Fernand Léger and my grandmother

Over the last couple of years I have been deepening my knowledge of a couple of the early twentieth century abstract artists, one of them being Fernand Léger (1881-1955). I was initially struck by his “Jeu de Cartes” at the Kröller-Müller Museum up north in the Netherlands, when we went there in July 2022.

I have since encountered him at the charming museum in Le Cateau-Cambrésis and in Brussels, and most recently in Los Angeles where LACMA has his “The Disks”:

I really like the way he plays with shapes to make us look at things in a different way.

At the same time, I’m gradually going through my American grandmother’s memoirs of her life, and have reached her stay in Paris at the age of 20 in 1919. She has the following interesting notes:

One thing that was very nice for me was that Gascon and Mariette Mills heard that I was in Paris and got in touch with me; Gascon’s cousin Rosalie Hinkley had married a cousin of mine, so that though there was no relationship there was a connection. The Millses had no children of their own and were very good to me, often having me to stay at their place at Rambouillet – a delightful hunting-lodge of the time of Louis XIV – quite a large house, really, where they had lovely parties. Through them I met many interesting people, mostly artists, Oleg Tripet-Skrypitzine and Picabia and Fernand Léger and Guy Arnoux and lots of others. Mariette herself was a good sculptor and did some fine work; Gascon went in for carpentry and with little assistance built a chalet in the grounds of their house.

So my grandmother knew Fernand Léger! Rather a thrill. More on the people mentioned below, but I also found online a French translation of the English-language memoir Being Geniuses Together, 1920–1930, by Robert McAlmon (1895-1956) which includes the following snippet from 1921 (with my retranslation back into English, as I don’t have access to the original text):

Le lendemain, je partis pour la campagne, près de Rambouillet. Les Heyworth Mils avaient un château dans la petite commune où je m’installai, et dans un rayon de quinze kilomètres se trouvaient plusieurs charmants villages où l’on pouvait se promener, siroter un petit vin rafraîchissant, revenir pour le déjeuner et travailler l’après-midi. Le dimanche, mais souvent, aussi, les jours de semaine pour prendre le thé, Brancusi, Léger, Picabia et Blaise Cendrars venaient rendre visite aux Mills.

The next day I left for the countryside near Rambouillet. The Heyworth Mills had a château in that little town, where I settled in. Within fifteen kilometres there were several charming villages where you could go for a walk, sip a refreshing glass of wine, come back for lunch and work in the afternoon. Brancusi, Léger, Picabia and Blaise Cendrars would come to visit the Mills on Sundays and often on weekdays for tea.

It’s interesting that my grandmother and Robert McAlmon both namedrop both Fernand Léger and Francis Picabia as fellow guests of the Mills’. It is amusing to think of the two young Americans (McAlmon was 25) possibly at the same tea-party in Rambouillet, wowed by the French artists present and ignoring each other.

So, the people my grandmother mentions are:

“Gascon Mills” – Lawrence Heyworth Mills (1872-1943), born in Switzerland, an American citizen who lived most of his life abroad. He was the son of the Professor of Zend Philosophy at Oxford, also Lawrence Heyworth Mills (1837-1918). I don’t know the origin of my grandmother’s nickname for him of “Gascon” or “Gaston”, which she uses for him elsewhere. Robert McAlmon’s memoir also refers to him as “Le Gaston”.

Mariette Benedict Thompson (1876-1948), was Mills’ second wife (his first wife died in 1902). She was also an American expat, born in Paris, and was indeed a moderately well known sculptor. Unfortunately I haven’t found photographs of any of her work online, but there seem to be pieces in both the Musée d’Orsay and the Pompidou Centre. She is the only woman mentioned by either my grandmother or McAlmon.

Rosalie Hinckley (1887-1981) was Heyworth Mills’ first cousin once removed, the daughter of Rosalie Anne Neilson (1858-1939) and granddaughter of Caroline Kane Mills (1822-1891), whose younger brother was the Orientalist professor Lawrence Heyworth Mills; she was born and died in New York. Rosalie Hinckley’s husband Cornelius Wendell Wickersham (1885-1968) was my grandmother’s first cousin, the son of former Attorney-General George Woodward Wickersham (1858-1936).

Oleg Tripet-Skrypitzine must be Oleg-Eugène Tripet-Skrypitzine (1848-1935), who would have been 72 in 1920. He was the son of the French ambassador to St Petersburg and a Russian princess, and is particularly remembered for developing Cannes and the French Riviera, but some of his art survives as well. He had a son, François Oleg Tripet-Skrypitzine, but he emigrated to Canada in 1910 and does not seem to have been artistically inclined.

Francis Picabia (1879-1953) is a very well-known artist, one of the founders of Dadaism who then denouced it and switched to Surrealism in 1921 (the same year that he and my grandmother were entertained by the Millses). One of his notable works from 1921 is “Jumelle”.

Fernand Léger is probably the best-known of the artists named by my grandmother. He is usually bracketed with Bracque and Picasso as a pioneer of Cubism. Something about his art really grabs me and from surviving photos he looks like he was fun at parties, even tea-parties. This is his “The Breakfast”, also known as “Three Women”, from 1921.

Guy Arnoux (1886-1951) again had a very different style, much more of a cartoonist and illustrator – indeed he ended up making a nice career in illustrations for American newspapers and magazines, possibly helped by his connection with the Millses. Here’s his “La Robe de Chambre”, “The Dressing-Gown”, from 1921.

McAlmon also namechecks “Brancusi”, actually Constantin Brâncuși (1876-1957) who is the best known of any of the artists here, though chiefly remembered as a sculptor rather than a painter. Mina Loy’s poem, “Brancusi’s Golden Bird“, was inspired by a sculpture that she probably saw at the Mills’ Paris house. His “Adam and Eve”, now in the Guggenheim, dates from 1921.

Finally, McAlmon also mentions Blaise Cendrars (1887-1961), a writer and poet, rather than an artist, originally from Switzerland. He published a collection of African folk tales in 1921 (with unfortunately a racist title).

Those must have been great tea-parties.

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art

On my last day in LA last week, after Gallifrey One, I visited LACMA, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, with my old friend A. It was a rainy day and I had only an hour and a half between meeting A and needing to run to the airport. I slightly blenched at the $25 admission charge for non-Angelenos (A, as a native and recent returnee, would normally get in for a generous $5 discount). But the museum gods were smiling on us and the ticket machine was broken, so we got in for free.

A, rejoicing in our escape from the admission charges

I’m sorry to say that my initial impression was not hugely positive. The Resnick Pavilion, one of the two main buildings, is full of post-colonial this and that, deliberately de-centering the perspective of the original collectors (which for me is one of the interesting bits). I did like Todd Gray’s “Atlantic (Tiepolo)“, a three-dimensional collage reflecting on the slave trade.

Across the rainy way, the Broad Contemporary Art Museum building has three floors but the middle one was closed. Again, we were a bit underwhelmed by the ground floor, which has some interesting enough LA-inspired stuff but also some large empty spaces. What caught my eye was “El Chavez Ravine“, an ice cream truck covered with a painting by Vincent Valdez in collaboration with musician Ry Cooder, a companion piece for Cooder’s 2005 concepot album “Chávez Ravine” commemorating a Mexican-American community in Los Angeles whose homes were destroyed in the 1950s for a development that was never actually built.

We went upstairs in the BCAM building, slightly wondering why LACMA has been hyped up as much as it has; OK, we’d got in for free, but so far it wasn’t worth the $25 that I would have paid.

But on the third floor everything changed. Here there is a fantastic collection of modern art which is better than many European museums. Picasso, Bracque, Matisse, Barbara Hepworth, Fernand Leger (who I’ve come to appreciate) represented by “The Disks“:

I was grabbed also by Magnus Zeller’s “The Orator“:

Bust most of all, as a patriotic Belgian, I was delighted to find the original of Magritte’s “La trahison des images [Ceci n’est pas une pipe]“. (I went to the Brussels Magritte Museum with U in 2022.)

That alone would practically have been worth the admission price. (If I’d had to pay it.) After that, A kindly dropped me off at the airport and I came home to mountains of unread emails and hours of jetlag, which I am just about over now.

It was actually a lucky break because A and I had originally planned to visit the Getty Museum, which however is closed on Mondays. Very glad to have seen it. (It’s actually on the same block as the La Brea Tar Pits, which I visited two years ago.)

The oldest church in Belgium and the arrondissement of Avesnes-sur-Helpe – menhirs; donkeys; forest; Wilfred Owen; Henri Matisse; August Bergin; the forum at Bavay

Anne and I had a little 24-hour excursion at the end of the long weekend just gone, mainly exploring the arrondissement of Avesnes-sur-Helpe in the département du Nord of the Hauts-de-France region, a small corner of the Republic that ended up French rather than Belgian due to the 1678 Treaty of Nijmegen which allowed Louis XIV to take it from the County of Hainaut. It has been rather neglected by its overlords in the 345 years since.

But before we got there, we stopped off at the Collegiate Church of St Ursmer in the small town of Lobbes near Charleroi. It is supposedly the oldest church in Belgium, and this year is celebrating the 1200th anniversary of its consecration in 823. Little is known of St Ursmer, a local boy who became bishop and is buried in the crypt (well, most of him; bits and bobs are in reliquaries). But the crisp, clean geometrical arches of the ninth-century church fabric are currently crowded with an exhibition of the iconography of the saint and how this affected the church.

The external view shows the ancient core and 19th-century spire.

St Ursmer’s major miracle was exorcising a demon from a nun, whose name has been forgotten, though artists agree that the demonic presence was expelled from her mouth.

The exhibition will stay in the church until, er, next Monday, and will then transfer to the former sacristy of the Abbey of Good Hope in Lobbes from 18 June, if you want to catch it there.

The church is only 10km from the border with France, and so we slipped across to the small French village of Sars-Poteries where various menhirs from the neighbourhood have been collected. My Celtic soul is still a bit revolted at the thought of moving the sacred monoliths from the places where their builders put them, but I suppose it is better than losing them altogether. One of them stands proud and upright in the centre of the village; the others recline in retirement nearby.

We stayed at Les Mout’ânes, a pension in the small town of Saint-Hilaire-sur-Helpe, where a luxurious double room with breakfast costs a mere € 89. Strongly recommended. They also have donkeys.

They don’t, unfortunately, do dinner for groups of less than four, so in the evening we headed down to La Petite Ferme de Lucien in Fourmies, a steakhouse in the style of an American diner except with French culinary standards. Very yummy.

On Monday morning we decided to explore the Parc naturel régional de l’Avesnois, which occupies most of the land surface of the arrondissement. This proved a little difficult; there are no real centres of tourist information, no established walks, and not a lot of information on the ground. We stopped at the arboretum in the Forest of Mormal near Locquignol where there are a couple of amusing wooden statues.

As we drove on to our next destination, we passed a sign labelled “Wilfred Owen”, and went back to investigate. Like all UKanian schoolkids, we were taught several of his gut-wrenching war poems in our English Literature classes. The house where he wrote his last letter to his mother on 31 October 1918 has been transformed into a large sculptural memorial, but sadly was not open on 1 May.

We parked there anyway and walked for twenty minutes through the woods to his grave in the nearby village of Ors; a few dozen British soldiers are buried in the municipal cemetery, including Wilfred Owen, who was killed exactly a week before the war ended. The woods were alive with birdsong and the cemetery was quiet. It was a thought-provoking walk.

I should add that I had consulted many French tourism websites about things to see in the arrondissement, and not one of them mentioned Wilfred Owen’s grave. We found it completely by accident.

Our destination at that point was the Matisse museum in the former bishop’s palace at Le Cateau-Cambrésis, the town where he was born. As is often the case with such museums, most of his best known art is elsewhere – there are two other museums in France alone which have more of his work. But there is enough here to show his evolution as a painter, from the 1899 First Still Life with Orange:

…to the 1906/07 portrait of his daughter Marguerite:

…to his later experiments with cut-outs, as with the 1946 Océanie – La Mer.

Upstairs, the museum has a lot more art by modern artists – lots of Alberto Giacometti, some Miró, a Picasso, a few by Fernand Léger (who impressed me at the Kröller-Müller Museum last year); and a large collection of art by Auguste Herbin, another local boy who neither Anne nor I had previously heard of, but who completely wowed us. This is a case where almost none of his art is elsewhere and the Matisse Museum in Le Cateau-Cambrésis has almost all of it. He started fairly representational, eg these early Chrysanthemums:

But then he went completely geometric in various media. Here’s a flat piece with the title Napoleon:

Here’s a more three-dimensional piece whose title I failed to record:

Here are two stools with Herbin covers:

And most spectacular of all, here’s a stained glass window, with the title Joy, that he designed for a local elementary school (this is an exact copy; the original is still in the school, where we later saw it from the outside).

This stunning museum charged us € 4 each as the cost of entry. I can certainly think of many occasions when I have spent five times as much to have five times less fun. It was practically empty and it was well worth the trip. (The same, sadly, could not be said for the lunch at the Restaurant du Musée Matisse across the street, where the service was slow and the food a bit disappointing.)

Finally we stopped off at Bavay for a look at the huge ancient Roman forum there; but unfortunately it was closed due to the bank holiday. We’ll have to go back.