Capturing the light of southern France

For many of us, Jean-Pierre Blanche is a privileged man.Not because he lives and paints in the lower part of a late 18th-century chateau on the quiet, verdant outskirts of this beautiful ancient Provencal capital, but because he has learned to understand the light of southern France.

This light, which has fascinated writers, poets and painters for centuries, is not only reflected in his work, but also in the way he lives and talks.

"I did not only come to this part of the Mediterranean because of the light," said Blanche, who is originally from Paris but has worked in North Africa and the Middle East. "I also came here because of the rhythm of life. here in the midim [south] one has more time to meditate. I enjoy the silence. The possibility of having closer contact with nature away from the bagarrem [bustle] of Paris. Or even Aix for that matter."

We are sitting in the park of the chateau outside the dilapidated facade of the orangery, soaking up the warm spring sun. The chateau at one time served as the seminary for the Oratorian congregation. "The monks who lived here before obviously regarded this place as a retreat," he said. "Do you want to see the chapel?"

We walk through the chestnut trees to the bottom of the park where the sprawling vineyards provide the last natural barrier to the encroaching suburbs of Aix-en-Provence. He shows me the overgrown rubbled remains of the small chapel apparently destroyed during the French Revolution. Local peasants did the rest when they gathered the best stones to build their houses and walls.

Back in Blanche's studio with its long windows, its thick wooden easel, its books, and its cupboards stuffed with canvases, he shows me his latest work. It is obvious that Blanche, who has won a number of art awards including the prestigious Prix de Monaco, prefers to live and paint in silence without seeking publicity.

He is in the midst of preparing an exhibition for June at Villeneuve at the far end of lake Geneva in Switzerland, and he is somewhat amused that the two artists preceding him at the gallery are Oskar Kokoshka and Salvador Dali.

"Artists have never been much appreciated by the bourgeoisie of Aix-en-Provence," observes Blanche. "One has got to go elsewhere such as West Germany, Switzerland, or the United States to make headway." One cannot help recalling that it was a grop of Americans who bothered to save the atelier of impressionist painter Paul Cezanne from destruction in Aix-enProvence. It is now a much noted museum by the local tourist office. The Aixois themselves seem to attach little cultural importance to the building at the time.

Carefully, Blanche shows me his paintings. The exhibition, which will be called "The Sea," consists of about 60 widely different watercolors, gouaches and pastels, based on three years of work in Britanny and the French Mediterranean around Marseilles. "I like to go to Brittany during the summer when it is too hot to work in the Provence and the light here is too harsh," he explains. "the light in Brittany provides a subtle contrast."

His seas are static, calm, agitated, or tempestuous. A teasing variety within one theme. Rather than anecdotal landscapes, they are simple and reflective. "I like the sea wall all its aspects" he says. "I like to exhaust a theme and penetrate it as far as possible. But it is the light that fascinate s me most."

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