Sunday, 1 April 2012

Painting a goddess in Montpellier

Montpellier, in case you don’t know by now, is the beautiful town I inhabit in the south of France; near the coast but not right on it. Everyone there looks far too relaxed, by which I deduce they are all tourists. Probably the natives of Montpellier live in some other, well hidden spot.

It’s gorgeous; all white stone, iron balconies and brilliant sunshine. Some of the white isn't as white as it could be, and parts of the city are getting a bit crumbly, but the stone is still light enough to faithfully reflect the varying tones of the sun throughout the day; ranging from the colour of frothed milk in the morning to a rosy wash at dusk. Isn't it annoying how you can't use the word 'twilight' anymore?

One of the things I really like about the city is it's elegant synthesis of centuries-old and ultra modern. This is one of their latest trams being test driven before its work starts for real next week. The trams meander through the streets within inches of the general public, and because they're so much slower than buses there's no real risk of being knocked down.

Another thing I love is the way that art is cherished on the streets. Just about everything in the centre of town is a listed building but instead of insisting on smart or conventional, the town council have allowed innovative and fun. Montpellier has many outdoor murals, mostly using the style of ''trompe-l'oeil' or 'trick of the eye.' This is where the painting is intended to confuse the eye into believing what it sees is really there, and is often used indoors to depict a scene from an imaginary window, or on backdrops at the theatre or ballet to simulate a scene with a horizon line and perspective.

These two photos are of my favourite mural; you can look up and really feel for a moment that you're inside a comic book! And how fantastic that they're on the side of a house, where everyone can enjoy them. I kept expecting to see graffiti appear on them, but I've never seen them damaged in any way, so either everyone claims them as their own, or the town has a really amazing anti-graffiti squad.

It's complete genius. There's only one real window in this photograph, the rest of it is a flat wall. So bold, and it works whichever angle you study it from.

Amusingly enough, I was apprenticed for two weeks to a master trompe-l'oeil painter when I was sixteen, and this is a close up of the mural he was working on at the time. Yes, my apprenticeship only lasted two weeks; I was sacked for 'impudence.' In my defence, I have to say it was complicated...! My two weeks were mainly spent cleaning brushes, but I was also given a few painting tasks. Alexandra Palace in London was being done up and lots of murals had been commissioned from different artists; my boss had a large wall to cover with Roman ruins. I did the underpainting for those pillar-heads, practised painting straight lines (the beginning of sign-writing training), which is not as easy as it sounds, and also, most importantly, kept him company while he talked about himself. It's a pity in some respects that I didn't stay there longer as I might have learnt a lot about planning artwork, but it wasn't a very healthy situation and, although I was a bit affronted by my sudden dismissal, I was glad to return home.

My own rather smaller, and still unfinished, mural is in the vegetarian restaurant Tripti-Kulai, which is at 20, Rue Jacques Coeur in the centre of Montpellier. It's right off Place de la Comedie, which you can see in the photo at the top of the page. Place de la Comedie is basically the main square; it houses the opera building, the main cinema, lots of cafes, a few fountains and my favourite French icecream shop, Le Jardin des Glaces, of which I will write a more in depth analysis once it has opened again for summer.

The manager of Tripti-Kulai is a friend of mine. Her name is Padmasini, meaning, 'the one who is seated on the lotus', which is an epithet of the Hindu goddess of beauty and harmony, Mahalakshmi. On the crest of a wave of inspiration I suggested that I should come and paint a mural in the interior of the restaurant, and that it should be in honour of this goddess. Very bravely, she agreed to it, though I had to admit I had never painted a mural before, and she even gave me that which an artist simultaneously craves and dreads; a completely non-existent deadline.

She allowed me a free rein with the mural; the only stipulation was that I should paint the goddess in such a way that little girls would really love her! My plan was to produce an image about two metres by three metres on the wall of the room between the kitchen and the main restaurant area. In return she would put me up, pay my fares across and, best of all, let me eat all day at the restaurant.

Because of my tendency to eat out of tins and packets, those of you who knew me before my recent restaurant indoctrination might assume I am one of those to whom food is of no consequence, a matter of survival. Nothing, however, could be further from the truth. While I will not raise a hand to prepare a tasty snack for myself, I'll go to extreme lengths to eat a meal by a talented cook; in this case I actually moved country... Tripti-Kulai boasts a rather extensive dessert menu, and the ready supply of perfect ingredients means they can at all times practise what they preach.

The apple tarts, the marron noisette cheesecake, the eighty percent gateau chocolat with crème anglaise, their complete understanding of what a dessert should be; all this had etched itself upon a greedy little place in my heart. Whilst painting a mural I would be able to devour large quantities of everything and with luck they would see it as a necessary evil, a stoking of the artistic fire; maybe even an investment.

Furthermore, the staff at Tripti Kulai work shifts so, according to my reckoning, what I consumed before lunch would not be noted by those working in the afternoon, allowing me double helpings of everything...

As I didn’t have much holiday left from work I knew that the mural would have to be completed in stages. When I arrived for the first installment of my odyssey I was relieved to find that everything I needed was close by; a well stocked art shop was just around the corner and there were a couple of supermarkets where I could get essential things like white spirit and kitchen roll. I prefer thinning oil paint with white spirit as it dries more quickly and although I am sensitive to all kinds of other chemicals I seem to be immune to its fumes. Although I had brought my paints with me I usually work small and had no idea how much I was going to need. I bought filler and primer for the rough surface of the wall and lots of green, yellow and white.

Whilst I had not planned my painting (of course not!) I knew that what I wanted was a giant Indian goddess in a miniature forest with little animals, birds and so on. I had done a bit of research over the years on Indian flora and fauna and so I was hoping to have elephants, monkeys, peacocks and all the rest of it. The animals would be the very last thing to be included; the icing on the cake, like in Genesis. But unlike Genesis, there would be no people created, just the goddess and the forest to aide her contemplation. I know how to learn by others’ mistakes! Although, I was unable to resist putting in some animals too early just because they were so much fun; the peacock, for example, and the elephants.

The girls agreed to let me paint all day as long as I would give up my worktable at lunchtime if they needed it for customers. That in itself is very generous as paint fumes don’t go with food, but they knew I had a lot of wall to cover and limited time to do it in. They thought it might be distracting to have people moving all around me but actually it added a dynamic element to the atmosphere. My natural tendency is to study the artwork in silence, making increasingly abstract design decisions and losing track of time. Having people moving around grounds me and keeps me aware of the passing of time at some unconscious level of my mind, similar to the ticking of a clock.

The customers, who I thought might be annoyed at having their space taken over, were very supportive. They were curious to know what I was doing and stretched my French to its limits. On my first trip, which was lots of designing and preparation and putting on undercoats of colour, I had a lot of explaining to do. On subsequent trips the form came together and the painting began to speak for itself. I have noticed that I tend to work with more dynamism if people are watching, and although I'm sure it's a character flaw it was very useful in this instance. Children and adults alike would stand nearby, offering comments, painting advice and suggestions for which animals I should include. It began to be a bit like interactive performance art. If you are painting in a public place it is really a statement that you are happy to work with people watching, and generally I am. I only get tetchy if the painting is going badly and I feel stuck in some way, then every sound distracts me and I become a bit of a nightmare.

There was plenty of time to work on the mural in the evenings and nights, and that in itself was a very satisfying experience. I have often heard that painting large gives you a sense of freedom, but I didn't know why until I tried it. I think, in part, we get a sense of freedom because we are forced to engage completely with the painting, and take it more seriously than normal. Because of it's size I was able to isolate and switch off that part of my mind that kept trying to tell me I could leave it til the last minute and get it done in half an hour before I left for the airport. On something so large and detailed, half an hour seems like a few seconds. Apart from the huge Saraswati I painted for Boris Gerbenshikov's concert in Milan this is the largest thing I've done. I always have to be in a good frame of mind to paint, as I don't like to use my creations as art therapy. Which means, on something so large, I am forced to be in a good mental state for days at a time. Maybe that was why my guru encouraged me to continue my art; to keep me focussed on something I could only achieve by being on my best behaviour! 

The whole time I painted in Tripti Kulai I felt a higher level of peace and contentment, even when it was rowdy with customers. I didn’t like to leave in the evening and sometimes worked well into the night. It was really the perfect holiday for an artist; free to paint as much as I liked and immerse myself in the world I was trying to invoke. On my last visit I gave up going back to the place I was staying and just slept at the restaurant. The girls were very tolerant; I suppose they told themselves it would all come to an end at some point. I worked in the silent hours of the night and then I would be awakened by the delivery-men with their crates of fruit and vegetables later in the morning. I fantasised about moving into the restaurant so I could continue to paint there forever, adding and adding to the walls until everything was forested and populated with animals and birds.

Occasionally, customers would ask when it would be finished and I'd just smile enigmatically and say there was a lot of work to do. The girls from the restaurant knew better than to ask me that question! Luckily, they took a childlike delight in the world I was creating; they had definite opinions about important things, like what animals lived in the forest and what kind of jewellery Lakshmi should be wearing. It is very pleasant to discuss one’s work with such uninhibited people. They would stop on their way through from the kitchen to remark on a certain artistic effect; that the elephant was much better now, or why had I removed the tiger? It felt like they were a big part of the process because they made it their own. This is Celana and Sarah, above, having a food break at the feet of the goddess.

As for finishing, what’s the hurry? One of the problems is that oil paint, even when thinned by white spirit, stays wet for a few days, so I'm forever waiting for bits to dry so they can take more paint, and then if I change my mind about the design it's a much bigger deal. Sometimes I wish I was using acrylic paint but I find the colours of oils much richer and rewarding. I wanted something that was nourishing to look at, and using oils is like using the tastiest ingredients to cook with.

The restaurant is closed on Sundays, so soon I will be able to have painting time there each week. I could keep this up for years, I’m sure!