Brian Breathnach (2B) recalls his time working as a studio assistant for Michael Farrell in Paris during the 1980s.
Micheal Farrell and Brian Breathnach (2B), La Ruche, Paris ,1983 (c) 2B
Southwest of Montparnasse in Paris, tucked away in the quiet enclave of the Passage de Dantzig, is the collective artists’ studios known as La Ruche (The Beehive). La Ruche is named after the central building in the enclosed and gated complex; this structure is a three-story twelve-sided circular edifice honeycombed with artists’ studios divided into wedges that fan out from a central staircase. The building was designed by Gustave Eiffel as a Wine Pavilion for the Great Exhibition of 1900, after which it was dismantled and rebuilt at its present location for use as artists’ studios. During the early twentieth century, La Ruche was home to many illustrious busy bees including Brancusi, Chagall, Modigliani and Soutine. Several other buildings are scattered throughout the surrounding sculpture gardens and one of these was home to Micheal Farrell for most of the 1970s and the early 1980s.
In 1982, I lived in Paris in a small attic room and worked at a restaurant as the plongeur by night, which afforded me the luxury of pursuing my precarious day-job as an artist. In mid summer, I organised a Bloomsday event at the restaurant with music and readings; I also exhibited a series of Joyce portraits in painting and collage, which I had made to celebrate his centenary. One evening, the manager extricated me from the depths of my overflowing sink and ushered me out into the public domain to meet a man who was having a look at my work on the walls and had asked to see me. It was Micheal Farrell: a man whose work I knew well and admired greatly – so it was a slightly surreal experience. We chatted briefly and I expressed interest in seeing his recent work, so Micheal told me about La Ruche and invited me to call out some time to visit. I began visiting Micheal at La Ruche casually from time to time and eventually we became friends.
By Christmas 1982 I was back in Dublin with no money, no work and very few prospects. I sent a ‘season’s greeting’ to Micheal Farrell, bemoaning the fact that I was stuck in Dublin, having somewhat lost my grip on things in Paris. A week later I received a phone call from la Ruche: Micheal wanted to know if I would like to return to Paris and work for him as an assistant. He would not be able to pay me but I would have a bed at his house, three square meals a day and all I could drink! It was an extraordinary opportunity and a way back to my treasured life in Paris. With this came another stroke of luck: a large Joyce collage portrait I had made for Bloomsday was sold in Dublin for £200. This amounted to a fortune for me in those days, considering the rent for my tiny room with a sloping ceiling, which I continued to maintain, was about £25 (200 Francs) per month. I took the first available flight back to Paris and presented myself for work at La Ruche.
Micheal’s project for us was to paint a series of 24 large canvases, each measuring approximately four feet tall by two feet wide. The series would be called Vingt-Quatre Heurs au Bistro (Twenty-Fours Hours at the Café). The central motif of each canvas would be the traditional coat stand found in French cafés, which would serve as a prop to hang sundry apparel on. Some of the coat stands would have a mirror behind them in which a glimpse of the revelry at the bar was reflected.
We began by propping up two large sheets of plywood on benches along the main wall of the studio. Two eight-foot lengths of canvas were cut from an enormous roll and these were stretched and stapled onto the two boards giving a panorama of surface in two sections a total of about sixteen feel long. The canvas was primed and then the prepared surface was sectioned in pencil into six equal panels. Allowing for canvas to wrap around the eventual stretchers, the inner image areas were drawn and then masked off with tape and the wraparound canvas covered with newsprint. We now had six identical blank spaces in two triptychs on two boards staring at us from our working wall of collage and masking tape. Micheal then produced a large outline drawing of a skeletal coat stand and this drawing was transferred onto each of the six working areas. We were ready to begin painting proper.
Micheal painted the exciting bits: the splashes of wine and beer, the spots flying off the cloths wishing to join in with the unseen festivities and fraternise with the blurred reflections in the mirror. I painted the coat stands: in flat even tones with a thin outline of blank canvas – and I also filled in the backgrounds. The contrast between these two disparate approaches to the handling of paint creates a lot of the magic in a Micheal Farrell work.
In a separate work on paper, Micheal painted a typical bravado expressionistic café interior. He wanted the usual enormous banal landscape encountered in many French cafés at the centre, so he handed me his finished work with a huge blank space in the middle. He asked me to copy a photograph of a mountain scene with a rustic cottage and a babbling brook. I spent many hours drawing the image in great detail with my 2B pencil and the contrast between the two sections of the work was very successful. On another occasion, Micheal pulled out a large unfinished stretched canvas from his James Joyce series depicting Joyce slouched in an armchair. He asked me to paint the armchair from a black and white photograph. I proceeded to paint the flame-like shapes onto the canvas with a fine sable brush and highly diluted black oil paint, leaving the blank canvas to do the work of the white areas of the design. We painted together for hours on end, drinking and listening to rock music, with Micheal intoning his mantra: Keep pushing the brush!
Shortly after I began working at La Ruche I received a small portrait commission and Micheal provided me with the canvas, paint and time in the studio to complete the work. He was very complementary about the result and this prompted me to suggest that I paint his portrait, which he agreed to. Again, Micheal provided me with the materials, which on this occasion included a five-by-three-foot stretched canvas. I began the full-length portrait by making a pencil drawing, which Micheal sat for patiently on a bar stool, and I gradually finished the large oil on canvas in the studio over the next few weeks. After my first week’s work at La Ruche, we reconvened for our customary pre-dinner drinks at the local corner café Le Dantzig. We clinked glasses and then Micheal handed me a 50 Frank note.
Working with canvas stretched on board, the resilience and flexibility of the surface allowed us to get tough with the work and really push the paint around. Laying the flats on the floor and developing all manner of splashes and scumbling, Micheal built the character of each piece, working vigorously from all angles and occasionally introducing foreign matter such as sand and sawdust. This part of the work was carried out in highly diluted acrylic paint, which flowed freely and was left to dry overnight or coaxed to a finish with a hairdryer. The main body of the work was executed in oils and again it is the disparity between oil paint and acrylic paint in a Micheal Farrell work that creates a great deal of the chemistry. It was an exhilarating experience and a privilege to watch a master working at such close quarters. We completed the first six paintings in the Vingt-Quatre Heure au Bistro series, after which I left Paris and travelled for several months. Micheal eventually reduced the proposed number of panels in the series to 14 and likened them without irony to the Stations of the Cross.
I met Micheal several times subsequently and he always had a dramatic story to tell; he might have been a writer. Today I have only a small fragment remaining from my full-length portrait of Micheal Farrell; it was filleted from the large rolled up canvas, which travelled with me for many years before my baggage became too cumbersome to carry. My memory is the same: after so many years, only fragments remain and much has been necessarily jettisoned. What I remember most from that time is that working with Micheal Farrell at La Ruche taught me as much about life and living as it did about the making of art. I will always be grateful to Micheal for that and for his generosity in showing me what it means to be a painter.
Brian Breathnach (2B) is a writer and artist living in Dublin
First published in the March / April 2014 Visual Artists’ News Sheet