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The Colours of the Sacred

An Australian artist living in France tells the story of her 'via negativa': how she faced the 'dark side' - and found the Light.

by Camille Talansier

I would never have defined myself as a painter of the sacred years ago.

There is a vast difference between vaguely acknowledging that artists are people with a mission and transforming your creative life to express with the eyes of the soul the knowledge, the love and the understanding of God you have awoken to.

I was to be reluctantly shown that through even the most obscure and bitter experiences great graces and interior joy were slowly to unfold...

I was a painter of pretty things, an artist with an intuitive sense of decoration and design who used colour and harmony to create eminently saleable pictures that disturbed no-one. I had an agent in those heady Paris days. Twice a year we organized big fashionable shows where minor glitterati art fiends would throw their tips at me and thereby finance my small family.

The paintings were reflections of the outer me, flattering perfumes of experiences in faraway places. They saw me scouring the deserts of Arabia and Australia, the temples of Sechuan, and the spirit-houses of Ossetia... unconsciously seeking as it were a resting place for my soul.

Premises of other ways of seeing started to emerge and the champagne crowds still followed me, begging me further into decorative abstraction till the day a month before my imminent wedding I was heartlessly dumped in lower Brittany, on a street corner before 10 o'clock Mass, without even knowing it.

It was the start of Holy Week and I was to share in my way a little of Christ's Passion. Like in Tim Winton's The Riders, my fiance's disappearance was total and mystifying. The agony, the acid, the blood, the incomprehension, I felt I would succumb to the suffering. I struggled to offer it up, holding back walls of distress, urgently reciting the Rosary to block out the unbearable. My Hail Marys were sandbags, concrete buttresses against the tide of desolation which threatened to engulf me.

I resurfaced and left quietly to an Ignatian retreat where in the silence of the monastery I began to draw. Drawing had never come on impulse. It was associated with art school method, although even in my time, the conceptual dictatorship was firmly in position and drawing was a banned has-been. With a large graphite stick, large sketches of the night in Gethsemane, the Crown of Thorns, the Crucifixion, and Pentecost escaped from my hand in frantic free moments.

I saw myself timidly following in the footsteps of Alfred Manessier, the Northerner, who after many years as an atheist, turned to the faith after a retreat with the Trappists of La Grande Chartreuse and subsequently gave his life to glorifying God through contemporary sacred art...

I started feeling the crown of thorns pressing brutally inches deep inside my skull, and the thick homemade nails in Jesus' broken hands and the ignorant, coarse nature of the man who had manufactured them and His rising anguish and very human terror at death.

And the flood of light when Mary Magdala met the Gardener on Easter Morning.

I started painting what was happening to me...

The ink-blueness of the night in Gethsemane, the dark shapelessness of the sleeping Apostles and the strong urgent plea to the Father. Then the ashes of the dying sun, the ash-grey of mankind's hungover desperation, the ash colour of His death and our waiting. The dazzling white of the Resurrection, my thirst for white and the searing lines upwards and the red of Pentecost and the thousands of wavering lights held by pilgrims locked together in the universal brotherhood of faith.

These huge, intense paintings stand as true and relevant as ever in my studio, unsold.

My Parisian cocktail followers baulked at them. I heard pitying echoes of "she must be going through a rough time to be painting stuff like this", amidst pleas from agent and well-meaning family to revert to the pretty and superficial of before or at least keep this "dark side" for my free time.

I had stopped selling.

My diary reads: June18th 2001 Poverty will set in. I too will be misunderstood. I accept it, if it is to be part of God's plan for me.

That was almost four years ago.

Today, I have survived, married and have been refined and strengthened from the experience. I have become drawn intensely to stained glass, to its bones-and-skin play with light, to its immaterial quality creating a vision of the beyond. I make maquettes for stained glass, huge nylon and silk lengths stretched taut on wooden frames sandwiched between layers of rice paper and shards of coloured plastic. And now the Dax Museum in France is to hold a show of my paintings entitled From the Shadows to the Light, a symbolic homage to the events which have so profoundly transformed my person.

Born in Indonesia of French parents, artist Camille Masson-Talansier came to Australia as a child. She had her first solo exhibition in Sydney in 1981, and since then has had many successful shows in France, where she returned to live in the 1990's. She now lives in the south of France with her husband and children, and as well as painting and exhibiting, owns and operates an art and antiques gallery with her husband. Recently, Camille was commissioned to create stained glass artwork, based on the rule of St Benedict, for her old school, Mount St Benedict in Sydney.

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