Monday 8 October 2012

Retour de Tournai

The journey to Tournai began, for reasons I shan't go in to here, with a three-hour sojourn at a motorway service station in Kent. This was an unlooked-for turn of events, but I must say I rather like these places - by far the most benign of the various limbos and transitional spaces of modern life. What distinguishes motorway service stations from, say, airport departure 'lounges', is that you can get out of them and wander around outside - and on a sunny day, this is really rather pleasant.
 The grounds of service stations are a distinctive mix of manicured lawns, fringes of closely-planted trees and shrubs, and glimpses of the middle-of-nowhere edgelands beyond. As they age and the trees grow and the manufactured landscape settles into the scenery, these strange spaces actually start to look rather good - especially when the leaves are turning. In the course of my wanderings, I was treated to a showy fly-past by a Red Admiral, and then, on a sunlit bramble patch right by one of the access roads, a beautiful fresh Comma basking with his ragged wings spread. I stood a long while enjoying the sight before strolling back inside to carry on reading. And when I came out again 20 minutes later, he was still there.
 But to Tournai. This is a town with much to commend it (notably the amazing cathedral, still undergoing an epic restoration), but it also boasts what is probably the worst Musee de Beaux Arts I have ever set foot in - which is saying something. The entry lobby is presided over by three thuggish men sitting in a row behind the desk, glaring balefully and barking the occasional discouraging word to the few visitors who bother to step inside. Another thug of similar stamp, bearing an armband labelled 'Gardien', was sucking away at a huge messy cigar beside the entrance.
 Suspended over the central space of the museum was a purple hippopotamus with wings - a heart-sinking sign of curatorial activity, which had also, as became apparent, spread to dividing the meagre collection thematically, under flatulent headings along the lines of 'A le Recherche de l'Infini' etc. The museum is fortunate in having two famous and fine large Manets, one of which was absent - but beyond that, a decent Seurat, a nice Van Gogh drawing and a few other odds and ends, there's little that's worth more than a glance, and what there is is badly hung and labelled. This visit was a thoroughly dispiriting experience.
 On the other hand, there's Bergues, a much smaller town with a much more rewarding Musee des Beaux Arts, housed in a baroque building called the Mont de Piete (sorry about the lack of accents - can't work out how to do them on Blogger), which is also the name given to France's state-owned pawnshops. This one did indeed serve as a pawnshop, among other things, from post-Revolutionary times into the 20th century. But now it is an art gallery, and it houses at least one truly great painting - Georges de la Tour's The Hurdy Gurdy Player (above). This remarkable painter, whose work was only rediscovered in the 20th century, painted hurdy gurdly players more than once, but this haunting picture - unusually large by de la Tour's standard - packs a terrific punch. It arrests the attention in a quite unsettling way - the blind gaze of the hurdy gurdy player, the awkward, half-challenging pose, the mysterious semi-darkness around him, the little dog at his feet - and I found it quite hard to tear myself away from it. It has a commanding, monumental quality, but is also exquisitely painted, and is strangely reminiscent of some of Manet's early works. The gallery at Bergues also has a swaggering Van Dyck full-length and, amid a number of good 17th-century Flemish portraits, one of quite staggeringly good quality, a Portrait of a Young Man by an unknown painter that is so beautifully done it stops you in your stride. This was one provincial French art museum - and two paintings - I'll never forget.
 And then, as we came to the end of a long walk that had begun in rain, the sun came out, and with it, in a field of bright hawkweed, a single Clouded Yellow was flying and feeding - my first, and surely last, of the year.


  1. Not content to show us what we may have missed in a great work of art or a sliver of the natural world, you can switch your focus and find something beautiful in the most banal surroundings; what a gift this is. I know that, for the rest of today and perhaps beyond, I will be wondering what kept you at the service station for three hours?

  2. I spend half my life in service stations, never thought to look out for butterflies.

  3. PS - "Suspended over the central space of the museum was a purple hippopotamus with wings - a heart-sinking sign of curatorial activity"

    Masterly, Nige.

  4. To put you out of your agony Mahlerman - my brother's car, which was carrying 5 of us on this jaunt, broke down totally, amid hideous grinding and rattling sounds, exactly as he swept into a parking space at Maidstone Services. An AA man was on the scene within 10 mins and all was eventually sorted out, but it took 3 hrs before we were on our way again. Then, having finally arrived at Dunkirk, an endless journey without maps followed - in the dark, with the diesel fast running out, the route disappearing into a massive diversion and nothing to rely on but eccentric French road signage. Still, all ended well...

  5. And there was me thinking you had spotted a late Pale Clouded Yellow, and the rest had to wait while you vaulted a stile and made off toward the horizon. I'll sleep easier tonight knowing the truth was more prosaic....

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