The City on the Page

The Everyday Life of the Artist

Francis Bacon in his Studio

On a day off I recently went back to revisit the eerie Francis Bacon studio at the Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin. Bacon’s final living and working space was Reece Muse in South Kensington, London and the entire studio and its contents were donated after his death back to Dublin, Bacon’s birthplace, by his friend John Edwards. The chaotic space in which Bacon worked every day has been brilliantly reconstructed with archaeological precision and sits still like a mausoleum viewed through the frames of the original windows and door.

One of the quotes from the artist that the gallery has stencilled on the walls leading into the studio is Bacon’s comment on his final quarters:

“For some reason the moment I saw this place I knew that I could work here. I am very influenced by place – by the atmosphere of a room.”

This sensitivity to space is not surprising in someone who started their career as an interior designer. But Bacon, whose interior spaces both real and painted were streamlined, minimalist and modern, chose to construct for his own environment a beaver’s lodge in which he would have to hand everything he needed for the production of his paintings – photographs, paint, champagne bottles and dirt.  He overlooked the space’s more awkward characteristics (such as an absence of natural light and a steep staircase which had to be descended with the aid of a rope) and even allowed its dimensions to dictate the size of everything he painted while he lived there from 1961 until his death in 1992.

Another artist whose canvases are dictated by the size of his studio door is Roman Opalka, a polish artist who since 1965 has been painting in series the numbers from 1 to infinity on canvases called “details”.
Roman Opalka
I recently saw for the first time three of Opalka’s paintings at the Musée de l’Art Moderne in Paris (in the collection of the art critic Bernard Lamarche-Vadel now on display). This is the kind of stuff that really polarises people on the “but is it art?” debate, extending even to “sure, I could do that” but Opalka’s tiny translucent numbers are pretty mesmerising up close and its almost certain that most of us would not want to “do that”. I knew nothing about Opalka but after seeing the images became more interested in why he has chosen to spend his entire life since 1962 until his death committed to such a seemingly unrewarding task. Opalka says that his life’s work, documented not only through his paintings but more recently through recordings and photographs of himself at the end of each day’s work, is to to represent “the irreversibility of time” and present to us our insignificance in the context of infinity.

‘the problem is that we are, and are about not to be’

Francis Bacon’s outlook on life was similar:

“I think if you have a very strong feeling for life – its shadow death is with you too – it’s only another turn of the coin.”

It is interesting to look at the how people who live with such a constant awareness of their mortality still chose to dedicate their everyday lives to the creation of art. Bacon claimed to be driven entirely by chance describing the act of creation as:

“like one continuous accident mounting on top of another”

Opalka’s series, almost by definition, leaves nothing to chance:

“Every time that I add a number, everything changes. It is a sort of journey, if you will, where the steps are conscious each and every time, each step adds to the others, the weight of the duration of all these steps that you have lived.”

Striving to create in the face of ultimate insignificance was something Bacon accepted was an affliction of all artists:

“All artists are vain, they long to be recognised and to leave something to posterity. They want to be loved, and at the same time they want to be free. But nobody is free.”

It seems that the need to be remembered has indeed influenced Opalka’s seemingly universal work. Since 1972 Opalka has been diluting the background colour of his paintings with 1 percent white with the intention of ultimately reaching white on white (by 7, 777 777 he reckons) and ideally before he dies.

“If all is going to go well for me, I will be after ten or so years working with absolute white. That is, there is an exultation during the existence of a painter that goes, every day, towards the white. In order to have transformed pictorial whites into moral whites.” – Roman Opalka

Opalka is increasingly, through the fading of the numbers against the canvas through the photographs and recordings, imprinting his own lifetime on a work that initially had infinite scope. This is one way of gaining back the upper hand from from the series of numbers that he handed over his life to in 1962.

“My painting is about the experience of time passing, not about one selected instant”

Far from passively documenting the passing of time Opalka’s is mitigating, through his progressive reduction of the distinction between the numbers and their background, against the chance of any unintended focus on the inevitable final number which on his death will end his documentation of time.

My Top 10 Books about Paris

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As a compulsive list-maker, I have a number of ongoing lists of Paris recommendations that I add to with every visit.

I’ve been postponing settling on the final version of this one, intimidated by the image of the perfect Paris reading list, but the sunny weather in Dublin at the moment makes me want to spend my days eeking out noisettes in the Café de la Mairie so I’m beginning it as a poor substitute and will leave it open for subsequent tweaks.

A friend and I studied for a year in Université de Paris in 1998/99 where we spent a couple of months rooming in opposite wings of the Cité Universitaire in the 14th. We griped about the inconvenience of the rooms, which we judged reachable only by the intimidating rubber smelling RER, (in hindsight, within easy walking distance of the city centre) and used to sit at the bar of the Irish pub we worked in debating the merits of a 48 Franc taxi home. It wasn’t until we moved into an old sublet apartment in the Latin Quarter that we started to charge out into the surrounding city more and really get to know the quartiers. I’ve been back at least once a year since and it has never lost its appeal, nor has reading about it.

This list is not all literary – it’s a mix of sources on the city, either fiction or guide or both.

The Secret History of Paris

Paris: The Secret History (Hardcover)

By (author): Andrew Hussey

Paris: The Secret History
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Andrew Hussey’s Secret History rummages around in the filth of ages and fully investigates the squalour that makes Paris the setting of novels such as Patrick Suskind’s Perfume.

Paris Pratique

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I love maps (a lot) and still treat the snail of arrondissments coming out from the centre of Paris with the network of streets, cafés and restaurants as a memory game whose layout is to be re-enforced with each visit. Paris is a city of quartiers (arrondissements) with where you live defining your mini network of suppliers, similar to the relationship with one’s local pub in Dublin. This little guide, maps each arrondissement onto 2 small pages and since every street name has its arrondissement above it, does indeed make it, as it so Frenchly clips, “l’Indispensable”.

The Married Man – Edmund White

The Married Man (Paperback)

By (author): Edmund White

The Married Man
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Austin served his guests a first course of smoked fish and a salad in a mustard vinaigrette and a second of lamb shoulder stewed with onions, tomatoes and white beans. Then he passed around a big smelly platter of oozing cheeses, though privately he knew that chalky goat cheeses dusted in cinders were more “distinguished” than these runny Bries and Camemberts, and that skipping the cheese course altogether was still more aristocratic, but he also recognised that he had to fill his skinny young guests up. For dessert, like all Parisians, he bought bakery sweets, since no one in his own kitchen coudl rival the layered and unidentifiable mousses that the French admired and Americans dismissed as “synthetic”.

White does what Hemingway could not, combining adequate writerly reverence for the Parisian experience with the gushing and conspiratorial style of a French society gossip columnist.

Taschen Paris

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Little picture books about Paris abound – and most contain places you suspect the au courant Parisian would avoid at all (high) costs – just one of which could sour a city break. This Taschen collection doesn’t shy away from including the famous Paris institutions, but only on merit, providing a well-rounded visual tour of some of Paris’ best spots.

Why there’s no French for “Leafy Suburb”

I came across an interesting (and rather old) question online today –

I was wondering how the french said leafy suburb…. I really dont think banlieue feuillue is right.

The interesting answer is… they don’t, not really. Idyllic and peaceful suburbs are a US and British concept, and the image of outlying residential annexes (or banlieus) in mainland European cities like Paris tends to be pretty bleak. Why is this?

In the US and Europe, from the late 1800s onwards, the Industrial Revolution brought an influx of population towards the cities for organised employment. After World War II however, Western economies such as the US and Britain lifted tariffs and outsourced most of their manufacturing industries. The resultant change to a services economy made ownership of a car more feasible. . New zoning laws and the expansion of interstate highways in the US allowed for the expansion of the city. Those that could used their new higher standard of living to move out of the decaying industrial areas of the city centre which were now giving way to office blocks and skyscrapers.

In mainland Europe, however, the cities tended to continue to sustain a steadily increasing populace. Real estate values remained high and attempts to bring big business into the mainly residential city centre tended to be unsuccessful – see the pretty dismal and lonely Tour Montparnasse in Paris, as an example. Suburbs in Paris were built as a solution to the ever-expanding population stretched further by an influx of economic migrants from former French colonies.Urban decay in France tends to be manifested in these peripheral areas at the outskirts of the city.

In the US, as the middle classses fled to the suburbs the city centres suffered urban decay. American city planners like Jane Jacobs lament “if only we Americans had not gone through the cultural convulsions of the post-war era and tossed our cities into the dumpster of history.” , Rénovation Urbaine in France is the aim of Government initiatives such as La Politique de la Ville whose stated objectives would be just as at home in a statement by the NYC think-tank Centre for an Urban Future.

Employment, isolation, education and security have been identified as priority areas of government action… Other features aimed at improving the standard of living focus on the living environment, safety, community life, housing, health, culture …

from Espoir Banlieu

Zagat Paris

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Paris’ quartiers seem endlessly explorable, it’s supply of restaurants endless.
The late Douglas Adams in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy analysed the three stages of civilisation as Survival, Inquiry, and Sophistication, characterised by the questions, ‘How can we eat?’, ‘Why do we eat?’ and ‘Where shall we have lunch?”. In a city where the opportunity cost of a bad meal is so high it’s worth allowing the wisdom of crowds, or at least a collection of gushing Americans to dictate the answer to the third.

Sylvia Beach and the Lost Generation – Noel Riley Fitch

Making use of the author's access to the Beach family papers, this account chronicles the literary c....
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“No one that I ever knew was nicer to me.” Ernest Hemingway on Sylvia Beach

The Shakespeare and Company bookshop in the 5th is in fact a second incarnation of the original opened in the 6th by Sylvia Beach in 1919. While the modern shop has promoted itself as a bohemian one-at-a-time hostel for writers coming to Paris the original was a English lending library around which expat writers congregated having moved to Paris for the low cost of living and to escape prohibition. Fitch’s tone has all the seriousness of an American concentrating hard on Europe, and her style makes you feel a little like a external thesis examiner, but it’s worth it for the cinescope of 1920s writers that her investigation projects – lots of Ezra Pound, Hemingway, and the “crooked Jesus” Joyce.

The Flaneur – Edmund White

The Flaneur The kind of tour guide you really want - a unique and ecclectic view of Paris through the eyes of a fierce and witty intellect. Full description
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“Paris is a big city, in the sense that London and New York are big cities and that Rome is a village, Los Angeles a collection of villages, and Zurich a backwater.”

The alternative city guide to Paris. This almost perfect book sits right at the intersection of things I love. White’s ever-candid accounts of cruising on the Vert Gallant may rule it out as the guide you’d recommend to a relative but his observations about the paradoxes of daily life in Paris are spot on.

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