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!


  1. Hita, this is such a gorgeous adventure, thank you for writing it, and for adding so many visual details. I didn't want it to end, I was completely transported to that wall in Montpellier. Although I have seen the mural in one of its earlier stages, this is the only way for me to see its current state close-up all the way from Blighty. The backdrop of the journey adds so much context to the painting itself too – your interior processes and your one-pointed focus; the city with its love and respect of murals; the setting of sunshine, good food and a friendly audience.

    While I have always been an ardent fan of your work, I remember seeing this painting for the first time and it literally took my breath away. I am used to seeing Mahalakshmi in the the traditional Hindu style, all shiny gold and poster colours, heavily adorned. Don't get me wrong, I love that kind of remote Heavenly rendition, but yours is completely different to anything I have ever seen. She is so real and relatable. I almost expected her to move or speak, she has a presence and a light all of her own. This is just as a little girl might approach her – exactly! – to believe in the magical, but not to have one's imagination stretched to the inconceivable.

    That spiritual interpretation is such a unique gift, it's a testament to your spiritual training and the authentic approach you take to your work. But your technical skill is also incredible. I'm really a details person – in words or pictures or everyday life – rather than a “big picture” person. In this case the big picture has absolutely captivated me, but then for me zoning in on a row of individual beads or sequins trailing into the water… bliss! Even though the animals are tiny in relation to Mahalakshmi, which is the whole point, they are each as authentic and believable as she is – no detail is treated as unimportant, even a leaf. It really is a work of genius on so many levels, and I can't wait to visit it again some time. Brava!

  2. Hopefully next time you see her she will have advanced further onto the physical plane... As I did not plan the painting, I have been just trying to go on what felt right at each step; a very unprofessional approach! And a lot of things that looked good when I first painted them have now been painted over. I think I will have to write a whole blog on things that have now disappeared under the next layer of paint. I had to take out a really beautiful tiger, because I painted him in a fit of enthusiasm before I'd properly worked out the scale and perspective. Although he's hidden for the moment, I have his picture in high resolution and I'm going to reproduce him again, exactly the same, when the right spot appears. It happened to the elephants too; I painted one in totally the wrong place and had to move it to the water. And a cockatil, and half a herd of cows; they really have all moved around a lot! So now I want to wait until the trees are properly painted before I start putting all my favourite animals in again. There's been an awful lot of faffing around on this mural. But I have definitely had fun!

    Thanks so much for commenting, Sumangali, and with so much detail; it's really nice to hear what you like about it. I am so pleased that the accessibility of this representation communicated itself to you, as that is something that is particularly important to me. The goddess is in our world, with her feet in our water, wearing a garland made of our flowers; she has chosen to be with us on earth rather than on some other plane. The animals and the birds are calm in her presence. I wanted her aspect of universal harmony and peace, not her aspect of intoxicating beauty, although I do think she has a certain quiet radiance. The lotus she is sitting on is full of gold coins, but what is pouring out of the conch shell in her left hand is water, the symbol of life. It's not a traditional depiction, but it's real for me, and true to what I think she stands for.

  3. What a wonderful post Hita! I really do love this mural... it's so beautifully painted... and I think the idea of just continuing and continuing throughout the time you're in Montpelier is wonderful - painting smaller and smaller leaves and veins on leaves and feathers on parrots... ad infinitum.
    Can't wait to see this one day for myself!
    Bravo... you are a master muralist!

  4. Hita, really love your painting, beautiful colours and I really like the image of the animals moving around finding their right place !Have any moved by themselves yet? I look forward to seeing pictures of the whole mural.Enjoy your blissful painting and your cake! Rachelxx

  5. Hello Rima, thanks for your generous comment! Yes, the feathers of parrots will be all important at some point, as will semi-invisible insects and the drops of dew, I should imagine...! However, that day is far away and I need to put in some fairly serious work before then. Was studying it this evening as I was waiting for food orders to cook and it seemed like a huge job, but I cheered myself up by adding a new bird in the foreground, on a nest; well, the rough for it anyway. Tripti-Kulai actually means, 'Satisfaction Nest', so it really has to have a bird in a nest somewhere there.

    Would love to see you painting a mural, but I know you're too busy working on commissions! You would have already painted this one ten times over by now... Perhaps you will have to come out and whip me into shape sometime xxx

  6. Thanks very much Rachel! The animals have really been driving me mad with all the to-ing and fro-ing. They use me to move them as they're too lazy to move by themselves : )

  7. Wow, such a lovely mural that you are painting!
    I loved looking at all the shots of it throughout the post. And it's true that it really does sound like a dream painting assignment too. (In no small part because I think I have probably missed French desserts every single day since I moved away from France!)

  8. Yes, the French really know how to do desserts, don't they? I usually favour Italian food over French, in general, but, except for icecream and Tiramisu, I think I found more delicious desserts in France. Hm, although, the Italians do lots of things with marzipan, which is another big favourite of mine, so I suppose I'll have to do a bit more investigation before I publish my findings on the subject...!

  9. Ah marzipan is lovely, and then I suppose we can thank the Italians for marron glacé. Yum!

  10. Really?? I had no idea marron glace was an Italian thing; it's one of my all time favourites... I guess that puts the Italians slightly in the lead on the food front. Please don't be offended, any French people who are reading this; my comment is based on nothing more intellectual than greed and would not be accepted as an expert opinion in a court of law. Actually, I have just remembered chocolate eclairs, so it's probably equal again.

  11. Dear Hita - well, it has been worthwhile waiting for this post. I have loved it from top to bottom; from the first picture to the last word. Utterly delightful. I was amazed by the wonderful street/house art and have completely fallen in love with your Indian goddess (and I'm a big girl!)
    Thank you for your comment on my own blog - it's nice to know you are so happy and so busy and eating so well!
    Love, Axxx

  12. Thankyou Annie for your lovely comment! Of course, I should have said, big girls are allowed to like the mural too... I have to really get going on it now so the goddess has more forest to play in and animals to talk to. I wonder how she feels being at my mercy like that? It can't be nice!

  13. The following had me smiling broadly and I'm very relieved for your goddess and her sanity ;)
    "...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!"

    Wonderful to read how you are adding the pulse of life to this beautiful mural - I'm looking forward to seeing more ... and I can't help but hope you somehow manage to slide a slice of that amazing looking chocolate gateau towards the goddess!

  14. Yes, I really wanted to give her an icecream cone in one of the hands instead of a lotus, but I have had to restrain myself a bit! We had plans for a temple in the background somewhere but that would mean having people in there... So, probably not.

  15. Oh Wow!! Looks like you've made some progress since last I saw her, she's wearing a garland now. I loved the way the animal forest grew more populated every time you came to visit us in Montpellier.Can't wait to see her again. Now it's you making the desserts and me salivating in England. Thanks for sharing your experience :)

  16. So nice to hear from you, Bhashini. You might be amused to know that I am trying to finish the mural by the time you all come over in June! Who knows if it can be done by then; there's just metres and metres of it and I'm currently occupied fiddling about with the leaves on just some of the trees!

    You know, I think I'll have to have a whole blog on what didn't make the final cut. I painted so many things that I later had to paint over, for a variety of different reasons. The tiger that was perfect except for it was slightly the wrong size, the elephant that was in the wrong place, the cockatil that had the bad luck to be painted onto a tree I then had to redo, and all the rest of it.

    And don't forget that you painted one of the shrubs in the garden; your first ever public work of art! Apart from your endless theatre performances, of course : )

    I'm going to post again in the next few days and you'll see more food!

  17. Oh, I hope you took photos of all the "deleted scenes" so they can live on in some form. I am very proud of my tiny shrub shaped contribution to your work of art. Good luck with the leaf fiddling. Look forward to seeing more food :)