Tuesday, 8 May 2012

The springtime of the heart

Spring has finally arrived and the denizens of Montpellier are cautiously sauntering forth in long sleeved t-shirts and three quarter length trousers. It has not been an excessive winter, but neither has it been a decisive spring. By April the beach should have been offering a much needed respite from the ongoing political debates, but nothing doing this year. I am told that British people can be seen in the sea from March onwards, but am prevented from trying this by the derisive tone in which this observation is commonly offered. So I will play it safe until I receive some reliable reports that people of good judgement are getting their feet wet.

Now, there are many signs that spring has arrived and one of them is that these peonies are available. They only flower here for two weeks out of the whole year, so everyone makes the most of them while they can. They are strongly perfumed, short lived and very fragile; they start life a deep peachy apricot colour but each day after they're cut the shade becomes lighter and lighter, and the texture of the petals more papery until they are almost white.

Apple tart is always in season, thank God, so it is not one of the signs of spring, but I put it in to make you all jealous. This is my absolutely favourite ever dessert and as well as being deliciously light it is also made without sugar, so there is never any guilt involved.

This is a 'tarte fraises cassis pommes' and it does involve some guilt. I have to say that it was not me that made it; that is Sara's hand adjusting the final strawberry. We have completely different tartes every day, according to what the chef of the day feels like and what happens to be in season. For instance, last autumn and winter we served up a lot of creme de marron, hazelnuts, pumpkin, chocolate and so on; comfort food. So now everything gets a bit lighter and more fruit-oriented.

This is a 'tarte framboise banane', just out of the oven. Again, not made by me, it was Mukunja, but I couldn't resist recording the stylish purple streakiness of the raspberries against the creamily fragrant background of banana and vanilla. Sigh.

Other signs of spring can be found on the mural, whose landscape is coming alive with a riot of blossom; the colour rolling over the hills as though painted in by an unseen hand...

The indefinite and murky green hills are forming separate trees, distinct from one another, and little bushes of perfumed flowers are clustering about them. Or something.

Although my original plans for a chaotic Indian jungle have been somewhat tempered by the tastes of my client, I think the result is better overall. It is a lot softer now than I originally thought it would be, but it is much, much more harmonious, so I'm happy I made the changes. Nobody said to me, 'Oh, you have to change this bit' but when it is in such a public place you get an idea of people like or dislike; especially with French people, I might add. There are no tortured silences while someone tries and fails to tell you that something is not pleasing to them; everyone I have met here just tells it the way it is, or the way it is with them, anyway. So it's easy to get feedback!

I'm really enjoying all the little details, like leaves and flowers; I have been jumping backwards and forwards from one thing to the other, working on all areas of the mural at the same time, as the mood takes me. I could have gridded it off and worked laboriously from one square to the next, but that doesn't work for me. I remember once when we had a very, very long song to learn in Bengali, our Guru gave us some advice on the way to learn it. Instead of starting at the beginning and working our way through to the end (between ten and fifteen minutes in all) we should listen to it, choose a bit that inspired us and learn that. Then find the next piece that inspired us and learn that. And so on and so on. We found that it really works with a long creative act, supplanting rebellion with the feeling that you are making a choice about what you do. Actually I have no idea why it works, but I use it for nearly everything now, even tax returns!

On Saturday I went for a little stroll around Montpellier in the break between one restaurant shift and another, to see what I could see. This is the street that the restaurant lives in; just on the left, the second shop sign from the front.

A natural health centre/beauty salon, which I am curious to try but looks a little bit secret, somehow.

At last we are seeing the famous mediterranean blue sky that has been hidden so much in the last months. I love looking up through the streets and seeing the contrast of the stone against it's clarity.

One of my favourite shops, 'Etat d'ame', which seems to mean something like 'conscience' or 'state of the soul' or even 'mood.' Everything here is in exactly the right place; very expensive ornaments are sitting next to cheap, gimmicky items in such a way that you know the only thing that's holding it all together is the strong personality behind the design. When you get such a fortuitous display of items together, such an unlikely harmony, it speaks it's own kind of language, doesn't it? It makes it's own world seem logical because of it's continuity. I remember when I was working in a gift shop in Milano called Paradiso delle Sorprese I was confronted by this phenomenon. I thought that as an artist I would be pretty good at arranging shop shelves, placing gifts next to each other, doing window displays. But it turned out that it required a completely different set of skills to what I had imagined. I was far too perfectionistic and was used to controlling and designing relatively small areas, whereas the shop was big. Also I was plagued with multiple ideas every time I saw a new item to include in the overall scheme until I was struck motionless by all the possibilities. I was fiddling around with a window display when one of the workers came over to show me how it was done. In about ten minutes he had filled three shop windows with the new furniture we had to display, dotted similarly coloured articles around them and then scattered lots of the imitation roses we had just unpacked onto the top of it all. It worked because it was completely bold and confident, with a final dusting of beauty; a masterpiece, in fact, and a quick one at that. Then he just went back to what he was doing, unpacking cardboard boxes; a natural artist, unconscious that he had done anything out of the ordinary. I always remembered the incident because it reminded me of that quote attributed to Goethe:

"Boldness has genius, power and magic in it."

I was curious about this quote and discovered that it actually comes from a very free translation of Goethe's play, 'Faust', by John Anster, which seems much more poetic and imaginative than other translations. The longer part of the quote usually attributed to Goethe is also by someone else entirely, a W.H. Murray in 'The Scottish Himalaya Expedition 1951,' who used Anster's translation in his memoirs:

"But when I said that nothing had been done I erred in one important matter. We had definitely committed ourselves and were halfway out of our ruts. We had put down our passage money; booked a sailing to Bombay. This may sound too simple, but is great in consequence. Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, the providence moves too. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one's favour all manner of unforseen incidents, meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamt would have come his way. I learned a deep respect for one of Goethe's couplets: 'Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.' "

So that was what was shown to me by means of a window display; fortune, and art, favours the brave.  I kind of knew it in theory anyway, but to see it in action like that was illumining. There are many different qualities that go to make an excellent artist; some people are born with everything they need to fully manifest their ideas, some have half the gifts and never manifest them; some, like me, are born with half of what they need and are in constant search of the rest, having to dive deep within, confronting inherited blocks, psychological traumas and the complicated nature of one's being in order to deliver the goods. Who knows why some people have everything they need and not others? Is it genetic? Is it a happy coincidence? Is it karma from a previous life? Does grace descend from above if an aspiring artist wants it enough? Is it the gift of determination that is the deciding factor, that is enough to gain everything else that you need? I don't have answers to any of these questions. The older I get, the less I know. But, I do know that those blessed with boldness will be successful in living their lives to the full, and that those blessed with wisdom as well as boldness can do truly remarkable things.

Continuing my afternoon walk around town; more perfectly executed architecture.

A definite indication that spring is here; Le Jardin des Glaces is open once more! Oh wondrous icecream Mecca supreme, oh tasty and not too outrageously priced delights; I abase myself in worshipful awe beneath the white umbrellas of your outdoor seating, and breathlessly await the arrival of your frosty splendour...

Mmmmm. What more can you say, really?

Well, okay, it all looks a bit unhealthy, but you can also choose simple scoops from a large selection of flavours. When my friends were trying to eat eighty flavours of icecream in celebration of what would have been Sri Chinmoy's eightieth birthday we had an outing to Le Jardin des Glaces and much progress was made toward that worthy goal.

One of the views one can enjoy while scoffing another icecream; this is right in the centre of town, just around the corner from the restaurant.

I should spend more time walking around; so many treats for the eyes.

Endless outdoor seating; the streets are lined with tables, chairs and potted trees.

In front of another unique shop, these little musical boxes offer a strange variety of tunes. 'The Marselleise,' 'Michelle,' 'Carmen: Amour de boheme,' 'Star Wars,' 'Happy Birthday,' 'The Wedding March,' 'The Magic Flute,' 'Yellow Submarine,' etc.

There is always someone playing them and laughing, usually a group of adults.

This is the shop with the musical boxes out front; 'Pomme de reinette.' The name comes from a French children's song about two different kinds of apple; they are both old varieties and seem to be a bit like a cox, a russet or a pippin, depending where you look for your translation. Anyway, this is a toy shop of the most original kind, full of jokes, puppets, masks, games, models and every possible thing you can imagine. 'Pomme d'api' is the part of the business devoted to very young children, just round the corner in another shop, and 'Pomme de reinette' is for the rest of us. The shop twists and turns inside and takes up a whole block, which is about five or six shops in this old part of the city. It is absolutely recommended viewing for anyone visiting Montpellier.

The window displays are animated and constantly change, so I think the shop owner must really enjoy their job. The Christmas display was extremely original and always had a crowd of people watching it.

Strange views of another Pomme de reinette window.

This little carousel goes round and round all day, just like the one in the centre of town; I would buy it if I could think of any excuse at all. That's why people have children, so they can buy all the stuff they want, like a Scalextric track or a complete set of Lego Roman Legionaries.

Inside everything is crammed together in bewilderingly excessive quantities. Christmas-stocking-filler-shoppers; behold the answer to your prayers!

Unbelievable little dolls-house things; buckets and watering cans, milk churns, baskets, clogs and tankards, an old style washing board and even what looks like jam making pans.

Sacks of goods and miniature spades, shovels, hoes and straw hats.

Look at the little champagne bottles and garlic! Before I moved to France, one of my friends who was living in Montpellier at the time, Bhashini, sent me a little dolls house gateau for my birthday, complete with cake slice, from this shop, and it is a treasured possession of mine.

More balconies. If you don't like balconies you probably shouldn't be reading this blog.

Horrendously expensive but stylish furniture shop containing items I seriously considered using next month's salary for and defaulting on my rent.

Such as the long wooden table, the large metal lamp and the cushions. Of course, the articles are arranged beautifully, which makes it all much more enticing, but even armed with that knowledge one is not really exempt from the visual manipulation. And nor do I want to be, actually. I don't want to go through my whole life on my guard, thinking, "At least I wasn't fooled by that..."

Me, revealed by my photo!

Looks like this must have been the old town gate, given that the wall is so substantial and the bar next to it is called "Bar de la Vielle Porte." Must learn more city history.

Ah, the Botanical Gardens. Last port of call before I head back for the evening shift at Tripti Kulai. This is one of the oldest botanical gardens in Europe, dating back to 1593. It is very simply laid out and natural, much more like a real garden than a batch of specimens or an allotment, which botanical gardens can sometimes feel like.

Lovely furry palm trees, somehow reminiscent of Where The Wild Things Are, if you know what I mean. Montpellier has so many palm trees. Try as I might, my mural is looking more and more like the south of France instead of India. And strangely, everyone seems to be very approving of this. I have just put in some much darker foliage on the hillside and a customer came up to me and said that it was much stronger, much more like France, and practically patted me on the back! I have given up all resistance now and am just so eager to finish the work to it's own satisfaction that I paint without thinking what I am doing. My friends have criticised me for this attitude before, feeling that endowing a work of art with it's own opinions is a kind of opting out, but I do hold to my belief that a painting contains within itself the knowledge of what it wants to be. This is obviously fairly dodgy philosophical ground, but I reckon that if externalising part of my psyche and calling it the 'painting's will' helps me finish a piece of work, that's what I'll do. 

Very small bamboo forest, taking one back to House of the Flying Daggers! No bamboo in my mural though. I have forbidden things that are overtly Chinesey, although I am very fond of China, as the mural is based around an Indian deity. I have also banned Korean temples, picturesque boats or any other signs of human habitation, however stylish/soulful/appropriate they may be. 

A really weird monument that I was too tired to investigate properly, although I did consider it for some time without coming to any useful conclusions and also listened to conversations in French by other people who couldn't work out what it was, so I feel I did my bit.

People admiring the lily pond, quite rightly. This pond also houses giant lotuses that make their appearance in June, so I shall be back for that.

And what on earth is this? Humanity's first Alien Vessel Identification Dome? I wouldn't put it past the French. They are very innovative, I'm finding. 

Here we are; classic shots of water lilies.

I like the way that the surface of the water appears viscose in this picture.

Ah yes, the obligatory tabby cat photograph; I'm making rather a habit of it. Actually I couldn't help it; the cat came whizzing past me on the run from some miniature nature enthusiast. I saw it cowering under a bush, clearly thinking it had got away. I had to make many noises to convince it to turn it's head towards me, and so the expression on it's face is not so much lazy enjoyment of the sun as intense irritation that I am giving it's position away.

Then, as I retreated, the persistent little botanist that had been chasing it before caught up with it, and the cat was forced to interact, even though it's ears were back the whole time in an annoyed kind of way. Perhaps it's part of a botanic garden cat's duties to talk to the visitors?

Actually, there did seem to be some sort of conversation going on; the little girl threw some grass for the cat, and it started to eat it, so maybe it wasn't feeling so martyred after all.

Cactus house; we weren't allowed in, as they were doing renovations, but I will get in as soon as I can.

Look at those snake-like cacti! Or more like a giant, furry spiders I suppose. They really look like they're coming for you over the rocks...

After I had seen enough cacti I went to sleep under a large olive tree and only woke when it was time to go back to the restaurant. I live out of town so if I have a split shift like this it takes me too long to get home again, so I hang around town for the break.

The next day, Sunday, I came in again in the afternoon to address the mural once more. The lighting is really bad in the room I'm painting in so I try to do find all the lamps I can to light the place. It is hard most of the time to really see what colour I am putting on the walls, but it is kind of working out so far. 

My not very high-tech and totally makeshift work station. Still, what do you really need except paint, brushes, thinner and lots of kitchen roll? When I have my own studio (at some unknown point in the future) it will be laden with all kinds of materials and constantly laid out for many different kinds of work. I have tried this sort of thing in numerous bedsits but paint, charcoal and mosaic chips all react in an unfortunate way with bedding, clothes, documents and domestic animals, so I have had to discontinue my experiments.

There seems to be so much wall to cover! Still, step by step. I have vowed to finish in June, so hopefully my ego will propel me forward.

Some trees I have redone again and again, as I feel I can do better each time. This particular tree holds the record. I have repainted it five times now. Hopefully this one will stick and I can position some parakeets on it. While I was painting, at about 20.30, I became aware of loud drumming sounds coming from the city centre, just around the corner. It could only mean that the Socialists had got into power, so I went out to see how French people celebrate a political win.

There was a band of drummers that kept it up for about an hour. The people in the crowd were all dancing about and making it difficult for me to photograph them, hence the blurred photo. I had expected an air of mad exuberance, but what I found was what I can only describe as an atmosphere of sanity. People were cheering, but in a genuinely enthusiastic way, and there was none of the feeling one often gets at public celebrations in the UK where you feel the crowd is about five minutes away from an alchoholic bender of gigantic proportions. The French just do not do binge drinking, it's not their thing. Even though I often leave the restaurant very late at night, or early in the morning if I have been painting, I never see drunken youths staggering into walls or herds of underage vamps stilettoing their way down the street in search of a good time.

This guy was so sweet I had to photograph him. I wanted to get a good shot of his flag, as it was tied to a broom, but he kept waving it about and jumping around, so this is the best I could do!

This was just a mini version of what was happening at the Bastille in Paris, and a lot more tame I'm sure; this one was full of good nature. If Sarkozy had got into power again I might not have viewed the celebrating hoards with such affection, I know. But my affection was not just for the people who had voted for the same party that I would have done. It was for the 86% of the mainland population who had actually gone to the polls. (Because there was a slightly lower response from ex pats the average percentage of those voting came down to 80%, but that is still incredibly motivated.) Look sharp, Brits; if you bother to vote you might get what you want. You may not, of course, or you may not like it once you've got it (as we discovered after jubilantly voting in Tony Blair) but you will have exercised your right to vote and become a conscious part of the political process that each of us is heir to.

When I asked the girls in the restaurant if they were going to vote, they said that of course they were. They didn't really feel that any one candidate was the ideal person, and they knew that the next few years were going to be really difficult whoever got into office, but they wanted to make a choice anyway. One of them said that she voted not because she felt that her tiny voice made a difference, but because so many people had given their lives for her right to express her opinion. I was touched by that, because it's so true.

I have no illusions about the problems Mr. Hollande is facing now, but let him try it his way and see what happens. Democracy is supposed to be about the will of the people, and he seems to believe that at the moment, rather than thinking he has some God-ordained right to lead the country in whatever way takes his fancy from day to day. The French really believe in democracy; I don't think that's a generalisation. They are prepared to make choices and to stand up for those choices. I would go so far as to say that they are bold. Sarkozy said something very important in the speech he made once he realised he had not retained his office. He urged his supporters to support Hollande in his efforts. He said, "From the bottom of my heart I want France to succeed with the challenges it faces. It is something greater than us, France. This evening we must think exclusively of France."

Back to my mural for the rest of the evening and managed to put in a lot of underpainting for the remaining trees.

Next time I paint a forest I will start with a dark colour; God alone knows what I was doing here. Still, the mural has taught me a lot, and you can't practice what you don't yet know.

Indian cows; difficult to draw and the client wants a herd of them. Hmmm. Still, it is helpful being pushed to the limits in this way, otherwise I might just chicken out and do what's easiest for me.

Now I have to wait for it all to dry before the next leg of the journey. But I can see the end in sight for the first time. As springtime comes to my painting I feel a lightening of the heart, a hope that I will soon have fulfilled my part of that bargain that is an artistic gift, and have the rare experience of closure. At least I have tried. Use it or lose it, as they say.