Sunday, 20 August 2017

Coffee Break

I have spent a rather large part of my life in cafes on one kind or another. 
Paris, Venice, Prague have all featured in my travels and in each city I have - over the years - discovered a particular favourite cafe in which to hang out, catch up on the news, meet friends and perhaps even fall in love!


Nothing new in that! In fact, cafes per se date back to the early 18th Century and one of the oldest is my favourite Venetian cafe, Florian's

 There is nothing better than taking an early morning 'espresso' with a croissant or two at Florian's and enjoy the magnificent views across St.Mark's Square

The Florian first opened with two, simply furnished rooms on 29 December 1720 and was known then as "Alla Venezia Trionfante" (Venice the Triumphant) but soon became known locally as Cafè Florian - after its original owner, Floriano Francesconi

The Cafè was patronised in its early days by notable people, including the Venetian playwright  Goldoni and Giacomo Casanova who was, no doubt , attracted by the fact that Cafè Florian was the only  Venetian coffee house that allowed women - many of whom were of dubious character!

Later Lord Byron, Marcel Proust and Charles Dickens were frequent visitors

It was at Florian's that I myself encountered Charlie Chaplin and his young wife. Later that night they showed Chaplin's masterpiece 'Limelight' on a huge screen at one end of St Mark's Square - to commemorate the great man's life. He died two years later. 

Florian's was one of the few places where Gasparo Gozzi's early newspaper 'Gazzetta Veneta' could be bought in the mid-18th century, and became a meeting place for people from different social classes

It also became a secret rendezvous for political activists, particularly during the Napoleonic period and, therefore, the  victim of frequent police raids.


It was in Paris during the second half of the 19th Century that cafe society reached its apogee - with cafes like Le Relais  Odeon, Cafe de Flore and the Les Deux Magots', also on the Boulevard Saint Germaine des Pres

It was here that artists such as Renoir and Rodin met, drank coffee, got drunk  on absinthe and picked up their women. It was here too that bohemian Paris bumped up against wealthy bourgeoise society - a clash of cultures and classes that in part explains the dynamic nature of 'Bohemian' Paris 

 Degas and Manet were amongst  the first to included cafes and restaurants in their work - something previously unheard of within academic art circles. It is thanks to them that we still have such vivid images of these exciting places and the extraordinary people who frequented them

It was a tradition that was to continue well into the next century

Les Deux Magots, for example, was the cafe of choice for  many of the Surrealists; novelists like James Joyce, Ernest Hemmingway and Camus; and philosopher Jean Paul Sartre and his partner, Simone de Beauvoir

In later years it became more of a tourist spot, with visitors from America providing a different kind of glamour and excitement - less intellectual, more 'show biz'

I first drank at  Les  deux Magots at the tender age of seventeen!

 It was my first trip to Paris, a visit that lasted nearly six weeks. I was still at school so this was not only a premature 'escape' but probably the shortest 'gap year' ever undertaken!

I thought I was a young james Joyce. I even found a cheap hotel room overlooking where he had once lived and promptly embarked on the novel that was to bring me fame and fortune!

My Parisian masterpiece remains, as yet, unpublished!

No, this is NOT a self portrait but a painting by Lautrec!


Next to Paris or Venice my favourite city is Prague and my favourite watering hole the elegant, somewhat expensive  Kavarna Slavia:

The Slavana opened at the turn of the 20th century and was, like its Paris counterparts, one of the city's intellectual 'hubs' where poets, artists and other intellectuals met. In modern times it was frequented by playwright Vaclav Havel who subsequently became President of the Czech republic

I was there during the winter of 2008 and remember vividly the glossy Art Nouveau interior and fabulous food. It is not a place you can easily 'hang out' in for it is hugely expensive and full of fat American tourists - counterbalanced, as it were, by an equally large contingent of excessively slim Japanese!

Still, it was good to say that I had at least sampled one of Europe's great watering holes!


         While many of the great artists  I have listed above drew on their cafe life for inspiration or even exchanged their work for a meal or two, not many actually used their talents to design a complete cafe

My next artist is the exception to this rule

You probably know HR Giger as the genius behind the iconic imagery in 'Alien' but he is also celebrated - especially in Switzerland - for two cafe interiors which he designed - in Chur, where he was born and in Gruyeres

I have been to the one in Gruyeres and it is stunning. Giger has applied his biometric format to every detail, including the tables and chairs

 Every architectural detail follows his 'Alien' style, including doors and windows

As with all perfectionists, Giger brought to both these cafe projects that obsessive  attention to detail that he always displayed in his art. 

The result is an environment that is uniquely 'his' and yet which, as a cafe/restaurant - feels even 'cosy'.
Mind you, I  was on my third Kirschwasser when I came to that conclusion!


Friday, 18 August 2017

Some thoughts on the importance of art in Marcel Proust's 
A la recherche du temps perdu


Marcel Proust - French novelist (1871-1922)

One of the central characters in Proust's novel is the artist he calls 'Elstir' - an entirely imaginary portrait of a 'famous French Impressionist'.

The book's narrator ('Marcel') first meets Elstir at a small, seaside holiday resort in Normandy which Proust calls 'Balbec'.

Balbec - with its broad sands, esplanade and fine hotels  - is  largely based on the real resort of Cabourg, In Normandy.

Marcel is staying at 'Balbec' with his beloved grandmother. This fashionable holiday resort is full of wealthy visitors, some of whom own expensive villas along the coast.

It is a society in which 'Marcel' - the only son of a rich Parisian doctor - loves to move. Marcel is cultured, well read and highly sensitive.

Marcel Proust

In the novel Grandmother and Grandson are staying at the fashionable Grand Hotel in Balbec that is modelled on a real hotel in Cabourg.

This beautiful photograph (below) of the Grand Hotel in Cabourg was taken in 1907 - the year Proust first stayed there. It shows the elegance and style of Proust's imaginary hotel ,with its elegant facade and paved esplanade.

Grand Hotel, Cabourg

It is through the salon window of this hotel that young Marcel notices a band of charmingly boisterous, teenage girls whom he eventually befriends - with the help of the painter Elstir, also staying in Balbec for the summer and whom Marcel has just met.

Elstir is a 'famous Impressionist'. He paints - as far as we can tell - in a style similar to that of Claud Monet:

Monet - The cliff at Etretat, sunset (1883)

Amongst this little group of lively and at times, provocative young women is one Albertine Simonet with whom Marcel later falls hopelessly in love.

Proust - with tennis racquet!

Elstir - the professional artist - is a composite icharacter; a complex mixture of Monet, Manet, Moreau, Edouard Vuillard and the American artist, James Whistler (1834-1903).


Edouard Manet (1832-1883) was a hugely controversial French artist who shocked the art establishment in Paris with his bold subject matter and 'reckless' painting style.

Proust was familiar with the work of all these artists and used that knowledge to create his literary portrait of 'Elstir'.

The importance of Elstir in the novel cannot be underestimated for it is through his eyes that Marcel begins to see the world afresh - more 'innocently' is the term Elstir himself uses.

James Whistler - part model for 'Elstir'

Moreover, it is Elstir who introduces Marcel to 'Albertine Simonet,' a young woman (and lesbian) who plays such a crucial role in Marcel's emotional development throughout the novel.

It is also Elstir who helps establish Proust's notion that we are held prisoner by perceptions, by habit and by the normal machinery of memory which provides only a pale, distorted record of experience.


In Part 2 I will explore how still-life works by 'Elstir' - largely based on the genre paintings of Manet - helped form young Marcel's unique and highly perceptive 'take' on reality 


In Part 1 I tried to establish the importance of art in Proust's great novel. Indeed, the book is full of direct references to celebrated paintings and reveals the author's profound understanding of art, not least Modernism.


The book is also peppered with classical references. For example, Bloch's appearance as a boy is likened to the portrait of Mohammed II by Gentile Bellini while Odette de Crecy strikes Swan by her resemblance to a figure in a Botticelli fresco.

Eric Karpeles has identified and located the many paintings to which Proust thus makes reference. They run into hundreds. His book is called: 'Paintings in Proust: A visual companion to 'In search of lost time':

I also tried in Part 1 to demonstrate the role Elstir plays in young Marcel's development - both emotional and aesthetic.

Self portrait of James Whistler - the principal model for 'Elstir'

While they both share an antiquarian interest in fine art and a passion for - and knowledge of - local, often ancient churches in this part of Normandy, it is the way objects and people are perceived that marks Elstir's profound influence on young Marcel. 

Village in Normandy

When thinking about this posting I was struck by something Marcel says in Volume 2 ('Within a budding grove' in the Moncrieff translation):

"Having been taught by Elstir how to remember with precision details I would  have formerly brushed aside, my eyes  now gazed at length on things they could not see previously.'

Proust himself developed the detailed observation Elstir espouses by close study of Manet's work. Although genre paintings of (for example) food were traditionally considered a lowly art form by the French Academy, the Modernists gave this humble form greater status, thereby opening art up to a vast range of new subject matter - not least a humble bunch of asparagus:

Asparagus - Manet

Let me prove my point by quoting a passage from the novel itself (Volume 2, page  519 in the Moncrieff translation).

Marcel is staying with his grandmother at the Grand Hotel, Balbec and is seated at table, having just finished his meal.

I have taken the liberty of interposing images by Manet  within this text to make my point - the images are of course absent in the novel itself but demonstrate, I hope, a similar attention to detail by both novelist and painter alike:

"I would now happily remain at table while it was being cleared, and, if it was not a moment at which the girls of the little band might be passing, it was no longer solely towards the sea that I would turn my eyes." 

"Since I had seen such things depicted in water-colours by Elstir, I sought to find again in reality, I cherished as though for their poetic beauty, the broken gestures of the knives still lying across one another,....

...the swollen convexity of a discarded napkin into which the sun introduced a patch of yellow velvet, the half-empty glass which thus showed to greater advantage the noble sweep of its curved sides and, in the heart of its translucent crystal, clear as frozen daylight, some dregs of wine, dark but glittering, with reflected lights, the displacement of solid objects, the transmutation of liquids by the effect of light and shade, the shifting colours of the plums....

...which passed from green to blue and from blue to golden yellow in the half-plundered dish... I tried to find beauty there where I had never imagined before that it could exist, in the most ordinary things, the the profundities of 'still life'.

This close attention to detail is present in another artist and scholar whom Proust admired, John Ruskin (1890-1900). 

Ruskin became Slade Professor of Fine Art at Oxford and author of 'Modern Painters' (1843), a hugely important book that championed the near-Impressionist landscapes of John Turner.

John Ruskin

Proust was familiar with everything Ruskin had written, not least his celebrated 'Stones of Venice' (1851-53}. Indeed, he even translated a book by his hero, namely 'Sesame and Lilies'. It may well have been  Ruskin who inspired Proust to first visit Venice where part of his novel is set.

Doges Palace, Venice - John Ruskin

John Ruskin was a skilled water-colourist and enriched his books with finely-drawn architectural detail. Below is a sample of his work - an example of his close observation and meticulous  record of important Venetian buildings:


Ruskin transformed the way we looked at buildings - in the same way that Proust's fictional artist 'Elstir' opened young Marcel's eyes to beauty in common objects, human behaviour in all its deceptive complexity, and fine art past and present.

In short, Elstir's revolutionary way of 'seeing' utterly informs Proust's masterpiece and parallels the way the real Impressionists transformed the world of art.

Some thoughts on Plant Forms!

I have always drawn on of real plants for inspiration but in the course of putting paint to canvas, changes invariable occur!

Take, for example, this painting which I am currently working on 

It's more or less finished but I am at that dangerous 'tweaking' stage when it is so easy to overpaint your canvas - you probably know what I mean!

Plant Form - Mike Healey

I was walking from my sister's house down a country lane towards Kendal when I spotted a large, thistle-type plant at the edge of a field

I had no sketch pad with me so I had to memorise its distinct form and hastily jot something down when I got home

I usually work fast on canvas. The leaf forms were obtained with just a palette knife, applied with swift hand movements across a white canvas

In all, it took less than twenty minutes

My chosen medium is gouache - the cheap poster paint used by school children. It's fluid, provides intense primary colours and...well, cheap!

The pink highlights were applied with either my finger dipped in gouache of with the point of a thick brush - again working at speed

In close-up you can see how fluid the medium is. From the start I am working on a white canvas so the uniform, deliberately 'flat' blue of the 'sky' is added afterwards

Painting in the blue background is a slow, painstaking process but I can 'edit' the image as I proceed, giving final shape and definition to leaves and foliage 

The 'striped' effect is a chance occurrence that happens when you use different layers of colour and scrape through the top layer to those below with your palette knife

This needs to be done when the latest, top layer of paint is still wet

The 'sun' disk is the last element to be added. Gouache gives a lovely dense (albeit, subtle pink) and appears 'flat' - something I like on a large canvas

In close-up (see below) you can see the texture of the canvas itself - a pleasing effect first used to advantage by early Modernists, such as Manet

After working in black and white for the last few months it was something of a 'holiday' for me to add bright colours to a large (100 x 80 cms,) white canvas

Despite that (and because I was feeling 'brave!) I used a large expanse of matte black at the base of the plant to 'ground' it

One unexpected 'bonus' is that in certain light the picture takes on a 'three-dimensional' appearance, with the dark shapes at the back receding into the blue sky and optically forcing the pink-tinted leaves further into the foreground

That, as they say, is the 'luck of the game'


Sunday, 13 August 2017


I am currently working on a new painting that is partly based on Arnold Bocklin's
celebrated 'Isle of the Dead' (1880)

Arnold Bocklin's 'Isle of the Dead' - Basel version, 1880

Arnold Bocklin (1827-1901) made at least five versions of this hauntingly evocative painting, basing it partly on the English Cemetery in Florence

English Cemetery, Florence

This place had enormous emotional significance for the artist for it was here that his young daughter Maria was buried. In fact, of his fourteen children, eight died - such was the child mortality rate at that time

Self portrait

The cemetery  itself was close to his studio in Florence and it is thought that the first three versions were painted in situ

Apart from his own variations on this theme, the work inspired a number of other important European artists

Ernst Fuchs

Ernst Fuchs (1930-2015) was particularly moved by Bocklin's disturbing yet ambiguous image and created two versions of the 'Isle of the Dead'

Ernst Fuchs - 1971

This later version (above) is called 'The Philosopher of the Isle of the Dead'

Bocklin's image seems to have interested a wide range of near contemporaries, For example, August Strindberg used it as the final image of his play 'Ghost Sonata', first performed in 1908

It is also said to have been the inspiration for a symphonic poem by Sergei Rachmanioff (1873-1943) - composed in 1908 after the composer had seen a black and white print of Bocklin's celebrated picture in Paris

Arnold Bocklin

Freud and Lenin both had a reproduction of Bocklin's 'Isle of the Dead' in their offices - but for different reasons perhaps!

My own favourite adaptation is by the creator of the savage creature in 'Alien' (1979) - Hans Ruedi Giger (1940-2014). His version captures beautifully the hidden menace of Bocklin's island, yet in a style that is uniquely his own

H.R Giger - 'Homage to Bocklin' (1977)

It was this version that I had in mind when I started work on my own adaptation, using bone black powder mixed with water as the medium of my choice

'Isle of the dead' - Mike Healey, 2017

There is very little brushwork involved in this painting, most of the plant and rock forms being created using only a palette knife 

The central figure in my painting is derived from the anatomical drawings (published in 1555) by Andreas Vesalius, Professor of Anatomy at the University of Padua 

For reasons about which I am not entirely sure I have clothed my figure in ivy leaves! He is gazing across a dark stretch of water (note the fish!) at the entrance to a tomb-like structure cut into the rock