Wednesday, 26 September 2018

Dieppe - its beaches churches and artists

Dieppe harbour in evening, with seagulls

 A longer version of this post (without photographs) can be found at the Scottish Review

The British artist Walter Sickert spent a lot of time in Dieppe, living in le quartier Pollet, the old town. One of his most well-known paintings is of Dieppe’s l’église Saint Jacques. A small information board in front of the church tells you that you are standing in the exact spot he stood in, when doing this painting – the reproduction of it is in tasteful terracotta shades with splashes of yellow, which also fits with this day of hot sun and cloudless skies.

Other well-known painters who fell under the spell of this small seaport town include Delacroix, Renoir, Monet and Camille Pissarro. The latter was particularly taken with Dieppe, spending the summers of 1901 and 1902 there. He called the town ‘an admirable place for a painter who enjoys life, movement and colour’. Like Sickert he too painted l’église Saint Jacques though from a different angle. He also painted a series of eighteen views of the port.

Clearly Dieppe’s charm has not diminished in the past century. Its steep cliffs with their dark shadows falling on the beach, the pale greenish sea with changing moods, that combination of water and land, with its constant relationship, its rustle and whisper, and the hazy horizon with its visible slight thickening at the edge – at least on this clear and sunny day – which might be England.

The beach at Dieppe is pebbles, not easy to walk on even with thick-soled sandals. The stones don’t stay still, they shift under the presence of your feet, so that they are constantly rearranging themselves, as if seized with inner dissatisfaction longing for some ideal pattern that can never quite be achieved. So that each step instead of receiving a push upwards from the ground as usually happens, a reassuring collaboration between finicky and fragile lightweight human being, and the dense and powerful earth that supports us all – instead of this the earth surface retracts and moves sideways. The usual reassurance is replaced with a counterfeit, like a temporary crossing for pedestrians during road works, one that takes you out of your way while claiming to be helpful or – doing the best they can in difficult circumstances and thanking you for your patience and consideration.

This semi-sinking into the stones requires attention – to curvature and time, as each step is marked by a crunching sound and a need to pay undue and unaccustomed attention to equilibrium as if you have become twice as heavy as you were before. Though the recompense, once you reach the solid road, is to feel you have suddenly grown wings.

Inside the church Saint Jacques I discover that it is one of the starting points of the Chemin de Saint Jacques, the pilgrimage routes to Compostella. This particular route is called la voie des anglais and continues to Rouen and Chartres. To the left of  Le Mur du Tresor there’s a pillar entwined by a twisting spiral, similar to the Apprentice Pillar in Scotland’s Rosslyn Chapel, though a much more slender version. Above the doorway and to the right, higher up, there are several coquilles de Saint Jacques, the pilgrim shells associated with the saint, which mark the travellers’ route.

La Chapelle Notre Dame de Bon Secours is situated on a cliff top with a view over the town.

Inside there’s an exhibition of paintings. I speak to the artist, Pascal Voisin, who has thick white hair and a deeply tanned face. He tells me he used to be a fisherman, he has crossed La Manche many times, visited English ports, and has been to Dublin too. He paints streets, houses, boats, seascapes, waterfronts. His paintings are firm and compact as if he has caught his subjects, grasped them and placed them firmly on the canvas. As you might expect from a fisherman, he is not going to let them get away. They are dense with life, with lines, colours, edges and definitions. One or two are black and white, reminiscent of old photos, with the same near-nostalgic charm. Energy bounces off Monsieur Voisin and this energy is visible in his paintings too, with their thick colours, heavy skies and restless seas. 

Pascal Voisin and some of his paintings

So Dieppe continues to inspire painters. Of course I’m seeing it at its best in this glorious summer weather. I wonder what it’s like in winter. Perhaps it will be like Pascal Voisin’s paintings, with their dark and threatening skies and deserted sea front. When the long shadows cast by the sheer chalk cliffs will devour the beaches and extend thin dark fingers into the sea.

No comments: