Stuck in Bordeaux due to the Icelandic volcano! It’s not a bad place to be stranded in, a UNESCO World Heritage Site full of magnificent architecture in honey-coloured stone with carving and wrought iron balconies. You can hardly be depressed in a city where everybody seems to be enjoying themselves, the adults in cafes strung out along the Garonne and children in the bike and skate boarding rinks where you watch acrobatic feats that any circus would be proud to put on.

Naturally I search out the art. It is disappointing that the twentieth century part of the Musée des Beaux Arts is closed. Bordeaux has three modern notables, Redon, Marquet and Lhoté (was he the minor Cubist William Gillies studied under? I can’t quite remember). The grands maîtres section was open. It has works by Titian, Perugino, Rubens and Delacroix as well as a good copy of Brueghel’s Wedding Dance by one of his sons. Scotland is represented by an Allan Ramsay portrait.

The Musée d’Aquitaine is very worthwhile, particularly its Roman section that has impressive pieces of sculpture and mosaics. The latter including a very large piece are geometric rather than representational. They work in the same way as Cezanne paintings. The tiny tesserae of Roman mosaics have minute variations of colour even when they are filling in an area meant to read as a single colour. This gives them infinite subtlety and makes them achingly beautiful.

The museum also has some intriguing English mediaeval sculpture in alabaster as well as two notable portrait sculptures, one by Bernini and the other by Zadkine. The Baroque Age is the great period of portraiture in painting with Velasquez, Rembrandt, Rubens, Van Dyck and others. I would find Renaissance sculpture to prefer to Bernini’s figure pieces, however skilful. Portrait sculpture is another matter. Bernini’s portraits are the best sculpted portraits since Roman times. Having missed the Musée Zadkine in Paris, I was please to see his striking bust of François Mauriac.

Having picked up probably my last Canard enchainé before I leave France, I was interested to see that even the French are turning against the POFTS (pointlessly obscure French thinkers). In the Lettres ou Pas Lettres section there is a review of Longévité d’une imposture, Michel Foucault by Jean-Marc Mandosio who apparently takes a chainsaw to the theories of the one-time celebrity.Vive la clarté!

Snakes and ideas

Spending a few weeks in rural France, I find not for the first time, how difficult it is to get any ideas here for serious work. It is probably a fear that anything in the slightest exotic is apt to nudge in the direction of croûtes, a word the French have for lousy paintings, the sort of stuff produced for tourists. I can record things that interest me in a drawing or watercolour but I find I have no further use for them. On this occasion, I have come up with something that may do for a print, arising from the sight of a tree full of a dozen or so magpies.

There must be a collective noun for such a gathering but it is odd that I should have seen it in France, for I have just read in a local journal, that magpies have declined here by 61% in the last twelve years. The cause seems to have been predation by crows that raid their nests. In Scotland I suspect they are on the increase. Walking over Calton Hill, in Edinburgh, I see so many flying about that I fear for the nests of songbirds.

The birds I see here are much the same as in Scotland with a few additions. Black red starts are common and I have seen a male with the tail feathers spread to a bright orange fan. It is, of course, the mating season but I have never seen this before. I am pleased to see nightingales, so much a presence in Romantic literature, although plumage-wise nothing special, unlike the hoopoe that I have spotted occasionally.

But this year my most striking encounters have been with snakes, all the same species. In French they are couleuvres verts et jaunes, in English, western whipsnakes. They are not venomous but they can be aggressive if cornered and will rear like a cobra and bite hard. I read that they are fast moving, good climbers, with a diet of rodents, lizards, eggs and young birds. They will also eat other snakes including vipers.

My first viewing wasn’t much: a slim tail protruding from a woodpile. The next was more interesting. I saw a head above some old fencing stacked against a wall, with the short, black forked tongue flickering. As I watched, the head withdrew, but when I returned a day later, the snake was stretched out across the fencing, catching the sun. It didn’t even move when getting as close as I dared, I took a photograph. My third viewing came when I lifted a log and found a hibernator asleep beneath. I left it uncovered and it was still motionless when I returned with a camera.

They are beautifully marked creatures but I do not see them making any appearance in my visual work.

Paris Art

I am not the sort of person who ticks off the countries of the world. If I have travelled to the other side of the globe on a couple of occasions and visited a European capital not noted today for its architecture and art galleries, it is only because I have had children working there. What I enjoy is creativity, so three days once more in Paris is a great delight. My first port of call was the Musée Jacquemart-André where there was an exhibition of Spanish paintings from the collection of Pérez Simón. Each section was titled and the part Le regard tourne vers Dieu had appropriately enough many pupils placed in the right or left corner of the eyes. Too many for my taste and despite works by EL Greco, Ribera and Murillo, only a Goya portrait in another category held much interest for me. As far as les toiles de maitres were concerned, the permanent collection was much more rewarding.

The Simón collection came into its own with the modern masters. There was for me a rare Dalì – one that I actually liked, apparently a ballet design for Romeo and Juliet – although another work by this artist was one of the most awful images I have ever seen committed to canvas. There were also bronzes which repeated ideas from his paintings, melting watches and people with drawers (the kind you pull out rather than pull off).

An interesting linocut by Picasso gave me the correct French term (linogravure) to use when explaining to French friends the kind of prints I most often make these days and there were wonderful works by the great twentieth century innovator. A drawing in water colour, Le Déjeuner du Pauvre (1903) seemed better to me than the Blue Period paintings which now appear a bit sentimental and Nature morte au pigeon (1919) which I have never seen reproduced was a beautiful painting with low intensity oranges and beiges and soft greys. It was a work in the genre developed by that great Poussin of the still life, Joan Gris, who was also represented. A particularly fine Mirò from 1944 Femmes devant la lune with the artist’s idiosyncratic shapes on a luminous background was a pastel and gouache on canvas.

The Musée Carnavalet is not an art gallery but a museum of the history of Paris and is well worth a visit. It has lots of delightful genre paintings and portraits of notables including an architectural hero of mine, Claude Nicolas Ledoux. The latter was imprisoned during the Terror as was the painter of architectural capriccios Hubert Robert. Both were lucky to escape the guillotine. Robert continued to paint during his internment in the Temple. Like all museums run by the Mairie de Paris, the Carnavalet is free. The only disappointment was the very poor selection of postcards. I would have loved a memento of Les Parisiens tirant le diable par la queue by Jean Weber (1864-1928) and one of Robert’s prison works.

Another Mairie de Paris museum I tried to visit was the Musée Zadkine which unfortunately was closed due to a forthcoming exhibition. Instead I went to see the Fondation Dubuffet, not free but worthwhile. When interest moved from France’s rather feeble Tachiste Movement to American Expressionism, Jean Dubuffet seemed to be the last late twentieth century French painter of significance.