There’s a beautiful sculpture in La Rochelle which, if you didn’t know where it was, would be easy to miss, tucked into a walkway near the Tour de la Lanterne. When I visited this time last year I walked past this little enigmatic creation with my friend and we stopped to ponder it & take some photos.
Cast in bronze are a couple of hundred little individual human faces, many of which have a book blossoming from the top of their skulls and others appear to be reading the book of the head below. This allows these contemplative characters to flow together, those flicking through the pages of the head below & having their own thoughts examined are perhaps reading each others’ minds, and they have a rather cheeky and humorous appearance. Some of these also have a hand protruding from the bronze background to turn the page, but other heads have hands gently touching their cheek or more worriedly grasping their chin and appear to stare through you, into the distance, giving them a more melancholic air.
During the year since I have contemplated this piece from time to time when it comes up in my photos. And I decided eventually that it was high time to do a little pen & watercolour version to send to my French friends. Drawing something, even if it is already an artwork itself (as I found during the Urban Sketchers’ trip to the Birmingham Museum), is a much more intimate way to see and understand a piece of art. If I hadn’t spent 20 minutes drawing a knife in the Birmingham museum, I would have never really noticed the delicately engraved hunting scenes down its blade for example.
One of my favourite aspects of this particular sculpture in La Rochelle is the way in which the heads, as well as the bronze backing behind them, crack and fragment, over whole swathes of the intricate faces. I read recently that both memory and imagination are formed in the same part of the brain – which begins to explain how we can transform and mis-remember our histories – and these dispersing heads remind me of the temporality, unreliability and instability of thought, memory and the past.