One of the most delightful aspects of small French villages is the hidden talent that can only be discovered thanks to word of mouth. Sainte Valière, just north of Narbonne, is another example of this; thanks to Eloise Caleo of the lovely art residence, Hôtel Sainte Valière, where I was staying and working.
She talked of a local resident, Alain Dodier, who does the most amazing embroidery in long panelled chronicles. I was intrigued. Regrettably, one of our current assumptions in life is that women embroider, not so much men. However, I was gloriously mistaken in Alain’s case.
Having always loved to draw and paint, despite extreme myopia from early childhood, Alain eventually gravitated to channelling his talents into the creation of embroidered images of great beauty. He learned how to work in the Bayeux fashion when he was living in Bayeux in the 1970s. This way of embroidering, using an outline stitch and infilling with a limited palette of coloured threads in couched stitches, was pioneered in the famous Bayeux tapestry depicting the Norman conquest of England by William the Conqueror in 1066. Its roughly seventy meter length was created in the 11th century as a way to diffuse to the mostly illiterate population the message about William the Conqueror’s achievements. (A wonderful 21st century footnote is that Alain Dodier has apparently been commissioned recently to complete the missing three meters of the Bayeux Tapestry’s story.)
Alain began to create astonishing embroidered pictures, experimenting with ways in which he could translate light or water effects, or favourite paintings, into embroidered panels. Later, alone after his wife died, he began exploring aspects of his adoptive region, the Languedoc Roussillon area of southern France.
His first enormous and very ambitious project was a thirty meter long,50 centimetre wide panel on beautiful linen, embroidering the History of the Cathars. A splinter group of Christians who appeared in the Languedoc region in the 11th century, they were attacked and persecuted by the Catholic Church in what was de facto the first bitter and murderous crusade, the Albigensian Crusade that was launched early in the 13th century and ended when the last of the Cathars were hunted almost to extermination in the 1240s. This effort by the Pope to suppress the Cathars led to numerous atrocities, a huge societal rift and a lingering memory of great damage in that region.
Alain Dodier’s painstaking historical research, meticulous depiction of famous landmarks, people and incidents involved in these struggles and his passionate implicit plea for peace and understanding in our world by the creation has resulted in an astounding work of art. First he drew out the long series of images to be embroidered, spacing them, finding their rhythm and narrative, then transferred them to the linen panel. He selected the special embroidery silks, their colour spectrum carefully balanced and the historical context remembered.
Passion, patience and painstaking artistic skill are hallmarks of this remarkable embroidery. As Alain unrolled the large panel, which had taken him some 500 hours of embroidery time to create, he recounted incident after incident of the struggles and suffering of the long-ago inhabitants of that area. Names of today’s towns so often in the news recurred again and again – Toulouse, Carcassonne, Montségur, Béziers, Minerve, Narbonne. His wonderful depictions of chain-mailed warriors, priests, villagers caught up in the struggle, troubadours and ladies move in and out of accurate images of armaments, siege equipment and torture instruments of the time. Even the lamps, the architecture and the heraldry are all part of the story, carefully researched and literally embroidered into the story.
Mingled in the grim history were touches of delicious touches of fantasy and humour – for instance, he popped himself in many scenes, almost hidden behind trees or posts, the witness from the 21st century to past crimes of intolerance, persecution and torture. Half humour, half a plea that we should all learn not to do what seems to come all too easily to each generation down the ages to our own times.
Alain was dizzying in his generous sharing of passion and skill. I felt that one should spend hours studying the details of this amazing combination of history and artistry. So all I could do was to try to record some of the images.
What is even more amazing is that having covered this dark and complex Cathar period in the history of Southern France, Alain has now embarked on another huge and important story of the region – the Pilgrims’ route to Santiago de Compostela. Wending their way southwards through France, many of the pilgrims converged in the Languedoc region before moving to the Pyrenees and thus onwards into north-west Spain. Alain is busy embroidering their tale.
Let me tell you more of that creation in another blog.