Thursday, May 17, 2012

Massive May Miettes

Ah, the surprises just keep on coming: I woke up this morning and realized that it's Ascension Day, the holiday that, in almost 20 years of living in Europe, always catches me by surprise. Maybe it's because after Easter in the States, we figure that, with Jesus dead at Easter, we're finished until Christmas. Or maybe it's because they don't celebrate Lincoln's Birthday over here. The other thing is, in the States, obsessed as we are with work, we round off the holidays, so that the day off always falls on a Monday. Here, if a holiday falls on a Tuesday or a Thursday, the Monday or Friday affected by it is called a pont, a bridge. It essentially means a four-day weekend.

We had one a couple of weeks ago, and since this time I knew in advance it was coming, I was ready with the camera and headed off to the extensive war memorial which lies behind the Pavillon Populaire.

These complex floral offerings are laid with much pomp every year on May 8, V-E Day. It's an indication of how distracted I am these days that I actually wondered for a minute why I'd never been aware of this holiday before moving to France. Oh, wait. Maybe because I was living in...Germany?

And shortly before this, someone went through the city to the plaques honoring resistance fighters who'd lived in a building or, in some cases, been shot dead on the spot, and hung bouquets from them. A visitor noted that in these days of European unity, the plaques in Paris have been rewritten to say "shot by the enemy," but I noticed that's not the case here: "les allemands" take a lot of blame, both for killing people in the streets, and for deporting them to camps and killing them there. There's a memorial with ashes from the camps right next to the war memorial, too.

But after this comes Ascension Day, and what that essentially means is that summer has started, even though it's not all that warm yet and nobody's taking vacations for a while. But the first affordable cherries were in the market on Tuesday, melons will be right behind them, and one hears that the grape vines have got delicate shoots on them which, if the wind doesn't snap them off, will soon be strong enough to support clusters of fruit.

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Speaking of which, I've been meaning to mention a couple of wine atrocities I've seen reently. There's a local company that's putting out a rosé-grapefruit juice blend, which they're selling at one of the serious wine shops here in town, and that's intriguing, although not intriguing enough to spend money on. But a friend on Facebook recently posted a photo of a can of wine (not that that's necessarily bad for your run-of-the-mill wine) whose label proclaimed it "genuine French wine -- with melon flavor!" Even that's not the worst idea I've seen this year. That has to go to Chocovine, which I discovered in a HEB in Texas. Described as "Rich Dutch chocolate and fine red wine," it looks like a chocolate version of the barium milkshake you drink for X-rays and probably tastes almost as good. Theoretically, I can see the wine and chocolate thing. But not in the same bottle. 

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I was walking on the Esplanade the other day when I realized I was hearing an unfamiliar sound. Turning around, I noticed that the fountains were working. They get turned off in the winter, of course, to keep the pipes from freezing and breaking, but recently, we've had a pretty serious drought, and the city passed a rule that no fountains that don't recirculate their water are allowed to operate until the drought is over. We had some rain not long ago -- and a lot more is forecast for this weekend -- so maybe they loosened up. There didn't seem to be the usual exuberant display, though, so I guess the drought's not over. That is, however, one of the things I like about living here: there are tons of fountains here, the most famous of which is the Three Graces out on the Comédie, but there are lots more tucked away here and there around town. That, apparently, is what the great fake Pont du Gard aqueduct, the Arceaux, and the big temple-like water-tower in the Peyroux park are for: to bring water and distribute it to the fountains around town. But what most interested me was discovering that I'd only noticed the lack of the sound when I unexpectedly heard it again. 

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Generally, I ignore the art that gets shown at the church in Ste. Anne. It's a real nice space, but the committee which decides what gets shown there usually chooses one of the many state-supported artists of the region and splashes big stuff by them around the former sanctuary. It's maybe not as bad as what I've seen in Sète at the CRAC, but it's produced by artists at a lower level than show there. But I'd been seeing a poster for the current show around town, which I'd noticed because of its stunning ugliness. 

The Eye and the Heart, the poster announces, is an exhibition of "curiosities and masterpeices from the collections of Montpellierians," and since I was looking for something to blog about after the W. Eugene Smith show at the Pav Pop, I figured it'd be good for ten minutes and a laugh. I was wrong. 

We've apparently got some serious art collectors here. Constrained either by money or availablility, the more adventurous ones have gone into some really unexpected places. For security reasons, I guess, the collectors aren't identified, although there are hints. For the first time, access to the space is tightly controlled: you have to take a little plastic chip when you come in the door and surrender it on your way out. I have no idea how this makes the artworks more secure, but you don't say no to the heavies who are hanging all around this show. Grab a booklet, too: you'll need it to decode the jammed rooms. 

The first works you're likely to see aren't very impressive: a wall of distinctly second-rate works entitled "Modernity," by artists like Kees van Dongen, Francis Picabia, Jean Arp, and Wifredo Lam, apparently all from the same collection. Then a couple of large works against one wall that are more like magazine illustrations, and a text piece by the impenetrable Sophie Calle, a breakup letter sent by e-mail, written in English by the unidentified sender, and annotated with framed footnotes in French by the artist, who is shown in a photograph above the texts, impeccably dressed, reading a single sheet of paper in some elegant surrounding. Annoying. 

But the next thing I happened on cheered me up a lot, disgusting as it was. A pair of paintings by the Congolese painter Chéri Samba, which I can only describe as highly politicized surrealism with a healthy touch of traditional African sign-painting technique. His "Amoureux Chatie" ("Chastized Lovers") is a disturbing scene with a bunch of things happening at once. In one corner, a naked woman is ripping the clothes off of another woman and commenting that at last she's found her rival. The main part is a man with his pants pulled down, being grabbed by the hair by a young woman, held by a young man, while an older man takes a hand-drill to his bleeding rectum. There are cartoon-like balloons coming from everybody in English, French, and Lingala, and in another corner, a well-dressed man comments that what's happening is horrible and if he were a soldier he'd arrest them all, but, unfortunately, he's only the artist. The other painting is more obvious: a grotesquely fat Zairian guy is being examined by a white doctor and commenting that it's the duty of anybody in the country who becomes wealthy to also become very fat. 

These two paintings flank a doorway which leads to a small room in which we see the library of Doctor P., which is decorated with an amazing and impeccably-displayed mixture of ancient and modern art, much of it Peruvian, although there are also pieces by Robert Crumb and Enki Bilal and a wonderful Dutch artist, Pat Andrea, whose creepy "new subjectivity" paintings I'd never run across before, but will now keep an eye open for. (There's a large painting of his in the same room, but not part of the good doctor's collection). Then, outside the room, there are more Congolese paintings, this time by Moke, an artist who lived in a large market in Kinshasa, and set his realistic and surrealistic paintings there. Being simpler and less dependent on text than Chéri Samba's work, these are even weirder and more exciting. The large "Marché des Oignons" has enough enigmatic story in it to keep you busy staring at it for some time, and the bizarre inhabitants of "La Ninja sur la Route" sticking their tongues out at each other must mean something or other, but I wasn't able to figure it out. These are some of the most exciting paintings I've seen in some time, and I'm rather amazed that the several exhibitions of contemporary African painting I saw in Berlin didn't have either of these artists in them -- and even more amazed to find out that Chéri Samba's dealer was a gallery I used to walk past daily in that city! 

Next up is a really bizarre room, "The Cabinet of François." Here, 100 works (if you count the two wooden African statues flanking the door) by all manner of people are crammed onto the walls -- at least where the sink and toilet aren't. Only two people at a time are allowed in here, and I never got all the way in. In part, I didn't want to, both because of the huge confusion of all the stuff on the walls and the fact that, on the other side of the rope, a rather fat man, not in a security uniform, was sitting in a chair, just staring. Was this François? Did I want to go into his bathroom while he was there? He wasn't talking to anyone, nor did he seem to be inviting conversation. The stuff on the walls includes a piece of American folk art by one Roy Finster, who seems to be connected somehow to the late Rev. Howard Finster, and there's other folk art from Africa and Mexico, along with French comics and fine artists. Overwhelming and disturbing, with that guy sitting there. 

There's lots more, too. The center of the sanctuary is given over to some very large African pieces, most from one community in the Ivory Coast, but also one huge mask/hat from the Dogon people of Mali. There are several skateboards with pinups on them by one Madelaine Berkhemer, and a small collection of photos, including a large nude study by J. M. Engström which is oddly riveting, although the trick (and it's a good one) is that only the woman's face is in focus. 

L'oeil et la Coeur is the best group show I've seen since I've lived down here, and it's good for a couple of hours. I left wondering if the Musée Fabre would ever put together a collection of contemporary central African art from Collector B. and Collector D.'s collection and other French collectors' holdings. But they're not that daring, I don't think, so I'll have to go back to this one before it leaves on June 11. Just remember to hand in your chip at the exit: these security guys look even meaner than the guards at the Fabre -- and that's saying something. 

L'oeil et le Coeur, Carré Sainte-Anne, 2, rue Philippy, 34000 Montpellier. Open every day except Monday, 11am-1pm and 2pm-7pm. Entrance free. 


  1. I've had rosé with a splash of grapefruit in it and really like it, but I don't think I'd ever buy a bottle of it pre-made. That sounds gross, and wrong.

  2. Ed,

    The french, some of them, possess a lightness of being that you won't find much of state-side. The old part of town on its hill + the Oeuf are charming - I envy you living there. The time we visited Ste. Anne, the art was strictly by weekend amateurs, so a good show there would be a pleasant counter-factual.

    Mike Eisenstadt, tief in der Hertz von Texas

  3. Ed, long time no hear. No chance of meeting in the short term, but who knows?

  4. Ed,
    the plastic chip you got in Ste Anne : it's just to count the people !!!!!
    No danger....

  5. Ed, this plastic chip ? it's just to count the people (the entrance beeing free), no danger here.......


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