The excitement for me as an artist lies not in exploring the unknown but in how I can effectively organise a visual arrangement that reflects the atmosphere and intensity of an environment, evoking a precise moment of the day under specific light and conditions. I hope you enjoy the work

Feature of the week  03/06/2018

Approaching Storm Over Talyerac

I first saw these two houses standing dourly and uncompromisingly either side of a narrow valley road at twilight in July 1976, following a helter-skelter, hair-raising drive on the ‘route nationales’ 650 miles from London through the depths of France. The car was a cumbersome Citroen DS Safari and was driven by Gerald Marks, the owner of a ruined house we were to stay. In the car with him were three passengers: two male students designated to carry out restoration work on the property and myself, a young painter who had been attracted by Gerald’s charisma and experience of life as an artist throughout the forties, fifties and sixties. I spoke good French and was excited at the prospect of visiting Southern France for the first time. Gerald thought that, if he spoke loudly enough in English everyone would eventually understand.

I am writing about the Cevennes, the area in Southern France I wrote about in a feature on January 28 concerning my painting ‘Evening in Valleraugue’. To recap briefly, the Cevennes is a remote, rough and wild mountainous area that has provided refuge for the dispossessed over several centuries. The land and soil can be a little inhospitable but occasionally it throws up brief opportunities for success. In the 19th century silk-weaving enjoyed a surge of popularity and magnareries- barn-like buildings were laboriously built by hand on the sides of the mountain to accommodate the cultivation of silk-worms. One of these is depicted in my painting above on the left.

On the night of our arrival, with legs trembling and teeth chattering (he wanted to get there before dark) I had little idea that this would be the start of a star-crossed relationship with a location and a person that would continue to this day. Passing through the two houses either side of the road, we drove up a steep track and came to a dead end at the bottom of what appeared in the dim light, to be a cliff face. A weak torch with failing batteries helped us scramble and stumble up a stony path. We bled from the scratches of thorny mountain oak that grow like weeds throughout this area. Coming to an abrupt halt in front a tall, forbidding looking dark stone facade, Gerald opened the padlock to a timber door. To my horror we walked into the cave or basement room that we were to sleep in, a vaulted cellar with a dirt floor and a very dubious looking mattress. No doubt scorpions, giant spiders and bats lurked in every crevice.

  

The two students fared little better- a precarious plank led them up to the ground floor of the building they were to renovate. The floor had the consistency of cement dust, it was strewn with rubble and the window casements were open to the elements. They immediately set to polishing off a bottle of brandy. They left in a hurry the next morning after threatening Gerald and offering me the opportunity to leave with them… but something made me stay. I remained seven weeks and have returned intermittently ever since. From 2009 it has become a second home for Steve and myself.

Gerald Marks 1921 to 2018

Copyright  Annie Hanson 2011

Untitled no.6 Madeleine Series  1990-91   96'x84"

Copyright Estate of Gerald Marks

When one thinks of Southern France, the blue skies of Raoul Dufy and the majestic landscapes of Cezanne come to mind- not always true.  In the Cevennes the valley floors are 400 metres above sea level and the region is on the axis of three climate zones: the Mediterranean, the Atlantic and the Central European where the Massif Central breaks up into a system of valleys that rapidly drop down to the Garrigue, that plain of gorgeous scrubland that leads to the sea. That first Summer became something of an endurance test in terms of undergoing dramatic weather as well as living conditions, culminating in a spectacular storm when we were washed out of the cave and forced to sleep in the car. I thought, 'That’s it. Enough is enough', and prepared to pack my rucksack and walk away from both Gerald and the Cevennes forever. Then the rain stopped, the mists lifted and the sun seeped through gaining in strength as the morning progressed. And so, I stayed and stayed…..

Gerald too, has been a more or less constant part of my life since 1976, although we separated in 1983. Two weeks ago on Saturday May 19 he died at the age of 96 and this week’s painting is a dedication to someone who was loveable; infuriating; didactic; sincere; contrary; argumentative; mean; generous; maddening and unforgettable. He was utterly unique. After he retired from a teaching position in 1986, Gerald drove this road between the two houses every June to his ‘atelier’ where he would worry and paint until it became too much for him to withstand the cold. At the beginning of November he would make the long trek north again usually encountering some minor crisis en route. From time to time friends visited him there and he also had some good French friends. The closest of these were fortunately an English teacher and TV cameraman, the second closest and equally fortunately, didn’t speak a word of English. Gerald never realised how different their political mind-set was, which would have been infuriating to the dedicated Marxist he had been since his youth.

 

Arguably he painted some of the best paintings of his life in this house; large abstract paintings and smaller (not so small) oil pastels inspired by the wild country of the Cevennes and by his relationship with violinist Madeleine Mitchell during the late eighties and early nineties.

 

The imagery of the painting I have chosen as a tribute to Gerald’s memory spans a period of four decades. It began as a pencil drawing in 1977, the late afternoon sunny and calm with a dog named Tosca featuring in it. Tosca was a hunting dog that adopted us immediately on our arrival every summer and always accompanied me on my walks. She did not come alone; fleabites and scratching abounded, which caused many visitors, expecting a idyllic Provencal-like environment to cut short their stay. Painting this work in 2015, I wanted to incorporate the dramatic changes of weather that one experiences in the region, hence the title ‘Approaching Storm’. Unusually for Southern France lighting conditions here can be quite soft favouring a tonality more akin to a Northern sensibility.

 

Unfortunately at the moment there is no web-site cataloguing Gerald’s achievements. We attempted to construct one for him several times but he was extremely particular. We hope to build one in the near future.