16 October 2017

Marcel Bascoulard (artwork); Patrick Martinat (text): Bascoulard: Dessinateur Virtuose, clochard magnifique, femme inventée (2014)

Bascoulard is an enormous book in more ways than one: this hardback (49 euros and well worth it) won't fit onto the average bookshelf with the spine legible, it probably weighs about two kilos, and the number of pages is about three hundred. Many would describe this as a coffee table book (or beau livre in French), but that expression just suggests something pretty to look at, with little to read, and invariably of a very well-known subject.

Certainly the text in this book (by Patrick Martinat) is very soon read, and there are a great number of photos in it of the artist Marcel Bascoulard (1913–78) and his work, but from there it parts company from the regular coffee book, in fact it subverts the coffee table book: outside central France (the Bourges (and Sologne) areas to be specific), how many people are aware of Marcel Bascoulard, who has his own square with his bust in Bourges, as well as a street named after him in Saint-Florent-sur-Cher, where he spent his youth?

Shortly after his mother Marguerite, when her elder son Marcel was nineteen, shot her violent husband dead in the back and was institutionalised, he moved to Bourges and began painting. He didn't fit in with society, and I won't even bother involving psychological analysis, which he would (quite rightly, I'm sure) have detested. Marcel grew away from conventional society, being unconcerned with the trapping of success, unconcerned with money or fame to such an extent that he wasn't interested in a roof over his head with running water and electricity, and traded his paintings for food and suchlike to feed his cats and dogs as well as himself. His mother had been the main love of his life, and no one else.

And yet Bascoulard was a gifted painter, first a realist depicting in minute detail the city of Bourges (particularly the cathedral), including the few other places he visited, although they were very few and probably the furthest he ever ventured was Paris. He later introduced odd colours to his townscapes, even painted abstract pictures, but they weren't welcomed, although he didn't care, he wasn't interested in painting to order, in being commissioned, he preferred his outsider, tramp status, although he didn't see himself as a tramp: after all, how many tramps dress in female clothing, for example, or ride tricycles that they've designed themselves? OK, many may live on wasteland, but what of it?

Marcel Bascoulard saw his death coming in the form of the twenty-three-year-old social reject Jean-Claude Simion, but no one else in Bourges did, otherwise they'd have protected him. Such a waste.

Bascoulard is a magnificent book, one of the few which you must have in your possession even if you don't speak French, as it so evidently speaks for the outsiders, the outcasts who have so much to tell us. Only Bascoulard wasn't an outcast, he was loved in spite of the dirt he lived in, in spite of (even because of) his anarchism, and his death was a great blow to Bourges: after all, how many other people have played such a role in putting the town on the French map?

My criticism is that Patrick Martinat glibly dismisses Marcel Bascoulard's writing, quotes from it very briefly, and gives it virtually no space. Fascinating as photos of Bascoulard are, as his painting and sketches are, as his precise maps are, many photos here would have lost nothing by their exclusion, although so much could have been gained by the inclusion of Bascoulard's writings, no matter what Martinat think of them: he is no expert in literature, and should not pretend to be one. It would have been very interesting, for instance, to give just one example, to have read 'Maternelle réhabilitation' in full.

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