Descending the Mont Blanc, out of the blue I decide to once again visit Nantua. It is in a different direction from what I had in mind, yesterday, but then again this whole journey I have travelled off hand, casting an imaginary die, urged by intuition and vague pointers which I did not even notice at the time. Nantua it shall be. One motive for this decision, looming large in the spectre of fate, is of course my very own Nantua history. I shall be going there once again, to visit a Saint.
Way back in the 20th century, before we started our garden tour through France, my colleague and I had been using the telephone a lot. Besides the English Gardens in France, our common field of study, I was personally interested in the Orientalists, French painters from the first half of the 19th century who considered the Maghreb of North-Africa to be “the Orient” and went out there to paint the dessert and its colourful inhabitants. Fromentin, amongst others, also wrote a delightful little tome titled Pays de la Soif – the land of thirst, also the title of one of his Orientalist desert paintings. However, Delacroix was my favourite.
One of the institutions we contacted was the Museum of Lille. I had learned that they owned his Medea, the savage woman, married to a civilised Greek prince who, of course, deceived her. She then took revenge by killing his children.
Indeed, it is in our possession; alas, this moment it is not to be seen. No idea where it is now… What the fuck is going on? Had the whole of Lille been hit by the mills of that urbanist fool of a Rem Koolhaas who, as an ‘urbanist’, had ‘intervened’ in the town’s ‘urban structure’ because of EuroLille, the city being chosen as Cultural Capital of Europe for that year? And, hell, which museum has staff not knowing where its top pieces have disappeared to? In Paris, in the Louvre, we looked for his other great paintings. Again, two of them were not shown, for whatever reasons. The detection of Delacroix!
Surprised we were indeed when a day later, in the Grand Palais, awesome Medea had been waiting for us all that time. Like the lines in The Gardener and Death, the poem by the Dutchman P. N. van Eyck, in which Death awaits anyone where He wants and when He wants. With a smile Death answered:
No threat it was,
That made your gardener flee. I was surprised,
When in the morning, here, I saw him still at work,
The man I had to snatch that evening in far Ispahaan.
Paris it was – my Ispahaan.
Delacoix’s Nemesis – His writing on the wall.
There must be a sweet something between me and the Frenchman’s paintings. This was not the first time that something went wrong while looking for one of them. It must be unanswered love, what else! Years before this, after visiting the Alps and Geneve my wife and I had been descending the steep Jura mountain slopes surrounding Nantua, a gorgeous little town bordering on a lake with steep high-rise, like huge arms embracing its waters.
According to our travel guide, there should be hanging a real Delacroix in the small St. Michel Abbatiale, a basilica dating from the 12th century. An incredible idea, almost of an Italian idiocy. Where else in the world but in Rome could I find real Caravaggio’s hanging on church walls! Anywhere else, such art treasures are only to be seen in a museum. Not so in Italy, not so in French Nantua.
What a disgrace, what disappointment; the building was in a deplorable condition, rain seeping in on wet walls, once beautiful stones now grey and dirty. According to that guide, the Saint-Sébastien of my great Orientalist should be hanging on the left at the back of the church. What we did find, in a dark grotto-like, dirty transept, was a set of some five rectangle packages, bundled up in heavy plastic, hanging against one another at a ridiculous angle, moist and dirty like the basilica itself. ‘I say’ – I said to my wife – ‘my head under the Guillotine, if one of these is not what we came looking for…
This hurt, not only because of the derelict situation we were now in ourselves, but also because there was no way to see the painting. One is ‘not a voyeur, after all, one does not peek into such contraband. Nobody around to register a complaint. Leaving Nantua, I was not even sure whether my Delacroix had been one in that sorry lot. To gather my spirits again, I decided then and there that his Saint-Sébastien must have travelled to Paris, to have some place of honour in an exhibition. I just could not live with the idea that such a masterpiece would hang there, rotting against a wet church wall.
Four years later, in the summer, again we were in the Jura Mountains, in eastern France, and I could not resist the strong urge to once again visit Nantua. By Jove, the basilica had been restored, this not all too badly. Entering the building that evening at four o’clock, surprisingly there was a marriage being celebrated. Tiptoeing, so as not to disturb the high hopes of the couple and their guests, I slowly approached the transept where we had previously found those plastic covered canvasses. As a result of the marriage and the present condition of the basilica I had become an optimist.
Nowhere a Saint-Sébastien to be found. While inspecting the walls, behind me I heard the couple phrasing their words of consent; this did not apply to my quest for the Delacroix.
We had decided to camp nearby and two days later we spent an evening in town. There was some feast going on in the park at the lake, it might even have been the Quatorze Juillet. A man behind the bar, himself already quite drunk on the stuff he sold, poured us two beer glasses full of the best wine available, and we had to pay for this as if it were beer, a wink in the bargain. As always on such occasions in France, the music was deplorably bad, the crowd began to get on my nerves. We decided to go to the water’s edge. On the way to peace and quiet, I observed two young women closing up their little kiosk. Tourisme de Nantua was written on it. I decided to risk it just that once again to ask about my Delacroix.
Did they know of the existence of the painting by Delacroix, which supposedly belonged to Nantua? If so, what had happened to it? Sure enough! They gave me a little folder, in it a stark coloured copy of the painting which I had not seen for a long time. Plus the announcement that it could be admired in the basilica. I told them that, two days ago, we had searched in vain. Nonsense! The canvas was really hanging there, to be found at the back of the church. Was the church still open at this hour? Certainly!
Immediately we went back into the town again. And again I inspected the transept. Esther walked on, suddenly crying out in the hollow silence of the building that she had found it. Up there in the Choir, some five meters high, a place of hanging probably chosen because of possible theft, there he was: Sebastian! The Gospel realised. Verily, I thee tell, the good Saint has been resurrected!
While that wedding had been celebrated, two days before, I could never have spotted the canvas without disturbing the ceremony. It was also not the place which was indicated in my old travel guide. So, I had been wrong-footed aesthetically.
At last, a Saint-Sébastien who does not appeal to the male-loving part of humanity by hanging, contrapposto, languidly against a tree, his body delicately sieved by arrows of precisely the right kind of plumage, hitting him like a saint in a painting should be. This poor man, by contrast, is lying against the trunk of a tree, obviously suffering, in pain, perhaps already unconscious, only hit by a mere four arrows who seem to have done the job.
One of the two women, with a beautiful, attentive face, robed in black and with a black cape, is bending over our hero, trying to take out the arrow stuck in his left shoulder. She will save him, as the legend goes, only to see him clubbed to death later on… The second woman – tall, and bleached like only a Delacroix could bleach his women, like that dead beauty lying on her belly in the master’s great canvas The Death of Sardanapalus – looks backwards, down into the valley where we see the perpetrators disappear. She is hiding something under her red cape, un je ne sais quoi…
There it was hanging, in all it colourist’s splendour, always overlooking the ceremonies going on down there in the basilica. Yet, hold on! I move around a little, almost sitting on the abbot’s throne; from this angle, all of a sudden the painting is struck by a late afternoon’s sun, falling through very old Romanesque windows. The light hits its surface in a very peculiar manner. There seems to be a dark hole in it, if not a black pit in the middle of the canvas, in the area where the woman is bending over the saint. I was reminded of Edgar Allen Poe. Something appears to have been fucked up. I am shocked; they have restored the painting disgracefully, it somehow is ravished like the saint himself. They have murdered my Delacroix.
Then I remember something serious. This painting dates from 1838, the very period in which artists were trying to trick history by mixing their browns and blacks with a shot of tar, thus trying to achieve a Rembrandtesque effect after a few years when that paint began to show a gorgeous ‘old’ craquelure. Only decades later, their immense mistake could be observed. The tarred pigment on all of these paintings started to slide down, as a woman of pleasure may letting her skirt down – which in the case of the woman on Saint-Sébastien is doubly true.
Delacroix also fell for this ruse. His painting suffers from a dark hole, part of the surface not shining properly, mat and dead. Someone has scraped away the tarred paint. In Nantua’s basilica, in a curious way, there are now hanging two paintings instead of one. Depending on one’s point of view, there is Saint-Sébastien no. I, in all its Delcroix-splendour; an Abbot, however, sitting on his throne, is condemned to see Saint-Sébastien no. II, with that black, mat hole in it, as if not only arrows hit the poor Saint, but a mortar shell has struck the hole painting right in its centre.
Thus, once more Death was awaiting me in Nantua. This time not in the appearance of humidity killing paintings against a wet basilica wall, but in the person of a restorer who took out the arrow from Delacroix’ Saint-Sébastien, leaving it bleeding dark blood. After all those years I had finally found my Delacroix – and I did not.
A week ago, having climbed my Mont Blanc and this time with my own death lurking inside, I decided to return to Nantua and see what I still consider to be my Delacroix. Taking a few wrong turns, I yet managed to arrive in the town, straight away going to the small square with the basilica. Outside were standing four men, the kind of men fate has chosen to be the Professionals of Death, always dressed in black, their faces dutifully sad and impressed. Inside a Requiem Mass was celebrated by a small crowd, not a cheerful marriage ceremony like so many years ago.
Quietly, again, I moved along the outer aisle trying not to disturb the proceedings, aiming for the spot from which I now knew I could peek at Saint-Sébastien, high-up on the wall of the choir. No painting to be seen! As low in spirit now as the mourners, I left the building and asked one of the undertaker’s men if they knew anything about the canvas. Yes, sir, it is hanging above the entrance on the inside. Back in the basilica, of course, there was no painting hanging above the entrance, there never is.
Deciding to make the most of it, I drove my car to the borders of the lake and ate a waffle sprinkled with a shot of Cointreau. When I turned around to go to my car and leave town, I saw a rather delicate little Modern, if not Post-Modern building with the lettering Office de Tourisme.
Inside, the women who ‘received’ me reminded of the undertaker’s men, all coming from the same mould wherever you enter such an Office. By now, I had enough experience to risk a generalisation: a little bit cultural, a little bit provincial, a little bit chic, a little bit coquettish. Uniformed types. Yes, indeed, it is still our Delacroix, but, alas, it has been ‘lent to New York’. The young lady could not tell me to which museum, I would bet on the MOMA.
Damn you, Mr. Delacroix. You have become just too famous; wherever I seek thee, I am confronted with your works having exited to somewhere spectacular.
Sierksma, written while listening to Reich’s Desert Music,
La Roche 24.9/2018