In French, the sign along the roadside simply read: DANGER MORTAL! These were posted all along the winding coastal roads going out from the port at Le Palais. They covered most of the island. They were a very real warning as many of the island roads curved right along the coast, with precipitous and precarious views down from the cliffs, and across the inlets and bays. There were no guardrails.
We visited there in the summer of 1995 with our friend, the painter Holly Hughes and her mother Wanda, who at that time was the studio/office manager for the contemporary American painter Ellsworth Kelly. Wanda was armed with a map that had been given to her by Ellsworth so that we might find the ‘village’ where he had lived after WWII. Little did we know what a sight we were approaching?
Over the years on Belle-Isle, the largest of the Breton Islands, many artists found in the isolation, the savage waves and tides, the inspiration that they were searching for. Claude Monet, Henri Matisse, the actress Sarah Bernhardt and her companion the painter Georges Clairin, the Irish painter John Peter Russell, were all attracted to this special place, and later of course, so was Ellsworth Kelly.
During the fall of 1886, from 12 September to 25 November to be exact, Claude Monet lived and worked on Belle-Isle. During this time he produced a series of 39 paintings, exploring the weather and the wildness of this place.
Not to be outdone by the painters, the contemporary poet Patricia Clark from Grand Rapids, Michigan, recently visited Paris and many of the great museums there. She noticed in particular the paintings by Monet at the Musée D’Orsay, and the potential for an ekphrastic experience. When I asked Clark about this, this is what she said:
“As for the poem about Monet’s Rochers — we did not go out to the place, alas! Would love to see it. I believe (memory is slippery!) we saw the painting at the Musee D’Orsay. My method — such as it is! — is to buy postcards of paintings that really move me. . . . Then there’s a catalog. But I know I have a postcard of this painting.”
“I think what drew me to it is that it’s not an image I’d seen that much. It seems rougher and less ‘pretty’ than many Monets. I kept it in front of me and then one day, I started to write about it. That’s about as much as I recall — of course, a writer can’t help but layer their own issues over what they look at — so that’s what happens, doesn’t it? I hope that comes through.”[i]
“Les Rochers de Belle-Ille”
(after the painting by Claude Monet)
“No beach here—just the sea
swirling in blue
deep blue and green
Both the sea and the rocks
It’s a tired scene of their
each hour and day
The water’s force, erosion
of all the softest parts
leaving only solid rock
This you could be
crushed upon—the hardest
knowledge of all—
What is impervious to you, quite
No escaping the sea
throws you repeatedly on the rocks
of all you’re stupid about—
self-ignorance, deception, lies—
Instead someone calls this a scene,
a landscape, seascape—
yes, but first: crags of the mind, and soul.”[ii]
Following the end of WWII, from 1948 to 1954, the American artist and veteran Ellsworth Kelly visited and lived in several areas of France. In July 1949 he even rented a house on Belle-Ile-en-Mer for the summer and part of the fall. He had fallen in love with France and with its artists, especially Claude Monet and Henri Matisse.
In 1965 Kelly returned to Belle-Isle with a specific purpose, to re-visit certain sites that Monet had painted and witness them directly, not just metaphorically. Later in his life, 2005, he returned to Belle-Isle for a last series of drawings, not abstracted from the rocks, but directly created from the sources.[iii]
It is a landscape that would challenge one’s imagination. From the earliest visitors to contemporary painters and poets, one can only wonder how they felt when approaching these vistas for the first time. Looking out on this frighteningly beautiful land, with its bays, inlets, needles, rocks, and steep cliffs, it is no wonder that this entire region of France would come to be described as Finistère: the end of the earth.
[i] Clark, Patricia; in an e-mail response to this writer; 9 January 2021; 9:52 AM.
[ii] Clark, Patricia; Self-Portrait with a Million Dollars; Terrapin Books; West Caldwell, New Jersey; 2020; pp. 36-37.
[iii] Bois, Yve-Alain, and Sarah Lees; Monet/Kelly; Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute; Williamston, Massachusetts; and Yale University Press; New Haven and London; 2014.