Returning to Istanbul from my two-month sojourn as a resident at the Cité Internationale des Arts in Paris, I have in my possession three signed volumes. Together they signal the points of a triangle, or the pages of a trilogy, lived and experienced in Paris, that reach backwards and forwards through my life.
The first is Rachel Cusk’s new novel ‘Outline’, launched in November at the famous bookshop on the banks of the Seine, Shakespeare & Company, a place that recalls when as a young traveler from South Africa in her twenties, I stayed upstairs, read Colette, wondering at the goings-on between the then owner and the young women that seemed to be trading free board and lodging for the quotidian tasks of putting away the then proprietor’s socks. I remember I was gazing up at Chagall’s ceiling of the Paris Opera when I met Chen who took me along to Shakespeare’s where she was staying. I had already spent one night in Paris in a camper van at the Cité. It was Madame Bruno, the slightly intimidating Director at the time, who was alerted to my unusual sleeping arrangement in the parking lot, who had summarily evicted me. Diane Maclean and Estelle Marais, two South African painters, were staying in 1731 at the time, and pressed for space themselves they had generously offered to accommodate me in their camper van. I remember Diane was painting a portrait of Estelle. Diane has gone on to become one of South Africa’s most accomplished portrait painters, including that of Nelson Mandela. Estelle is most well known for her ability to capture the essence of the Karoo landscape.
Some decades later I find myself again in studio 1731, this time staying with another reputable South African landscape painter, my mother, Lindsay Page. Somewhere else in these blog musings, heritage , I refer to my visit to the Grand Palais to see a Max Ernst retrospective. I was 11 years old when my mother and I scrambled out of the car in the pouring rain and ran up the thousand stairs to join a long queue for the exhibition. Celebes was one of the first paintings by a French master that I ever saw in the flesh. Many years later, here my mother and I are on the same beat together.
At the Orangerie, as the sun sets into an impossibly clear autumnal sky, the filigree of the Eiffel tower is barely visible from the Tuileries Gardens. Inside the museum, my mother and I are marvelling at Monet’s Waterlilies. Both of us have been here before, and yet we see it all as if the first time, scrutinising up close the layered craggy cliffs of paint and then as we walk backwards, watch it all dissolve into the ethereality of water, light and colour. Close up there are water lilies that rise up like the pastries in the nearby boulangerie, in decadent swirls; such audacity in the mark-making, we agree, never visible in the photographs. As painters both, we can follow Monet’s brush as he dances across, up and down, round about the canvas, sometimes pushing in like a house painter squishing paint right up into the corners; then he is a calligrapher in a rhapsody of drawing. Dodging the selfie-takers, it is nevertheless a delight to use one’s camera to zoom in on a favourite detail and reveal the magic of the brushstroke.
At the Musee National d’Art Moderne, we find some of our old favourites: Vuillard, Bonnard, Dufy, Matisse and Nolde, amongst others. We happen upon Vuillard painting the sculptor Maillol in his striped trousers as he sculpts a nude in his garden. Then we meet Vuillard at home at Rue St Honore, a domestic scene lit by lamplight, and we are amazed by the suggestive power of his patches of colour in creating a notation for the fondness he has for his dog. Here is Bonnard’s ‘The Garden’ presenting us with a visual adventure. Once again, as painters, we stand close to observe how Bonnard relinquishes his hold on observed reality, allowing himself to delight more and more in the paint as he dabs and scumbles, gradually conjuring up the experience of a walk through his garden; unerringly sensual and spatial, the net of his marks engage one in both surface and depth.
Between the paintings we are gripped by a small sculpture, ‘Mother and Child’ by Laurenzen, then the raw vibrancy of the seascapes of Emil Nolde, and again the inimitable raffish style of Kees van Dongen, a surprising Debuffet of pressed wood – an objet trouve of beauty.
In the Musee Picasso in the Marais we encounter the painter’s bold playfulness. Somehow Picasso’s witty use of pattern and daring use of colour in his late works resonates in the patterns and colours of the nearby boutiques. A few weeks later at Musee D’ Orsay, we encounter Picasso again, this time in the special exhibition of his Rose and Blue periods. In Bleu et Rose we are affected by something else in his work entirely: Picasso’s humanity, and his ability to evoke so clearly relationships, moments of love, the personalities of Paris and Montparnasse. We marvel at the ease with which he works, incompleteness and suggestiveness informed by his extraordinary observation of the human figure and its movement, attitudes and nuances. The whole cast of humanity: harlequins, performers, players, prostitutes, friends, dealers, mothers, children and families are represented here.
On the eve of my departure, on yet another trip to the fabulous Pompidou Centre, this time together with my 17-year-old son, Tem, who has already seen the show, I fly through the brilliant exhibition “Le Cubisme”. It is a fitting finale to our adventure in Paris and her artists. Le Cubisme brings together the friends of Montparnasse: Picasso and Soutine, the Dadaists, the writer Tristan Tzara, and the poets Rocher and Paul Fort. Coincidentally, our last night in Paris is spent on Rue Paul Fort in Montparnasse. Also represented in the exhibition, are the visitors from the countryside, like Matisse, who traded oranges with Picasso in exchange for an introduction to Picasso’s collectors. Duchamp suddenly comes alive alongside Matisse as all the boring categories of my university Art History fall away to reveal a society of friends, fellow artists, writers, poets with a tremendous work ethic, living and liking and exclaiming the things of their time. Suddenly I am able to place one of my favourite painters, Nicolaas De Stael, side by side with Picasso, as they attend life drawing classes together. In Hemingway’s lively account of the times, his Paris novel ‘Moveable Feast’, he reminds one that art is best received slightly hungry. Cezanne’s still lives as Hemingway then and now we visit them at Gallerie d’Art Moderne remind us of this. Later, as we eat supper in our Cite studio apartment it is an opportune moment to draw some edible still life in the frugal repast of wine, bread and cheese, a Cezanne bowl of fruit in attendance.
At the Cité, we too are a community of artists. In my French class, the artiste des Bandes (illustrator/cartoonist), Burcu Turker hailing from Berlin, and I discover we have done drawings expressing exactly the same feeling, heads full to bursting with the excitement of everything we are seeing and experiencing. Which brings me to my second treasured signed volume: Süsse Sitronen by Burcu Turker. When I finally visit her studio shared with her partner, Mika a graffiti calligrapher, I find a desk arrayed with drawing materials, drawing books and walls covered in drawings. Burcu is a storyteller, and she explains how writing for her is easier than drawing. The new book she is working on is a story of being in Paris. As the story evolves, her protagonist is an office clerk by day and a graffitti artist by night. Burcu, like Lindsay and I, is also tuning into the Gilet Jaunes protests as they take over the streets every Saturday. And so Burcu too is living, liking and exclaiming the things of our times. Her life also draws quite literally back through Istanbul which was her mother’s home, making me once again aware of the links and pinpoints that make up a giant, and intricate web of connections across time and space that resonates through the Cité.
My third signed volume is by Patti Smith. I attend the signing of her latest book, Devotion. Since I already have the book at home, gifted and inscribed to me by my own devoted, I opt instead for the original French edition of ‘Presages d’ Innocence’. In it there is a poem about a tree that continues to hold on to its leaves well into winter. Next to the Memorial de Shoah, which is right next to our apartment building, there is such a tree, and my mother and I watch it as we pass by each day, its branches blackened by the rain, its leaves first bright green and then poured gold as slowly they loose from the bough.
Which brings me back to Rachel Cusk’s ‘Outline’, the third in a trilogy of novels, boldly proposing a new form. The first in the trilogy, ‘Motherhood’, is a daring and candid account. I read it shortly before my son was born and still recall her accurately comparing the 3am breastfeeding wake up call to an alarm clock. By her own account she was slated for this work: too personal, too autobiographical. It was unfair criticism but it launched her into a new way of writing, developed in the other two works in the trilogy. ‘Motherhood’ was an important book to me, a healthy antidote to the all too common romanticisation of motherhood. It was a privilege to hear Cusk speak at Shakespeare’s as part of a weekly series of book launches. What was I left with after listening to her speak? I was impressed by her courage, a combination of vulnerability and strength, thoughtfulness and honesty. Even as I was ready to praise ‘Motherhood’, the author was uncertain of my response: “What did you think of it?” she asked, when my turn at the signing table came. In our chat about the book, and realizing our sons were of an age, she congratulated me for carving a space of time for this adventure, and for my work.