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A Window of the Past

photo: gal montbel, from inside la palette

View from the bar of the café La Palette of the gallery.

Martin Vaughn–James Exhibition

Paris:– Saturday, 7. February:– It is cooler than it's been and the sky is spitting at me and Uncle Den–Den as we cross from the shopping–crazed right bank via the Pont Neuf to the calm nightfall of the left bank. Uncle Den–Den wishes he'd brought an umbrella. It's the last day of the 'Soldes d'Hiver,' but umbrellas are only 'on sale' in dreams.

We are coming from the Forum des Images where we've seen a Laurel and Hardy movie at a matinée with a couple of hundred kids and some of their parents. This part of the day was for 'old times' sake' and the next part will be for 'living in Paris' sake.' Neither of us could have done this in any of our 'old days.'

It is just about sundown and a great variety of clouds are hurtling around the big sky. Crossing the old bridge is done quickly because we're exposed to the earth version of the winds up where the clouds are.

At the quay on the left bank side, we go along it instead of taking the Rue Guénégaud whichphoto: from gallery to palette is a shorter route, but is a narrow street full of stalled traffic. We tramp over the cobblestones in front of the Institut de France and I am asked if I know about its bibliothèque. I don't, and I have been asked before.

The gallery's café is right across the Rue de Seine.

The Rue de Seine has some very narrow, stone–cobble sidewalks. There are many art galleries in it, so people are always stopping to look in the windows, which creates sidewalk versions of road–blocks. It's better to not be in a hurry, but the sky is spitting.

When we get to the café La Palette we go inside and take over a bit of the bar in the left corner. The place is pretty full, partly because it's too dreary to be out on the terrace, and partly because it is always full.

Uncle Den–Den, whose real name is Dennis, is also called 'Dennis' here. He comes often because he has a lot of visitors and he brings them all to La Palette. So he is somewhat surprised when Madame says 'bonsoir' to me. She doesn't know my name, but I used to come here with friends often when I was first in Paris.

Madame doesn't want to know that it was 28 years ago. She retaliates by mentioning that she is still blonde, while I have evolved to 'white.' I'm not sure I remember her being blonde before, but why quibble when everybody is in such a good mood?

I must have an unforgettable face because I have a handshake with the café's patron, Jean–François, too. After he leaves to growl at timid customers, Dennis tells me that he is looking for a tennis partner. The nice thing about being on the left bank, is that there are tennis courts in the not–far–off Luxembourg gardens. But Dennis doesn't do tennis – he does old movies.

There are two good things about hanging off the left side of the bar. One is that we are out of the way of the stream of La Palette's horde of fans who are constantly coming and going, and the other is we can see the gallery where we're going, right across the Rue de Seine.

We are early anyhow. We don't see anybody across the street we know, so we stay where we are, with my double–espresso and Dennis' glass of red wine. Dennis tells me aboutphoto: martin vaughn james, painting the café's new toilet. It used to have a step up going in and some people used to miss it coming out – so it was fixed up to be stepless. There's still only one toilet though.

Martin talks to a potential collector.

Then it starts being like the 'old days' when Laurel Avery and Barry Wright crowd into our station at the bar. Since it is Saturday, I know it's not a club meeting, but just a coincidence in the Rue de Seine. I also know that it's time to get to work.

The Galerie Eric de Montbel is far from the largest in Paris, but it is possibly closest to La Palette. This puts its guest artist, Martin Vaughn– James, equally close.

His works, 'œuvres récents,' are far from close. They are like bits of the personal memories, perhaps mostly from the first 30 years of the last century, of people he never knew, but there are some of people he does know – like Dimitri – whose kiddie–age peddle–car can be glimpsed through a patina of age, hand–crafted by Martin Vaughn–James.

According to Hastaire, who has written the notes for the exhibition, Martin Vaughn–James takes fragments of real pasts, and subjects them to various tortures, including sandpaper, and mysteriously, 'chimiques.'

The result is a visual past that seems about as clear as your memory, especially if you happened to have been born in 1904. And if you are that age, you could have been in Montparnasse or even here in the Quartier Latin, at the end of the '20s and would be perfectly familiar with your steamer trunk – which you will need shortly, because the party is over and it's time to take the ship home.

The small gallery's walls have several of these creations, and while the vernissage is going on, more are delivered and stacked against a wall at the rear of the gallery. Friends of the artist, friends of the gallery, and just plain friends show up.

Out in the blue sundown of the Rue de Seine strollers have a certain curiosity because most events in the streetphoto: cafe la palette are on Thursdays. I do not learn why the artist is returning to Belgium, on any one of three trains leaving hourly from Gare du Nord tonight. Maybe he intends to use one of the tickets from his paintings, so he can send an unwritten postcard without a stamp from there.

The terrace of La Palette.

Back in La Palette there is nobody I know hanging from the bar. They are just inside the door to the billiard room, which is just about full. It is cocktail time in the Quartier Latin and the murmur of voices is like a high waterfall gaining height, and a greater flow of water.

Voices at the table of the Daguerréotypistas are like Martin's paintings. They sound sandpapered by the ambiance, put through a wringer of distortion, cigarette smoke and the clink of glasses. We play musical chairs as one or another leaves to check on the gallery.

Martin takes a chair free for an instant. The only thing I hear him say is that some of the works nearly make themselves, but the architectural ones – the Palais de Longchamp at Marseille, for example – take care, because a potential collector will want it to be more accurate than the real thing, present or past.

Then he moves to a table at the other end of the café's billiard room, and Dimitri is borrowing a cigarette. Uncle Den–Den calls for a bottle of wine – it is more practical than ordering it by the glass. I think, throw a bit of acrylic inphoto: galerie eric de montbel here and add some of Martin's chemistry, give us a light sanding with fine paper, fix us to a canvas and get us delivered across the Rue de Seine.

The gallery is an attraction for passing strollers.

I guess it been a long time since I was La Palette's billiard room. I'm pretty sure it was cleaned since then, but not within the last ten or 15 years. Here we are, in 1976 – even if it isn't the same 'we,' it is the same room and the same people are running the bar in front, and Jean–François is collecting for Uncle Den–Den's bottle, just like time has stood still for nearly 30 years.

Maybe, without knowing it, we are one of Martin Vaughn–James' paintings.

Martin Vaughn–James – has an exhibition of his latest works, which continues until Saturday, 13. March. Open from Tuesday to Saturday, from 11:00 to 13:00 and from 14:00 to 19:00. On view at the Galerie Eric de Montbel, 34. Rue de Seine, Paris 6. Métro: Odéon. InfoTel.: 01 43 29 34 31.

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