Saturday, June 25, 2011

Suzanne Valadon

It was not easy to be a woman, let alone a woman artist, in the late 19th century and early 20th century. But in France there were four great women painters who rightly rose to fame despite the obstacles in their path. They were Mary Cassatt (actually American), Marie Laurencin, Berthe Morisot, and Suzanne Valadon.

I have never been over enthusiastic about the first three, but Suzanne Valadon could draw as no one else – and I have loved her drawings from an early age.

Suzanne Valadon (born Marie-Clémentine Valadon in 1865) was the illegitimate daughter of an alcoholic sewing maid. And at that time illegitimacy was hardly acceptable (yet there must have been many such infants before the advent of modern contraception).

Suzanne was a self-sufficient tomboy, small, athletic and strong. She had no artistic background.

With a mother concentrating on survival in a hostile Paris, Suzanne had to live by her wits, with only a sympathetic grandmother to whom she could turn to in times of adversity.

Apprenticed as a seamstress, her first real employment was with a private circus, where she turned her hand to any needed task, graduating to become a circus performer. But, falling from a trapeze, she hurt her back and was unable to continue with circus life.

She was, however, by her late teens, very pretty and well fashioned. So, to become a model (mainly in the nude) for Montmartre artists beckoned. Moreover, she was able to hold a pose for long periods of time.

Posing for many artists, it was Puvis de Chavannes, then probably the most famous artist in France, who gave her regular employment. This provided her with temporary financial stability and the illuminating company of artists, their circle of friends, dealers and patrons.

Word soon spread of her ability, and lust for life. When she was not posing she drew, learning by observation.

When working for Degas, he chanced upon some of her drawings and was astounded by her decisive line and bold work, several examples of which he bought over the following years. He pinned some of her work to the wall in his studio and invited comment. This was most favourable, and by those who had no idea that the artist was unknown – and a woman. Degas promoted her interests and gave her instruction and advice.

Suzanne was a favourite model and companion, especially of Renoir and Toulouse-Lautrec, appearing in many of their paintings.

In 1883, she had an illegitimate son – father unknown. At that time she adopted her professional name of Suzanne Valadon.

Mainly because her son being frail and in poor health, she contemplated marriage with a rich suitor, who asked her the name of the boy’s father. She told him that it was either Puvis de Chavannes or Renoir. “Two fine artists,” he replied, and they were married. In fact, throughout her life she never divulged the name of her son’s father. It could have been several, but possibly a drunken sailor who raped her.

With marriage she virtually gave up her artistic work, but it was not long before she was hankering for the freedom and abandonment of her previous bohemian life in Montmartre.

Her son was the painter Maurice Utrillo, given the name of Utrillo by a Spanish journalist of that name who “acknowledged” Maurice as his son.

Maurice became an extreme alcoholic, drug addict, rabble-rouser and mental case. He was a drain on Suzanne’s purse and patience throughout most of her life, drunkenly fighting, or incarcerated in either jail, institutions, or even behind bars in his own home.

But under Suzanne’s guidance, in an effort to give him stability in life, he became an innovative painter, establishing a style of depicting the streets and alleyways of Montmartre that were much copied - as they still are today.

Then Suzanne fell in love for the first time with her son’s artist and womaniser friend, AndrĂ© Utter. He was some 21 years her junior. They married, just before he went to war against the Germans in 1915.

After the Great War, Utter, who had recovered from a bullet wound in the chest, exhibited successfully with Suzanne, and with Suzanne and Utrillo.

Utrillo continued with his volatile, alcoholic life, often paying barmen with his paintings when his debts had not been settled by Suzanne.

As Utrillo’s work now became famous and of considerable value, these barmen found themselves with valuable works to sell. They naturally encouraged his alcoholism – which hardly needed encouragement.

Suzanne, meanwhile, was at last accepted as an artist of note by dealers, gallery owners, and by those who controlled salons of importance. But her successful personal and professional liaison with Utter lasted for barely 12 years before they drifted apart. However, during that often tempestuous marriage, both Utrillo and Valadon reached dizzy heights of fame and fortune, with Valadon notorious for her extreme generosity.

In 1938 Suzanne Valadon, recognised as a great artist, collapsed at her easel and died in hospital.

Utrillo outlived her, having married and given up his wayward life.

It has been possible to fake Utrillos ever since he painted his groundbreaking scenes of the streets, steps, and picturesque paths of Montmartre. On the other hand, no one, but no one, could recreate a drawing with the power and strength of line of a Suzanne Valadon.

Monday, June 13, 2011

A Sculpture's Life (so far)

In 1962, I was having difficulty in returning to painting after a year-long, round-the –world voyage of drawing, followed by the building of a studio house in the country (later bought by Francis Bacon).
          I just couldn’t get going again without the interest of artistic progression.
          I then struck upon the idea of help by creating simple collages of card with stuck-on coloured paper, paper combined with paint, paint alone in the form of collage, and sculpture of painted copper on wood that was also closely related to the said collages.
          And it worked. Interest and creativity returned and, incidentally, interest to others as well, as one of them sold at Christie’s in late 2010 to a collector who took down a Matisse to make room for it.
A small one of those sculptures in wood and painted copper I still own. It was exhibited in a cabinet at The Mayor Gallery, Cork Street, London, at the time of my successful show there of Aircraft Shadows.
My London neighbour, Wilma, recovered from a decline in her life, and decided to spruce up her house and to restore a back garden that had by then become a veritable jungle.
I looked out of a window to see what horticultural progress had been made. And there, beneath two prostrate builders’ ladders was one of my (7 ½” x 13”)1962 copper and wood sculptures. – a painted Uffington White Horse on a copper, olive/green downland setting with a cut-out painted figure.
I had completely forgotten about this particular sculpture, and could find no photograph, or a record of it in my files. How then was I to discover how it came to be next door and abandoned in the garden?
So, when my neighbour was standing outside her front door, I tackled her, telling of what I had seen and asking permission to photograph the piece.
Then, later that day, as Margreet was about to enter our house, the sculpture was given back to us as the neighbour was ridding herself of unnecessary clutter.
The shape and colour is as if it had never been exposed to the elements. But, for a decade or more, the woodwork had become delicious grub for many a hungry woodworm.
There is preservation and restoration to be done, with its patina of age hopefully retained (created in 1962 and restored by the artist in 2011). I relish the opportunity to do it.
It materialised that some time ago, when my neighbour broke her leg in the district of the Uffington White Horse, I had given the piece to her as a commemorative present.
So its title is now: Wilma and the Uffington White Horse.
Whether she will thank me for this description is problematical, as it clearly depicts the painted image of that famous downland white chalk horse, and the raised form in painted copper of a fulsome naked lady cavorting nearby over the historic grass.

Thursday, June 02, 2011


Simplicity is the key to happiness – in all aspects of life, electronics, cooking, art, and on it goes. With simplicity goes timesaving.

I cook as I breathe – always have done. And unless I have simplified the cooking of a dish down to its bare minimum of fuss, ingredients and time taken, I work on it – even if I think I can hardly improve on it.

Breadmaking is one of those dark arts that need to be brought into the light. After all, if you can eat a really good loaf at less than a third of the price of a bought, polystyrene-like object, why not make bread yourself, by hand – if you do not already have an expensive machine and use electricity to run it.

Every time I come to make bread, there will be a new slant on it – simplicity and time taken being the main variables.

So I write this after only one experiment because I am so pleased with what happened, and delighted with the result.

The basics are the same – 1 ½ kilos of bread flour, salt, a hint of turmeric (only for colour), sugar (I used to use honey but can taste no difference when using sugar), a dribble of olive oil (I don’t know why), some dried yeast, and 1 ½ pints of warm water.

Normally I make the mix, knead it, allow the dough to rise in a warm place (sometimes twice), knead again, divide it into three well-buttered bread tins (never letting the metal to go near water), wait for the dough to rise in the tins, then bake the result in a hot oven for 1/2 an hour, followed by another 1/2 an hour at a medium to low setting.

The dough-rising bit has, until this experiment, taken place on a small area that is of under-floor heated.

In winter this was ideal. But in summer the floor is cold and unsuitable. So where was I to find a warm place - in the oven, of course.

So, when kneading, I switched on the oven enough to warm it, divided the kneaded dough into three bread tins, and watched the dough rise to the top of the tins in the oven, checking and sometimes adjusting the warmth about every quarter of an hour. And there they were, ready to bake, with no fuss, no unnecessary movement of tins, and no trouble. The resulting bread was wonderful.

Actually, I make six loaves at a time, filling the oven, then freezing the bread that’s not wanted when it has cooled.

So to re-cap – for three loaves. Empty a 1 1/2 kilo bag of bread flour into a large bowl. Add some salt and a trace of turmeric. Stir it around.

Take a Pyrex pint glass measure. In it put a heaped teaspoon of sugar. Pour in boiling water to the half-pint mark. Melt the sugar. Add cold water up to the pint mark. Test it for blood-heat warmth. Stir in one and a half teaspoons of dried yeast.

Place this measuring jar of liquid in the centre of the flour in its bowl, and cover the surface of the yeasty liquid with a little of the surrounding flour.

In a while the yeast will react with the sugar and bubble up through the flour. Whisk it all together. A creamy foam will result.

Pour this yeast mixture into the flour, adding another half-pint of warmed water and a dribble of olive oil. Stir it together with a wooden spoon until the mixture forms into a rough ball that you can lift out and knead.

Knead the dough by using your fingers and the heel of your hands. The dough might be a little sticky to start with, but will firm up. Keep at it for about five minutes. This is a most satisfactory process.

Roll the dough with your hands into a sausage shape, divide into three, and put these into the buttered bread tins, scoring into the top of the dough from end to end with a knife.

Put the tins of dough into your warmed oven and proceed as directed above.

Tip out the baked loaves onto a wire mesh surface, allow the bread to cool, then eat one freshly baked and freeze the rest.