Georges FLANET : a monograph

“ Georges Flanet, a self-taught artist, was born on May 1, 1937 in Saint-Clair-sur-Epte, a small village in the Yvelines, north-west of Paris.
At the age of 52 he discovered the Côte d’Azur, more accurately Saint-Tropez and its neighbouring villages.

It was love at first sight !…”

So begins the text introducing Georges Flanet to his Parisian audience on the occasion of his first exhibition in the Palais Royal. It goes on, quoting Colette (who by happy coincidence was both a resident of the Palais Royal and the Cité du Bailli Suffren, as Saint-Tropez is sometimes titled ) in a panageric for the village’s Syndicat d’Initiative :
“ No road leads through Saint -Tropez. One goes there and no further. If you want to leave you must retrace your steps.
But who wants to leave ? ”

For Georges Flanet, the answer was simple. Why leave a dream ? His dream. The unhnown destination he had dreamt of for thirty years behind that grey counter of the ‘traiteur’ where he learnt and laboured and loved in a business as far removed from painting as could be imagined.

At its most simple level, painting is about seeing. There has never been a blind artist as there has, say, a musician. Light, bouncing off an object(s), passes through the eye’s lens, is receved as an inverted image on the retina, on its way to interpretation  by the brain, which then transmits a series of electrical impulses to the hand which executes what it is instructed to do, paint, draw, sketch, whatever. Having said this though, what follows is complex in the extreme, because seeing has not only to do with sight, but also with understanding. “ I see ”, said the blind man. Or, more famously : “ Veni, vidi, vici. ” Is this not what the painter does ? He captures in two dimensions what he sees in front of him in three.

That the basic term is for the use of the organs of sight is a given. But to ‘see’ Webster tells us, is also to show, to tell, to get (as in knowledge), visualize (as though present); to picture, grasp, accept, consider, judge; to learn, discover and find out; to experience; to witness, look over, inspect, examine; to recognize, admit, discern, comprehend.

And its synonyms include to behold, espy, descry and view, as in : He never beheld a sight more beautiful; he espied the snake in the grass; he descried the distant lighthouse; his view of art was uncontaminated by a critic’s judgement.

The matter becomes even more complicated when the hand translates (or tries to ) an abstraction of the brain, the inner eye, beholding something non-exsistant, espied by the soul, descried with strained vision in colours all unknow.

“ L’œil n’a pas de braguette ! ” is a famous war-cry, welcome in its simplicity, but almost immediately confounded by the filters – preceived or received  – of anyone holding a paintbrush in front of a bare canvas.
Visualise then, the young Georges, un-tutored, surrounded by the great un-washed, living in poverty while his world is torn to pieces by war, finding a broken  crayon, a scrap of paper and the urge to draw, an almost seditious undertaking given this backgroud. Where does such an impulse come from ? How is it fostered ?

Georges :         I don’t know. I think I always wanted to draw. An uncle, his name was Aimable, on an occassional visit to Paris, would take me with  him. I can’t really remember these visits, but the importance of them was impressed on me  and so  I was grateful to my uncle for taking me. He encouraged me to see. “ Regardez ! Il faut toujours regarder, et tout regarder ! ”. Who knows  maybe something stuck, as much as something can in a boy of nine.What I do remember is my first box of coloured pencils.

                         I was six. They were so perfect I only looked at them and my mother, who gave them

                        to me, got annoyed because I didn’t want to use them. I carried them around with me like a prize until one day  I couldn’t find them and thought they had been stolen. Of course, my mother  had simply taken them back because they were too valuble to waste on somebody who would not use them. It taught me a lesson. I used up everything after that, crayons, charcoal, water-colours, pencils, as soon as they came into my hands, which was not often. The stuff I did  was the usual kind made by children, but it was fun and I could draw what I wanted. I was an odd  little kid, quite lonely ; not unhappy, you understand, but unconnected to those around me, even my sisters whom I had to look after when my mother was busy. Drawing was the only activity where no one told me what to do and , since we had so little time for ourselves back then, it became my private escape. Instead of scolding me for not doing something useful, my mother was my champion.

                        “ Bravo, Georges, ” she would say, “c’est très bien.” My Father’s comment was otherwise : “ Ça sers à quoi ?, ” and it was he who got me apprenticed to M. Robert, the traiteur, as soon as I was old enough at 14. Then I had even less time because we worked 12 hours a day.

                        The key word here is escape. ESCAPE.

Let us not get ahead of our story though, which, in its reality, is so substantial, so fulfilling, that ‘it be the very stuff that dreams are made of ’. Let us retain  the slight figure of a man who in his mind’s eye sees the sea, the mountains, the changing seasons, a special luminosity in the sky, the specific colours of multitudes of flowers waiting for him, dressed in a light that moves and dances even as he watches – his hands and elbows covered in flour and blood, slave to heated ovens and a clock always ticking : time to wake up, time to make up orders, time to open the shop, time to prepare, time to bake, time to cool, time to cut and trim, to decorate, display, wrap, fold, tie, tick, tock, tick, tock… “ Georges ! Arrête de rêver ! Regarde ce que tu fais !…” Even all these years later he can hear the reprimand that jerks him out of his dream. Now his reality.

Because he has done it, done it for all of us : lived his dream. To be a painter! Through one thousand, two thousand, more, more than THREE THOUSAND PAINTINGS ! SOLD ! DISPERSED ! THROUGHOUT THE WORLD ! It is PRODIGIOUS ! Such frenetic work, the sheer industry involved, the raw passion for making art, the unflaging enthusiasm for risking living this wild dream in today’s world : HE HAS DONE IT !

Who then is he ? What, in fact, do we know of this extraordinary man ? What drives him, at his age, to work with  such desperate  energy on  so many pictures ? That sell and sell ? It makes one think. How is it possible that so many people react to his work to the extent of actually BUYING it and taking it home ? Is he that good ? And if he is, how does he do IT ? To meet him when he is born and then skip forward 52 years to the moment he falls in love with Saint-Tropez leaves too big a gap. There are things we want to know, need to know…

Let’s start with the family. By Georges’ account, his father, Maurice, was a robust jack-of-all-trades, not averse to a drink-too-many, believing in strict honesty, the value of labour, and the swift clout over the ear to get a laggard going.

His mother, Louise, kept the family together in the increasingly difficult and then terrifying times at the beginning of  World War II, by combining a northern practicality with a protective love of her ever-growing brood  (6 in all !), particularly of her tiny, skinny, eldest son who made up for his frailty by the daft adventures he undertook… Item : the Salle des Fêtes across the street from the Flanet’s home, which became a German field hospital where the Wehrmacht could think of nothing better to do then paint a red cross on the roof and hide munitions under the beds - and Georges, nothing better than to sneak in there for a snack whenever he felt hungry, giving his mother multiple heart attacks…

Eventually everything comes to an end, even war. The family survives and moves north to Lens, where Georges starts his appenticeship with the traiteur.
A “traiteur” is difficult to translate into English, since “confectioner” is primarily linked with making sweets and pastries, “baker” has to do with bread and cakes, “delicatessen” with the preparation of meats into pies and sausages and rolls and salads, and, God forbid, “takeaway”, the expedience of buying prepared food you can’t make yourself. A traiteur is all of this and a good traiteur is a treasure, his address only given to close family friends – the place you go to buy that special foie gras, or confit de canard, or paté-en-croute, or… the list is endless; the skills required to measure, mix, mold, bake, glaze, dissect, marinade, salt, perfume, spice, colour, slice, dice, stir, heat, freeze, serve, is as long; the labour back-breaking, so much so that 2 out of  3 apprentices never stay the course, opting for an easier way to make a living. But not Georges. He applies himself, learns his trade, seduces a sweet, young co-worker, Therese, marries her, has two children, buys the shop when his patron retires, serves his confections to M. Le President de la Republique, François Mitterand YES, HIS VERY EXCELLENCE !, during a reception in Lens, and, in the middle of all this, even finds time to go  off to his own war, this time in Algiers, where Première Class Flanet, known by everyone in his regiment as, l’artiste, (already !) is put, OH COINCIDENCE !, in charge of munitions. You need bullets, go see l’artiste – and here you thought this was only about painting !

Because it’s not : its about life. What takes ten lines to write, takes thirty years to live ! 30 ! And in all that time not a single holiday ! NOT ONE ! So how do we get back to painting ?

Thérèse :         I was sixteen when I met Georges. I had started working in the same shop and everyday I had occasion to see this young man. I thought he was so handsome ! Well, things took their course and eventually he asked to marry me. It was not as if I did not know his prospects, since he was apprenticed in the same shop, but when you are young you cannot imagine how much time is taken by work. And, since I was there too, we both worked. Then, when the children came, it just seemed there was no time for anything else. I think Georges escaped  into painting as a way to maintain his sanity. He never really talked about it, just went off to rendezvous with a gang of Sunday painters, les Indépendants de Lens !

Georges :         It happened rarely, once a month perhaps, if the weather was fine. We would                         get on our bicycles and pedal over to where one or other of us thought we                         should paint. On the banks of the river, by the château d’Hollain, over in the                         woods above Vimy - you could still see the craters made by the shells and                         bombs - anywhere would do. None of us really knew what we were doing but                         the important thing was to be out in the fresh air. I liked the colours. We                          would look at how the other fellows were getting on and offer suggestions.                         We tried to be encouraging; it was too easy to be critical. What’s the point ?                         That’s as close to art school as I ever came. I learnt by trying things out. In                         the beginning you want to be too careful and everything ends up stiff, the                         colours muddied. The colours were so exquisetly perfect when you squeezed                         them out of the tube – and so expensive ! – it seemed a crime to muddy them                         up. So that was an early goal, how to keep the colours fresh.

It is all so innocent, not to say naive. When Flanet was born, Pierre Bonnard and Edouard Vuillard were still alive. These were men who knew at first hand Gauguin, Monet, Sisley, Signac, Renoir, Caillebotte, the founders of Impressionisin, Seurat, who laid down the principles of neo-Impressionisin, Van Gogh, the forefather of Expressionisin, and even the austere Cezanne, sitting in Aix-en-Provence, laughed at when first he showed his pictures. Their collective achievement, which was to inform much of what has happened in the art world in the 20th Century, essentially emancipated the artist from the artisan, the right of one’s own emotion over the obligation to pander to a public orthodoxy treating only such subjects as are deemed correct and then only in the correct, academic manner. This freedom did not come cheap; the risk of not conforming ensured the impoverished life and squalid death of many, chief amongst them Van Gogh and Gauguin. Althongh Flanet had no formal training, attended no Academy, hardly had the means  to access a museum or gallery, leave alone live in an artistic milieu, he must have been aware of his august forerunners whose  works had become icons to the extent that they were reproduced on everything from postcards to bed linen. We all live with an inherited visual background, particularly today  with the omnipresence of magazines and TV. This is absorbed,as if by osmosis. The great catalysers – one thinks of Picasso – ingest what they need to transform their world, which in turn becomes our world, so invasive is the power of their imagery. The echos of the formative movements of the 19th century are strong in Flanet, the idiosyncracies, the contour, the colour. Intuitively, Flanet liked colour and it is from the colourists that he gets his inspiration, knowingly or not.  Nothing of the modern world intrudes into his work.

Georges :         I love Monet. When they had that big retrospective of his water-lilies at the Orangerie I tried to get in, but the queues of people were so long I decided it was better to go to Giverny and see what he painted instead. You cannot imagine the beauty of that place. Wherever you look is a picture and if you blink your eyes you have another. I was 60 at the time and had gained some confidence in my ability and so I thought I would try to paint the same scene. I am sure the old man would have understood; after all, why make the place if not to inspire those who follow ?


The sheer audacity, the risk involved, is breathtaking - until you learn that, in the same simple way, Georges had been to Auvers-sur-Oise to paint what Van Gogh saw, to Aix to look at the Ste. Baume from Cézanne’s studio, to Nice for the Promenade and Dufy… the list qoes on. What is instructive is that our man does what they did, paint in situ, not go to a museum and copy what they  had painted.

Georges :         It doesn’t matter if I fail. It matters to try. By nature I am industrious so I will try many times,

                        health willing, to achieve and fail, and fail sometimes to achieve. Someone made the remark that I am uncritical of my own work, that I should ‘edit’ - I think that was his word - my production. For me that would be like aborting a pregnancy or infanticide because you don’t like the look of the child you have made. All my children are precious to me and if some have more character, a different talent, a greater dimension, only time will tell. I am happy to have made them. Je suis content.

                       The turning point in Flanet’s life comes in 1989 when he and his wife make the momentous decision to leave Lens. They had achieved a considerable measure of economic and social succes. They owned a flourishing business, their own house in Chemin Tassette, their children graduated from high school. Judged by their contemporaries, their life was on cruise control. And they abandon all of it !

                       Georges is 52, Thérèse 47. He stands 5’2 " tall (1m64 ), weighs 112 lbs (51K.) and is disconcertinghy thin, probably due to a lifelong inability to digest certain foods. His fine grey hair hangs to his shoulders and brushes the paint-stained smock in which he always works. He wears one of a variety of straw hats he invariably puts on to protect himself from the elements. (Even today, when he mostly paints in his studio, he still wears hats. ) She is also small, with curly dark red hair and granny glasses. They both share a certain smile, offered timidly to the outside world, but with a shared complicity when they glance at each other. It explains a lot. They are a unit, a team. Their decision is taken jointly. The risk is understood by both : give up security for the unknown; abandon family and friends, the tribal safety net, for the jungle that is the art world.

With the little money they have, they set off for St.Tropez – the rest is history; its witness, this book. Here you will find Georges Flanet’s chosen subjects. How many hours, days, YEARS ! did  he spend anonymously toiling in these surroundings with only the occasional glance from a passerby, looking over his shoulder at the canvas propped on the easel in front of him as he tries to capture the light of Provence. Was it worth it ? Did he ever regret his decision ? Just look at his sketchbooks ! Or better : take a look at the great series of the Café des Arts, in the Place des Lices. The Café itself is gone now, but lives in these pictures. The warmth of the colours, the tone of the orange glow that suffuses the room, the exacting still lives, disproportionately large, of glasses, a carafe, a cigarette; a group of locals playing cards, the pips legible; the boule trophies reflected in the mirrors behind the bar; the pattern of the tiled floor. It is Pagnol come to life, a triumph of the spirit glowing in the lamps you think are real for all their strange shapes. You don’t think of how it was done. Georges has made the place his own. He is home.

                                                                                                                                                           Peter Beale

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