Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Survage revisited – and more

Survage: La marchande de poisson
Last week’s visit to the Collioure Musée d’Art Moderne had rather whetted my appetite, so the obvious thing seemed to be a day trip to Céret, which boasts a particularly prestigious Musée d’Art Moderne of its own.

Proper whetting of the aforementioned appetite was required, since such a trip, on public transport, is a bit of a trek.

Catching the 9.15am bus from Collioure – every journey in this area is €1, in an air-conditioned coach – the first stage took us to Argelès Villes.

After a break there, we intended to pick up the first available bus onward into the mountains to Céret.

The first part was accomplished easily, and gave us time for a brief look around the old town – so different from the tourist part, which is, frankly, rather too touristy for my liking.

We shall return one day to explore more.

Céret itself – old gate
Then we waited for the bus. It was delayed by around 10 minutes, but then we boarded for the journey, which was scheduled to take around an hour.

As it happened, traffic on the main roads added at least half an hour to that and I was beginning to get a bit like a tetchy version of Shrek’s donkey: ‘Aren’t we there yet?’

But eventually we made it – and stood at the bus ‘station’ in Céret itself thinking: ‘Have we got the right place?’ All we could see was a very modern, low-rise residential area, with a vast Carrefour nearby.

It was hardly the stuff of great artists.

Only after something of a wander, following signs for motorists rather than pedestrians, did we climb up far enough to find ourselves in the old town. Pouring sweat, the first thing on the agenda was reviving Coke.

Famed for its cherries, Céret is the capital of the historic Catalan region of Vallespir – note: if in Collioure, find Bar brasserie de la Marine and try the Vallespir salad, which comes with goat’s cheese drizzled in honey and melted on large croutons, and is served with leaves, toasted pine nuts, black olives and gloriously sweet, ripe melon. It is a dream.

Loutreuil, La conversation...
It is, entirely in keeping with the region, a very old town. The church at the heart of the old village is Romanesque – as are many others in the region: Argelès Ville, Elne and many that we passed through on the way.

As another aside, I'm rather thrilled that I can now spot the difference between a Romanesque and a Gothic church – and have at least a faint clue what it means.

Anyway, just as Collioure has been associated with art since the beginning on the 20th century, so too has Céret.

Picasso lived there in 1911-12. Braque, Soutine and Maillol all did the same.

And in the 1950s, artists Pierre Brune and Frank Burty Haviland created the museum there, with support from their friends, Picasso and Matisse.

Nether of the founders were bad artists themselves, as the museum’s permanent exhibition shows – even if you’ve never heard of them before.

Marchand, Le couvent des Capucins
Indeed, there are several names that many visitors will not be familiar with, and this is a great way to get to know some ' new' names.

Essentially, the permanent collection is made up of two sections: the early 20th century and the very recent.

I’m not going to go into detail on the latter, because, in general, I wasn’t really particularly impressed.

However, the first section is superb.

So, briefly: Maurice Loutreuil’s La conversation sous les platanes from 1919 impressed us both. I’m afraid the reproduction can only give a hint as to the quality of the picture itself.

The convent itself – more recent sports ground below
August Herbin’s Les trois arbres from 1913 uses colour really dramatically and vibrantly – and it works.

Jean Marchand’s Le couvent des Capucins from 1912, creates a sensuous, curvaceous landscape and inserts within it an austere, angular convent.

It was with a certain amount of chuffedness that, as we strolled back toward the bus stop later, I spotted that building on a nearby hillside – albeit softened with cypresses these days.

There would normally be some pieces by Èdouard Pignon – but they were in Collioure, where we'd already seen them last week.

Herbin, Les trois arbres
There was a substantial collection of Picasso. Now I am not the world’s biggest fan of ceramics, but the big display here may have made me change my mind.

Most were focused on the corrida and were created in the 1950s, but what they do show is that, unlike Dalí, Picasso did not become a parody of himself.

These are not just lazy daubs – they’re really fine, detailed, fascinating work.

And one of only two Picasso paintings in the collection (the first is a very early portrait, which serves to perfectly show how the exceptionally young artist had mastered art) Nature morte au crane et au pichet from 1946 is a surprise when one thinks one knows what to expect from the artist.

There is also a sketch of people doing a sardanes – with a dove above it, but that’s the nearest Picasso’s work that is displayed here even remotely approaches cliché.

Picasso, Picador, 1953
Then there was the surprise of finding Matisse sketches – all were of Collioure, except one gloriously simply one of a woman’s face. For goodness sake, we could even tell what beach he’d sketched each one on.

Then another surprise – a vast Chagall canvas, plus a number of “compositions” that the artist himself had presented to the museum.

It’s a fascinating thing to see again the work of an artist whose work you have so recently seen in an intense way, and to see it in the context of the wider art of the time.

Having thoroughly appreciated the Chagall exhibition at the Liverpool Tate, we felt that we could see these different works with a much more educated eye.

Picasso, Nature morte au crane et au pichet
But in similar vein, given last year's exhibition of his Collioure work at the village's own Musée d'Art Moderne, there was another real treat here: two Survages: La femme à la fenêtre from 1931 and La marchande de poisson from the same year.

An admission: I could barely stop myself from jumping up and down and telling anyone who was near, ‘I’ve got one of his! I’ve got one of his!’

What you really get from such an exhibition, though, is a sense of art in a time.

We'd seen the Survage a year ago. We'd seen the Chagall in June. We saw the Pignon last week.

All are linked. And here, you get the chance to see not just examples of their work, but of the wider artistic movements within which they painted and developed, and of the geography that drew them and linked them.

It's enormously rewarding in terms of helping you to develop an understanding.

Barceló, Planta
If the most modern permanent exhibits failed to excite, the temporary exhibition was a different kettle of poisson.

It was a substantial collection of work by Miguel Barceló, under the title Terra Ignis.

Born in Majorca in 1957, Barceló has worked in a number of mediums, but has recently been concentrating on ceramics.

Having traveled widely, he has been particularly influenced by West Africa.

He currently works from a brick works, creating pieces that range from table-top in size to so vast that they fill a room.

At first, when we walked into a room of vast terracotta goblets, most appearing to be in the process of breaking apart, and many apparently filled with ‘melting’ terracotta bricks, my thoughts were along the lines of ‘o-kay’.

But after paying some attention – and after seeing one in particular from a certain angle – I started to see something.

Looking at Planta from across the room, I could see a modern city collapsing. The terracotta bricks he’s fond of using become like city buildings.

There’s a hint of Dalí (at his best) when jugs or bricks are seen in a state that makes them seem to have melted. But there’s no pastiche here.

Barceló, Terra Ignis
And when you enter the room containing (barely) the exhibition’s title piece, you look and see faces staring out at you from everywhere in this mass of melting, disintegrating, chaotic construction: faces likes ghosts; faces of the ancestors – and all wanting to know what the holy hell we think we’re doing, wantonly destroying this planet.

Well, that was what I saw. In other words, I found meaning in the art – and that’s what it’s all about, isn't it?

Outside in the blazing sunshine, we moved to a café next door and ordered beers and simple food.

We were served by an aging hippy, complete with grey ponytail and a long, pink-peach shirt that had me observing that it brought to mind Hare Krishna followers.

And to conclude, wonderful colours at Céret's cemetary
After eating, I wandered off to the toilet – only to find myself walking into a tiny cubicle that was covered in Krishna artwork, with a soundtrack and flashing lights that began when the lights switched on.

I had trouble not bursting into hysterical laughter as I sat on the throne.

But we all look for meaning in different places – yes?

The journey back was better: although it was scheduled to be longer and take in stops at more tiny villages, it was traffic-free and speedier.

It was a lengthy day’s trek – but well worth it. Céret really can boast some excellent art.

Oh – and I’ve got a Survage too.

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