Written on board Regentag, New Zealand, April 1996.
Brô, Paysages et Figures, Exhibition catalogue for Abbaye-Aux-Dames, Caen, 1996 (in French)
After that strange and utterly mysterious death, such as often happens to the great who are no longer with us, I have never stopped talking to Brô.
It is almost as if I owed him something. Would he be pleased or displeased with what I am doing? I see things with Brô’s eyes – or at least I try, instinctively, to do so.
His burial was extraordinary; I felt that it could never, ever have snowed so hard in Paris. The mass was held in the Catholic Orthodox church of Saint-Julien-le-Pauvre, just opposite the windows of the house in the rue Galande where Brô had lived and painted during his final years, and from which he had vanished so bizarrely into the void, just like Brô. As if he didn’t want anyone to find him.
I hired a car but in the snowstorm I arrived at the cemetery too late.
All that could be seen was the freshly-dug earth.
From the grave you can see the manor at Courgeron.
From hill to hill.
Brô was quite simply too big, too different, to be seen clearly by others; he lived on another scale, on another level, and in order to see him they had to go up or he had to come down.
I was just a little Austrian nobody when I met Brô, Bernard and Micheline in Tuscany. We were all of us hitch-hiking and all of us bowled over by the beauty of Sienna, of San Gimignano, of Pompeii, Taormina and Palermo, by the art, the architecture and nature.
I have to say that in the beginning it was the extraordinary beauty of Micheline which attracted me, but she had eyes only for Brô and Bernard. I was nothing but an extra, someone tagging along whom they had found by chance on the roadside. Perhaps they didn’t know it, but by picking me up they were conferring a remarkable gift, for it was from that moment that my life really began. It is to them that I owe my birth as a painter. And it was Brô in particular who opened my eyes onto an extraordinary world; until then I had been outside without the key.
It was the summer of 1949. They were all three wildly different from other human beings. They behaved, perfectly naturally, as if on them alone depended the rebirth of humanitarian, religious and artistic culture throughout the world. They represented a programme, a universal ideology which had been created by themselves. I had never seen anything like it.
They were bearded or shaven-headed and wore Chinese coolie hats and very simple, elegant clothes, in a refined style similar to that of ancient Egypt, which they had designed and sewn for themselves. They either went barefoot or wore sandals which were also of their own making; they constituted in themselves a travelling exhibition of the fashions of ages yet to come. There was nothing of the Bohemian picturesque about them – their behaviour was as earnest as that of a pioneer, of someone from a better world that was infinitely more beautiful and more just.
To achieve supreme order through beauty was no longer a Utopia but a well-defined path, a concrete and viable procedure.
Brô and Bernard vied with each other in inventions - sartorial, pictorial, philosophical, literary – and in feats of bodily courage, appealing to Micheline as their referee, Micheline who dominated everything with her immense eyes, her Egyptian nose and her long black hair.
And then what daily dramas between the three of them! I had never seen or been present at anything like it, not even in the most wild and extravagant films or novels. It was a duel of giants from another universe, and I was a witness. In the end, Micheline chose Brô. We were hitch-hiking from Taormina to Messina on an open lorry by night, under the stars.
At Palermo, we followed a tip from other hitch-hikers and let ourselves be repatriated by rail, travelling free on the omnibus as far as Ventimiglia on the French frontier. The omnibus was the slowest possible train, taking three days and two nights to travel from the south to the north of Italy. There the carabinieri handed us over to the French customs officials, who shook their heads since I, as an Austrian, should really have been repatriated to the Austrian frontier. Anyway, that is how I got into France, where people called me “Monsieur”, which impressed me enormously.
Brô was forever embroiled in arguments with every conceivable authority and with their paperwork. He loathed it. I remember that he lived very peacefully with his resident ghost in his manor at Courgeron, where he painted the plains of the Orne, scattered with apple trees, where the horizons were formed of interlacing, undulating hills.
We were very good friends but we rarely lived together. Once in the winter I rang Brô from Venice or from Vienna. He told me that he was well but that his ghost had caught a cold and was coughing.
His studio was on the first floor of the manor of Courgeron, reached by a very old stone spiral staircase that wound round and round in a manner befitting any château worthy of the name.
There was no electricity. Water was fetched in pails from a well 50 metres lower down and the house was lit by paraffin lamps. Brô finally resigned himself, at the insistence of his friends, to taking the necessary steps to get electricity laid on. Filling in the forms and going down to the office of EDF in Argentan was torture to him; he never drove, which made matters worse, and then he had to pay with postal orders which also had to be filled in.
So Brô awaited the advent of electricity - which never arrived. After waiting a long time, he had to leave without having seen any electric light.
When Brô came back one gloomy evening after a stay in Venice or America and turned on, with high hopes, a brand new electric switch, nothing happened. What he found instead was a large number of letters stuffed into the letter-box at the entrance to his lime avenue. Once he had lit his accustomed paraffin lamps, he read them; one was from EDF demanding payment of the balance due on the sum to cover installation of electric power, another was for payment of the sum due for his electricity consumption! There were also a number of warnings and demands for payment within a certain time … failing which, the company would be obliged to cut off his electricity supply.
And then there were the letters informing him that the electricity had been cut off, together with payment orders to cover the cost of cutting off the electricity, and notification of fines because he had failed to make payment.
It isn’t hard to imagine how Brô, who was inclined to be pessimistic anyway, felt.
This was exactly the sort of misfortune that could only happen to Brô, and was quite typical of him.
He went down once again to Argentan to pay the arrears and the fines. Apart from all this, he had to renew the process for having the electricity reinstalled. In fact, EDF kept him waiting during his entire stay at Courgeron and Brô went off once again without having had any electric light.
When he returned a few months later the same thing happened all over again. No electricity, but instead sums to pay for installation, cutting off, fines and costs.
In this way, Brô paid for a couple of years’ electricity without ever having the pleasure of using it.
Brô told me all this in great detail, very bitterly, adding that if he went through the wood on foot to the grocery du Pinat Haras to buy a bottle of paraffin to light his lamps, he knew exactly where he was.
Having a bank account which paid EDF automatically in his absence created yet another complication. There were more forms to fill in and the constant anxiety of ensuring that there was money in the account, otherwise even worse catastrophes could follow, for example a cheque which bounced leading to the confiscation of Courgeron. On the other hand, with a litre of paraffin, you were easy in your mind and were never bothered about anything.
Brô was a living encyclopaedia, he knew everything. He was always surrounded by learned books of every description – philosophy, history, alchemy, politics, art, architecture, botany, geography, etc…, opened at interesting pages. As for me, I never read anything except illustrated novels, crosswords, Simenon and Winnie the Pooh, and I was very impressed.
He spoke at length of his conclusions and ideas on the future, the present and what was to come. He was a savant and a philosopher who wished to attain supreme order through beauty. This was precisely what the post-war intellectual avant-garde denied most vehemently and still do today, following the maxim: all that is beautiful is bad, all that is ugly is good. It’s so simple and so false. Brô and I almost always returned to this particular topic of conversation, we two alone against the cultural intellectuals who were made even more extreme by their links with the left-wing intellectualism in vogue at that time in Paris.
Brô suffered more than I did from this dictatorial and destructive intellectual power, this diktat in favour of ugliness and emptiness so clearly demonstrated by the art criticism, museums and galleries in fashion then.
Each meeting with Brô was a gift for me. He showed me his house in Ramatuelle, we sailed together on my boat Regentag from Venice right across the Adriatic as far as Tunis with Brô taking the tiller at night, we painted together in winter at Hahnsäge, a small abandoned sawmill in the middle of a pine forest on the banks of the Kamp, when it was minus 20o in the snow. We often went walking and driving around Courgeron in Normandy. The last time we were together was in New Zealand in the bottlehouse in the valley of Kaurini.
I always felt that I owed Brô something because I hadn’t done enough for him and I felt somehow guilty for having been more successful than he had. So once, in order to cheer Brô up – for he was often taciturn and sad – I showed him and told him about the most devastating and humiliating of the bad critical reviews I’d had. What happened as a result was something that I had not in the least expected; he became even more solemn and said: ‘Me too – I would like to have some bad critical reviews’. I realized that I had made a quite unpardonable blunder.
Brô took it as the most natural thing in the world that I should invite him to stay with me and to paint in various places: Venice at the Casa di Maria alla Giudecca opposite San Marco and the house of the caretaker at the Giardino Eden in front of the lagoon, at the Hahnsäge mill in Austria, at the bottlehouse in New Zealand and in the rue Galande from where one could see the bell-tower of Notre Dame de Paris.
I was also able to arrange exhibitions for him in Norway, in Vienna, in Zurich and in Washington, and I was particularly proud of having enabled him to realise an unfulfilled wish, a stay in Tahiti with an exhibition at the Musée Gauguin. At the very beginning of our friendship,
Brô had shown me an exotic and highly personal little book; it was absorbing, visionary and was written and illustrated in black and white by Gauguin himself.
But none of this was sufficient to repay Brô for all that he had done for me. He was the one who had welcomed me to Tuscany, had taken me to Paris, had let me live in his studio on the impasse des Sureaux at Charenton and above all had opened the door into the realm of beauty for me.
Brô and I had made another exchange. It was through him that I came to paint almond eyes set high up in round heads, they were eyes like Micheline’s but above all they resembled those in the mosaics at Ravenna and the paintings at Sienna.
In return, it was through me that he was enabled to paint trees like those of the German painter Walter Kampmann, round, radiant trees with souls and an inner life and a halo-like aureole. So we each of us painted such heads and trees, but after our own fashion.
In 1949 and 1950 I was living with the family of Augustin Dumage, who was a friend of Brô and Bernard. And it was in that old hunting lodge of Napoleon III on the edge of the forest of Vincennes that Brô and I painted two murals together: “The land of men, of trees and of birds” and “The miraculous draught”. Brô did the drawing and I filled in the colours. But Brô often painted too while I did the drawing. We used paint made with glue and casein which we mixed up ourselves with quicklime and curds.
Brô was my teacher in another way, too, imparting much commonsense wisdom on life and on daily survival. Ecologically, he was Green before his time; for example, he showed me how to survive using wheat. With five kilos of untreated wheat bought at the farm gate, one could live for a month for a quite derisory sum, say 1 franc - or was it 5 francs? Brô explained to me that, to prevent people eating wheat so cheap that it was beyond all comparison with the price of food in general, the state forbade the farmer from selling wheat directly to the public, had wheat intended for animal consumption stained red or blue and treated wheat as a state monopoly. This was also the reason why the price of wheat in the shop would be kept artificially high, above that of flour or of bread.
Brô knew an inexhaustible number of these “state secrets”. With wheat you could make soups, leavened bread, coffee (by roasting the wheat), green salad (by allowing the wheat to sprout), pancakes and any number of other dishes. Brô showed me how to make wheat pancakes. First he crushed the wheat so that it was neither too coarse nor too fine, using an old iron wheat mill which boasted a handle with a very impressive wheel. Then he steeped it in water for 15 minutes and after that shaped it into a pancake about a centimetre thick, which was grilled in a very hot pan. It was Brô’s favourite meal, replacing bread and meat and being much more nourishing and tasty. I still eat these pancakes and I always think of Brô; I’ve never seen them anywhere else, not in a restaurant or friends’ houses, nor on the tables of peasants or ecologists. I wonder why such a simple meal, so excellent, so cheap and so obvious, is unknown and unused in our wheat-based civilisation. This pancake ought to be called after Brô, “Brô’s pancake”, because it was certainly Brô who invented it.
Brô left me, just before he disappeared, some tokens of farewell, little paintings that he had done on commonplace everyday objects, about 10 centimetres square. They are mostly blue blobs, or rather brush-strokes, on a silvered background. I keep finding them, every day, in the most strange and unlikely places. On doors, next to door handles, on the edges of tables, on the stovepipes, in different places, on a Japanese paper lampshade and even in white coloured pencil on a tile. I try to preserve them while at the same time using the articles. It’s sometimes difficult to explain to the cleaning ladies who want to clear everything up that these signs are sacred.
As far as I know, Brô was loved and admired by a number of women, but he never spoke to me of these amours.
Brô flew over our heads like a giant bear in a balloon. We had our eyes on the ground, otherwise we would have seen him; we were not yet ready for Brô. His message of paradise is very clear but it has been carefully put away for safekeeping in a thick and sacred book, a book whose key we have lost and not yet found again.
Written on board Regentag, New Zealand, April 1996.
Brô, Paysages et Figures, Exhibition catalogue for Abbaye-Aux-Dames, Caen, 1996 (in French)