Editor's note: In this column called 'Beyond the Artist’s Studio — Travelling for Art's Sake', Rosalyn D'Mello will be engaging with artists as she travels to new places, both at home and abroad.
“You know this mountain?” Julien Segard asks me we speed along the highway in his SUV. We’ve been friends long before he began to be represented by Experimenter Gallery in Kolkata, and I’ve had the privilege of writing about his work and visiting his studio in Delhi many times. But this is different. We’re in another continent. His continent. His territory. We are en route to the Aix en Provence TGV station from where I am scheduled to catch a train to Dijon Ville.
“No, I don’t know this mountain,” I replied innocently, a bit unsure why I was meant to know about its existence, as if it were iconic, like the Pyrenees, or the Alpes. There was no denying its sprawling expanse, its immense breadth, how it swept across the landscape carrying the weight of millennia upon its stony façade. Julien then revealed its name as it continued to follow us to our right, offering spectacular angles from which to contemplate its vitality. “Mont Saint Victoire,” he said, before contextualising how it was made famous by Cezanne, the French artist who was so fascinated by its structure and form, it became the subject of more than 30 paintings and numerous watercolours made over decades.
Cezanne had a hillside studio in Les Lauves, which afforded him a magnificent view of Mont Sainte Victoire. What if, one day, years from now, someone similarly voyaging through sunny Southern France was introduced to elements of the landscape in much the same way, but using Julien as the point of reference? It wasn’t improbable. Some months ago, he decided to buy himself a cabin, ostensibly in the middle of nowhere, but close enough to Marseille, where he was born and grew up. Since April, the upkeep of the studio has become his work in progress.
Having spent two nights camping on his property, I wasn’t ready to leave. Julien himself was almost scornful about my impending departure to Montard, where I was going to meet Sylvie, a long-time friend of my partner (also an artist). “You will have horrible weather,” he said to me in his quintessentially Marseillaise accent, the silent ‘h’ of “horrible” compensated for by the accentuated ‘o’. “Orrible” he said, echoing himself. I had considered staying another day, but I knew from the time I came that I would never feel like leaving. And I was so grateful that I had come, especially because it was on a whim. His whim.
When I was fidgeting with my itinerary, unsure whether to go exclusively to Greece and Istanbul or to also go to Kassel in Germany for the opening week of the quinquennial, Documenta 14, I happened to call Julien over Whatsapp, just to check where in the world he might be. “If you’re coming all the way to Berlin, you might as well come to see my cabin,” he said. I couldn’t argue with his sound logic. “Just take a train from Paris to Aix en Provence and I will pick you up,” he said and I obeyed, totally excited yet unsure what to expect.
When I arrived, Julien took me to Carry le Rouet instead, to his childhood home. It was past midnight, and he assumed I would have enjoyed the privilege of a warm shower and a comfortable bed after having taken an early morning flight from Berlin to Paris and spending the day gallivanting around Le Marais until it was time to board the train from Gare de Lyon. Julien also knew about my curiosity concerning Carry le Rouet, it was where Nina Simone had been living until she died. I assumed she would have been buried there, and had asked Julien if he could help me find her grave. When I arrived in Aix en Provence, he broke the news to me that Simone had been cremated instead, and her ashes scattered over parts of Africa. His girlfriend Priyanka, however, told me a little bit of family trivia she was in the know about. Julien’s father, a florist, had supplied the flowers for Simone’s memorial.
The next afternoon, after a very leisurely lunch comprising barbecued skewed lamb, tomato salad, and melon, followed by coffee and fromage, Julien ordered us to get ready. We were to pick up Prabhakar Pachpute, an artist whose work I love, from Marseilles. He had just returned from Art Basel. Prabhakar’s presence in the South of France was a welcome surprise. We picked him up, then headed to the Parc National des Calanques, south of Marseilles, for a trek.
Julien was tight-lipped about the details. All we knew was after walking for about an hour, we would arrive at water. I assumed it was a lake or a river, since he kept referring to a canyon. It turned out to be the Mediterranean Sea, the water a deep, cerulean green, and so salty you could see its molecular structure floating upon the surface, and so still and wave-less but stony underneath. We entered one by one, shrieking a little at the shock of the chilling water. Prabhakar shared my fear of water, the anxiety of its depthless-ness. But we had a riot. When a small group of American girls was convinced they had seen an octopus, Julien reached in to look for it and found a sea urchin instead.
Later that evening, after our trek back, we headed to Marseilles. We were starving. We finally sat down to our extravagant meal: a platter filled with generous portions of oysters, crab, shrimp, escargot, mussels, clams, and prawns and a chilled bottle of white wine. Our silence was amusing. Every now and then I laughed at the meditative manner in which we had each been eating, like starved children unsure about the source of their next meal.
Which could never have been a legitimate concern with Julien around. He is as excellent a provider as he is an artist.
That night, after our meal, we wandered around Marseilles looking for an apt landmark against which we could take a selfie. We settled for the entrance of a building next door to an Algerian sweetshop and asked the owner to take our picture. We wandered into the shop after to pick up pastries for the next morning and stumbled upon what looked like jalebis. “Jalebis?” we asked, much to their excitement. “You know jalebis?” the owner asked in French. “Yes,” we said as we laughed at the suggestion that the three Indians in his shop could possibly have been clueless about jalebis.
We dropped off Prabhakar at his hotel, bid him goodbye, since he’d be returning to India in a day, and we made our way to the cabin. The sun had set hours ago. It was now past midnight, and it neared two by the time we arrived. We had a celebratory drink in candlelight — the cabin currently boasts neither water nor electricity — a locally produced pear liquor, the same that I’d tried many times at Julien’s studio in Shahpur Jat, Delhi. It was in the clear light of dawn that I finally experienced the vastness of the landscape surrounding the cabin, the abandoned vineyards next door, the wandering herd of sheep and their bleating, the picturesque village in the near distance, and the marking of the hours by two different sets of bells from two different churches. Julien’s mother was sure the cabin was once a hunting lodge, he was sure it was also a chapel.
Whatever it was before, it was being transformed. It was becoming a site for Julien to make his sculptures, for him to grow tomatoes and vegetables, to bathe in the open air, to sleep in a tent if he so decided, and to sway on a hammock in the afternoon. Where most artists choose upward mobility after every whiff of success, Julien was doing the opposite, choosing to live simply, in harmony with the land he loved.
His cabin feels beautifully lived-in and bears evidence to his finely attuned aesthetic vocabulary, his penchant for hospitality, his love of cutlery, and above all, his commitment to marrying his arte povera inclinations with his way of living, so there is no room for hypocrisy between his practice and his lifestyle.
Rosalyn D'Mello is former editor-in-chief of Artinfo India, and the author of A Handbook For My Lover
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Updated Date: Jun 18, 2017 07:16:45 IST