Michel Lablais: Flora & Fauna

Plastron-jardinier-2015

Michel Lablais is a French artist, born in Paris in 1925, and now embarking on his tenth decade. He recalls visiting the French Colonial Exhibition of 1930, with its colourful displays of life in Indochina, miniature model of Angkor Wat and pictures of aspara undulating on old stone. The aspara are female Khmer dancers, akin to the Greek muses: threshold figures, devas, angels. The exoticism of it all appealed to the five-year-old child. The world of colonialism has grown sepia as its time has passed: pith helmets, Cochin China, the velleities of Marguerite Duras: revisionism and apologies. Plus ça change… The French-Vietnamese war has been occluded by the louder American one. But something was sparked in the imaginative child that he carried into the decades of work that followed, and that remains alive in Michel Lablais, the ninety-year-old artist. Perhaps it is the mix of exoticism, exploitation, the lure of strangeness.

Odalisque-homme, by Michel Lablais, 1987

Odalisque-homme, by Michel Lablais, 1987

 

From the age of six or seven he developed an interest in drawing, and delighted in Christmas and birthday presents of paints, paintbrushes and sketchpads. Lablais’ work still shows a childlike fascination with the accoutrements of art: paint-loaded brushes, vintage paper, copybook handwriting all recur, faithfully rendered. The calligraphy incorporated is often that of the école primaire, neatly comme il faut. He likes an unfinished canvas, the skeleton behind the flesh: the peacock’s feather, the marauding fly and the penis are all on a par, observed as nature morte, as in the Odalisque-homme above, alluding to Ingres but also to a whole school of French orientalism.

Monumental diptych by Michel Lablais, 1985

Monumental diptych by Michel Lablais, 1985

Lablais was born in Paris’s 17th arrondissement, into a bourgeois family. His father was a business director (directeur commercial) and mother a stay-at-home housewife. Both parents were quite elderly and their only child attended the Collège Chaptal, now the Lycée Chaptal in the 8th arrondissement, where he discovered an aptitude for drawing in its august classrooms filled with busts and bas-relièfs.

Le Collège Chaptal, drawing by Eugène Train, 1875 (Musée d'Orsay)

Le Collège Chaptal, drawing by Eugène Train, 1875 (Musée d’Orsay)

His career was decided at fifteen, at the beginning of the Second World War, when he spotted a poster for art college. He spent three years studying applied arts before entering the Compagnie de Topographie, one of those self-important French institutions propping up the work of empire, when France was mapping its territories in Indochina. At nineteen he signed up to go to the Far East and got permission from his father to spend three years with the army in lieu of military service. It was the time of the French-Vietnamese War.

We might laugh at the sight of an artist in uniform – but there’s nothing remotely military about Michel Lablais. He has a fondness for white linen, espadrilles, and an early photo shows him resplendant in Maghreb pantaloons. In the army he was an artiste-peintre hired to paint murals, to decorate walls and from time to time do guard duty. His anecdotes, recalled a lifetime later, have a kind of French Dad’s Army tone – the foibles of the officer class and their pretensions. Colonial duffers. Generals like big boy scouts.

Drawing of Angkor Wat by Albert-Charles TISSANDIER (1839 - 1906), 1893

Drawing of Angkor Wat by Albert-Charles TISSANDIER (1839 – 1906), 1893

 

He spent several months at Angkor Wat in Cambodia, at a time when one made one’s way there through jungle on horseback and there were few tourists. It was an extraordinary sight, he recalls: the monkeys, parrots, the lush impenetrability, the mystery of the grand architectural project. Many of Lablais’ paintings look at plant and animal life with wide-eyed wonder, using the limpid colours of the topographical sketch, employing ethnographic exactness. It’s as though he’s mapping the flora and fauna of his own imagination, grabbing what he can from the world as he sees it.

His motifs are consistent, deployed over many decades, seeing out the artistic fashions of the day. He has a fascination with the primitive under the veneer of civilization, an obsession with the enigmatically smiling child, a child-like view of objects, plant life, bird life, reproduction of all sorts. He likes to use collage, assemblage and trompe l’oeil, to incorporate objects in his paintings, to deploy visual and verbal playfulness. His work is saved from illustration by surreal wit, the documentary satisfactions of the natural scientist allied to the dreamer.

Carnets des nouvelles Hébrides, by Michel Lablais, 1950-51

Carnets des nouvelles Hébrides, by Michel Lablais, 1950-51

He followed Indochina with four years in New Caledonia (1949-1954), a French dependency, and the New Hebrides (now Vanatu), with occasional forays to Tahiti. Lablais’ eye has always sought out the exotic, and in this he follows the tradition of the artist-explorers, especially the nineteenth century orientalists and mapmakers. He has lived long enough for the names of the countries to have changed, their masters too. What was remote and wild – the Doms and the Toms (Départements and Territoires d’Outre-Mer) have become tamed. In mid-twentieth century it took two months to get to New Caledonia, one of the remotest places on earth.

Map of Nouvelle Caledonie, 1862

Map of Nouvelle Caledonie, 1862

“The attraction,” says Michel Lablais, “is that people lived the opposite to us. I was interested in the dances and ceremonies, the rituals of primitive tribes, their cannibalism.” He filmed their rituals, a film now archived in the Musée de l’Homme in Paris. “They wrapped their penises in straw, in rattan. The women would weave these “cache sexe” for the men.

He had always liked the work of the financier turned artist Gauguin, and visited his tomb in Tahiti. The island reminded him so much of Gauguin’s paintings: their vibrant colours, rose petals scattered underfoot, the flat totemic shapes of the Polynesian faces. He encountered old women who remembered Gauguin, who had been given paintings by the artist, which they had used for target practice and long destroyed. Tahiti was a magnet for drop-outs from civilisation and refugees of all sorts. He remembers a man sitting cross-legged on the deck of a ship, a lawyer from Paris, who had given it all up to become a tramp.

Crayon-Poignard by Michel Lablais, 2006

Crayon-Poignard by Michel Lablais, 2006

Lablais returned to Paris in 1954, back to civilization. He illustrated an article in Realités (October 1954) on the Amok tribe in New Caledonia. He tells stories of cannibalism, of the taste of human flesh, with a shocking relish, enjoying the taboo breaking. His paintings, too, are much concerned with taboo, the edge of experience, with the animalistic cruelty of humans, observed dispassionately. His work has always aspired to whimsical exactitude, closer to illustration than to paint. Motifs recur: the tea towel of traditional red or blue pattern, tile work, masks of all sorts, the severed or detached limbs based on anatomical drawings, the erotics of vegetables and fruits – particularly the radish with its rose madder colouring. He often embodies a jeu d’esprit, and has worked with writers and poets.

Enfant-Canard by Michel Lablais, 2004

Enfant-Canard by Michel Lablais, 2004

Lablais has found himself in his work and at ninety is still painting at a phenomenal rate. His painter friends, particularly the collector Daniel Cordier, bought much of it, now in the Beaubourg collection. He has exhibited in MOMA in New York, in the Museum of Modern Art in Paris, and in many galleries around the world.

 

 

Horst-Egon Kalinowski and Michel Lablais (seated), date unknown

Horst-Egon Kalinowski and Michel Lablais (seated), date unknown

In Paris he met the German artist Horst-Egon Kalinowski, a sculptor. Kalinovski had been a prisoner of war in France and at first people said they wouldn’t get on, but they clearly hit it off. The relationship flourished for sixty years. They kept a studio in Paris and a loft in New York, where both exhibited. The couple spent part of every year in Hollywood, in Palm Springs. Kalinowski died in 2013.

Besides Gauguin, Michel Lablais has an enthusiastic liking for Japanese art, Hokusai in particular, but also the Elizabethans – ruffs keep reappearing in his work – the anatomical plates of the 18c graphic artist Jacques Fabien Gauthier d’Agotie. He also has an affinity for the Douanier Rousseau, especially his jungles, for Max Ernst, Paul Klee, René Magritte and the Flemish Primitives. He doesn’t quite see the point of the Impressionists. “I’d much prefer look at some anatomical plate than at a sunset.”

Drawing by Jacques Fabien Gautier d'Agoty

Drawing by Jacques Fabien Gautier d’Agoty

I ask him why the child figure reappears in his work: “It’s a figure, neither child nor man, maybe myself. You know, I’m not very adult. I’ve never voted. I have no interest in politics or in public affairs really. People keep asking me about the figure of the child, women especially. ‘Do you like children?’ they ask. I don’t really. Children aggravate me sometimes, but not especially so. What I like is anatomy. When I was a child I asked my mother for the head of a rabbit because I wanted to draw the severed head. I found that beautiful. Some people don’t like my work, but there you go. Take it or leave it. I was curious. For me the skinned body of an old anatomical plate is beautiful. I’ll leave the sunsets to the Impressionists. In Indochina a surgeon asked me if I wanted to watch his operations. Sure, I said. Why not? I found it fascinating, surprising, but hardly frightening.”

Bandelettes, by Michel Lablais

Bandelettes, by Michel Lablais, 2016

I ask him about the drawing paper he likes to use, sometimes appearing to be recycled map paper, the crimps and folds still visible. “I like old paper, the feel of it, it has a life, a patina. It seems more alive. There’s a certain pleasure in drawing a carrot. I’m not looking to make pretty (‘a faire joli’), to please. Carrots, onions, radishes. I like the colour and form of a radish. Once we had a show opening, a vernissage, in Paris and we served nothing but radishes… radishes with butter…”

Michel Lablais’s official website is here.

Michel Lablais at work in his studio in Marseillan, 2017

Michel Lablais at work in his studio in Marseillan, 2017

 

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New Geneva, County Waterford

 

Had history turned out differently, Swiss watchmaking might have established itself in Waterford towards the end of the eighteenth century. A thousand Geneva watchmakers were ready to bring Swiss industriousness and know-how to the people of Passage on the southern coast of Ireland. This utopian project fell through at the last moment. Switzerland on the River Suir was not to be. All that remains is the name: Geneva Barracks.

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Arial view of the ground plan of Geneva Barracks, Passage, Co. Waterford

In 1782 a group of Geneva “mechanics,” as the documents characterise them, one thousand strong and disaffected, staged a bloodless uprising against their masters, the combined forces of the French and the Bernese. Their rebellion was defeated. Some rebels relocated to Brussels, others to the shores of Lake Constance. King George III of England, through his emissary Lord Mahon (who had studied at the University of Geneva), offered these rebellious craftsmen asylum in Ireland. The idea was that the hard-working Genevans were to set a good example to the local population, then under English rule. Tired of the heavy hand of their masters, these “mechanics” thought Ireland might prove a more utopian location. We could see this genuine attempt to found a new community of workers as an early example of a free-trade zone or business park.

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The proposed site for New Geneva was east of the town of Passage in County Waterford on the estuary of the River Suir. It was on tenanted land of the well-connected Alcock family, whose line ran to members of parliament and soldiery. Their estate, however, had originally been confiscated c. 1654 from the Butler family. The British government acquired the site in 1782 with the intention of making it over to the Genevans. Across the water from the proposed New Geneva is Duncannon Fort, testifying to the strategic importance of the estuary.

Map of Duncannon Fort dating to 1611 © The British Library

Map of Duncannon Fort dating to 1611 © The British Library

There was already a settlement of French Huguenots in Waterford and Switzerland’s Geneva was itself a Huguenot town, staunchly reformist. Utopias were all the rage in the late eighteenth century. Shakers in America had founded utopian communities built around the sanctity of work, work as a sign of the Elect, an idea derived from Martin Luther and still part of the American tool kit today.

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Map of Duncannon Fort dating to late 16th or early 17th century ©Lambeth Palace Library

Ireland at the time had a parliament comprised of the Protestant Ascendancy, a landowning class under the yoke of the English crown and seeking to establish a measure of independence from it. But there was no question of extending the franchise to the ordinary peasant or sharecropper. 1782 is also the year of the founding of the Irish Volunteers in Dungannon, a force keen to secure free trade for Ireland and opposed to the French. Granting land to Geneva rebels was part of a grander plan to stimulate trade and in line with contemporary anti-French sentiment.

Lord Temple, Ireland’s Lord Lieutenant and Vice-Regent, endowed the tract of 11,000 acres overlooking the Suir estuary. Temple had ulterior motives. He thought an influx of Geneva Protestants would have a sobering effect on the locals. In a letter to Grenville,[1] the Chief Secretary, Temple mused that the Swiss in Waterford “might make an essential reform in the religion, industry and mores of the South who want it more”. He had plans to establish a university there but needed his scheme kept secret from the governors of Trinity College.

 James Gandon and Family by Paul Sandby

James Gandon and Family by Paul Sandby

No less a figure than James Gandon, himself of French Huguenot descent, was appointed architect. Gandon was responsible for O’Connell Bridge, the Four Courts and the Bank of Ireland, all well-known Dublin landmarks. There were plans for a school, the Swiss being known for excellence in education. Town planning was grandiose. Existing documents show provision for not one but two churches, academies of science and arts, and row housing as befitted the artisan class. The original town footprint stretched south to the headland of Crooke and was intended to be much larger than the barracks ruins evident on-site today.

Ami Melly was the de facto leader of the Genevan exiles. An advance group disembarked at Waterford. They wanted representation in the Irish parliament (Temple’s “very unreasonable in their demands”), a franchise even the Catholic Irish didn’t have at that time. They also demanded the right to their own laws. Thus the project fell foul of Swiss and Anglo-Irish intransigence: neither side was prepared to make concessions. The august tradition of Swiss democracy came up against English colonialism in its back yard. “Some few of the Genevese came over to Ireland, but they soon returned, rather chilled by the prospect before them,” Egan tells us.

It was not just watchmaking that the people of Ireland missed out on. P. M. Egan’s county history cites a local farmer who reminds us of Waterford’s lost industry of silk weaving:

You see, sir, these people that came here were great silk waivers,’ and they expected, of course, to go on well at their trade. Myself doesn’t know, but as I hears. They set a lot of mulberry trees to feed the silk-worms, but sure you know they wouldn’t grow, the climate was too damp, so they gave up the place and went back again to their own country.

Perhaps some mulberry descendants still grow today along the Suir estuary, with the benefit of the warming Gulf Stream. (Those extant on the Upper Suir were planted in 1702 to commemorate the coronation of Queen Anne.) The only remains today of this attempted New Geneva are some ruined walls in a grassy field above the sea.

The quays in Waterford city, circa 1890

The quays in Waterford city, circa 1890

 

The site was turned into a prison housing 1798 rebels – “croppy boys” in local parlance, referring to their cropped hair. Over a thousand nationalist prisoners were interned at what became Geneva Barracks, across the estuary from Duncannon Fort. The site was ideal for shipping them out to the colonies. In one of history’s many ironies, the Geneva utopian settlement morphed into a holding centre for Irish rebels transported to Australia or conscripted into the Prussian army. What had begun in utopianism, ended in incarceration, with an after-life of song. Geneva Barracks makes a brief appearance in the last verse of the well-known rebel song “The Croppy Boy”, one of James Joyce’s favourites and cited by him in Ulysses:

At Geneva Barrack that young man died,

And at Passage they have his body laid.

Good people who live in peace and joy,

Breathe a prayer and a tear for the Croppy Boy.

The song’s lyrics are by Irish poet William B. McBurney (Carroll Malone) and it is set to a five-hundred-year-old air, “Cailin Óg a Stór”, a tune picked up by Nobel prizewinner Bob Dylan in his song “Bob Dylan’s Dream”.

Essayist, traveller and historian Hubert Butler, painted in 1957 by Claude Harrison

Essayist, traveller and historian Hubert Butler, painted in 1957 by Claude Harrison

Groundbreaking and stylish Irish essayist Hubert Butler (of the family originally expropriated by the Alcocks of Waterford) explored this early utopian experiment in “New Geneva in Waterford”, a short essay published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquarians of Ireland in 1947, and to which I am indebted. Writing from Geneva, Butler brings to bear documentary research from the Hotel de Ville archives. “Geneva was a hotbed of humanitarian thinking, very disquieting to its rulers and also to its neighbours in the Kingdoms of France and Savoy.” Butler explains the rationale behind the choice of a Waterford site by the Viceroy, Lord Temple: “I wished to remove them from the Northern Republicans and to place them where they might make an essential reform in the religion…” The whiff of ethnic cleansing here is unmistakable and the name Geneva Barracks still resonates with colonial oppression.

[1] Letter dated February 9, 1783.

 

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The Dublin photographs of William Gedney

 

William Gedney (1932-1989) was a street photographer whose work has only gained in reputation since his early death from AIDS at the age of fifty-six. He was born in Greenville (Edgemont), Westchester County, New York, but is best known for his gritty photos of Kentucky, Calcutta and Benares in India. He also documented gay life in San Francisco and taught photography at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn for many years until his untimely death.

William Gedney, Entire Cornett family on porch, 1964

©William Gedney / Duke University Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library, Entire Cornett family on porch, 1964

 

He spent time, in 1964 and again in 1972, with one large, extended family, the Cornetts, in rural Kentucky. Willy Cornett, a laid-off miner, and his wife Vivian had twelve children. From this period we see Gedney’s documentary impulse emerge, and his harking back to the Thirties photographers of the South and the Farm Security Administration (Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Gordon Parks and others). The above family portrait echoes earlier porch photographs by these iconic photographers.

William Gedney, Boy with arms crossed, 1972

Boy with arms crossed, 1972, ©William Gedney / Duke University Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library

 

 

He is fond of placing his subjects in or under cars and on front porches. He gives a kind of grease-monkey charge to his male figures. The proportion of happy accident and posed masterpiece in his photographs is high. Their grey light, the colour of wrecked car chassis and dusty oil, is a wonder to behold.

William Gedner, Boy looking out of truck bed, 1972

©William Gedney / Duke University Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library, Boy looking out of truck bed, 1972

 

Gedney was a curious, observant traveller and kept detailed notebooks. His archive at Duke University Library is full of surprises and a profitable hour or two can be spent scrolling through its images, hardly any of which saw the light of day during his lifetime. The part of his large archive which interests me records his visit to Ireland in 1974. He photographed mostly in and around Dublin, and from the evidence it must have been Horse Show weekend, an annual event in mid-August.

William Gedney, RDS Dublin 1974

RDS, Dublin, 1974 ©William Gedney / Duke University Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library

 

I have a particular affection for this group of photos because it is the Ireland I knew, during the last period of sustained time I spent in the country. The black and white mitigates against any false sense of the modern, though the signs are there, and cuts off any folksiness. In the photo above, I feel I know those formidable women at the Royal Dublin Society Show. They carry their handbags like royalty, as they have been taught to do by the nuns, and wouldn’t hesitate to poke you out of the way with their parasols. The white kid gloves and the Chanel-style suit are pure First Lady Jackie. The look of the lady on the left is gimlet eyed, the cut of the jaw not to be trifled with.

William Gedney, Nude man stretching at seashore, 1974

Nude man stretching at seashore, 1974, ©William Gedney / Duke University Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library

 

In this photograph of the well-known south Dublin bathing place, the Forty-Foot, all the figures are isolated and distinct. The concrete proscenium breaks up the picture plane and leads the viewer’s eye out to the incoming ferry and Howth Head beyond. The gradations of washed-out grey are surprising, given the strong shadows. the eye is led in an ellipsis from youthful to ageing figure.

William Gedney, Elderly women and man on street, Dublin 1974

Elderly women and man on street, Dublin 1974, ©William Gedney / Duke University Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library

 

This street scene (junction of Caledon Road and East Road, looking north) is in Dublin’s East Wall area, with the Bord Gáis tank at the vanishing point (now vanished!) The men are in eternal sports coats, the talking women in scarf, apron and raincoat. Again we have the strong sunlight and the picture plane centered around an angular horizon and the vertical line of the house front. Gedney captures the bleakness of that particular part of Dublin.

William Gedney, Two men talking outside horse stall, Ballsbridge, Dublin, 1974

Two men talking outside stall with horse, Ballsbridge, Dublin, 1974, ©William Gedney / Duke University Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library

 

Conversational intimacy, the closeness of people, the surreal decapitation of the horse, make this moment in Ballsbridge full of interest. Gedney has segmented his picture into rectangles of black and white, like a chequerboard. Below, he has made the receding lines of the benches give depth of field to the boy placed dead center.

William Gedney, Boy at outdoor ampitheatre, 1974

Boy at outdoor ampitheatre, 1974, ©William Gedney / Duke University Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library

William Gedney, Boy selling newspapers, 1974

Boy selling newspapers, 1974, ©William Gedney / Duke University Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library

 

The boy above selling An Phoblacht and Republican News must have been an IRA sympathiser. The slight resentment in his look reminds me it is 1974 and that trouble in Northern Ireland is in full swing. From the imposing stonework, the location must be outside the General Post Office on O’Connell Street, Dublin’s most public space and symbolic of the 1916 Easter Rising. What I like here in this portrait is the dashund collar of his shirt splayed over a dark jacket, and his quizzical look. It’s almost as if the sitter is asking: Is he Special Branch?

William Gedney, Boys leaning over and sitting on fence at races, Ballsbridge, 1974

Boys leaning over and sitting on fence at races, Ballsbridge, 1974, ©William Gedney / Duke University Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library

 

Aran sweater, drawstring jacket, sports coats, pleated trousers, unruly hair and the big dog-eared collar again: the sartorial world of the early Seventies.

William Gedney, Self-portrait, 1974

Self-portrait, Dublin, 1974, ©William Gedney / Duke University Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library

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