Thursday, 13 December 2012

Collioure and the birthday connection

Some of you may remember a post, a few months ago, discussing our various art-related experiences in the south of France last summer.

As I wrote then, Collioure’s Museum of Modern Art was staging an exhibition of the work of one Léopold Survage.

Born in 1879, Survage was awarded the French Légion d’Honneur in 1963 and died in 1968.

He had started life destined to work with the pianos his father manufactured, but a serious illness was key, and he decided to dedicate himself to art.

Having trained under Henri Matisse in Paris in 1908, he eventually ended up in Collioure himself in 1925 – and stayed for seven years, and the exhibition covered that specific period.

Now it’s worth a quick recap to simply say that Matisse had, together with André Derain, ‘formed’ the Fauvist movement in 1905, while in Collioure, where they found the light and the colours unlike anywhere else.

So it’s perhaps not unconnected that Survage himself found his way there in 1925.

Anyway, the exhibition was superb. We found ourselves, late in our stay, looking at such a specific period of work by one artist that we came out feeling we knew something of that artists – even though we’d never heard of him before.

Indeed, we actually bought the catalogue.

But the story doesn’t end there.

The next day, sitting inside our holiday cottage as evening rain pattered down outside, we were musing on Survage again, and it crossed our minds to ‘Google it’.

The results were fascinating. An oil painting had had a reserve of around £30,000 at Christies at the beginning of the year.

But more fascinating yet was that, via ebay (of all things), there was a pen and wash from 1928.

It was one of his pecheuse – ‘woman with fish’ – and absolutely from the Collioure period.

We sat and gaped. A mere day earlier, we would not have recognised or understood that picture, but at that moment, we did.

We knew the stamp in the bottom right corner, and the signature.

There was slight water damage, but the nature of the picture itself was that was barely noticeable.

There was a price on it, but two bids were already in. It was being sold by an antique dealer in New York – and there were just seven hours to go; a business day, in other words.

We looked at it and said nothing.

And then we looked at it again.

“I had been thinking of getting you something else,” said The Other Half after a while, “but would you like that for your birthday?”

There was little time to debate. I didn’t really need it though.

Only I could remember ebay login details, so I had to buy it. And then, because I really couldn’t remember Paypal data, I had to ring New York and pay for it.

There we were, sitting in Collioure, where it had been painted, ringing the States to buy it.

It arrived a few weeks later in the UK, when I discovered – because I’m really not used to this sort of thing – that import duty was required.

And then it was here.

The mount was in excellent condition – and worked well with the picture – but the slender frame was broken. The Other Half had it reframed in a simple, plain oak, which compliments it perfectly.

And then it went away until last Saturday, when just before my party, it finally took its place on a designated wall, well lit but also well away from direct sunlight.

It is quite odd – a first piece of art by a dead artist. And one who knew some of the most important figures in western art in the 20th century.

That in itself is really rather goosebumpy.

Little seems to be available about Survage in English, so it's becoming a little like putting together a jigsaw without knowing how many of the pieces are actually missing.

Courtesy of an unexpected, if not extraordinary, chain of events, a beautiful new – old – picture now hangs on our wall.

But not just something beautiful – something with a real sense of connection for both us, since it is so bound up in our beloved Collioure.

I feel really rather privileged to be the custodian for this work.

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