The Musée Saint Grégoire sits quietly amongst the Médiéval cobbled streets and steeply laid steps of Cordes Sur Ciel, France. The gallery is ran by passionate and knowledgable Australian couple W. John, an accomplished artist in his own right, and Yvonne Hackwell. The Musée holds within it’s 4 floors an extensive collection of Aboriginal paintings and crafts alongside sculptures by son Andrew Hackwell and surrealist paintings by the artist Morris Kennedy’s (1920 - 2008). The majority of visits are organised by appointment so that the Musée can guarantee a private view and tour from the collectors themselves.
I reflected on my expectations for the space and work before ringing the bell to the Musée's stone arched doorway. Cordes Sur Ciel’s summer season sees it’s main streets lined with one-roomed art galleries which maintain the shabby charm of the French countryside while exhibiting the quaint local abstracts and small crafts. Furthermore, the minimal design of the Musée's official website (http://www.museesaintgregoire.com) combined with my lack of experience in Australian aboriginal art left me ashamedly with little or no clue of what to expect. However, it would be the Musée’s enigma that would lead to a pleasurable experience: ‘ignorance was bliss.’
Entering the Musée on the third floor, I was struck by the sheer scale of the building as emphasised by its open plan interior. Contemporary stairs lined with original paintings, sculptures and crafts lead up towards a conference mezzanine, whilst perilously placed beneath my feet two parallel glass floors revealed the intriguing first and second floor galleries some 30 feet below. The architecture alone preserves the soul of the Médiéval stone whilst integrating the unapologetic boldness of modern steel structure. Perhaps this is why Andrew Hackwell’s metallic bird and lizard sculptures stand so comfortably within the space. Engineered from scrap metal parts, the beautifully crafted utopian cockerels were a particular favourite, their hand-adjustable wings, screw-bolt feet, and metallic heads resonating strongly with the character of the French countryside and the modernity of the Musée.
The private tour led us down the fluorescent orange glow of the staircase, a futuristic homage to Australia’s sun baked outback perhaps. Dedicated to The Hackwell Collection, the ground floor showcases chronologically an extensive 25 year collection of Aboriginal ‘dot’ paintings on bark, scrap material and Western introduced canvas. Supported by John’s enthusiasm and invaluable descriptions of the indigenous artists, materials, symbolism and cultural narratives, the paintings began to transform from abstraction into visual maps of community spirit and optimism. A particular favourite, painted by female artist Ada Bird Petyarre (1930 - 2009) depicted the sacred design of her ceremonial tattoos amongst her hanging breasts. The minimalist black and white painting, drawn out with a quick self-assuredness, felt deeply expressive and personal in its simplicity. Overall I was struck by the modernity of the collection. The indigenous artists independently discovered without prior knowledge of Western contemporary ‘greats’, the visual impacts expressive yet simple mark-making can achieve when combined with a limited colour palette. For example, Bai Bai Napangarti’s striking yellow-ochre painting highly resembled the work of Joan Miro, with her use of primary colour and attention to shape. For many Western abstract painters it took years of brave consideration to master the concept of ‘less is more’, whilst oversees in the middle of an isolated village, with no formal arts education, these same conclusions were being drawn.
The surreal aesthetic of Morris Kennedy’s paintings garishly fill the second floor space, depicting symbolic visions of a deeply unhappy mind. Invasions of monstrous creatures in past and future landscapes, his work cannot be described as ‘pretty’ nor should they be. Suffering from mental illness with periodic break downs, Kennedy found sanctuary in his remote studio in the Australian bush, desperately pressing his demons into canvas before discarding them to the outback. Found in a neglected shed and riddled with rot and webs, John and Yvonne salvaged this prolific collection for restoration and display.
The entirety of the Musée’s collection holds the same personal measure of care in its selection and curation. This is perhaps more obvious with the Aboriginal paintings, sculpture and crafts. Working and advocating for these indigenous tribes first-hand, John and Yvonne have created a deeply personal and thoughtful collection. You can feel their respect for the people and the culture, however with a refreshing lack of over-reverence. For example, led to an unceremonious pile of unframed canvas, John confidently whipped, ruffled and folded each piece aside revealing the bright and traditional patterns of the paintings below. He touched them like home, with a deserved familiarity. That is what the Médiéval Musée is to this work - a home from home.
If you’re ever in Cordes Sur Ciel the Musée Saint Grégoire is a must see. To organise a tour visit http://www.museesaintgregoire.com or their Facebook page at Musée Saint Grégoire.
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