Below is an essay that one of our artists, Rebecca Vincenzi, wrote about her arrival in Paris. Vincenzi will be featured in a solo show at Beacon Gallery, titled “La Vie Parisienne” , opening on Friday, August 3rd at 6 p.m.
Loving Paris Back
I left London and moved to Paris with no idea why beyond trying to escape a broken heart.
Arriving at Gare Du Nord on a hot July day, I took a room in the cheapest hotel I could find, only to wake up in the night to find my white nightdress speckled with blackcurrant size bedbugs.
Before this inauspicious arrival I’d had some impressive artist teachers in London: illustrators at St Martin’s Art School, and life drawing artists at City Literary Institute in London. They gave me the foundations for those first tentative sketches in my adopted city in that bedbug-filled hotel room.
As did many migrants of all walks of life moving Paris, I rented a small flat in La Goutte d’Or. Here, in a neighbourhood filled with run-down bars, the exposed wounds of poverty were evident on the streets: petty crime, drunken fights, and prostitution. The suffering of others was little catharsis for my wounded soul.
Yet the real lesson I learned in those early days of my new life in Paris was what Picasso spoke of when he said vision was like blindness: “They should put out the eyes of a painter as they do goldfinches to make them sing [louder]” In other words, Picasso felt that sight must be destroyed for a more intuitive vision of the world to be awakened.
Blinded, oil on card, 1998
I knew I needed to look deeper to truly experience my new neighbourhood. What I saw on the surface was not enough.
I started by looking up: above the street-level hardships loomed the glowing dome of the Sacré Coeur Church, reminding me of Brassai’s secret Paris of the 1930s, with its 19th century street lamps, moonlit cobbled passageways, and desolate streets at dawn and dusk.
Le Chateau D’Eau, Oil on Canvas, 2013
I realised Paris, and particularly these lesser known neighborhoods, had their own unique light and colour. Toulouse Lautrec’s electric Paris, with its cabaret scenes, inspired me to sketch the dynamic movement of people in my gritty arrondissement: the fluorescent lights of the bars, the metro lights, and the neon blue of the early morning skies.
In time my broken heart began to heal, and life in Paris felt rejuvenating.
Marché Dejean, oil on canvas, 2004
Paris has always seemed to celebrate both its artists and its artisans: from the makers of its ‘pavés’ (cobblestones) to the makers of its patisserie (cakes), and everyone in between. As Hemingway said “If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.”
I continued my discovery of my neighbourhood and my own “moveable feast” in the markets of La Goutte d’Or. Every few days I would wend my way between throngs with shoppers, many in brightly printed African boubous. At the market one could procure traditional in-season French produce such as ripe cherries in July, and Anjou pears in the fall. However, the market catered to their clientele with exotic fruits and vegetables such as cassava as well as halal meat.
Tarte aux fruits III, oil on canvas, 2018
I would go to the market to feed both body and soul. Picking up my meal for the evening as well as quickly photographing and sketching, I would rush home to commit the vibrant sights of my Paris to memory. Attempting to observe people as did the French filmmaker Jacques Tati through his camera, I sketched the flux of life and movement of the people in La Goutte D’or.
I came to realize that although Paris is nicknamed the ‘City of Light’, the appeal of the city is not just about wattage. Paris has also been home to intellectual insight for generations. Paris was the birthplace of the enlightenment, inspiring poets, philosophers and scientists. Descartes’ ‘I think therefore I am’ implied that, like an onion, thoughts themselves can reveal more and more layers of understanding.
I found my own layers in my neighbourhood and the city beyond. I learned to love my neighbourhood café, boulangerie and épicerie, even as I clutched my bag tight to my side while walking home at night. And as I explored new neighbourhoods, I would always take my sketch book. One of my favourite activities was to sit nursing a café crème while sketching those around me.
Picasso famously said, “Painting is just another way of keeping a diary.” I would take my sketches home and turn them into larger works in oil, expanding on my “diary” and creating a narrative of my time in the city I was growing to love.
The Parisian landscape allowed me to both see well-known sights and new locations simultaneously as I unravelled the mysteries and insights of what had drawn me there. The Goutte d’Or and other beloved neighbourhoods, their landscapes, their people, continue to inspire my work.
Café au Trocadero, oil on canvas 2013
Herein lies a personal truth: Painting helps both remove me from the center of everything and allows me to use the diamond-like facets of the inner eye, which sees a dream in the same way as a sleeping eye can. Painting gives me insight and peace, and the city of Paris, and my neighbourhoods in particular, are my muse.
As long as Paris continues to welcome its artists, nurture its artisans, host its cooks, architects, musicians and dancers with its “liberté, égalité, et fraternité” it will continue to be a magnet for inspiration and artists of its past, present and its future and continue to be a path for many a creative journey.
– Rebecca Vincenzi