31 Dec 2013

Building stone walls and paving

There is for me something deeply satisfying in the work involved in building stone walls, stone paths and paved areas. Such work, which can be physically demanding on account of the weight and abrasive nature of the items as well as the repetition of tasks, combines the physical and the useful with the aesthetic, like indeed many forms of craftsmanship. I have, in the past, practiced the trade of carpenter/cabinet-maker and I would say the same of that too. I don't think of the end products of either of these crafts as works of art. They are made by hands and tools and the human mind, but, above all, they are functional. Art is, by definition, useless, and so is perhaps essential in other ways.

The photographs in this article show some of the stone work I currently have in progress in Gascony. All of it uses local materials, much found, some purchased. Very little mortar (lime and sand, with an occasional dab of white cement) has beeen used, except for some of the bottom and top layers, and the angle stones. As the walls have been back-filled with rubble and small stones for extra drainage, and then with earth, this dry stone technique should enable surplus water to find its way out without creating undue pressure. At least that is what I hope! 

work in progress: the second layer terrace is under way in this photo, but is now more or less finished, as below, taken from the mid-level and with plantings in progress

the second-level terrace, now finished apart from the topping stones, still to be cut and laid.

I cannot pretend to be an expert in building rough stone walls, and I make many mistakes for sure, but I do apply myself when I work at this and try to do a good job. So far, the ones I have built seem to be holding up alright, but time will tell I suppose. We are definitely not in the pyramid league here! This project revolves around a two layer stone terrace with a mostly stone (I will be replacing the non-stone parts with stone steps) stairway leading up 17 steps and linking the top level to the bottom via an intermediary terrace which I have also paved. Since these pictures were taken, I have started to extend the bottom layer to the left of the staircase. The system will be similar on each side, with some changes in levels to adapt to the ground.

As well as some of the steps (temporary), the pathway that leads from the house to this staircase is made of river-bed pebbles that come from the Garonne river, nearby (see first photograph below), which are also used, alternately with irregular off-cut slabs salvaged from a local stone-cutter's yard, to pave the middle terrace part (bottom two photographs below).

Plantings are under way on the top terrace, and also in beds set into the middle level. At the bottom level lies a wide, sloping and grassed field with a lake at the bottom of it, about 100 metres from the bottom wall and, in between, some fruit trees that I have planted and which will probably be increasing in numbers.

This article also shows, below, some photographs of stone paving in other places that I have seen and thought to photograph. These will probably provide inspiration for future work.

Stone floor paving inside a chateau currently being restored: Château de Fargues, in Sauternes, near Bordeaux. An example of how to do it!

pebble stone paving in Granada, Spain

At the end of last-summer's work sessions, I cremated my favourite espadrilles which had been worn out by so much unsuitably hard effort. At other times I try to wear more suitable footgear for this work. 

13 Dec 2013

Valloton again

There are so many more paintings (and engravings) that warrant commentary in the Felix Valloton exhibition that is currently showing at the Grand Palais in Paris that I cannot resist going back for a second look.

This painter clearly had a very solid classical training, togther with a taste for composition and craftsmanship that he never really lost. This shows in many of his works such as these two:

But there is also a more personal twist to his vision that begins to emerge in the second of the above two paintings, and which becomes increasingly obvious as time goes by. This is sometimes accompanied by clear quotations from, or references to, paintings by artists that he clearly admired, such as Ingres or Manet. Manet's Olympia, which caused such a scnadal when it was first shown, is right here in Valloton's version, and this is followed by another painting with similar inspiration that is given a marvellous touch of additional ambiguity by the cigarette in the mouth of the black woman on the right hand side.

As well as Manet, Valloton's was clearly inspired by Ingres, and this shows in the way he portrayed the female body in many other paintings, even if I found many of these hovering between a form of academicism and something far more synthetic but equally rigid in a way. Nevertheless, they have their qualities...

As far as his paintings of women are concerned, I prefer the ones where composition and colour take on a different and more important role and the painting works perhaps better as a formal whole, the body being an essential part but not the sole or, in some cases, the dominant theme. In other words, when Valloton steps back a bit from his understandable obessesion with feminine pulchritude. In the two following paintings he also shows his mastery of drawing, brilliantly combining form and line.

With the exception of works like the two immediately above, my favourite paintings in this exhibition dealt with landscapes or people in natural surroundings, and Valloton's admirable capacity to synthetize something quintessential from observed nature. 

I should add that one or two of the paintings above, like the last one, are not in fact in thie exhibition that inspired these 2 articles, but who cares? They illustrate my points I think.

I would like to finish this sort article with a couple of the woodcuts, which are equally impressive.

I have deliberately placed these as small as they really are, more or less (and smaller than the versions I showed in the previous article). The proof of their qualities is that they do not lose impact on account of the drop in their scale.

Valloton is, I think, an ignored (or at least underrated) master. I will take his work anytime rather than that of the dreadfully overrated Renoir, for instance. And he can even, at times, stand with the three big M's : Manet, Monet and Matisse. At times, but not all the time. 

7 Dec 2013

Felix Valloton, paintings and engravings

I have just visited the major exhibition of paintings and wood engravings of the Swiss-born (he became French in 1900) artist Felix Valotton (1865-1925), which is currently showing at the Grand Palais in Paris. It is an impressive and revealing show and is well worth seeing if you are in Paris before January 20th 2014.

The graphic strength and clarity of Valloton's wood engravings are constantly impressive and show his mastery of composition, as well as of the technique itself

This show, with works from all over the world, including many from private collections, is impressive not only because of its size, but also for its scope. It covers all periods of this underrated artist's work, including many of his remarkable wood engravings and illustrations (examples above) which first gained him recognition, and a large number of paintings of styles which range from the realistic to the hyper-realistic, passing through symbolism and the more minimalist "flat area" style connected with the Nabi movement to which he belonged for a while.

The painting above is an example of how Valloton's engraving work (see the first to illustrations for example), and the very structured compositions that these entailed, guided the composition in much of his painting. The colours of this reproduction are a bit off the real thing, but you get the idea I hope.

The Grand Palais show is also revealing because it explores in some depth Valloton's more personal and sometimes obsessive world whose techniques and style owe quite a lot, it seems to me, to surrealist painters while remaining close to a form of realism of an almost neo-classical type, although many paintings have a clearly dream-like atmosphere and composition..This is particular the case of the many paintings that use the female body as their main subject or theme. To give you an idea of how these nude paintings can hover between different worlds, the upper one below seems very much in the surrealistic spirit whilst the lower one is stylised but in a neo-classical vein.

I sometimes felt a little uneasy in front of some of his paintings where the naked bodies had a somewhat morbid feel to them, however successful the formal aspects of the painting, like colour or composition, may be. 

Valloton's landscapes touch on quite another aspect of his painting, which is the use of different perspectives in the same work, as if he shifted his viewpoint during the preparation. Apparently he used sketches (or photographs later on) made from different viewpoints and then made his final painting in a studio.

This painting of a child chasing a ball has both a vertical, plunging persepective as seen from a window above (and as seen by a camera), and a horizontal one for the figures in the background. The result is of two pictures in one, just as the human eye shifts its direction to focus on two planes and events. Shapes and colours are simplified for pictorial reasons but remain more or less realistic.

With few exceptions, colours, as well as forms, are idealized and arranged rather than realistically observed or "copied". Careful composition, even if it seems at times to be off-hand like a snapshot, is very much a part of Valloton's approach. Talking of snapshots, he also used a camera as a sketchbook as soon as small Kodak cameras became available, and this imposed spontaneity in the composition shows in several paintings.  

Man and woman in a theatre. This clearly shows the "camera eye" of Valloton

Other paintings, like this landscape above, have a dream-like atmosphere that is imparted by Valloton's use of colours and the idealised forms that he gives to "natural" objects. We are not in the naïve vision of Douanier Rousseau, but neother is this reality as seen by landscape painters like the impressionists. Yet is seems to owe something to both, and could probably not have existed without Gauguin either.

Even more other-wordly, or dream-like, is this landscape, called "The sunray". I would be interested to see some of David Hockney's recent landscape paintings alongside this one. Here goes.....

The size of this 2011 painting by Hockney, called "The Arrival of Spring" is much bigger. It is in several panels and takes up a whole wall, but, although painted some 90 years after the Valloton vision of woodland, I think they have quite a few things in common.

One more from Valloton to finsh off, although I expect I will be returning to his work at some point.

This is a late painting and is very big. The green hue has faded in this photograph, but the strength of the composition has resisted. A touch of William Blake perhaps?

5 Dec 2013

Dominio IV, an exemplary small Oregon winery

During the summer of 2012 I was spending a couple of weeks on holiday along the north-western coastal and forest areas of the USA. I had more or less resolved not to visit any wineries, and therefore that I would probably not be talking much about the wines of Northern California and Oregon on this blog, although I did relate some of my travel experiences. And I pretty much kept to this resolve, at least until now, some 15 months later. In a general sense these things just creep up on you and move you to investigate something and get back into what is, after all, as much a passion as it is a job for me. Then, sometimes also, they linger in your mind for quite a while until you finally decide to do something about what you have experienced. Like a dream that you cannot quite decypher the next day but which hangs around in your head like late morning mist in a valley. So here it is...

Sculpture of a horse (life-size), made of driftwood and seen in the Portland Art Museum. It is made with driftwood. I forget to note the artist's name. When travelling up the western coast, I noticed how much driftwood littered most of the beaches and wondered what I could do with it. Now I have some ideas!

I had not visited Oregon before, so was naturally curious at some point to try a few local wines. Production of wine in this state (which is surprisingly only the 4th largest producer amongst the states of the USofA) began quite recently, in the late 1960's or early 1970's. Since then the learning curve has been pretty steep, at least if the winery that I visited during my trip is anything to go by. Some of the wines that I tried during this 2 week journey, by the glass, in restaurants and wine bars here, were indifferent, but the majority were good to very good, and one, tasted one evening, just sung out to me. I was staying in the small town of McMinnville, south of Portland, and which seems to have the making of being the wine capital of the Willamette Valley. This long valley, bordered by hills, is Oregon's principal wine region and is home to the majority of plantings of its star grape variety, Pinot Noir. 

The Oregon Hotel is the old hotel (they say "historic" locally, but then, in the western US, anything over 50 years old is considered to be historical) of this town and is part of the impressive empire of the McMenamin brothers, who are brewers, wine producers, hoteliers and restaurateurs, their empire spreading through the states of Oregon and Washington. Their hotels are fun, volontarily off-beat, and full of mainly 1970's musical nostalgia and loads of historical references to the past lives of their buildings that have been quite creatively restored. But their restaurants make the bad mistake of serving only their beers, which are good enough, and only (at least by the glass) their own wines, which are quite underwhelming. So we ate out that night, and luckily so! There was not a lot of choice in McMinnville, so I was happy to find a decent selection of wines (of Italian and Oregon origin) by the glass in Nick's Italian Café, right by the hotel. Michael, the helpful and knowledgeable wine waiter there, poured me three Oregon Pinot Noirs, and the second one just hit the spot for me. It was soft at first, then firming up on the palate, with lovely fruit and balance. It had that velvety texture of the finest Pinots and tasted better at each sip. I loved it from the start and it kept growing on me as I gradually emptied the glass, checking it against the other two which were very decent wines. The producer was intriguingly called Dominio IV and this particular Pinot, one of a range, was poetically named "Rain on Leaves". As I was later to discover, the wine-maker and co-owner, Patrick Reuter, is also a poet. It was from the 2007 vintage, which, according to waiter, sorted out the men from the boys in terms of local wine production. So I asked about this producer and it turned out that the winery was in town and I was able, then and there, to make an appointement to meet Reuter next morning, to talk with him and taste some more wines.

Reuter, with 3 partners, started his operation some 10 years previously. He had studied with his wife, a viticulturist, at Davies. They have travelled the wine world quite widely, including a harvest stint with the late Denis Mortet and another with Armand Rousseau in Burgundy's Côte de Nuits. Hard to find better pinot credentials, if you are looking for that sort of thing! 

Like viticulture, the word Dominio comes from way back in the past. The Spanish use the word to mean land or territory or dominion, whereas the Romans have a secondary meaning of a feast or banquet. Thus the word takes on a sense of being a feast from the land. Dom is also of the sun as in Domingo (Sunday). The number four represents four people, four seasons, four varieties of the grape and four quadrants of the Dominio symbol, the labyrinth. Four is also the number of the earth (for whom I am unsure). Ok, so perhaps we are getting a little esoteric here, and, as regular readers may be aware, I am not particularly into mumbo-jumbo (1). What is in a name after all? Well maybe quite a lot, especially when you learn that Patrick Reuter also writes poetry.

Patrick Reuter outside his winery in McMinnville

The short story of my visit to the Dominio IV facities, which are installed in a converted industrial barn in the suburbs of this small town, is that I found the wines quite fantastic and Patrick Reuter delightful, open, relaxed and coherent in his approach. Most of their small production is produced from purchased grapes, essentially pinot noirs from single plots and with the clone identified on the labels. But I also tasted one of the best viogniers I have ever had from outside the Rhône Valley. It just sung with freshness and intense fruit flavours and the grapes hailed from vines higher up into the mountains that separate Oregon from California. I don't know whether they ripen there every year, but this one was fantastic. Dominio IV also own their own vineyard in the north-eastern, much hotter part of the state that lies close to the border with Washington, along the Columbia River east of Portland. Here they grow Syrah and Tempranillo and the wines I tasted were intensely good. They are into biodynamics, for those interested in esoteric practices, but Patrick seemed very down to earth and did not bore me with any planetary visions. Reuter is clearly pragmatic and keeps his base wines for a future sparkling cuvée, called Flora, in recycled Coca-Cola aluminium drums (see below).

yes, wine and Coca Cola can mix, under certain circumstances!

I highly recommended the wines of Dominio IV to anyone who is in Oregon, and they are well worth looking for anyone elsewhere in the USA. If any ever find their way into France I will be a customer for sure.

For more information, take a look at their website:

Drink well....
(photos by David Cobbold except for the one of the label)

(1).footnote (thanks to Wikipedia): Mumbo jumbo, or mumbo-jumbo, is an English phrase or expression that denotes a confusing or meaningless subject. It is often used as humorous expression of criticism of middle-management and civil service non-speak, and of belief in practices based on superstition, rituals intending to cause confusion or languages that the speaker does not understand. The phrase probably originated from the Mandingo name Maamajomboo, a masked dancer that took part in religious ceremonies.Mungo Park's travel journal, Travels in the Interior of Africa (1795) describes 'Mumbo Jumbo' as a character, complete with "masquerade habit", that Mandinka males would dress up in order to resolve domestic disputes. In the 18th century mumbo jumbo referred to a West African god.

4 Dec 2013

Richard Ford's novel Canada

Richard Ford is currently one of North America's most esteemed novelists, yet his early career as a writer in the late 1970's was so low on the sales side that he became a teacher, and then a sports writer in order to earn a living. This experience fuelled his first successful novel, entitled (surprise, surprise!) The Sportswriter, which was about a failed novelist turned sportswriter. It was also about family relationships and their dramas: in this case the emotional crisis experienced by the main character following the death of his son. This was in 1986. Ten years later he won both the Pulitzer and the PEN/Faulkner prizes for his novel Independance, which I read a few years ago and loved.

Richard Ford (photo by Claude Truong-Ngoc)

Ford's latest novel Canada, published in 2012, is not about sports of any kind but it is very much about family dramas and their consequences. In fact the main theme could be said to be that of resilience. In this instance it is observed and developed from an adolescent's perspective, following his parents' failure to provide what is generally considered to be a "suitable environment" for young people. The unpredictable consequences of ill-considered acts may, and sometimes do, create havoc down the line. But the point of this book is not so much any form of moral judgment passed on those involved in such acts as an exploration of the miracle and mechanisms of survival for those whose lives are transformed, ostensibly and manifestly for the worse, by irresponsible decisions that others have taken.

The cover of the French edition of this book, which has won the 2013 Femina prize for non-French litterature in France. I read this version, well translated it seems, although I usually choose to read original versions whenever possible.

The story, which I will not relate, develops slowly and with an inexorable quality that lends it a dark weight. The first part sets the scene, the milieu and family situation. After the event that transforms their lives, the second part sees one of the diverging paths of the two children pursued, whilst the other is left. The resulting differences are observed right at the end of the book when brother and sister come together, briefly. This short and final part forms a kind of postscript to show that one, at least, has emerged, more or less unscathed, from the catastrophe. In between, throughout the second part of the book, Dell (the boy) manages to survive other forms of horror via the occasional break and despite constant adversity, coupled with indifference on the part of most adults around him. 

Yet, depite the darkness of reality, the tone has little to do with Dickens. The story is simply told, and in detail, but pathos is put aside. The turn of the narrator's life (Dell narrates his own story) when he emerges towards survival is noted, but not explored. Ford has subtly made the crucial point that it was Dell's will to resume his interrupted education that, together with a couple of lucky encounters, provide the possibility for him to emerge from the catastrophe that befell him at an early age. Interestingly, the two chance encounters that help him on his way out of darkness are with women. Men fail him throughout.

Ford's style is not flamboyant, and, as I have said, avoids pathos. Yet his use of language is fine and precise. He tells a story in an almost flat, matter-of-fact manner, just occasionally opening up to what he himself describes as  "the fabric of affection that holds people close enough together to survive." The book's exploration of its theme is also convincing and questioning, leaving its part to accident, that eternal resource of the story-teller. For me, a feeling strongly emerges from this book that roots are not so much about one's background as what one carries within, like a bonsai tree carries its roots from one pot to another. Dell has been deprived of his traditional "roots" and never feels inclined to return to them. He builds his own, finding his own way in a manner that could not be pre-determined by his family background.

So, read on.....