There is so much art in Paris, the city is almost fit to burst. This summer, outside of the Louvre, the Musée d’Orsay and the Pompidou Centre, you could have visited five major shows, including a Kokoschka retrospective and a once-in-a-lifetime exhibition of works by Picasso on loan from the collection of the great man’s daughter, Maya Ruiz-Picasso.
All this plus Hip Hop 360, a festival of street art, with musical backing provided by the Philharmonie de Paris, a major exhibition of art from Central Asia and a breathtaking display of objects from Ancient Nubia in the time of the Pharaohs.
But do not be deceived. Art is everywhere in France, even in the tiny commune of Callac (population 2,229), equally remote from Rennes, Brest and Nantes and a world away from Paris.
Last Saturday, an exhibition of paintings by my wife, Louisa McCabe, celebrating Le Rêve Américain — the dream of millions of Americans to someday live in France — opened in Callac in the unlikely venue of the Museum of the Breton Spaniel.
The museum, dedicated to the hunting dog that is probably Callac’s most famous export, used to be a hotel. I once fantasised that I would buy the building and restore it to its original purpose, with me as the patron. But the dog lobby got there first. Today, though veneration of the spaniel remains front and centre, the museum also houses the local tourist office and provides space for local artists.
Come the grand opening, some 30 people turned up, which was a surprise, including the owner of a somewhat daunting 16th-century chateau who informed me that his wife’s ancestors had once forged an alliance with Elizabeth I of England against Phillip II of Spain. The speech of welcome was delivered by Annie, who used to run the (now closed) maison de la presse and is known to everyone in the town. The official photographer was Annie’s husband, Luciano, an Italian — a Roman, in fact — who met his future wife many years ago when they both worked for IBM in England.
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Louisa, from Massachusetts by way of New York, explained her understanding of the American Dream to a chorus of appreciative nods from the mostly French audience, who could never dream of living anywhere else. With the formalities out of the way, it was time for the smartphones to fill the resulting vacuum, resulting in a series of huddles as well as snapshots of the art on display. I found myself wondering what Chardin or Fragonard would have made of 21st-century technology. Une Dame avec son iPad, I suppose, or Un jeune homme attend une réponse sur Tinder.
Fast forward a week and we were back in the salle des fêtes getting ready for the annual Callac Book Fair. I say, annual, but in fact, due to the pandemic, the last time the fair was held was 2018. Once again, Annie and Luciano were the driving force, just as they are when they organise musical evenings in the church during the winter months. Louisa and a group of other artists had been allocated space around the outside of the hall in which to hang (and hopefully sell) their works. But the centre of the auditorium was devoted to rows of tables at which the public would be invited to meet and greet authors from across the region.
My job was simple. I was to be the back end of a pantomime horse that brought tables down two flights of stairs from a second-floor store room to the exhibition hall. Fortunately, as I remarked to my fellow drudge, a well-upholstered man in his sixties, we were young and strong. Next, under Luciano’s direction, we were switched to humping piles of chairs out of the main hall into a back room. I could only hope that the writers when they turned up would appreciate the extent to which I had suffered for their art.
But in the end, everything was done that had to be done, and it only remained for me to pick up a couple of baguettes from the boulangerie and head for home. The event itself wouldn’t open for another 24 hours.
Next week, it’s back to porridge. After months without rain and with temperatures (in Brittany!) regularly exceeding 35 degrees, the heavens finally opened, meaning that the grass and hedges are growing again and demanding my attention. One hedge, right next to the front gate, has a top knot a good three metres off the ground. Getting to it with my battery-powered trimmer is a task that requires both skill and daring — qualities that, at my age, are increasingly in short supply. But hang on. As I write, we are awaiting the arrival of two visitors from Paris, both years younger than us. Perhaps one of them can be persuaded to get up a stepladder and trim for his supper. The picture would paint itself: Taille-haie sur un Escabeau.