“We don’t need to buy any art this year,” said The Other Half. Famous last words. And besides, we never need to buy any art anyway. Not that that's stopped us in the last three years.
After all, Collioure is famous for two things: anchovies and art; fish and Fauvism.
"Fauvism", because in the early 20th century, Matisse found his way there, to be joined by Derain and many others of that movement. The former declared the light to be the best in the world. Now I haven't seen enough of the rest of the world to judge completely, but it would be difficult to imagine anything much better: there is a clarity in Collioure that is quite staggering – it almost distorts distances, making the some-way-off seem as near as what is right next to you.
Les Fauves literally meant ‘wild beasts’, with their paintings showing seemingly wild brush work and strong colours, with their subjects simplified and abstracted.
When I was studying A level art, we touched on the Fauvists. I wasn’t deeply impressed at the time. Mind, I had difficulty dealing with anything that wasn’t firmly in the most obviously figurative camp: it was only a little later, when I actually saw some Van Gogh in the flesh (so to speak) that I was overcome with at least a little understanding of colour and texture as being so valuable and so momentous as to reduce the need for total realism.
And with that in mind, I’ve come to a greater appreciation of the Fauvists since we started visiting Collioure: it’s not difficult to see what, in Matisse’s many paintings of the place, he was trying to capture and why he tried to do it as he did. The picture above is from 1905.
Charles Rennie Mackintosh – best known as a designer – spent several years living and painting in the area in later life, and there is an increasing recognition of his watercolours of the region (the picture is Collioure Bay, from 1923-27).
Indeed, there have been prints of Matisse's paintings on display around the town for some years, but there are now also some of Mackintosh's works.
And then, of course, there are all the empty frames, looking toward the iconic church, placed throughout the town (and around it) by local artist Marc-André 2 Fugueres, as part of his Erotic Theory of the Collioure Bell Tower project.
But let's now go back to that day we were walking to Collioure from Port Vendres after our boat trip. As we climbed the hill to the coast road, we spotted a building we'd not noticed before: the Charles Rennie Mackintosh Museum. And, even at gone 6pm, the doors were open.
With time entirely our own, I suggested having a look.
In fact, the Mackintosh display was absent, replaced for the short term by an exhibition, Earth, Metal and Wood (in English). In each of the museum's three ground floor rooms was a selection of work by one artist, each of whom had one of the exhibition's theme materials as their own main material.
There were wood sculptures, many inset with glistening metal, by Gerard Genestier. There were bronzes and other metal sculptures by Emmanuuel Kieffer, and then there was the 'earth' section, Moreaux d'architecture as the artist calls them.
These 'pieces of architecture' are, in effect, fragments of the front of buildings, some like chateaux, some like Parisian town houses, some more rustic. But the unifying factor is that the detail is extraordinary. For more, see here).
It turned out to be the opening evening of the exhibition. We were the first through the front door, to be welcomed by all three artists, who were quaffing wine outside the back door of the building, overlooking the harbour. They offered us some, but we refused. We wanted to study the art itself.
The man who makes these amazing objets d'art (I'm stymied as to what else to call them) is Bernard Franck (below, wih his choice piece of the exhibition), who actually comes from Toulouse.
But if you think that the detail is stunning, then the process of making them is utterly stunning – in so many ways, quite utterly and completely bonkers.
He makes the bricks individually, from soil in his own garden and to traditional methods. The same goes for the tiles. The metalwork (some of the pieces have metal roofs) is all done by hand (presumably from sheet copper). He does all the woodwork himself. For those with masonary, he sculpts it himself! Perhaps most amazing of all, he makes the glass for the windows himself.
I loved them. The Other Half loved them. And he particularly loved the one pictured with the blue wooden shutters. So we decided to buy it.
At which point, things took on a particularly French complexity. M Franck had never shipped anything to anyone anywhere – let alone to anyone in another country (I suspect that he's done this as a hobby for years but has only just started doing it rather more seriously).
It was decided that he would work out the costs etc and we would return, early the following week, to clarify this with him, provide the details and pay.
So off we went, delighted with our discovery. Nobody needs art, as I said, but it's certainly nice to have things you like.
The following Monday, we headed back to Port Vendre. M Franck, however, was clearly still having difficulties. He'd brought back from Toulouse a flat cardboard box – the sort removal men use – a massive roll of bubblewrap, sticky tape with 'fragile' on it and two straps with buckles on them. His idea was that we would wrap it up and then we could take it down to the post office in Port Vendres and organise the shipping ourselves.
Well, we packaged, sweating in the humidity. And then we came to the payment bit – only to find that he had no facility for credit cards. So The Other Half made another trip to Port Vendre on Wednesday (while I went to market) to pay, after we'd got the cash together (banks limit your daily withdrawal from ATMs, regardless of account balance). And then, with a bus not due for at least another hour, The Other Half carried it all the way back along the coast road into Collioure!
We had decided that the best option, all things considered, was the carry it home on the train ourselves.
There is a side of me that rolls my eyes at a gallery not having a credit card machine – there were works of art there on sale for four-figure sums. But then I remind myself that that is simply one side of a country that doesn't see life as we do in the UK. It is, I think, simply another result of the sort of things I really appreciate about France. The art is important – not having to play everything as though it's a glossy, corporate game is less so. And I'd always agree with that.
Our fragment of architecture is on the wall now, having made it all the way up France and under the Channel safely. I still can hardly believe the work – the skill; the range of skills – that has gone into it. In a way, that, combined with the rather abstract approach to actual business, is what I love.