Sunday, 9 September 2012

Three ways with art in Collioure

Watercolour, Philippe Emile Castelhac
“We don’t need any more art, this year,” had been the agreement.

To be fair, you never “need” art, do you?

If this was intended to dissuade us from returning from holiday with more art for a flat that already looks like an overcrowded cross between a gallery and a library, then perhaps it would be more convincing if we stopped vacationing in a village that’s at least as famous for art as for anchovies.

But this year’s artistic highlights provided interesting contrasts to the same basic question: representing the Mediterranean light.

We had barely arrived in Collioure when we spotted that there was an exhibition on at the local Museum of Modern Art.

It took us until almost the end of the trip to visit, but it paid dividends.

Léopold Survage (1879-1968) was a French painter of Finnish-Danish-Russian origin.

He was originally destined for life as a piano tuner in the family piano making business, before illness changed his perspectives.

Pêcheuses de Collioure, Léopold Survage, 1930.
In 1908, he spent some time in Paris, studying under Matisse – one of the founders of the Fauves while living and working in Collioure, where he said the light was the best in the world.

Survage became a Cubist. But by the time he moved to Collioure in 1925, where he would spend the next seven years, he had adopted a more neo-classical style.

His earlier work had been full of vibrant colour – exactly what you would expect would suit the Mediterranean.

But that wasn’t quite what happened.

The palette that he adopted was a far more muted one: dusty blues and yellows and greens that can, when you see them at first, appear faded.

And from his early pictures, which included a significant number of pecheuse – women with fish – he returned to Cubism.

The planes of that style are suited to the sense of the strong contrasts between dark shadow and bright light. His landscape is a stark one.

Add in Survage’s love of symbolism – a falling leaf here, a dove there, and you have major elements of his work from this period.

He returned time and again to the women, representing them again with fish (a favourite theme) and also in trios, titled as pietas – although mostly with no obvious religious connotation. Just one in the exhibition was a religious version.

It’s difficult not to look at Cubist art through the prism of Picasso, as the Spanish giant was one of the fathers of the movement, but you have to try to look at Survage’s work in its own right.

I’m fascinated that Survage turned back to Cubism to achieve what he wanted, and that his palette, although so apparently muted, captures the light and shade and heat so very well.

But what makes this even more fascinating is how different artists approach the same subject – and find very different solutions to the same basic question.

In Collioure, you have an extraordinary opportunity to see myriad different approaches all in a small area. The village has more than 20 galleries.

Some artists go for a conventional, figurative approach – others less so.

An artist I’ve seen many times around the village is Philippe Emile Castelhac, often to be spotted at his easel, instantly recognisable in white slacks and shirt, and a panama hat.

His major approach is sanguine drawing: a style used extensively in the 15th and 16th centuries, it involves crayon or chalk work, in blood red, reddish or flesh colouring. The pigment is usually iron oxide.

Castelhac’s work has a great precision and the results have something of the quality of sepia photographs about them although, when you see them up close, you realise that he doesn’t put every single detail in his work – it’s almost reminiscent of pointillism.

The royal castle, Collioure, by Philippe Emile Castelhac
We’d never seen his gallery before, but when we found ourselves passing it one afternoon, we nipped in.

What his pictures capture is something of the timeless quality of the village, even though he doesn’t avoid the tourists and the shops and cafes that cater for the influx of visitors.

The real surprise, though, came in a single watercolour, in a far more modern and less naturalistic style, which showed rooftops in a pink, dawn light (see the picture at the top of this post.)

I’ve seen that light in Collioure; early in mornings when the air is utterly quiet, before the holidaymakers wake, when I wander around the narrow streets with the camera, feeling briefly that I have the place to myself.

And then there is Barry Blend. His work is not limited to Collioure, but the village does feature in a large amount of his work – as with his bas relief of the castle and Catalan barque (left).

Indeed, as mentioned a few days ago, we returned with one of his sculptures this year. 

Plus a plaque for the garden wall (see below). I was going to paint it with some plain yogurt to really get the weathering process going, but we decided against it once we saw how it looked.

The solution here is, on the surface, an almost cartoon simplicity.

But that’s deceptive: planes are far from flat and the composition is excellent.

But the palette is a big, bold, colourful one – and Blend’s work radiates a real joie de vivre, which was so perfectly appropriate for his bandana for last month’s fete.

And if the ultimate test of art is what you most enjoy living with, then this joyful work passes the test with ease.

So Collioure and the Mediterranean have been requiring different solutions from different artists for more than a century.

This trio of painters – apparently unconnected – were just three of the artists that we happened to encounter, in one way or another, on this trip.

And each of them found a way to represent Collioure that was different – but always with an authenticity that made you recognise it in their work.


  1. I'm sorry but philippe emile castelhac is a wrong name: the name of this artist is philippe patat, and well known in collioure.

    1. Only just seen this – but apologies for any mistake to anyone.