It’s exquisite isn’t it, the image. It’s part of an illustration, the original of which is an Indian (Asian) painting. It’s in a book I found in a ‘brocante’ near the house we used to own in northern France. We visited frequently, to browse the secondhand and antiquarian furniture and goods. The book is full of such delightful illustrations. This one pulls out to three times the width of the book, which is a French language version of a collection of short stories by Rudyard Kipling: ‘Monsieur l’Elephant’. It’s a ‘posh’ limited edition, marketed originally for children.
I wouldn’t have found this book had I not been at the time on a specific quest for books. I wasn’t looking for content however, just books with interesting covers. The idea was to recycle unwanted books into handbags by scooping out the insides (i.e. the texts), adding ‘sides’ of fabric and handles. Like many of my artistic ideas, it was doomed to failure!
Before it did however, still fresh with enthusiasm, I prowled the Boulevards St Germain and St Michael, scouring bookshops for books with interesting covers.
Why did my project fail? I liked the books so much, I couldn’t bring myself to destroy them! Not just the covers. Once I’d got my purchases home and looked at them more closely, it became clear that what I’d bought for a couple of Euros weren’t valueless, unwanted books, but social and historical documents, archaeological finds.
There’s another book I couldn’t turn into a handbag. I bought it because of its vivid ‘painterly’ cover. I later discovered that the cover was a reproduction of part of a painting. In fact the book contained page after page of vividly-coloured illustrations, as well as some black and white drawings. Its illustrator was the French artist Roger Bezombes, (1913-1974). The illustrations were reproductions of his own paintings and drawings. The book, entitled ‘Le Livre de San Michele’ (The Book of San Michele) was authored by a Swedish doctor, Axel Munthe. ‘San Michele’ was the Roman villa he was restoring on the island of Capri.
Munthe opened his first medical practice in France. He would treat the poor without charge, risked his life to help in times of war, disaster or plague and was an advocate of animal rights. His name is linked with that of Pasteur, Henry James, de Maupassant.
The first reproduction in the book seemed to be a townscape, of tomato red trees and grass-green coloured roofs. Despite the abstracted nature of its rendition, the scene was oddly familiar. On the page above the painting, in French, it read:
“In Paris, I lived in the Latin Quarter and every morning I went to Salpetriere”. I know ‘Salpetriere’, in English ‘Saltpeter’. It had been a gunpowder factory. I know it as l’hopital Pitie-Salpetriere. If the name is familiar to you, it’s probably in connection with Princess Diana. It was the hospital where she was taken after her tragic accident in 1977.
Salpetriere is like a village. It’s a vast complex consisting of a central park area surrounded by groupings of medical and surgical ‘pavilions’. The ‘village’ is dominated by its huge domed chapel ‘St Louis’.
I came to know the village of Salpetriere very well in 2007. For weeks I trekked back and forth – twice daily – to visit one of its pavilions. Some of my walks turned into assault courses as they coincided with a transport strike. It became my daily goal to find new ways of getting to my ‘objective’. In Metro carriages I was crammed so tight against others I could barely breathe. I witnessed violence - people bloodied in fights being hauled off platforms in wheelchairs or on trolleys. I saw hysteria - people shouting, screaming, SINGING even, banging suitcases up against train doors and windows in sheer exasperation.
I had to get to Salpetriere however, no matter what. One day defeated me. I had fought my way off one Metro only to find my only possible connection cancelled. I was exhausted. That day, I clung to some iron railings separating two platforms and openly and unashamedly wept!
I remember those bizarre days as the coldest and greyest in my life. I was cold and grey. I became angry at Bezombes’ vibrant rendition of Salpetriere. I was angry at his superficial ‘fauvist’ reds, yellows and pinks. “It isn’t like that!” I yelled at him, in my mind.
Yet eventually the sun shone at Salpetriere. Come spring and summer, I was sitting in the park, sheltering from the heat in the shade of the trees, hearing the birdsong. And I wasn’t alone.
Bezombes’ colours turned up after all and his paintings became uplifting. No matter their original artistic purpose, for me they came to remind that hospitals are not just cold, grey places of suffering, but also colourful places of healing.
Yes, my silly ‘handbag’ project failed, but what I gained in its place, was priceless – like the books!
- Have you ever walked with a particular ‘destination’ in mind and ended up somewhere else?
- What did you gain from it?