Nautical Elegance from the “Belle Epoque”

This is a guest post by Bertrand Godfroid.

Robin, Isaac and I wait by the water’s edge of the Jardin des Anglais at the foot of Lake Leman. We are surrounded by Geneva in full fête mode. Merry-go-rounds go round merrily spinning every possible nationality; all smiling and taking selfies. Odourful stalls tout hot dogs, donuts and candy floss. But it is not the fête that excites us. The Compagnie General de Navigation sur le Lac Leman (CGN) has invited Talking Beautiful Stuff to take an evening cruise aboard the “Savoie.”

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We watch in fascination as the most elegant of paddle steamers approaches it’s moorings to pick us up. Seagulls flap away as it gives a long, loud and steamy blast on its foghorn. We step on board. We are greeted by that delicate and unmistakable mix of fragrances of cool lake water, varnished wood and engine oil.

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The setting sun catches the glasses and bottles of a welcoming little cocktail bar. The restaurant that will soon fill with our fellow passengers is all linen tablecloths and glistening cutlery. If one is looking for for a film-set fantasy romantic interlude, there is nowhere that better fits the bill.

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We are welcomed warmly by the captain, 48 year-old Jean-Martial Mercanton. He has been in charge of this vessel since 2012. He follows in his father’s foot steps. He describes his working day and responsibilities with unfettered enthusiasm and tells us the most satisfying part of his job derives from sharing the country’s heritage with others. His only headaches come from the unpredictable weather, especially the famously vicious storms that barrel up the Rhone valley from warmer climes to crash into and over the nearby Alps. This is a man who loves his job and, by all accounts, looks after his crew.

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The Savoie, has to be high on any list scoring bygone nautical elegance and Captain Mercanton is rightly proud of his charge. It was built in Switzerland in 1914. The massive 900 horsepower high-low pressure cylinder engine was originally powered by coal. This was converted to oil in 1962. Amazingly, the boat only underwent its first full renovation in 2004. What’s more, this vessel is only one of eight of the CGN’s fleet of truly beautiful “belle époque” paddle-steamers.

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The engine room is open to view from the middle deck. It is mesmerising. It is all massive shiney whirling oily piston pumping power kept in line and running by engineer Yan Umberti and his team. The engine room tour is mesmerising. We stand amidst it all just grinning like school kids. This is so much fun!

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Twenty-five year-old Yan’s job is to keep the whole thing fired and lubricated ; he is never still. He handles the massive set of levers and controls with practiced ease taking his orders from Captain Mercanton the old-fashioned way by verbal orders. Between filling oil cylinders, checking steam and furnace temperatures he is happy to chat.

Yan patiently explains how the steam is produced from 16,000 litres of lake water, heated to 108 degree C, circulates through the two cylinders that drive the main shaft of the paddles and eventually exits having been mixed with lake water. We ask him if they have ever had a crisis on board. He tells of a day when there was a genuine engine failure with passengers on board. He was able to scavenge a part from another boat and run a temporary repair. The cruise finished albeit a little late. I note he refers to the engine as a person. Does he or she have a character? “She certainly does!” responds Yan. “She can be unpredictable. Sometimes the cylinders seem to get a bit out of synch and sometimes she just plays up and we don’t know why.” “Does she have a name?” I ask. “Yes, Josephine!” I ask where he will be in ten years time. “Right here! With Josephine!” he replies with a huge smile.

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Drenched in perspiration from the 55 degrees in the engine room, we go up to the upper level and order a cool drink. The sun has almost set whilst in Yan’s domain. We are invited to look at the dinner menu and decide on scallops and delicate mushroom raviolis washed down with a fine local gamay. Lightening strikes on distant mountains as we cruise slowly back down the lake. I am overcome with a feeling that all is well in the world. Very well.

If there is one thing you should do when visiting Geneva, it’s to take a cruise on Lac Leman aboard the Savoie. In the meantime, take a look at some more pics of our cruise.

Three favourite snaps nominated for the 2018 Geneva Photo Awards

I’m at Galerie La Cave, this week hosting 2018’s Geneva Photo Awards. There are lots and lots of photos on the walls, all submitted by local photographers. One of the friendly hosts hands out pens and papers and asks visitors to “vote for your three favourite photos.” The most popular photos will be announced at finissage on 25 March.

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I look. I stop. I think. There are photos of people and animals, landscapes and streets, concrete and abstract. Many of them are technically accomplished. Some capture moments, others evoke emotions. But there is no common narrative or theme, and there are no captions. I struggle, but manage to narrow down my favourites to three. I take photos.

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“Karnak” by Arnaud Chamorel

I love the harsh contrast and light in Arnaud Chamore’s photo from the Karnak Temple Complex in Egypt. It reminds me of Gabriele Croppi’s photos of European metropolis. Whatever camera and editing software Arnaud used, the contrasty and monochromatic result is bold, moody and elegant! Unfortunately, there’s little space on the wall at home.

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“Le Tram Blur* by Neil Maccormack

Neil Maccormack’s photo of Rive is fun! The fisheye-distortion combined with a long-exposure makes the whole place look like a funfair. We all know that it’s not, but that doesn’t matter. I appreciate photographers who go that extra mile to find a fresh view of a scene often experienced from only one or two perspectives.

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“La Jonction Canard” by Frédérique Tissandier

The third and last photo getting my vote is shot by my colleague Frédérique Tissandier. The one-legged duck looks happy, ready take a dip in river Rhône. A simple composition with balanced colours like this can never go wrong. Well done, Fred!

Unless memory fails, this is the third year the Swiss Photo Club hosts the Awards. It’s clearly a very clever way of encouraging local photographers (their family and friends) to share their best photos and meet up with people who share the same passion. Well done, guys! I’m looking forward to next year’s edition, and perhaps I will then submit one of my photos…

Roger Pfund at Artvera’s Gallery

Talking Beautiful Stuff takes on the opening of the Roger Pfund exhibition at Artvera’s. The invitation bears his iconic 1980 design for the last 50 French franc note. We get to the gallery early, grab a glass of champagne and soak up the atmosphere of this very classy exhibition. Geneva’s great and good drift in. Roger Pfund, who has designed bank notes and passports, created the visual identity of museums and depicted the spirit of human rights, is now a sprightly 75 years old. He sits quietly surrounded by admirers. He remains the only person to be honoured during their own lifetime with a major retrospective at Geneva’s Museum of History and Art.

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Roger Pfund, Nijinsky Dancer, mixed media, 2005, 140cm x 104cm

For Roger Pfund, the “vertebral column” of his work has always been painting. I admire and adore his huge mixed media portrait of Vaslav Nijinsky based on a 1912 photograph by Adolf Meyer

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A hallmark of his work is the mastery of and versatility with a wide range of techniques and materials including, oil, acrylic, charcoal, collage, screen print and engraving. It’s all on show this evening.

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Roger Pfund, Droits de l’Homme (Human Rights,) mixed media, 2006,  700cm x 180cm

One of Pfund’s most celebrated works comprises eight separate framed pictures together bearing the words of the first article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights along the outstretched arms – or wings – of a Nijinsky figure. There is something incredibly primitive about this image. It is as if the spirit of the great dancer, rather than being crucified, simply spreads its broad wings and takes flight as a result of his fundamental rights being respected.

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This is a vast work. To appreciate it, one needs a wide view……

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…… and a close up. Does this incorporated print technique allude to banknote design? And talking of banknotes, if you go to Artvera’s – and you should – before this exhibition closes on 7th April, just take note of the price tag on this one!!

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The basement is dedicated to Pfund’s banknote designs. They are printed in high definition on aluminium plate using subligraphie. The reproductions are protected by PhyGital (a merge of physical and digital technologies;) an authenticity certification system developed by a Swiss enterprise, Trueplus. Pride of place is given to an exquisite series of notes designed according to various European “époques and styles.” Each note is a masterpiece. In 1996, this series was awarded first prize by an international jury charged with finding a suitable design for the then-new Euro currency. Inevitably, European politics intervened and the second-placed design was finally chosen.

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We leave the exhibition buzzing. If you’re in town, don’t miss this opportunity for a brush with soul-enriching genius.

Art Geneva 2018 by the Lakeside

Art Geneva 2018 has come and gone. What remains is a series of sculptures selected for the lakeside extension of this ever-growing art fare. I think this is the best part of the whole show. I love it. Big, bold public sculpture in an ideal setting. There’s just one problem. It’s minus 6 degrees by the lake today. The wind barrelling down from Lausanne makes it colder still. Wave-made icicles hang off “no swimming” signs (!) and mooring ropes. Only a few hardy dog-walkers and I are out and about. Somehow, the sculptures stand immune to and united against the blistering cold.

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Gonzalo Lebrija “Cubo Torcido” Polyurethane paint on steel, 2017

Gonzalo Lebrija’s twisted cube sits on a neat and clean base. It is itself a neat and clean structure. The smooth worked steel makes for blade-like lines. I run my numb thumb down it’s frozen edges. The proportions and feel are pleasing.

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Anthony Gormley “Big Take” Forged iron, 2014

O frabjous day! An Anthony Gormley. Somehow, someone from Art Geneva has managed to snag from somewhere and install here a work by the master of forged iron big public sculpture. I walk around it. No clean base this time but some carefully laid turf. Were it not for the temperature, I would sit by it for an hour or so and simply admire its balanced cuboid proportions. It makes me happy.

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Barry Flanagan “Large monument” Bronze, 1996

My third choice is Barry Flanagan’s “Large monument”. The name doesn’t help understand what passed through the sculpter’s mind in the creative process. Maybe this builds on the intrigue. I am sure there is a reference to some otherworld fantasy. (It reminds me of Paul Dibbles very real-world “Calici scythe“) Three happy rabbitoid figures prance and dance atop a tall, rough, solidly-sitting throne-like thingummyjig. A fourth figure sits pensively as though he/she/it is bored with the prance-dance. The reason I admire it is that whilst it is certainly a “large monument,” I can’t see Mr Flanagan taking the necessary work terribly seriously. I think he just had fun.

If you can’t brave the cold now wait a week or so for a slightly warmer Geneva lakeside to take in these sculptures. Individually and collectively, they are immensely gratifying.

The Surroundings of Niura Bellavinha

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Niura Bellavinha with Lusco Fusco (Fluidos e Fixos,) 2015 Acrylic and oil on canvas 130cm x 230cm

Once again, Espace L  brings a fragment of Brazilian creative culture to down-town Geneva. The gallery’s new exhibition “Alentours” (Surroundings) opens this weekend. It’s worth checking out. The main act is the work of Niura Bellavinha. I meet her fresh from the airport. What she has brought with her awaits hanging; she takes me on a tour.

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Infiltração (Fluidos e Fixos,) 2010 Acrylic and oil on canvas 50cm x 39cm

An explanation of the technique behind her trademark, almost tartan-like, canvases gets lost in our Portufranglais translation. What I gather is that bold red paint running over delicate muted blue rectangles is achieved in part by infiltration of a heavy liquid layer of paint applied to the reverse of the canvas and allowed to permeate through. The technique is as intriguing as Niura herself; she tells me that this represents her personal surroundings.

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iTaLíTica_NháNhá, 2016 Acrylic and oil on canvas 100cm x 100cm

She becomes animated when she discusses her destructively mined home state of Minas Gerais. The rich red-brown pigment in the canvases representing her environmental surroundings is back-yard dust. She tells me of the importance of using the oldest and most basic pigments possible; the now familiar understated mineral blue is zirconium extracted from meteorites (Wow!)

The most intriguing (and the most difficult to photograph!) is a combined work representing Niura’s cosmic surroundings. Photographs of constellations taken by the Hubble telescope are juxtaposed with beautiful little dark canvases painted with ground meteorite. They glitter infinitely.

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Articulado Guignard, 2010 Multimedia

Niura is intense, other-worldly and mystical. She hands me a sumptuous book of her complete works that makes manifest her extensive career, imagination and talent. Espace L has done well to capture some fragments of her surroundings. Meeting her is a unique experience and, if I am honest, I leave the gallery a little bit in love with such an unchained spirit.