13 November, 1998
Arrived late, just after the sun had disappeared which left a glowing blue sky. François and Eliane had just arrived back from town.
As it was a little late to go down into the studio (no electric light), we parked ourselves in the living room and looked through some of the green folders on the table full of drawings which he had just matted. Eliane made us a mint tea, and thus we spent the next 2 and 1/2 hours.
Almost all the drawings were done from the vaporetto, that is to say in no more than 4 or 5 seconds maximum. So exquisite did I find these things that I could only look at them with a rather dumbfounded expression. A few done from San Giorgio started a discussion. One in particular, with strong accents embracing the church cupola gave Eliane some confusion. Francois began to explain the various elements in this particular drawing. Firstly, he said that he only really ‘saw’ the drawing for the first time this very evening, as even when matting them he rarely gives himself the ‘distance’ nor the time to ‘look’ at them. So, it is only with time and distance is he able to properly understand what he has done. I think of one of Leo’s favorite maxims from Thomas Aquinas which said that ‘Art is the measuring stick for Art’.
It seems to me that he only sees the ‘motif’ while working, the drawing is simply the result of what goes on between his hand and his eye.
He pointed out that in fact a round element indicating on what was certainly a square window on San Giorgio was executed that way only in order to preserve the unity of the image as a whole. An “inexplicable phénomène”, an improvisation created by years and years of working from ‘the visible world’ as he always describes it.
I confess that it took me a few minutes to see the drawing in my own mind.
Eliane saw the cupola ‘as the sun’ which of course is easily done. But François quickly pointed out each and every element right down to the white tower to the left explaining each of his marks, or “signes” as he calls them.
Next, we looked at drawings of the Rialto and drawings done just as the vaporetto approaches the Ca Foscari as it turns to the left and up to the Academia. Before the turn on the right sits the Admiral’s Palazzo with the two distinct pillars atop the roof marking it so. For me, one of the very remarkable things about these drawings are the delicate patterns working in concert with one another. The curious rhythm of the strokes is uncanny, and they made me think of Stravinsky.
Also, each drawing is comprised of three parts: the sky (air), the water, and the stone of the buildings. Remarkably, each possesses its own ‘sign language’ particular to its own very nature. (I think of Titian)
I pointed this out to him and he seems surprised but in fact, he is always completely aware of everything regarding his own work.
I also remarked that this phenomenon was so unlike Cezanne’s drawings wherein all the elements are abstractly unified with apparent disregard to the ‘element of nature’ (i.e. water, earth, stone, etc.) François’s drawing takes so much from his affinity with Dufy, and various Cubists, and of course Picasso whereby each element is described as a ‘signe' (en français, I don’t know what the proper translation is in english)... maybe just a mark, a marking, a stroke?
Also, much has been taken from Van Gogh whose drawings have so much in common with the Japanese love of brush work ascribing each series of strokes to one specific element (in Nature).
François’s love for ‘les signes’ is at times very different from Leo’s whose own work in this respect was far more aligned with that of Cézanne.
À propos to Leo, François said that in fact he was the only one of ‘us’ (meaning fellow students of Leo) to have followed Leo. He is adamant that working only from the visible world can one arrive at Form in Nature, (that is to say; to create a unified image from an unruly Nature). And this too, is what Leo believed.
When drawing he described himself as being a ‘receptical’ more than anything else. This goes back to looking at the first drawing of San Giorgio. For me, its as if he approaches the ‘motif’ empty. Only by working it, is he slowly filled up with it. He responds visually to a ‘motif without judgement’, his hand simply follows what the eyes take in, albeit as abstractly as it may seem to be. He often speaks about the dangers of having a concept in one’s mind before beginning work.
As usual, I come away from these visits with more questions than answers. How indeed, can one truly ‘see’ a motif if one is chained to a conception of it before working? And, how does inspiration fit into all this? How does one proceed from an inspiration (an idea) that speaks in one’s soul which says:
“Yes, there is something here for me to do” without falling into a sentimentalisation.
Francois’s response to all this would be just to begin drawing. Begin drawing just as a river begins flowing from its source. Any questions asked are certainly answered by the drawing itself so I imagine.
We talked about the advantages of working quickly from a moving vaporetto. I remember going all over Venice in the very back of those boats, often going all the way to the Lido and back. The perspective is changing at every instant, creating an almost ‘arc-like’ phenomenon. As his friend Yves Bèrgeret says: “It is a moving of the octagonal into the horizontal.”
We talked of Giacometti, and our mutual visits to La Stampa. He told me that Leo had even gone to Paris to meet A.G. which I didn’t know. Apparently, no rapport came out of it, nor any complicity was felt on either side, at least not enough to open a friendship in any event. Strange, a great shame I thought, but then, they were of such different temperaments it seemed. (And I say this knowing Leo only as I did, My understanding of A.G. comes from James Lord and A.G.’s own writing.)
Afterwards, I left. As always, he walked me to my car in the driveway and under the black sky he bid me ‘Good Luck” on my trip to London.