Friday, 31 January 2020

A tale of two women

I began this article thinking I would recount a relatively straightforward tale about the work of an eccentric woman artist first encountered five years ago in a biographical film. But as I explored, more revelations appeared, reminders of the horror of war in Europe and the discovery that the father of the other extraordinary woman in the story died in Auschwitz.  Especially poignant in a week that marks the75th anniversary of the liberation of that terrible death camp and the departure of the UK from the EU.

Last Saturday morning, I set off in the chilly darkness to catch the 07. 52 Eurostar from St Pancras, to meet up with friends and fellow Francophiles from business group Women in Property. This is our annual, spirit boosting trip to Paris, which began some ten years when one of the group commented that for the price of a decent dinner in London, we might just as well go to Paris for lunch. As she put it, “We can talk shop on the way there and go shopping before we come back.”

The essential elements are lunch at a charming yet affordable restaurant in the fashionable 1st Arrondissement, where the owners always welcome us warmly, especially when we turn up in years marred by terrorists, strikes and demonstrations. Then follows a choice of retail or cultural therapy (sometimes both are achieved). Recently the role of cultural attaché has fallen to me, resulting in the discovery of idiosyncratic but interesting museums, always in wonderful buildings, as befits our group of constructive women. Last Saturday proved to be no exception.

Revived by coffee, croissants and conversation we arrive on time and are relieved to find that the predicted lull in transport and power strikes seems to be holding. The more sporty members of the party declare they will walk from the Gare du Nord to work up an appetite, others head for the taxi queue.  After an excellent lunch, half of us head off for the Left Bank and the Musée Maillol, the other to the shops.

The reason for choosing this museum is that it is showing an exhibition of naïve painters, including the extraordinary self-taught artist Séraphine Louis, also known as Séraphine de Senlis.  I discovered her by chance a few years ago after buying the DVD Séraphine to add to my European cinema collection, in the belief that a film that won seven French AcademyAwards was probably worth watching. As indeed it was, with an extraordinary performance by Belgian actress Yolande Moreau in the title role.

Born in 1864, Séraphine was orphaned by the age of seven and brought up by her older sister until she was old enough to earn a living, first as a shepherdess, then as a cleaner and finally as a housekeeper for middle class families in the town of Senlis. She was totally absorbed by a passion to paint, inspired by her religious faith and a deep love of nature. She painted by candlelight on the floor of her cramped attic room, on any material she could find, often using colours made from plants and soil.  Her meagre earnings made canvas and paint a luxury. This obsession and hermit like existence, not surprisingly, led to her reputation as an eccentric.

By chance, in 1912, wealthy art dealer Wilhelm Uhder was visiting friends in Senlis and saw a still life painting of apples that Séraphine had given to the family. He persuaded her to show him her attic full of paintings and was so impressed that he gave her financial support, support that ended just two years later, when as a German, he was forced to leave France at the outbreak of the First World War.

When Uhde returned to France in 1927, he discovered that Séraphine was still alive and still painting. With his support she produced dramatic, large (some two metres high) rich fantasies of intensely repeated and embellished floral arrangements. At the age of 65 she was the highlight of an exhibition in Paris arranged by Uhde, called ‘Painters of the Sacred Heart.’ Séraphine de Senlis became the leading naïve painter of the day and a very wealthy woman. Tragically this wealth caused a mental breakdown and just three years later, in 1932 she was committed to an asylum where she stayed, unable to paint, until her death at the age of 79. Meanwhile Uhde and his rich clients lost most of their money in the Great Depression.

Séraphine’s work continues to be exhibited, with its extraordinary colours as vivid as ever, made from secret ingredients that she never revealed. So with this story in mind, I search out the works in Musée Maillol - and they don’t disappoint. The only woman artist in the exhibition, she holds her own alongside the exuberant Henri Rousseau (also championed by Uhde) as the forerunners of the ‘modern primitives.’

But there is more to come. We learn that the Musée Maillol exists because of the determination of another exceptional woman. Born in Moldova to a Jewish family, Dina Vierney fled the country as a child during the Russian Revolution, arriving with her musician parents in Paris, where her father found work as a piano accompanist to silent films. At the age of 15 she became the muse of one of the most influential and successful artists and sculptors in France, Aristide Maillol. He saw in her the embodiment of the ‘eternal feminine’ and she also inspired other artists including Matisse, Bonnard and Dufy. She was not only beautiful but an artist, singer and film actress – the first of her three husbands was a successful film director. 

When the Second World War broke out, Maillol and his family moved to his house in Banyuls, on the South West coast near the border with Spain. Dina followed in 1940, just before the Germans invaded France. There she joined the resistance movement, helping to transport refugees across the Pyrenees to safety in Spain. A hazardous occupation, particularly for a Jew, she was arrested in Marseilles but released with the intervention of Maillol and Henri Matisse. In 1943 she moved to Paris and one day, on the way to have lunch with Picasso, she was caught up in a Gestapo raid. After six months in prison, suffering torture, she was released after Maillol appealed to Arno Breker, Hitler’s official sculptor.

Tragically, the next year Dina lost not only her natural father (who died in Auschwitz) but also Maillol, the man she regarded as her second father. He was killed in a car accident in Banyuls in August 1944, whilst she was in Paris celebrating the liberation of the city. In researching this story, I came across a detailed article in The Irish Times that put forward the theory that Maillol did not die in a car crash but was murdered by French resistance workers who had not forgiven him for his friendship with Arno Breker. Whilst this friendship tarnished Maillol’s reputation, Dina was unhesitating in speaking up for Breker after the war ended and helped in the rebuilding of his career.

Regardless of the cause, Maillol’s death at the age of 89 brought an end to his ten year platonic relationship with Dina. She inherited his estate, and immediately set about becoming a patron of the arts, gifting twenty of Maillol’s full size bronze sculptures of herself to the State (insisting they be displayed in the Tuileries Gardens) and opening a successful art gallery. The culmination of her commitment to honouring the memory of Aristide Maillol was to create a museum for his works and to display exhibitions of the significant artists of the 19th and 20th centuries.  Which brings us back to the building we visited at the beginning of this story.

Musée Maillol began in 1739 as an structure in the Rue Grenelle in the 7th Arrondissement, to contain the extravagant Fountains of the Four Seasons. Then the nuns who owned the land began adding buildings behind the curved façade to create a convent. During the French Revolution the convent was auctioned and the building sold to various individuals as private residences and was listed as a national monument.  By the 19th Century the apartment building had become home to artists and writers.

In 1951 it was recognized as a cultural and festival building, not only full of artists and writers but with a cabaret aptly called La Fontaine de Quatre Saisons on the ground floor, which launched the careers of many musicians and actors including Maurice Bejart and Yves Montand. Among the tenants was Dina Vierney, who spent the next thirty years acquiring all the apartments in the building, with the objective of creating a museum in memory of Aristide Maillol.

She achieved this in 1995, when President Mitterand formally opened the museum. She not only displayed Maillol’s works, and recreated his studio, but also displayed those from her extensive collection. She hosted exhibitions by exciting contemporary artists including Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, Morandi, Basquiat, Bacon, Keith Haring, Poliakoff, Rauchenberg, Kandinsky – and Séraphine Louis, the woman who started me on this fascinating trail.

Dina Vierney died in 2009, two days before her 90th birthday, leaving the museum and her extensive collection of art in the care of a Foundation run by the two sons from her marriage to the sculptor Jean Lorquin.

Two extraordinary women, different but interlinked.  Séraphine Louis: painter, visionary and independent woman. Dina Vierney: muse, artist, singer, revolutionary, film star, patron of the arts and a woman of property. What is there to learn from their stories?
-       skill and determination are not enough
-       money helps, but managing wealth is difficult
-       the support of champions and mentors is essential.

And at a time when two generations have enjoyed peace in Europe, a reminder of the havoc caused by war. 

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