Saturday 22 July 2017

Provence light in mid-winter

Overlooking 'Domaine Les Clarettes', just outside Les Arcs-sur-Argens.
This weekend marks the final days of my husband's exhibition of paintings of Provence. Painted over the past eight years, the works brought a little bit of Provencal sunshine to the chilly city of Ballarat.
Painting a scene in a Les Arcs street.
Alan, who has French ancestry, has been painting France since he made his first sketch from the balcony of his mother's house in Menton (Alpes-Maritimes) at the age of five.

He studied at art school in England, and has exhibited in southern England (including having three works selected for the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition in London). Since moving to Australia his work has been shown in galleries in Victoria and Melbourne.

On our first ever visit to Les Arcs-sur-Argens in 2008, he said, quite casually: 'I could paint here for the rest of my life.'

I was already sold on the village and its lovely ambience, but that comment probably sealed it. We were vaguely looking at houses anyway - and we eventually bought a tiny 18th century terraced house in the village centre.

Alan paints from life - landscapes, townscapes, still lifes - and loves being in an area where he has ready access to wonderful little galleries like L'Annociade at Saint-Tropez and Musée Bonnard at Le Cannet, not to mention Cezanne's studio in Aix-en-Provence, Musée Matisse in Nice and all the art at St Paul de Vence, Grasse and Antibes - everywhere actually!
Alan painting on the rooftop in Les Arcs.

His plein air studio is set up on the roof terrace, where he paints small oil sketches of drawings he has made on his travels in various parts of Provence.

These sketches return with us to Australia, where he enlarges them in his studio, according to colour notes he has made.

And this year he put them all together for an exhibition at Backspace Gallery in Ballarat during the month when we  avidly watch the Tour de France and celebrate the Fete Nationale (Bastille Day) on July 14.

It was incredible to see them all in one space and to experience that brilliant Provencal light in the middle of a chilly Ballarat winter.
'The Argens in flood.' Looking back over the town, showing the medieval castle tower.

Monday 26 June 2017

Medieval mysteries

One of the strange beasts to be found high above your heads in the cloisters of the Fréjus Cathedral.
One of the wondrous things that has inspired me in France is living with its history. There is no escaping. Les Arcs-sur-Argens was originally a medieval settlement. Provence was invaded by the Romans, the Catalans, the Piedmontese - all of whom have left their mark.
I was fascinated by Stonehenge, the white horse on Salisbury plain, the castles and ancient Roman ruins when I lived in UK in the 1970s and 80s, but probably because I was younger then, they didn’t create the ‘frisson’ they do today.

This is a fresco from a chateau in Puy-de-Dome.
Perhaps it is since my return to Australia, as I studied tapestry weaving and the beautiful medieval tapestries that graced so many castles and chateaux in Europe, that my interest has grown.

Les Arcs stages one of Provence’s leading medieval festivals – taking place next month – called ‘Castrum d’Arcus’, where the entire village ‘becomes’ medieval with stalls, dances, jugglers, strolling minstrels, re-enactments, a grand spectacle and street parades – not to mention medieval food and drink!
But just a short trip from Les Arcs-sur-Argens is the ancient Roman town of Fréjus. Originally located on the sea front, the mouth of the adjacent River Argens has silted up over the centuries so that the centre of Fréjus is now three kilometres inland!
The ceiling of the cloisters showing the tiny paintings.
In the centre of the town is the Cathédrale de Fréjus - and its magnificent cloisters, the wooden ceilings of which have been delicately painted by medieval artists. It is one of the most fascinating cloisters I have ever seen. Hidden in niches between the wooden beams that support the floor above, are hundreds of tiny paintings. 

The figures and mythical beasts were painted  directly onto the raw wood with earth pigments,  by unknown medieval artists. Although many are faded - and some were destroyed during revolutions and wars - around 300 have been preserved out of an original 1200. Many were saved because of their position, away from the bleaching effects of strong sunlight.
Known as ‘bestiaries mythiques’ or mythical beasts, these figures are intriguing. They originate (I think) with the fantastical beasts described in the Book of Revelations as well as myths and legends of weird sea creatures and stories of exotic animals from other lands.
Some are half-human, half-animal, they show the daily life of the times as well as the strange world of gothic imagination. They include a range of themes from wars, religion, music, animals, daily life and work. I find them mesmerising and surprisingly modern. In fact I visit the cloisters every time I am in France, just to refresh my memory and perhaps get another perspective on them.
'La reine'- one of my tiny tapestries in medieval style.
During your visit, you can gather more information on how these tiny works of art were put together with a film documentary that shows modern artisans replicating the ancient works, plus displays showing the earth colours used and how they would be mixed, the brushes used and how the wood was prepared.
There are many other churches throughout France with similar depictions in tapestries and frescoes - not to mention the gargoyles guarding the rooftops!
I knew that one day I would have to weave them, if only to ‘feel’ how they could be recreated in woven tapestry. So I have taken some of the basic designs and modernised them and am showing them - together with artwork from 25 other women artists of Ballarat - in an exhibition called ‘Sheilas Reclaimed’ which opens this Friday evening (June 30) at the Fairbanks Eye Gallery.