Monday, 2 September 2013

Barry Blend: An Englishman in Collioure

Barry Blend and one of his sculptures
It was one of those moments when ‘isn’t it a small world’ barely seemed to do justice to the sentiment.

Collioure: Rue de la Fraternité; a winding, steep, narrow, picturesque street that plays home to a number of showrooms for local artists.

In this particular case, the venue was the gallery of Barry Blend, half an hour before opening on a Thursday morning in mid August. I was relaxing in a deckchair while Barry made cups of tea.

Not only was it really rather English, the subject under discussion was London. Because Barry hails from Clapton, which is only up the road from Hackney, where The Other Half and I live.

A conversation that was intended to be about art and Collioure begins in the realms of London’s East End. He’s intrigued to hear of different areas becoming trendy, including Dalston.

“In Holland, they tried to sell the idea of eating rats,” he muses, in response to the story that last year, Hackney’s Ridley Road Market had been the scene of a discovery of bush meat and cane rat.

The consensus is that we’d both give rat a try. Cockroaches though ... the mere thought brings forth an outbreak of mutual shivers, even if Barry laughs a little as he suggests “cockroach peanut butter”.

But he warms to the theme, and points out the advantages of eating insects: “It’s a new source of protein; really economical; it doesn’t produce any ozone, it’s very good meat, it’s got vitamins ... everything”.

Nobody’s feeling particularly convinced, though.

But what about life growing up in Clapton – did he enjoy art at school?

“I’ve always liked drawing. Painting – yes, even when I was very small. I used to draw things. But I never followed a particular artistic course later on.

“You know the way it went with the GCE: you went into either a technical side or a cultural side; I was good at technical drawing and metalwork, so I followed the course of maths and physics, that sort of thing, rather than history and geography and art.”

The tea is ready – black – and leaflets on the gallery desk double as coasters.

“I liked painting and drawing. But when I was ...” he tries to remember his age at the time ... “well, I started playing the guitar quite a bit and, in fact when I came abroad, I was just hitching, and I was singing my songs of Bob Dylan. We had no money in those days and just got the hovercraft across – I don’t know if it still exists.

Le Petit Train Jaune
“They had this cheap thing where you’d get to Calais, then I had to hitch to Paris – just a backpack: I didn’t even have a tent. First I came down with a mate and then I came down regularly, every year ... I went to Italy and Spain, travel like that.

“I was just hitching – you don’t do that any more. You don’t see music people playing in restaurants – that’s past too. I used to go from restaurant to restaurant. I even had a mobilette at one point. I used to strap the thing in front of me and sing Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, and later on, I learned some classical stuff. That worked – it was less tiring ...”

But then came the art.

“I met my wife (Tineke, who runs the gallery on all but Wednesdays) ... it was 31, 32 years ago; there was a campsite in Collioure. Collioure was very quiet – it wasn’t known; it was completely different to now. There were still fishing boats on the beach. There were two trawlers – St Nichol, which they converted into a tourist thing ... I don’t know if it still exists ...”

He explains that there were other smaller boats too, although they employed a different method of fishing.

“On the wall in the front, you had all these old women, in black: they were still there. They’ve gone now.

Jazz band
“It wasn’t always black – they’d sometimes have a light-coloured scarf – but they were pretty well covered up. They would all line up on the wall in the front and yabbering, ‘da da da da da ... he’s doing this ...’

“We used to go round with the baby, when our son was small, and they’d say: ‘don’t let him walk in the dirt, don’t let him do that’.”

He was camping just outside Collioure, near The Round Fort, when he met Tineke. “I was still playing the guitar, and we traveled a bit, and she fell pregnant.

“We rented a little caravan on the beach ... there were all painters on the port at that time: there was something like 30, all along the port ... there weren’t so many restaurants. There were little painters, and they had their easels set up and you were allowed a folder open, and I saw this and I said to Tineke: ‘I can do at least that’.”

“They were selling – I could see they were selling – and I said: ‘I can make more money with that’.

“We were really short of money – we were even cleaning rooms in those days.

“We had practically no money and she bought me a little box of watercolour paints and a pad of paper – it was our last few francs – and I exhibited on the port, a few things, and sold straight away. And thought: ‘This is it!’

“Since then, we’ve never looked back. We were exhibiting on the port for one or two years, and then we found a little atelier [studio] and rented that.”

At that stage, Barry started working with oils. He also used aquarelles, although “I already had my style”. He explains that “the oils have changed – they’ve become more smooth”.

And since the financial crash in 2008 hit the town’s art market, he’s “developed a lot of small things. The acrylics: they dry quickly, you can paint them fairly quickly, in small sizes.”

It isn’t, he says, quite what he enjoys doing most of all, but “it’s the bread a butter”, and that’s also been behind his decision to sell postcards and prints at the gallery.

How would he describe his own art?

“There is a word for it actually; they have a word for it in French ... but I’ve forgotten it.

“It’s figurative; and its expressionist, something like that ...”

It’s not difficult to look at Barry’s work and view it as combining cartoons and stained glass.

Artwork for the 2012 Fêtes bandana
He has actually considered trying with stained glass, while one person wanted to use his work as a model for the tiling on a swimming pool. He notes that he always loved cartoons “Batman comics, Superman comics ...”

His work also lacks any pristine, straight lines, having a curvaceous, voluptuous sense about it.

“The curves,” he observes after a moment, “they say it’s very maternal. Psychologists say curves are feminine.

“It’s true: I avoid straight lines – I’m quite conscious of that.

“In true life, when you look at things, when you look at a straight line, it’s not really straight, it’s curved.”

Looking up at the tall, narrow fisherman’s cottages that fill the streets of the old part of the village, it’s impossible not to see exactly what he means.

And he goes on to point out that the ancient Greeks built the Parthenon “curved up, so that when you looked at it, it looked straight”.

“You don’t really think about it, because your brain straightens it out and you see a straight line ...”

He stops for a moment, and finds himself recalling something from school. “In art class, you never drew a straight line with a ruler.”

So is his art ‘maternal’?

“It’s just what people say. Perhaps it is – perhaps it isn’t.” It might be in people’s perceptions, and the nature of perceptions means that “there are no rights and no wrongs”.

He observes that he’s “automatically looking for subjects that have colours. That’s why I don’t like nudes: okay, the shape’s interesting, but you have to put colours around them.”

Catalan barques in Collioure
He also wants his work “to be positive”. “I prefer to cheer people up rather than guide them to some philosophical point,” he explains.

“I try to make it harmonious and pleasing ... and with bright colours.”

He’s intrigued by how people live with his paintings. “I put them on my own wall and look at them all the time,” going on to describe how, when you live with art in that way, you absorb it; seeing different elements at different times.

It’s hard to imagine being in a better place than Collioure if you’re after colour.

He notes that the older generation of Collioure people “recognise something” in his work; see something of their culture and place reflected.

“I’ve somehow been here long enough to absorb some of that Catalan culture,” he suggests.

In terms of how he sees his art developing, he will probably “stay where I am for the moment. From a commercial point of view, you can’t have too many different things”.

He once developed a technique using watercolour, substituting white outlines for the black that his work makes much use of, but adds that he can’t put something like that, which would be quite different, alongside the other works that are in the gallery.

Detail of the barrel project
“I can do plenty of techniques, but you have to narrow it down.”

For the moment, then, he’ll continue with the oil and acrylic paintings, and the sculptures, most of which are based on extruded polystyrene, and then, depending on the complexity of the subject, covered in fiberglass or resin.

The technique has come a long way.

“The very first sculpture I made was actually covered in bog paper and white glue – took ages to dry! It was a bass player – I called him Charles, because he a nose like Charles de Gaulle.”

Is he perhaps glad that he didn’t have a formal art education?

He muses again, and suggests that you’d need a time machine so that you could visit parallel universes in order to see which Barry would have been best: the one who is self-taught or the formally-taught one.

A formal art education “would have been helpful – certainly in short cuts – but then I wouldn’t have done what I’m doing now.”

Would Keith Haring have been Keith Haring the artist we know, he asks, if he’d had a formal art education?

He says he doesn’t really know how to ‘play the game’ in the way that some artists do, although he does “know mayor Michel Moly”. The mayor, who is also a maths teacher, “gave lessons to my son”.

He may well feel that he can’t ‘play the game’, but nonetheless, he has an artistic presence around Collioure.

“I like to be modest,” he laughs, after positively bristling with pleasure on hearing that several people attending the previous evening’s opening of the Fêtes de St Vincent had been wearing the 2012 bandana, which he had designed.

It was not something that was tendered for, but is something that you’re asked to do – even though he was given just six days to do it.

Nor is it something that you get paid for – rather like a couple of other jobs he’s done in similar circumstances.

“In the old days,” he says, “goats were used to trim the grass [around the village], so they made an association to try to bring it back. And they needed money, so they gave some of us artists a barrel to paint”. The painted barrels were subsequently auctioned.

Dinosaur sculpture
Equally, back in 1988, he executed a design for CIP, the town’s diving school. “I did it just for the publicity – I didn’t ask for any royalties. I just wanted it to be clear that it was ‘by Barry Blend’ ... they’ve made a fortune out of it!

“The other day, I was in the supermarket in Argeles and there was someone wearing one right in front of me – I felt like tapping him on the shoulder and telling him ‘that’s mine!’ but I held back at the last minute.

But the CIP job “didn’t do me any harm,” he adds.

Barry has been described as “the most Catalan of English painters”, but then many of those who have painted Collioure so successfully have came from outside the area. Matisse is just one rather obvious example. Survage is another, together with Pignon, who, like Barry, was self taught.

When you realise that they what they painted – the coloured fishing barques and the old women in black – were still around when the young man with a guitar arrived from East London, then it’s much easier to place Barry within the wider context of artistic representations of Collioure.

The diving school t-shirt from 1997 – still selling
His representations of the village are not imagined or second-hand memories, but his own. Collioure’s past only ended very recently, but he is one of the last guardians of that visual past and will be one of the last artists who actually saw it that way.

Barry’s palate is less Survage and more Matisse: his too are bright, vibrant canvases – which is equally true of all his work, not just the Collioure pieces. And like those other artists who came to this extraordinary village, he makes it look as though working with such a palate is easy. It’s not.

A wander around Collioure allows you to look at the work of a great many artists, many of whom are taking the village as their subject matter. As when Barry himself arrived, many still use outside walls and steps and spaces for improvised galleries.

They are not all very good. And big, bright colours need to be used with great care and a real understanding of what you’re doing.

Barry has that. And while his work is modern and quite of himself, it also merits a place in the wider context of Collioure and how it is represented in art.

• To find out more and see more of Barry's work, visit

Barry also has a presence on Twitter @barryblend

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