Friday, 14 September 2007

The sky's the limit

The clay has got a hold of me.

A week after crashing out - because that's what top players do - of the journalists' tournament at Roland Garros, I went back. Not to relive the scene of my ignominy but to knock up with one of my colleagues from the radio station.

The bonus was that the session was free. There aren't going to be many times in my life where I can play without paying so I figured I might as well do it on one of the best clay courts in the world.

I phoned at 9am to check that the courts were clear and I was told 1pm.

It all seems so effete. As I finished early at the radio station on Thursday I took in the From Cézanne to Picasso exhibition at the Musée D'Orsay.

Typical me this, I read about the show probably before I went to America and probably decided to catch it while I was alone in Paris during the summer. So clearly that plan failed because the whole family is back and the exhibition finishes on Sunday. Glad I went. Sad I couldn't see it a few times. It's stunning.

Nearly 200 paintings, drawings and pieces of sculpture that were either commissioned, bought or sold by Ambroise Vollard. Loads of the old-fashioned kind of art where you can discern the subject in the picture.

Vollard knew how to back a pony. His exhibition in 1895 of Cézanne's works not only made the artist's reputation but it made Vollard the big cheese on the dealer scene at the age of 29.

Van Gogh, Gauguin and Picasso were among the people he steered. It was Vollard who offered Matisse his first solo show in 1904, just three years after doing the same thing for Picasso.

"The most beautiful woman who ever lived," said Picasso, "never had her portrait painted or etched more often than Vollard by Cézanne, Bonnard and others."

Picasso drew a few, Renoir painted three pictures including one in which Vollard is dressed as a toreador. Pierre Bonnard did seven.

I liked the one from 1904. In this the 38-year-old dealer sits, caressing his cat, in a pose befitting a 007 villain.

"Observe Mr Bonnard," he says turning his head from side to side, "the instruments of art world domination."

With this view into Vollard's complex, it's easy to see that he was an astute judge of what was viable. He bought into André Derain and Matisse when hostile critics were dubbing them "fauves" (wild beasts).

One example of his savvy was with Cézanne's Le Fumeur accoudé from 1891. When Vollard sold it to the Russian industrialist Ivan Morosov in 1909 for 22,000 francs it was almost 100 times more than he'd paid for it 10 years earlier.

That beats even London house price inflation.

As I sat in a café after the show, I saw a couple of Scotland football supporters. They stopped at a corner to decide whether their path lay along the Rue de Lille or to the river along the Rue de la Légion D'Honneur.

One thing's for sure, the France coach Raymond Domenech won't be getting that medal pinned on him. His team's 1-0 defeat to Scotland on Wednesday had L'Equipe ululating on Thursday morning just four days after it was glorifying the side for it's 0-0 draw in Italy.

It's a fickle thing this sporting life. There are three games to go in Euro 2008 qualifying Group B. France still could make it.

However it will be over for the rugby team if they don't get their act together against Namibia on Sunday.

I find it difficult to complain about the football team though. Last summer they furnished me with an unprecedented sensation: being in a country where the team is contesting the World Cup Final. Never happened to me while I was living in England, that's for sure. Marvellous night it was. Right down to Zidane's headbutt on Materazzi.

You couldn't have written that. Seems hard to believe that the caucus of that side won't be in Austria and Switzerland next year.

Especially since England might be gracing the competition with their brand of dynamic incompetence. A man discarded a few years ago - Emille Heskey - comes back amid a general "Uh?" and galvanises a team to make everyone sigh: "Ah". Three nil against Israel - well they aren't that good. And then three nil against Russia - they are more than competent.

The Russia coach, Guus Hiddink, said after the match that his side had been very good in the development of play but no so good in the "punishment" side of affairs.

Well if they'd had a centre-forward called Dostoevsky that would've been a crime. But they didn't. England had Michael Owen who, since his Wunderkind days of the 1998 World Cup, has developed into a consistent punisher.

All of a sudden from the despair of the loss in Croatia to euphoria. England players can get their designer sunglasses ready for the mountain air.

I'm getting ready for some sea air. Back off to America in a few weeks with the three children and my nephew to see my grand-father.

After my nightmare experience with American Airlines in July, we're travelling Air France.

Hope they're better than their rugby and football teams.