Essence of France: extended work process explanation

I’m currently (feb-april 2013) working on a piece for the SYMBIOSE art festival in Breda in May 2013. The idea of the festival is that Dutch artists give their vision, interpretation, impression of France, of the French and/or of french culture and vice versa for french artists. I’m not Dutch nor French, I’m both something else and somewhere in between (a hybrid!).

Content of this article (links are shortcuts to the different sections)
Preliminary thinkwork: What French vision?, From an obstacle a vehicle, Making a choice
Preliminary versions: Sketches in 3D
The final version: Work in progress, Insecurity, Final steps
Here is a short(er) explanation of “Essence of France”: “Essence of France

“What French vision?”

So, I should give my impression of the French. Or should I “depersonalize” the process by asking around what people understood by “French”? I actually did that, using social media.

Still, something hindered me, it kept coming up, sneaking in on me while I “researched” this idea of France and the French: if there is one thing I do disapprove of, it is the very caricatural and hollow one dimensional idea(l) everyone has of France and the French (actually including the French themselves, but that’s another story).

“Non-french” buy property in France en masse, with the idea they’ll thereby live the french way, … well, live their perception or caricature of “Frenchness.” As if it was all in the air!

Honestly, all the French people I know would not fit easily into this “Non-French Frenchness ideal”. It’s all about some “grand” idea which is nothing but horribly stereotypical. Nobody seems to acknowledge the France of Flesh and Blood, like my in-laws and extended family, the actual and real life of the multitude of everyday French people.

Make of an “obstacle” a “vehicle”

This disapproval was an obstacle I couldn’t get around so I figured I could just as well make use of it: “I’ll picture my un-ease with the non-French Frenchness ideal”. I could make a kind of pointing back to the originator of the stereotypical ideas? Like cutting a mirror in the shape of a standing person, fit this mirror with “Frenchness” attributes, and what the public would see was them-selfes fitted with “their” french attributes.

But that is all so conceptual and actually quite boring! And finger pointing! A very reluctant, slowly moving vehicle for my art. As if I was making my way in sirup.

Initial proposal for the SYMBIOSE 2013 exhibition
Initial proposal for the SYMBIOSE 2013 exhibition


Moreover, the disapproval of the stereotypical view of the French sits uneasily with me, after all I’m also harboring stereotypes and generalizations of the French, the Dutch, the Danes …

So? ….

Having paid all this attention to the nagging disapproval eventually made it less important and I could move on. This opened a kaleidoscope of  ideas and directions I could take and which I didn’t want to narrow down. I thought of making a kind of cabinet of curiosities in the form of various dioramas in chambers organised in a “Rubik’s Cube”. Not such a bad idea, but it had the risk of becoming a vague and weak image and it would take years to make, because it would have to “grow organically” and “associatively”. I needed to prune my “kaleidoscope!”


“The Nose” it is!

In a brainstorm with fellow artists from the BIB group, I centered in on an icon I had already identified at the onset of my quest: the nose of Charles de Gaulle …

The Nose distillates my vision of France: it stands for some of the finest and most refined products such as wine and perfume.

The Nose also symbolizes the singular attitude of the French, their pride and their perceived arrogance (“perceived” is important, they’re actually a jolly lot behind a misunderstood body language).

And finally, Charles de Gaulle, “standing on the shoulders of giants”, the founder of the 5th republic, is the quintessential Frenchman. Certainly any Frenchman or woman will instantly recognize his nose (I hope!). Now the “Non-French!”

So I’ve come full circle and am back at the stereotypical “grandeur” of the French. But at least traveling the “full circle” should make the result less shallow.

Upping it

The Nose” is a terribly deprecating title and I’m quite fond of the French, so for now I’ll settle on “The Essence of France” with all the references this title (can) carry.

Update on 30/03/2013 : Preparing for the big nose

Since the first posting on this work I’ve completed 3 3d “sketches” of the nose in stoneware, one bigger than the other. I’ve skimmed the internet for images of Charles de Gaulle, however most are of a poor quality considering the nose is a very small part of the photo and the left side of the nose is “underexposed”. Furthering the challenge is the fact that the nose alters with age and the images have Charles de Gaulle at different ages.

I made a wooden “mold” for the third stoneware nose so I could sculpture it using slaps instead of lumps of stoneware. The mold was based upon an enlarged photo “en profile” ensuring I got the right slope and bulge on the nose.

The real thing, work in progress

Now I’m busy with the final, bigger version. Putting considerate thoughts into the materials (paper mache, hardened textile, plaster, polyurethane foam, resins …) I’ve settled with PU foam sprayed onto a metal frame. PU foam is light and can be sculpted and new material can be added when sculpting too enthusiastically. The frame is currently being built.

Update 17 april 2013: The inevitable insecurity pays a visit

I’ve finished mounting the foot on the frame and proceeded to fill it with pu-foam. When the first filling was completed an uneasy feeling crept in and installed itself. It is a recurring feeling, visiting every time I’m in the finishing throes of an art work: is it well enough, is the standard high enough, in short will it be received as art or as “handicraft?”

It has to do with the material this time. PU-schuim is not as noble as bronze, okay? And then the stupid foot! I need to change the foot, to fabricate a proper metal foot with a proper metal rod! Right now it’s a joke … the wooden rod bends and the office chair part doesn’t help the impression. Furthermore, it’s to light to offer the desired stability.

After all this deliberation, I’ve finally started with the actually shaping of the foam. This is where the real modeling and sculpturing kicks in and I’ve realized that pu-foam is perfect. When re-worked like this, it becomes an artistic material, it’s as if it gains a kind of proudness. So that worry is gone, as are the considerations of covering it with something like textile. In the process I’ve probably removed a third of the pu-foam on the frame.

Update 20 may 2013: The final steps

The nose has been finished for a little over a week now and is since wednesday 15 may to be seen at the SYMBIOSE 2013 exhibition in Breda (website grand foulard, website “art-en-france”, facebook page). But the time between the last update and this one has been marked by several moments of insecurity and adjustments.

First of all, the initial idea of constructing the “foot” from the “undercarriage” of a wheeled office chair was tried out and then abandoned … ik looked downright ridiculous (grateful of my husbands persistence here). I had to make a proper one of a 2m long steel rod and a nice, heavy steel plate. That right away changed the appearance of the work to the better.

The absence of the context, ie the face around/behind the nose made it difficult to get the proportions right. The shear proportion was a problem in itself; close-up the nose “dissolved” into curves, bended planes and holes without a clear relation to one another and the nose seemed skewed. I had to step back (5-10 m) all the time to evaluate what I’d just done and what had to be done next. This meant actually leaving my atelier and evalutating through the doorway. I even took some pictures at similar angles as on photo’s of Charles de Gaule and laid “my” nose on top of these, just to see how the shape and proportions “added up.”

I regularly experienced renewed insecurity about my work which I tried to talk myself out of. However, it is a clear sign that I have to make changes to my work, that it does not yet meet my (intuitive) mark of quality. This is where I thoroughly miss the demanding and stimulating environment of the students and teachers of the art academy.

Intuitively I’d known it from the beginning, the material let the work down. When I chose PU-foam I thought it would eventually be covered with textile, but now the PU-foam was supposed to BE the work. This being about France, dignity, honour, grandeur, arrogance, passion, refinement, savoir-vivre .. PU-foam didn’t deliver, -regardless the beauty of the form. I mentally toyed with various coatings, which thus meant with colour as well. It would have to be blue at the outside and red at the inside as reference to the above and to the French colours. Time constraints made me decide to forget the coating and to simply spray paint the PU-foam. And this really worked wonders, everything came together.

To my husbands fellow artists credit -who pointed out that no-one besides French people would recognise the nose to be that of Charles de Gaulle- I decided to make a discrete sound track composed of several layers of speaches accompagnied by the Marseillaise by Serge Gainsbourg. And because the nose of Charles de Gaulle was meant to symbolise France and not simply be a reference to Charles de Gaulle himself, the “picture” was complete with a scent of lavendel oil.

At the end I’d used 20 cans of PU-foam and 7 cans of spray-paint! PU-foam is no cheap sculpting material!


Update 2014 – 2016: Getting some air, impact of the elements & major cosmetic surgeries

After the exposition in Breda, the enormous nose could not be kept at home, space was too scarce. I placed it on the outside brick wall of a big shed housing the artist community I’m a member of (Bollenstreek in Beeld, BIB). Within a year, the elements had eaten away at the nose, and it was in a sorry state. PU-foam is not for outside jobs.

The result of the operation, back on the wall. Nose is too pale.
The result of the operation, back on the wall. Nose is too pale.

I decided to coat it with a rather new synthetic product called “Acrylic One”, an easy to work polyesther thingy. I reinforced the coating with glass fiber mats. The coating had a very soft light blue color and I left it so, dramatically changing the appearance of the Nose. I also reduced the height of the nose and made the slope less steep. It lost a bit of it’s grandeur that way, but came closer to the actual nose of Charles de Gaule.

Back on the wall, the light blue color didn’t work as well as when working on it up close. After having proved it’s weather resistance over a winter, I took it down and gave it a good paint job. It’s now blue-lavendel-purple -ish, which is really beautiful, and the shapes are better sculpted due to the way I applied the colors. Finally, I’m really happy with the transformation.

(Note: The Nose will be removed from the wall in January 2017 as the BIB is leaving the shed, and I’ve terminated my membership).


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.