Discovering Schuylkill County by the sea
Imagine a beautiful early autumn day in Paris. The wind is coming from the west, rolling in across the plains and low hills that separate the city from the sea. The day is crisp yet moist with a breath of salt air. Gulls and pigeons fly overhead.
On the ground, on the crowded esplanade of Chaillot Palace, perched on the Right Bank of the Seine, tourists jostle one another to get a glimpse of the very best view of the Eiffel Tower Paris has to offer. They take pictures, buy souvenirs, eat ice cream and crepes, happily milling in the crowd as they take in the city at its best.
I'm there too, making my way toward one of two identical palaces built for the 1937 World's Fair that flank the esplanade. I push open a heavy glass door and enter a deserted vestibule. The walls are bottle green, the lighting dim, but up ahead I can make out a security guard. I advance toward him and he shines a flashlight in my purse before he lets me pass.
It is nearly 5 o'clock on a Sunday afternoon. In two hours, the exhibit I have come to see at the Musee Nationale de la Marine (National Naval Museum) will close its doors for good. I can't incite readers to go see it - it's too late. But I hope I can communicate my enthusiasm for the artist I discovered, while sharing some connections between his work and Pennsylvania that may surprise you as much as they surprised me.
As for those of you who someday find yourselves on the Chaillot esplanade, I'd recommend you step inside the naval museum for an unforgettable voyage across the seven seas. Its collections of model boats, wooden figureheads and maritime paintings are among the best in the world.
To reach my destination, I wandered through them, a fitting preparation for the "plunge" I was about to take into the world of Mathurin Meheut (1882-1958), a complete artist, in that he painted, drew, sculpted, illustrated and made ceramics and tapestries, a vast body of work inseparable from his lifelong love of the sea.
Meheut was born in Lamballe, a town in Brittany, about 10 miles from the sea. His father was a carpenter. The son left school before he was 14 and worked for him until he was apprenticed to a house painter. Then he somehow convinced his father to send him to art school in Rennes, the capital of Brittany, where he studied applied arts before moving on to the School of Decorative Arts of Paris. Settling there, he worked in the fields of illustration and interior design until a return trip to his native Brittany changed his life.
In 1912 Meheut received a commission from a center of marine biology in Roscoff, a windswept port on the northern Breton coast. There he developed a passion for the flora and fauna of the sea, documenting in bold and colorful illustrations the life of the deep. These scientific drawings would later become an important source of inspiration for decorative motifs the artist used in murals and ceramic design.
Yet it was life on shore, on boats and in the coastal villages that became the focal point of Meheut's work. His entire life, until his death in 1958, he returned not only to Brittany, but also to Normandy and to France's Mediterranean shore, to capture with great empathy the people whose lives depended on the sea.
Sketching almost ceaselessly, producing thousands of drawings, he participated through his art in the life of their communities. He is on the beach in a storm as men and women, broad-shouldered, indifferent to rain and cold, drag a capsized fishing boat to shore, hoping there may still be lives on board to save.
He climbs among the mounds of goemon - a Breton word for red and brown sea algae - as workers load it onto wagons before carting it to fields where it will be used as fertilizer. He stands next to women, their heads wrapped in white veils, who rake the salt flats.
He also joins them in their cafes, where in Brittany, men and women, clasping each other around the waist, rock from side to side to the wheezing music of bagpipes. In Marseilles, he records listless dancing in a bordello. In the nearby resort of Cassis, he captures the life of those who go to the seaside to sun and relax.
During the 1920s and '30s, Meheut's fame grew and ocean liners hired him to decorate their ballrooms and dining rooms. He also put to use his expertise in marine biology to create deep-sea motifs for the dinner services used in the first-class dining rooms of these ships and in famous Parisian restaurants (the seafood restaurant Prunier still uses those dishes today). His illustrations graced dinner menus and he created posters vaunting exotic destinations during the heyday of luxury sea travel.
In 1930, he traveled all the way to Pittsburgh, commissioned by H.J. Heinz to participate in the decoration of the Hall of Nations in the company's service building. Meheut painted "The Discovery of the New World."
Working in different media, creating high art and low, all his life, Meheut remained faithful to the sea and its people, and his best work is devoted to them. Like his subjects, his palette is simple and direct, translucent blues and grays, strong yellows and ruddy red, much like rusty iron, often supported by a powerful black line.
Admiring his drawings, feeling their force, I am reminded of a contemporary of his, the American painter George Luks, born in Williamsport in 1867. In his watercolors of coal towns, I find the same translucent blues, the same ruddy red, the same empathy with people who engage in a daily struggle with nature to earn their livelihood.
In Luks' case, the depths of the sea are replaced by those of the coal mine, yet the resemblances are striking between his and Meheut's work. Take for example Luks' 1927 painting of Necho Allen discovering coal, on view in the library at Penn State Schuylkill. The glow of the fire, the ruddy earth reflect the palette of Meheut's painting "The Big Fishing Nets" or his sketches of red-sailed fishing boats as they put out to sea.
In other words, discovering Meheut, I somehow discover home.
For more examples of the work of Meheut and Luks, visit http://pottsville-paris-express.blogspot.fr.
(Honicker can be reached at honicker.republicanherald @gmail.com)