The Grand Tour II: Alice Neel in van Gogh’s place

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Alice Neel. “Rita and Hubert” 1958

ARLES, France — Alice Neel is a great American painter. What’s that you say? You are unfamiliar with her work? You are probably not alone. As good as she is, Neel doesn’t have the profile of Georgia O’Keeffe when it comes to name recognition (maybe that has something to do with O’Keefe’s affiliation with Alfred Stieglitz and Ansel Adams, but let’s not bring questions of the feminism and patriarchal oppression into it).

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Alice Neel “Carlos Enriquez” 1926

Neel’s superb portraiture chronicled the 20th century, and the way she lived her life struck a blow as a proto-feminist. Born in 1900 into a strait-laced middle-class family, her mother once told her, “I don’t know what you expect to do in the world, you’re only a girl.” Neel studied art at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women. She married Carlos Enriquez, a Cuban painter, and moved to Havana in 1925, where she became part of the avant garde.

The couple moved to New York where her daughter, Santillana, died of diphtheria, a trauma that influenced Neel’s life-long exploration of mothers, daughters, families and loss. When Carlos took their new daughter Isabetta and returned to Cuba, Need had a severe breakdown and attempted suicide and was placed in Philadelphia General Hospital. “Even in the insane asylum, she painted. Alice loved a wretch. She loved the wretch in the hero and the hero in the wretch. She saw that in all of us, I think,” her daughter-in-law Ginny Neel wrote.

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Alice Neel “Kenneth Fearing” 1935

In the 1930s, she moved to Greenwich Village. She also was paid to paint urban scenes for the government-run Works Progress Administration. During this time she met and painted Community party sympathizers, of which she was one. She moved to Spanish Harlem in 1938. One of her best paintings of this period was her portrait of the poet and novelist Kenneth Fearing. The image shows the writer in his natural habitat, a bar, surrounded by characters from his work. He is smiling and alive, despite the ashen hues of a night owl.

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Alice Neel “Andy Warhol” 1970

In the 1960s she lived in New York’s Upper West Side, where she began to paint artists and gallerists, including Andy Warhol and his acolytes. With these paintings, and her portraits of friends and family, she finally gained recognition. The American Academy and the Institute of Arts and Letters elected Neel in 1976 and in 1979, President Jimmy Carter presented her with a National Women’s Caucus for Art award for outstanding achievement. She died in 1984 of colon cancer.

The comprehensive retrospective at the Fondation Vincent van Gogh Arles was an absolute delight. To see her work though the years really opened up her view of the world, casting a light on the shifting attitudes toward gender and ethnicity, reflecting American society.

Rejecting the modernism of abstraction, Neel’s searingly insightful portraits are stunningly mesmerizing. They draw the viewer in, with their slightly twisted and distorted poses. The paintings are often deliberately “unfinished,” with Neel leaving parts of the canvas uncovered and background merely sketched in. The flesh of the later portraits has an other-worldly sheen, especially noticeable in her 1970 post-shooting portrait of Warhol.

The sometimes expressionless stares connect the viewer to the subjects, but they also seem to see into our souls as much as we can see into theirs.

Alice Neel deserves to take her place among the important — man or woman — 20th-century American artists.

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The Grand Tour II: A day trip to Arles

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ARLES, France — I had read somewhere that there was a reproduction of Vincent van Gogh’s iconic bedroom in Arles, the town where he spent his most productive years. As it turns out, it doesn’t pay to have just read something somewhere and expect it to be so. The room had been a temporary exhibit and is no longer there, and the house where Vincent lived was destroyed in WWII — neither of which I knew before setting out.

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The Millau Viaduct

But there are worse ways to be disappointed than a pleasant day trip in the south of France. Arles is about a six-hour drive Southwest from our base in the Midi-Pyrenees and the drive through the mountains offered beautiful scenery and one man-made attraction — the Millau Viaduct, a cable-stayed bridge that spans the gorge the Tarn River. It is the tallest bridge in the world, with one mast being 1,125 feet above the valley floor. Designed by English architect Sir Norman Foster and French engineer Michel Virlogeux it is breathtaking, and even on calm days there are wisps of clouds floating by — but don’t look down.

Once we got to Arles, we once again found the difficulty of relying too heavily on GPS. We put in the address for the Van Gogh Museum and drove down increasingly narrow streets before getting stuck. After a bit of shifting and dodging, we managed to turn around and find a parking space from where we could walk.

This is an important car travel tip, and one I should have remembered from our trip to Santiago, Spain, a couple of years ago. The GPS will invariably guide you to the door. That does not, in any way, mean there is a navigable street by the door. I would like to think that next time I’ll remember that — although, honestly, that’s unlikely.

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Walking through the town, alongside the river, one gets the feeling it has not changed much since Vincent’s day. The houses are terraced and wind around twisty streets and alleys. I am a sucker fro roof tops, balconies and shutters, as a cursory glimpse through my slideshows will prove, and Arles has plenty of architectural charm.

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Vincent van Gogh “Self Portrait” 1888

The museum houses only a few Van Gogh paintings, recognizable to fans of the artist but not among the “rock stars.” Even so, the 1888 “Self Portrait” is superb, and is a welcome addition to the series (through which one can see van Gogh’s shifting states), and the face on “Head of a Peasant Woman With White Cap,” from 1885, articulates the wear and tear of working life.

“Blossoming Chestnut Branches,” from 1890, is a masterful example of the vitality and life that van Gogh was able to infuse into his still lifes. “Two Peasant Women Digging in Filed With Snow,” 1890, is a magnificent observation of ordinary folk. In his hands, the ordinary is elevated to be something worthy of a place in a museum.

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Vincent van Gogh “Two Peasant Women Digging in Filed With Snow,” 1890

A big surprise was the Alice Neel retrospective (which I will write about later). It seemed an odd combination, but made the museum visit something of a highlight.

On the way back, there was time for an obligatory sunflowers photo (not as easy as you’d think, even though the fields were full, as the flowers had turned their backs on the road and required a bit of finagling to get the effect).

Then it was a quick drive by to dip toes in the Mediterranean before heading home.

Overall, not the van Gogh pilgrimage we expected, but what we found was well worth the drive.

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The Grand Tour II: Hilltop Mystic Art

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CORDES-SUR-CIEL, France — In the medieval southern French village, which sits in the clouds above the valley, is a temple — of sorts — dedicated to the mystic Ma Ananda Moyi. Cordes-sur-Ciel is a quaint tourist town and it is odd to discover this strange creation. If one doesn’t know it is there, the house on the corner of La Halle, could easily be overlooked as just one of the many old stone buildings on the winding cobbled streets.

But step inside and one is treated to a hand-made labyrinthian creation — part shrine, part art project — that occupies every room.

The house belongs to Jean-Jacques Enjalbert, a rally car racing driver who, on a trip to Paris, discovered a book and had a revelation which led him to buy a plane ticket to India where he discovered the teachings of Ma Ananda Moyi (also known as Sri Anandamayi Ma).

ana02Born in Bengal, now Bangladesh, on April 30, 1896, she was an Indian spiritual leader. Anandamayi translates “joy-permeator,” a name given to her by her devotees in the 1920s to describe what they saw as her habitual state of divine joy and bliss.

The website of her teachings states, “The mysterious aloofness of her personality was totally beyond human understanding and yet it was so tempered by her compassionate love for all living creatures that she seemed closer than the most indulgent friend ever could be.”

As a child, religious chanting would cause Anandamayi to enter an ecstatic state, and she would claim to see figures leaving and reentering religious statues. At the age of 13 she married Ramani Mohan Cakravarti or Bholanath as he was known. It was a celibate marriage though not by her husband’s choice.

“When thoughts of sexuality occurred to Bholanath, Anandamayi’s body would take on the qualities of death and she would grow faint. He had to repeat mantras to bring her back to normal consciousness. Sometimes in such situations, her body would become distorted in various ways or it would stiffen. She later said that she had given her husband spontaneous electrical shocks when he touched her the wrong way. Bholanath thought the situation was temporary but it proved to be permanent. His relatives said he should remarry but he did not follow their advice. Later, Bholanath took initiation from her and accepted Anandamayi as his guru,” according to om.guru.com.

ana05Anandamayi was a holy woman without formal religious training who emphasized the importance of detachment from the world and religious devotion. She also encouraged her devotees to serve others.

After his experience, Enjalbert returned to Cordes-sur-Ciel where bought, renovated and sold properties. However, in the house on La Halle, his renovation took a very different shape. The house is full of cedar sculptures that reflect the open circle, a mystical symbol. The house has an organic feel with the sculptures merging with concrete and other structures as one goes into a darkened grotto-like basement, and climbs to the upper floors of the house. Visitors may interact with the sculptures — the egg in which one can curl up, an armchair, even a coffin. And all around are photographs, writings and teachings of Anandamayi

As I wandered through the house, trying to take in the massive amount of visual stimuli, I could not help thinking of local artists Charlie Stagg and Herman Hugg, both now dead, who would have found kinship in the artistic installation.

To discover this installation among the medieval streets is both fascinating and slightly confusing. It is as though one steps through a portal into a timeless space on a journey to who knows where.

In “Le Grande Vide” (“The Great Void”), Enjelbert writes, “The relationship is eternal between the divine and the man, but in its game sometimes it is obvious, sometimes it is broken or rather seems broken. In this eternal relationship you can enter at any time.”

To enter his exploration of the relationship, simply step from the cobbled street into a mystical world of wonder.

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All photos by Andy Coughlan

The Grand Tour II: Medieval in a Modern World

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Cordes-sur-Ciel’s narrow streets are cobbled

CORDES-SUR-CIEL, France — High in the hills of the Midi-Pyrenees floats a medieval town that time has seemingly forgotten. Cordes-sur-Ciel (sur-ciel means in the heavens or sky, named for the clouds and mist that rise from the valley giving the town a magical quality. Until 1993, the town was simply Cordes, a word thought to come from the Indo-European root “corte” meaning “rocky heights.” That year, the sur-Ciel was added.

It was established in 1222 by Count Raymond VII of Toulouse after the wars against the  Cathars and the hill is riddled with caves that served as granaries during times of siege.

This well-preserved town is approximately 15 miles from Gaillac and its vineyards (The French are very possessive of their wines so ask for the local wine by name, just ask the waiter what he suggests and you will get the full focal experience). Cordes has a population of a little more than 1,000 and covers slightly more than three square miles. At its highest point the altitude is 320 meters. In 1222, Cordes received its charter from the Count of Toulouse and is generally considered to be the first of the bastides of Southwest France.

Since the late 20th century, the village has become a popular tourist destination featuring markets and the annual Fêtes Médiévales du Grand Fauconnier —a three-day event with with a fair and a costumed Bal Médiéval.

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The view from Cordes-sur-Ciel’s Market Square

Market square on the top of the hill, the Halle de Cordes-sur-Ciel provides a wonderful of valley below. The church, Eglise St-Michel, is is relatively plain on the outside but worth a quick look inside.

As the town retains its medieval architecture, there are no cars allowed, but visitors but can catch a trolley bus to the top of the hill and gently stroll back down. Even the walk up is so picturesque one hardly notices one hardly notices the workout.

The narrow roads weave in and out and visitors should take the time to go exploring. Around every corner one discovers different architectural ornamentation and shops, gothic facades and gates, ramparts and alleyways. Don’t miss the town’s well, which is nearly 985-feet deep and supplied the town during the Crusades.

This is no dead town, as people still live in Cordes-sur-Ciel proper, and it is as close as one can get to experiencing a bustling medieval town.

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The Grand Tour II: A Mountain Village and Cathars

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The central swuare in Sauveterre de Rouergue

SAUVETERRE DE ROUERGUE, France — Located in the Aveyron department of southern France, between the towns of Albi and Rodez in the Midi-Pyrenees, this small 13th-century village with a population of little more than 800 is an unlikely tourist spot, but in the past few years the village has sought to halt its decline by focusing on arts and crafts with 15 artists and craftsmen installed year-round.

Sauveterre de Rouerge was founded as a bastide, designating 300 to 500 hundred towns built mainly in southwest France between 1222 and 1373. Historian Felix de Verneilh writes that bastides are, “New cities built suddenly, all at once, under the empire of one will.” It was built around a central square, which is still intact today, with the side streets housing galleries and artist’s studios.

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The workshop where the Sauveterre knife is made and shipped worldwide.

In 1362, during the 100 Years War, the town was ceded to the English who operated a garrison there until 1369, following which the town was a hub of artisan including weavers, blacksmiths, hatters, drapers, tanners and parchment-makers, as well as workers in linenironleather and pastels. The village was hit hard by the plague of 1628, which ravaged the population. As well as the artists who work there, the village is home to the Sauveterre knife, made in a small workshop and sold around the world.

The region was a central hub for the Cathars, a heretical sect of Christians who lived in Southern France during the 11th and 12th centuries. One branch of the Cathars was known as the Albigenses because they took their name from the Albi  which is 30 km from Sauveterre.

The Cathars in France were based largely in the Languedoc region. Their popularity rose in part as a reaction to the over-excesses of the Roman Catholic church. The religion was supported by many in the region, both peasants and nobles alike, and an estimated 10 percent of the population were supporters.

The Toulouse Counts owned large parts of the south of France and rejected the feudal structures of northern France, allowing cities to elect their own representatives — that helped the religion to spread.

The Cathar religion had its roots in eastern religions of 2,500 years ago, with the ideas of Zoroastre that the world consisted of two opposing forces, representing good and evil. Cathars and believe that these are of equal importance, whereas Christians believe that the forces of good are superior. The Cathars were an extreme ascetic group, cutting themselves off to retain as much purity as possible. They believed that sins of the flesh were conducive to evil, so they eschewed marriage and sex, even practicing veganism so as not to ingest the product of sex.

But their belief is equality, and a belief that the Bible should be accessible and translated into the local language made it appealing to peasants. They were also pacifists.

“In modern times, Catharism might be seen as a quirky or even progressive religious group, but in medieval Europe the Cathars were considered radical and profoundly dangerous to the stability of a fragile society. Those who denied the authority of the government to wage war and who refused to procreate were seen as anarchists threatening the culture” (gotquestion.org).

Elaine Graham-Leigh, writes in the Socialist Worker, “Heresy develops as a form of protest. If you were a peasant and you wanted to find a way of complaining, one way of doing it was through heresy. The heretical movements of the Middle Ages were basically movements of social protest.

“People didn’t start off fighting for organized religious sects, but they ended up fighting for them. Peasants might have started fighting because of their poverty, but then come to affiliate with the Cathars. It was not really about theology at all, it was more a case of, ‘You have too much money and we don’t have enough.’”

As Catharism grew, the authorities, controlled by the church, decided to clamp down. The Albigensian crusade arrived at Beziers early in 1209. The city refused to hand over the heretics and more than 20,000 people were killed in the battle that followed. When asked how the soldiers would be able to differentiate betweem Cathars and Catholics, papel legate Arnaud Amalric, uttered the infamous phrase, “Kill them all — God will recognize his own.”

Today, Sauveterre de Rouerge is a quiet, beautiful village nestled 1,500-feet high in Ségala plateau, but its region’s fascinating and turbulent past adds to its interest.

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All photos by Andy Coughlan 2017