preserved the front door of 7 Eccles Street; and the Joyce Museum in Sandycove to the south of Dublin. This latter has real importance in the biography of Joyce as it was an incident here in 1904 that precipitated our hero’s hasty departure from Ireland with Nora Barnacle - who it is said stuck with him throughout - and supplied the opening chapter of Ulysses. I’ve visited both in my aimless trampings around Dublin. At both places there were no other visitors, so I guess the curators could have the best jobs in the world. Ticket inspectors without the tedium of inspecting tickets.

Ulysses ends with Molly’s long monologue (yet another one!) which Joyce wrote without any punctuation, as this was how Nora wrote him in her letters. There’s an amusing anecdote about it. Apparently the eminent Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung read it and wrote Joyce telling him that it had taught him a lot about women. Joyce was flattered by this and never wearied of repeating it to his friends. But when Nora was asked she reportedly replied: “He knew nothing about women!” Good old Nora!

I don’t know if my Lithuanian ever got to Joyce's Dyoublong, but he probably did. There seemed to be something of the wandering exile about him, someone who believed that settlement was unnatural, against God’s holy law, so he just had to keep moving. And so I’m sure he will have made it. Though it doesn’t really matter if he didn’t.

College Green leading to Trinity College, circa 1900.
'His smile faded as he walked, a heavy cloud hiding the sun, 
slowly shadowing Trinity's surly front. Trams passed one another, ingoing, outgoing, clanging. Useless words. Things go on same, 
day after day'.

College Green, Dublin (circa 1900)
Here Joyce got into a fight and was saved by a man called Hunter.
The episode was adapted for Ulysses with Stephen Dedalus as Joyce and Bloom as Hunter.

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Matisse in Nice

Tempête à Nice (1919)

Cimiez, in the north of Nice, is the home to the Matisse Museum, a grand looking building which houses many of the artist's greatest works.

Matisse Museum

Matisse moved to Nice in 1917 at the age of 48, to recover from bronchitis. He took a room at the elegant Hôtel Beau Rivage on Rue Saint-François-de-Paule, and rented a flat to use as a studio at 105 Quai des États-Unis . He remained in Nice until his death in 1954.

The museum is located at 164 avenue des Arenes de Cimiez, and to get there I took the number 17 bus which followed the Boulevard de Cimiez with its fine Belle Époque buildings. The museum itself is in a red-ochre, Genoese-style villa decorated in trompe-l’œil, in a small park with centuries-old olive trees, carobs, cypresses and parasol pines. The villa itself is from the XVII century.

The entrance charge was 4 euros, but the lady at the desk had no change, so she let everyone in free and asked if we would pay on our way out.

Fleurs et fruits (1953)

The villa and its new wing are home to 68 paintings, 236 drawings, 218 engravings, 57 sculptures, 14 illustrated books, as well as 95 photographs and 187 objects from the artist’s own collection. One of the most famous paintings, Fleurs et fruits, measuring 4.10 x 8.70 metres (13'-6" x 28'-6"), is in the atrium as you go in.

Also in the museum are Portrait de Madame Matisse from 1905; Tempete à Nice (1919); Nu au fauteuil plante verte (1936-37); Nature morte aux grenades (1847); and many, many more.

A visit to Nice is incomplete without a visit to Cimiez and to this wonderful museum. To get there on public transport take bus lines 15, 17, 20, 22, 25, and get off at stops Les Arènes or Cimiez Monastère. Transport operator website 

And yes, I did pay my 4 euros before leaving!

Interieur à Nice

Friday, 11 March 2011

Exotic Garden of Monaco

Le jardin exotique de Monaco - Monaco's Exotic Garden

I have visited Monaco on one occasion and passed through it on several. Each time was by train, which, for those who like to savour the approach to a new destination, is not the best way to arrive, as the line is entirely subterranean, the only indication you have that you are in Monaco being the station sign on the underground platform.

But on that one occasion that I got off the train I did so with a mission, to visit the famous Jardin exotique de Monaco, the principality’s Tropical Garden.

My inspiration for going was a photograph that Brassai took in the gardens just after the end of the Second World War. Like all Brassai’s photos it was in black and white, and depicted a party of nuns in black gowns and flying headwear walking away from the camera down a narrow arbour of tall cacti. 

Sleek apartments for the Monaco rich.
Lower incomes need not apply.
I got out of the train station by the back entrance, and asked a very elderly lady with two heavy shopping bags one in each hand where I could find the Jardin. As it happened, we were very close to the Boulevard du Jardin exotique, which leads straight to the garden, and the sweet lady insisted on walking me to the boulevard about 200 yards away.

After a hard day at the racing circuit, Monaco is the tax haven where most Formula 1 drivers choose to hang their safety helmets. But there was no sign of Shummie or Jensen Button as I made my way past the swish apartment blocks on the long and hot climb up the boulevard. But I made it, arriving at the entrance just as a coach was discharging its cargo of German tourists.

The exotic gardens are built on the side of a cliff and are home to one thousand cactus species and succulents from South West USA, Mexico, Central and South America, and the Far East. They blossom all year round and some reach astonishing sizes. Spring and summer are the best seasons for the cacti, while aloes and African crassulas grow in winter.

Cacti at Monaco's Tropical Garden.
But where were the flying nuns?
There is also an observatory in a natural cave with stalactites and stalagmites, as well the Museum of Prehistoric Anthropology, which dates from 1902. And because of its magnificent location there are panoramic views over Monaco (including the Prince’s Palace) and the French and Italian Rivieras.  

I spent a couple of hours there in the searing heat, then made my way back down the boulevard. I wanted to take some of the exhibits home with me. But mostly I wanted to take one of the swanky apartment blocks that I passed on the way. But you can’t have everything. If I live to be a hundred I'll never weary of saying so.

The Prince's Palace from the tropical garden.