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In Lothringia

I wanted to balance out all the elements in a picture. Someone had told me that I seemed to crop the subjects of my pictures to what I wanted to feature, so I thought I would try to bring forward the incidentals and give them equal pictorial value. My present location is too verdant and diffuse, I needed a tighter mix of shapes and colours. An urban setting.

In his Will Charlemagne dived his empire between his three sons. Lothringia was a short lived In-between place, what is now the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, Lorraine in northern France and most of northern Germany west of the Rhine –the “cockpit” of Franco-German rivalry and the course of the continent’s history. I have stood outside an office in Schengen and looked at the vines ripening on a hill in front of me in Lorraine and the ones on the left hand slope were in Germany. The people of this region look similar, speak similar languages, share a sense of humour and a taste in food. One consequence was that the 0ld vintage records in Burgundy used to be written in Flemish and you can buy better Burgundy wine in a Spar corner shop in Belgium than you can get from a premier English vintner. Lothringia provided me with an urban landscape I was very familiar with, quite distinct from the often painted London and Paris.

So I have constructed an anonymous everyday urban landscape from memories of Lothringia and Flanders, where the view of back yards and a church is set in a rectangle with the same proportions as the canvas, a picture within a picture, if you will. This device allowed me to treat the figure in the same way I did the landscape. There is no subject or background, they are all elements of the overall composition.

The colours are driven by the red brickwork on the left, which is a characteristic of the vernacular older buildings. Here a wall is reflected in the blue of the glass floor on which the two chairs and the sitter are placed. The blue would have been partly a reflection of the sky and partly a consequence of the thickness of the glass. (There is a real glass floor in the place which I ransacked for the picture and if you stand in the room where this is a skylight it can feel like being under water.) Unifying the colours led me to paint the figure in dark brown. This is something that Permeke frequently did, where part of the canvas is light as you can see below. Looking at that now I suspect there was an unconscious borrowing.

There is an implied story. Two chairs at the table. Was there a second figure? Just stepped away or is the man missing the second person. I almost called the picture “Absence” as in “Absence makes the heart grow fonder”, or as I say “makes the tarts look blonder!” You can decide which words were the driver.

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