In his first post for Finding Blake, Robert Campbell Henderson shared his intriguing discovery of an unexpected French connection with the legacy of William Blake. Searching a scrap yard, he found a number of copper plate etchings by deceased French artist Serge Arnoux. The etchings had a strong surrealist style and, at the time, little was know about them and why they ended up hours from almost being melted down. Here, Robert provides an update as to how things are progressing, as a prelude to sharing the full series of prints as a special Finding Blake gallery in a few weeks time.
Who was the artist Serge Arnoux? If you do a search on him you will find very little. In fact you are more than likely to get confused by his rather more famous namesake who directed the film Moana in the South Pacific in 1959. Arnoux the artist lived in Glanes in the Lot region of France and had shops in St. Cere, St. Cirq-Lapopie and Bonafacio where, in order to make a living, he sold silk-screened cushions, scarves, dresses, wall hangings and lithographs.
On the death of his wife in 2016, a couple of years after him, their stock and furniture was sold at auction, but not, it would seem, the copper plates as they were not listed in the sales catalogue. Much of what they made was beautiful and craft orientated but I have anecdotal evidence that he longed to devote his time to what he considered real art, much to the annoyance of his wife who by all accounts was the more practical of the two. As such Arnoux forged relationships with other artists whenever he could, in what is a rather remote and provincial area of France. These connections seem to go some way to explain the story.
Serge Arnoux & the poet connection
The relationship between Serge Arnoux and American poet MS Merwin, who is now based in Hawaii, was touched upon in my first post. Merwin, twice American Poet Laureate, had a house in Le Causse de Gramat in France and lived there in the sixties, where he wrote many of his poems, illustrated by Arnoux. When Merwin met with President Obama at the White House for the inaugural reading, in what was his second spell as Poet Laureate in 2010, he quoted William Blake:
The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the Eyes of others only a Green thing that stands in the way. Some See Nature all Ridicule & Deformity & by these I shall not regulate my proportions…
MS Merwin is a strong conservationist (check out The Merwin Conservancy) and it would seem from the above that he may have been influenced by the work of Blake, so I think it’s a fair assumption that he in turn may have influenced Arnoux. Or maybe it was vice versa!
And then there is French poet, writer and composer Léo Ferré. Serge Arnoux met Ferré in the early sixties in St Cere and worked closely with him over the next decade. He actually found him a house, the 14th-century Château de Pechrigal near Gourdon, where Ferré lived along with his chimpanzee ‘Bubbles’.
Ferré and Arnoux worked together at the Chateau on a number of publications, even installing their own printing press. Ferré had long been associated with the surrealist movement from his time in Paris, although latterly he would reject the ideals of the movement and indeed ended up in a long dispute with Breton. It can only be an assumption on my part, but again more than likely much of this rubbed off and could have influenced Arnoux. Below is an illustration by Arnoux for the book Léo Ferré / Alma Matrix / La Mémoire et la Mer. Most of you will recognise the Last Judgement, one of the many copies based on the original painting by Blake. I’ll let you make up your own mind about any influence!
The artist connection
A major breakthrough in the research into the background to the story was input from Martha Daura, daughter of Catalan/American artist Pierre Daura. After reading the initial post on Finding Blake she made contact and has provided, as you will read below, personal and first-hand knowledge of the period when Arnoux made his series of etchings based on the Proverbs of Hell.
As an artist, Pierre Daura mainly worked in landscape, portraiture and still-life. He began engraving and etching in the 1910’s and continued until 1939. He also sculpted for many decades. He spent his childhood in Barcelona before moving to Paris where he was a founding member of Cercle et Carré (Circle and Square), a group of avant-garde abstractionists which included the likes of Joaquín Torres-García, Hans Arp, Kandinsky and Piet Mondrian. The group published a journal with the same name in three issues and in 1930 organised an exhibition in Paris showing 130 abstract works by various artists. The group was short-lived but Daura continued to work in abstraction throughout his career. Daura left Paris for St Cirq Lapopie in 1930 and subsequently moved to the US in 1939, spending only the summers in St. Cirq after the war up until 1974.
Arnoux moved to Glanes in the northern part of the Lot region in the mid-fifties and despite the distance between their houses he and Daura became great friends, meeting often and communicating by letter to discuss ideas and work. I have been told by Martha Daura that her father actually taught Arnoux printmaking. She also speculated, amongst loads of other great information, that the Blake prints were likely from around the late sixties/early seventies although it’s difficult to be precise, and that they were never actually intended for a book as I had first surmised but as a boxed portfolio.
St Cirq Lapopie became the home of the founder of Surrealism, André Breton, from 1950 until his death in 1966. He spent every summer there and was a neighbour and close friend of Daura. Breton and his entourage of artists were a big presence in the village and possibly influenced and interacted with Arnoux, hence his surrealist approach. Speculation but more than plausible!
Pierre Dauras’ legacy was donated to the Georgia Museum of Art USA and includes all the correspondence between him and Arnoux, something which I feel will provide a deeper insight into the work. I am in contact with the Pierre Daura Archive who have kindly agreed to release and send me copies of this material.
They also hold nine original prints by Serge Arnoux in their permanent collection that were gifted to or were part of a collaboration with Daura. Part of my find in the scrapyard included five of the original copper plates for these prints. The two on the left are from the collection and I have a third of what to me seems like a triptych. I think these were made and destined for a poem or some sort of writing (probably not Blake, although they do have a rather mystic and surreal feel) as Arnoux rarely made prints as stand-alones. The original titles of the prints are View of a Town, Town with a Curtain and Lost in the Town.
The printmaking connection
As mentioned in the introduction, I am going to print the full series of twenty six etchings that I found and feature them here on the Finding Blake website as an exclusive gallery sometime in February. The actual prints will be printed on Fabriano paper with Chardonnel etching ink and are all the same size 33cm x 24 cm.
All of the prints are what is often referred to as ‘plate signed’ by Serge Arnoux, and all feature the French translation of the proverbs as part of the print. I will add the original English text of the corresponding proverb in pencil to each print.
As yet I have not established whether Serge Arnoux made etchings based on all the proverbs, but rest assured I make regular visits to the scrapyard on the off chance they make an appearance! I hope you will enjoy seeing the work and of course make any comment you see fit. There is already an exhibition of the prints planned for France in June of this year but if anyone is interested in an opportunity to show the work please get in touch.
Robert Campbell Henderson is involved in printmaking and photography, just for the fun of it. Before 2000 he never really made any art as he was, in his own words, busy with the “day job.” At the age of fifty he did an MA Photography, followed by a burst of activity participating in exhibitions and setting up an art gallery in Norwich, UK. He retired to the South of France in 2006 where he taught himself printmaking and set up his own darkroom and print studio. You can explore his work at www.photokennel.com.
You can read more about all of the above and lots more including a semiotic analysis of Exuberance is Beauty! by Dr Philip Rayner on the ongoing blog on Robert’s website.
You can read Robert’s first post for Finding Blake here — and watch out for the gallery of his prints from Serge Arnoux’s plates, coming soon!