O Toulouse… Gordon Seward at the Espace Bouquières in la ville rose

View from Saint Exupéry’s room, Hotel du Grand Balcon copyright Gordon Seward

The stunning painting above is by artist Gordon Seward, currently exhibiting at the Espace Bouquières in Toulouse. Gordon’s work has been shown at prestigious venues around Europe, as well as in the UK and the US, and has been the subject of glowing articles by critics and collectors. But Toulousains are specially blessed (hooray!) as Gordon, for the last fifteen or so years, has returned each summer like a swallow to his adoptive city, thrilling locals and visitors alike with his latest creations. The fact that it was pouring down on the first morning did not deter devoted collectors from queuing up early in order to rush in and bag a goodie.

Some of the paintings on display at the Espace Bouquières 2018, copyright Gordon Seward

Bursting with beauty and emotion, luminous, vibrant, dramatic, bold, dancing, joyful, fluid, free–these are some of the expressions that spring to mind as you stand before the paintings. Swiss soprano Brigitte Hool, on a visit to the pink city to perform in The Magic Flute, stepped into the gallery one day and looked around. ‘Can I,’ she said to the surprised artist, ‘sing for your paintings?’ Which she then proceeded to do, celebrating them with a Puccini aria.*

What a perfect reaction.

Lacking the adequate tessitura to do a Mme Hool, or the springy calves to convey my admiration through a series of Nureyev-like leaps, I will try to express my own feelings in this short blog. (Obviously, I’d like to write a long blog, a very long blog, but…)

Art critics have described the artist’s work as ‘an ode to life’, ‘a source of constant pleasure’. Seward is ‘a colour magician’, a ‘new Fauvist’, ‘his explosive painting (bringing us) the fearless Mediterranean spirit and freedom.’ Gordon himself, in his autobiography Why I Paint, talks about the importance of first learning the rigorous craft of drawing, then describes ‘letting go’, allowing free rein to his intuition as a way of spurring the paintings ‘to bubble and sing’. He cites Matisse (one of his idols) as someone who ‘determined in contemporary painting the fundamental elements of joy and humility’ which ‘seem to me now more revolutionary and necessary than ever.’

Alors à l’heure, poems by Cécile Toulouse aka La Muse

This year, along with his wife and constant Muse, poet, lyricist and translator Cécile Toulouse, he has been working on an exciting new concept, a limited series of signed ‘Digigraphies’, high-quality lithographs using a technique which allows a dazzling range of colours. The theme chosen for this first series is ‘Toulouse’, in particular the city’s historical connection with some of the most amazing chapters in French aviation.

Readers of this blog will be only too familiar with my own attachment to la ville rose where I lived for many years, as well as my enthusiasm for this period of its history**. In the 1920s and 30s, Pierre-Georges Latécoère developed what was to become one of the world’s most legendary airlines (which incidentally will celebrate the centenary of its birth at Montaudran this year).

Writing desk and window looking out over la place du capitole, room 32, chambre de Saint-Exupéry, Hôtel du Grand Balcon

His aviators and mechanics were a larger-than-life bunch of daredevils, poets and writers, who risked their necks on every mission. Passionate about their vocation, they also had an appetite for life which included l’amour, toujours l’amour, prompting Didier Daurat, head of operations at the airline, to arrange for these ardent young men to lodge at the Hôtel du Grand Balcon on the corner of the Place du Capitole, a respectable boarding house run by the three genteel Marquez sisters. This, he assumed, would keep them in check (it didn’t–the sisters were pussy cats who adored their lodgers).

Both of the Sewards are keen historians, also fascinated by the city’s association with these fluttering starts in aviation. Gordon first set up his easel in Saint-Exupéry’s former quarters at the hotel, Room 32, many years ago, before the place was renovated.*** His canvases show the view looking out from the window towards the famous 18th century Capitole building. In January 2015 he returned to paint the moving scenes as people gathered on the square to hold a vigil after the Charlie Hebdo massacres (this is the subject of one of the ‘Digigraphies’).

This obligation of the artist to keep the flame of art burning more brightly than ever in ‘the heart of darkness’ recurs in his autobiography. He talks of Matisse, refusing to leave Nice during WW2, continuing to paint as bombers roared overhead.

To hold in your hand a brush or a gun. To arm yourself with a pen or a dagger. A choice brought before us every day, as it always has been.

Narrow alleys in old Toulouse

And so it was, dear readers, that this weekend the Maître de Maison and myself sallied forth on our annual pilgrimage to the Espace Bouquières (alas we have missed a couple over the years), treating ourselves to a day of joy and nostalgia in la ville rose, soaking up the dusty heat and southern ambiance, strolling arm in arm through the narrow streets, past café terraces and fountain-splashed squares packed with locals and tourists.

Toulouse has changed dramatically. It continues to change with terrifying speed: the gigantic aerospace industry, the ‘Silicon Valley’ IoT (Internet of Things), the sci fi projects for flying taxis, driverless buses, the Hyperloop tunnel which will shoot trains between Toulouse and Montpelier in 20 minutes. Buying lamb chops at the Maison de l’agneau in the Marché Victor Hugo (opened in 1892), we exchanged reminiscences with the butcher.

Pace du Capitole, evening, cafés under the arcades

Twenty thousand new arrivals each year, he told us, making neat wax paper packets. A far cry from the ‘old days’ when chansonnier Claude Nougaro penned his famous hymn to the city of his birth, ‘a flower of coral watered by the sun’ (have the Kleenex ready as you listen):

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZI2uZPV4fEo

Celebrating the old and the new at the Espace Bouquières, the artist and his Muse welcome visitors, answer questions, talk about art, music, history, literature and  life in general, including the trendy barber doing hipster haircuts just down the street. They are always, unfailingly, ‘disponible‘, at the disposal of all who come to buy or simply to look. And all around, on every wall, is a joyous ‘ode to life’.

What a treat.

The exhibition finishes on June 16th, but the four ‘Digigraphies’ will continue to be displayed in Toulouse at the Magasin Trait, 4 rue Vidal. There are also permanent exhibitions in Marseilles (Galerie Grossi), Lille (Atelier Kolorma), and Montauban (Art et Patrimoine).

Unlucky mortals far from these cities can amuse their bouches at:

http://www.gordonseward.fr

O Toulouse!

The 18th century Capitole building at the heart of Toulouse, la ville rose, Occitania’s capital city

 

Detail from a drawing by Gordon Seward, property of the author, copyright Gordon Seward
Detail from a drawing by Gordon Seward, property of the author, copyright Gordon Seward

PS: For the last several weeks I have been going through the elephantine birth pangs of finishing off Villa Julia, the last book in the French Summer series. In this I have been helped by a kindly fairy godmother who popped up from cyberspace and offered to help. Her name is Paula Heron Phillips(I hope she doesn’t mind me mentioning her in this blog) and she has been reading drafts, wielding sticks and carrots and giving excellent feedback. All through the sheer goodness of her reader’s heart. Every Indie author should be so lucky. I am so grateful. Merci Paula!!!!!xxxx. Anyway, I was happy to escape from the maternity ward for a day, put on my city togs and swan off with the Maître de Maison to see the Expo Seward. Especially as, along with the formal card, there was a more personal (and cheekier) invitation (see below) from the little bird which features in many of the artist’s paintings in various forms.  I like to think this one was the nightingale the ‘light-winged Dryad of the trees’ which had serenaded us in our garden all through May, charming many a magic casement and causing us to hold up the mobile phone countless times in an attempt to record its magic notes (all we got was crackle). Here it is.

O for a draft of vintage! A beaker full of the warm South…

PPS Villa Julia will be out in …the future….

*recounted in Why I Paint (available from the artist’s website)

**

https://laurettelong.com/the-music-of-the-spheres/

http://www.frenchvillagediaries.com/2018/03/lazy-sunday-in-france-with-laurette-long.html

***

https://grandbalconhotel.com

 

Winners or Losers, a lesson from art.

 

Detail from painting by Gordon Seward
Detail from painting by Gordon Seward

In a couple of hours I shall turn on the TV and see the result of the UK referendum on Europe.

Many years ago I had the privilege of being invited to join the French team of delegates sent to Montreal for an ICAO  (International Civil Aviation Organisation) conference. My mission was ‘linguistic’, the aim being to develop a bank of language used in international meetings, and I was given permission to interview delegates from different member states. It was, to put it mildly, an eye-opener. The ICAO, like the UNO, operates on the basis of consensus but as the subject of the conference that year was particularly controversial, it appeared as though a vote (the last resort) loomed.

‘Why not a vote? Why is consensus important?’ I asked one member (from a Middle Eastern state, educated at Oxbridge).

‘Because,’ he said, ‘a vote turns people into winners and losers.’

Why I paint by Gordon Seward
Why I paint by Gordon Seward

Last Friday I mentioned on Facebook that I visited the exhibition of artist Gordon Seward in Toulouse. Always a visual treat of enormous magnitude, this year there was an extra. Gordon has written a book called ‘Why I paint’.

Here’s a story from it (with the author’s permission). It’s called: ‘Portrait of a woman singing’.

A gallery in Toulouse. A young woman enters and looks at my paintings for a long time. I am in the back room. My wife asks her if she would like any information. The young woman beams out a smile when she realises who my wife is and that her artist husband is there too. I come out to say hello.

‘Can I sing for your paintings?’

Apprehensive but amused I told her that she could go ahead while wondering to myself whether this was really a good idea.

‘So I am going to sing a piece by Puccini that states that “the worth is meaningless if not appreciated”.

She told me that she was in Toulouse to perform a lead role in the Mozart opera ‘The Magic Flute’, and by chance she had found herself in front of the gallery. She admitted that for a long time she had been looking for the sensation that opera gave her in contemporary painting and that “at last I have found it.’

So she sang for the paintings. The small room seemed to swell as the voice left her lungs. The paintings blazed. We stood as if tied to a mast in a storm, the sound waves rose impossibly then fell melodiously. A crowd assembled outside the door and windows. We cried. When it was over she held my hands and said:

‘I just wanted you to know how your paintings made me feel.’

‘Listening to paintings, looking at music’ is the title of this chapter.

Gordon Seward: La répetition, Brigitte Hool in rehearsal Le Capitole
Gordon Seward: La répetition, Brigitte Hool in rehearsal Le Capitole

After two weeks during which the daily news has showed nothing but bitter division and strife in the three countries in which I have lived, the UK, the US and France, and for which I have immense fondness, I’d like to say the following:

Let’s hear it for consensus.

Let’s find a way together. Let’s remember the words of Jo Cox, in her maiden speech in Parliament:

‘We have far more in common than (that) which divides us.”

I believe, from everything that my parents taught me, that, for the majority of us,  it is possible to open our minds, to listen to a painting, to look at music.

For each of us human beings with a clamouring voice in our heads, is it too much to listen to those other voices? Have we closed off our ears to ‘the other side’, insisting on what is different rather than what is in common?

Do we really want to live in a world of winners and losers?

Gordon Seward’s book ‘Why i paint’ , Collected Thoughts on Art, is dedicated ‘To Cécile’, his wife, his Muse, poet and lyricist,  brilliant translator into French of ‘Pourquoi je peins’:  Cécile Toulouse.

Poems by Cécile Toulouse
Poems by Cécile Toulouse

http://cecile-toulouse-poesie.over-blog.com/

http://www.gordonseward.fr/