Art and Death on the Rocky Coast(from The Forked River Anthology)
January 2008In the largest coastal town, St Cyprian, the longtime mayor Jacques Bouille (62) is in trouble. His push to rival Ceret’s pre-eminence as a centre for modern art has ended behind bars. Le Journal’s front-page is Bizarre, bizarre.C’est un bordel. He was arrested on Christmas Day for buying art works with public money to decorate the walls of his house. This fort-like mansion is famous for having windows on only one side, and it’s not the front. Chez Bouille in effect is a private gallery worth at least ten million euros.
The exhibits are eclectic: lesser know Fauves, drawings by Giacometti’s brother, and a spate of current fashionable artists. Bouille stockpiled artworks elsewhere too. On the walls of the main St Cyprian museum a stray Othon Friesz appeared (unattributed and, indeed, unnoticed). A Jean Puy has been discovered in the toilet of a bar owned by his cousin-in-law. Others remain to be found, but not in the Gallery of Contemporary Art that he inaugurated a few years ago. It hosts touring exhibitions, but doesn’t have a permanent collection.
We know the new gallery’s desk staff. A chatty young art historian whose petit ami lives in Port-Vendres, and must be someone’s husband, as she was coy about the name. And Bouille’s wife, Marie-Antoinette, doesn’t talk but hands you the leaflet for the expo, keeping her eyes on her book. We’ve seen rather classy shows there: Japanese maximalists, Dutch minimalists, nursery toys repainted into satires of domestic life… The loquacious but knowledgeable artistic director, Giles de Montauzon, resigned unexpectedly about three years ago. Asked why, the chatty historian said he had reached his point de rolex (retirement age). As it is an honorary position this explanation surprised us. Since then the shows have been in the desk staff’s hands, and going down hill (drawings by Francis Bacon, mainly soiled newspaper cuttings, that have traveled the world).
I must have seen Jacques Bouille at vernissages, but don’t remember him. No doubt overshadowed by Giles de Montaizon, whose every moleheap is a mountain, and all his ideas extraordinaire. Bouille’s photo in Le Journal suggests une homme discret. He is an ex-toubit (a general practitioner) and looks like a listener who can’t wait to scribble a cure on a proscription pad. In the blotched photographs that Le Journal specializes in, his features are fogged as though you forgot your spectacles. But one can see clearly heart-shaped cuff-links on his sleeve.
Most of the staff in the Town Hall are under investigation. A dozen or so have been charged, including the acting mayor, Fontville, who joins Jacques Bouille in jail. Bouille has been refused bail, allegedly ‘for fear of intimidation of witnesses’. In a letter to the newspaper he reiterates, ‘Everything was done for Marie-Antoinette. She loves art and I love her. And now she’s forbidden to visit me’. The facsimile shows the hand of a desperate man, a feeble and uneven scrawl, leaving some sentences unfinished. It was the last letter Le Journal could publish. The judge accused the paper of influencing the course of justice.
We take in the expo at the St Cyprian museum, drawings from the Desnoyer collection. He was the most famous local artist ever, notable for hobnobbing with the Post-Expressionists in Paris. Sedate beach scenes from the nineteen fifties. Bathing beauties in two-piece swimsuits, sportifs in striped singlets, fluffy dogs. Nobody is drowning. Happy days when the law didn’t concern itself with what mayors were up to. The Contemporary Art gallery looks terminally closed.
The coastal road back to Port-Vendres is a wilderness of new housing developments until you reach Argelès. I thought of Hermann Goring. He had a similar art obsession to Bouille. And he didn’t do it for the wife or the money. Prestige in ownership, and attracting the right class of German to the National Socialist Party, was enough. It is possible he liked art too. At the fall of the Reich his private gallery had over a thousand paintings, hundreds of sculptures and tapestries. Some were gifts or bribes. Most were extorted. Art is a badman’s world. But it touches the heart.
The burnt out car belonged to the second adjoint mayor of St Cyprian, Marc Blasco (54), who in February tried to end his days by jumping from a bridge over the Route Nationale. He was responsibie for seafront affairs, and had fast-food (malbouffe) businesses there. Blasco is still in hospital. Better than jail if you didn’t have a broken neck. But he isn’t talking. And won’t be, says an unnamed friend to the paper, ‘unless he wants his family home torched too’.
On Mayday Remi Bolte (68), the office manager in the Town Hall, was put under house arrest. Local wags say that he is the verrou (bolt) to Bouille’s écrou (nut). Apparently they were the joint masterminds, and had friends in high places in regional and national politics. There are photos to prove it. But Bolte isn’t talking. It’s everybody for himself. Bouille’s request for bail has once again been refused. His isolation is now complete, with no hope of protection from above. He has been in solitary confinement for five months.
On the last day of May Bouille hangs himself with the cord of his dressing gown. I can almost hear the universal sigh of relief. There is no scapegoat like a dead one. The process is discontinued, apart from some lose threads to tie with Town Hall staff. The talk is of a reign of terror, and the tyrant has gone to his reward.
The Bishop of Perpignan allowed Bouille a Church funeral, which briefly united the town behind the family. A demure but defiant wife and two grown-up children walked in the marche blanche silencieuse, to the cemetery. I think there would have been some poetical justice if he had been buried in the Plage d’Art, the beach he renamed. The UMP party didn’t even send a Mass card. But the his opponents in the Party Socialists did him the honors.
Marie-Antoinette Bouille is suing the prison service for an ‘administrative error’
in allowing Jaques Bouilles a cord in his dressing gown. Her advocate, Gerald Deplanque, says a month before the death tranquillizers were found his cell. Madame Bouille was not told about that. Normally compensation for such mistakes is twenty-five thousand euros. Marie-Antoinette wants one and a quarter million.
2012 – December 2015
The original case still stutters on. The dossier is several thousand pages. But, apart from the Swiss connection, nobody outside St Cyprian has been deigned complicit. Marc Blasco was quickly released once he was discharged from hospital circa 2010. And Remi Bolt, although he’s still being pursued, apparently for dodgy book keeping. But the possibility of the friends in high places being brought in either as witnesses or beneficiaries of the art and property scam has passed. Most of those seen with Bolt in the famous photographs are no longer in politics (a certain Senator Blanc alleged to have overseen the blanchissage, money laundering, received a parting Legion of Honour). The UMP party has got behind the new mayor, Thierry Del Posa, who put the paintings on the market to spend on social housing. Needless to say the Town Hall is now squeaky clean, it’s said.
June 2015In a 267 page judgment the charges against the Swiss Piller and several others was relaxed. But the Town Hall staff, and Madame Bouille, were given prison sentences and some fined up to 50,000 euros. All have been appealed.
The process resumes and the fines have been increased. This is no doubt designed to discourage further appeals. But I don’t think the fat lady is ready to sing. The local politicians and functionaries so far adjudged may want to enlarge the game.