What’s the story behind ‘Peu à Peu Sortant de la Brume’?
The title of this painting is taken from a score direction by Debussy to his piano prelude La Cathédrale Engloutie, ‘The Sunken Cathedral’. The idea behind the prelude, and which inspired the series of works that Ceri Richards made on this theme, was the legend of the drowned cathedral of the mythical city of Ys, on the Brittany coast. At moments of profound calm (profondement calme is another of the directions to the score), it is said, the sound of the cathedral bells could be heard. The prelude plays with this notion of music emerging from the sea, reaching a kind of climax, and then retreating again.
Richards was fascinated by the idea of nature re-assimilating the human and the man-made. He loved the music of Debussy and was himself a gifted pianist, and the sunken cathedral became the subject of a long series of paintings, collages, and prints.
What’s going on in this particular painting?
Peu à Peu Sortant de la Brume, ‘slowly rising from the mist’, is clearly inspired by sea vapour in the air, probably early morning or evening at a time when the sun is low and you have these strong aerial colours in the sky. At the bottom we can see motifs that recur in Richards’ paintings on this theme relating to the architecture of the cathedral, and to the notion of the building itself being reabsorbed into nature, of the stonework becoming one with the rocks of the sea. Richards was born on the Gower peninsula, on the South Wales coast, and much of the inspiration for these paintings came from his experiences of looking down from the cliffs on to the flat rock formations below, which have a kind of architectural feel.
How has it been painted?
The actual technique here is that he has created a painterly ground and then scored into it, perhaps with the wrong end of a paintbrush, to create what’s called a sgraffito effect. This gives the ‘stony’ sections of the painting the feel of something engraved. If you look at rocks on the shore you’ll find lines riven into them where pebbles have been forced again and again by the sea to etch into their surface, much like the engraved lines on cathedral columns or carvings. This painting invokes a memory of that experience of the both the mineral and the man-made.
What I like particularly about this painting is that you have this atmospheric, almost geometrically abstract passage at the top in sharp colour relating to the air and the insubstantial, while at the bottom you have the realisation in the paint itself of that which is mineral, and of architectural and artistic marks made by man. You have air, landscape, music, colour, time - the atmospheric and the mineral - all held together and fused imaginatively in what is really a very simple and very beautiful abstract design.