First fig: ‘every fruit has its secret’

First fig: ‘every fruit has its secret’

First fig 4

First fig: ‘every fruit has its secret’

Somewhere in the Bible there’s talk of ‘a good land, a land of brooks of water, of fountains and depths that spring out of valleys and hills; land of wheat, and barley, and vines, and fig trees, and pomegranates; a land of oil olive, and honey; a land wherein thou shalt eat bread without scarceness’. Was there ever a more mouth-watering list of things delectable?

When we took over our allotment four years ago I was surprised to discover that one of the items from that biblical catalogue – the fig – could be cultivated in these northern climes.  So, a year later, on land cleared of brambles and bindweed (surely some other biblical passage there?), I planted a Brown Turkey fig – and we settled down for a long wait.

Because you must wait at least three years before you can hope to get fruit from a freshly-planted fig.  This week we have harvested our first two figs.  Two figs! you might exclaim. So what? But these were figs that tasted as if they might have grown in the land of milk and honey: sun-warmed in this Indian summer, soft, succulent and sweet. Best of all, we had grown them in Dingle earth, and eaten them fresh from the branch.

First fig

Our first fig droops: ready to pick

Our Brown Turkey is regarded as the best variety of fig tree to go for.  The fruit ripens in late August, and has the combination of reddish-brown skin, red flesh and sweet flavour that makes me swoon. The figs are ready to pick when the fruit droops on its stalk and the skin is well coloured. When the skin cracks open it is fully ripe – there may even be a drop of nectar.

First fig 1

Second fig: almost ready to pluck

Googling for figgy words with which to pad out this post, I discovered that the Old Testament verse about beating swords into ploughshares also dwells on figs – as a symbol of peace and security:

And many nations shall come, and say, Come, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, and to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths: for the law shall go forth of Zion, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.

And he shall judge among many people, and rebuke strong nations afar off; and they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks: nation shall not lift up a sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.

But they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree; and none shall make them afraid

– Micah 4:4

It’s a vision of peace that is a reminder that the words were written in a time when most people lived by cultivating the land, and all they wanted after toiling all day was to be able to sit under their own fig tree without harassment from men waving spears and swords.  It’s a vision, too, that all those with an allotment will recognise.

The Bodhi Tree at the Mahabodhi Temple

The Bodhi Tree at the Mahabodhi Temple

There must be something about figs.  According to legend, it was while seated beneath a fig, or a close relative, the Bodhi tree, Gautama Siddhartha (aka the Buddha) received the enlightenment which gave birth to a new religion. The Bodhi Tree at the Mahabodhi Temple in Bodh Gaya, India is believed to be a direct descendant of the sacred fig tree under which the Buddha attained enlightenment.

First fig 3First fig 5

A Dingle Vale allotment yields up its riches: from plot to plate

The fig varieties grown in Britain (like our Brown Turkey)  develop fruit develop without flowers or  the need for pollination. That’s helpful, since we don’t have any fig wasps here to do the pollinating.  Because the remarkable thing about figs is that the flowers are inside the fruitlets that develop like little buds on the stems.  Elsewhere in the world, the flowers inside the fruitlets must be pollinated by a female fig wasp (a creature that lives for only two days) which must enter the fruitlet via a tiny opening at its apex.  The female wasp then proceeds to pollinate the stigmas of the fig before exiting the fig in search of other young receptive figs to complete the cycle. Once the fig wasp has left the fig, it ripens.

I mention all this botanical detail because there’s a lubricious poem about figs by DH Lawrence, from his collection Birds, Beasts, and Flowers, published in 1924, that has at its heart a couplet that reveals Lawrence’s knowledge of the fig tree’s strange botany: ‘There was a flower that flowered inward, womb-ward/Now there is a fruit like a ripe womb’.

In terms of today’s gender politics, Lawrence’s poem might raise eyebrows.  He represents the fig as a bearer of female mystery. But in the current age, as women assert themselves, he appears to say, the mystery of females is being destroyed: ‘the bursten fig’ is a ripe fig, and ‘ripe figs won’t keep’. Nonsense, of course, but this was a man who raged in verse and in prose against censorship and prurient attitudes toward sexuality, who was steadfastly anti-pornographic and who wrote passionately about nature and human experience. WH Auden once commented on  Lawrence’s poetry: ‘Whenever he…describes the anonymous life of stones, waters, forests, animals, flowers, chance travelling companions or passers-by, his bad temper and his dogmatism immediately vanish and he becomes the most enchanting companion imaginable, tender, intelligent, funny, and above all, happy.’

The ‘Fruits’ section of Lawrence’s collection is all about eating fruit and being changed by its sensual properties. In the case of the fig, its suggestively dangling fruit holds a mystery that can’t be understood intellectually, only experienced with the senses. Whatever else you might feel about the poem, ‘Fig’ certainly does that:

The proper way to eat a fig, in society,
Is to split it in four, holding it by the stump,
And open it, so that it is a glittering, rosy, moist, honied, heavy-petalled four-petalled flower.

Then you throw away the skin
Which is just like a four-sepalled calyx,
After you have taken off the blossom, with your lips.

But the vulgar way
Is just to put your mouth to the crack, and take out the flesh in one bite.

Every fruit has its secret.

The fig is a very secretive fruit.
As you see it standing growing, you feel at once it is symbolic :
And it seems male.
But when you come to know it better, you agree with the Romans, it is female.

The Italians vulgarly say, it stands for the female part ; the fig-fruit :
The fissure, the yoni,
The wonderful moist conductivity towards the centre.

The flowering all inward and womb-fibrilled ;
And but one orifice.

The fig, the horse-shoe, the squash-blossom.

There was a flower that flowered inward, womb-ward ;
Now there is a fruit like a ripe womb.

It was always a secret.
That’s how it should be, the female should always be secret.

There never was any standing aloft and unfolded on a bough
Like other flowers, in a revelation of petals ;
Silver-pink peach, venetian green glass of medlars and sorb-apples,
Shallow wine-cups on short, bulging stems
Openly pledging heaven :
Here’s to the thorn in flower ! Here is to Utterance !
The brave, adventurous rosaceæ.

Folded upon itself, and secret unutterable,
And milky-sapped, sap that curdles milk and makes ricotta,
Sap that smells strange on your fingers, that even goats won’t taste it ;
Folded upon itself, enclosed like any Mohammedan woman,
Its nakedness all within-walls, its flowering forever unseen,
One small way of access only, and this close-curtained from the light ;
Fig, fruit of the female mystery, covert and inward,
Mediterranean fruit, with your covert nakedness,
Where everything happens invisible, flowering and fertilization, and fruiting
In the inwardness of your you, that eye will never see
Till it’s finished, and you’re over-ripe, and you burst to give up your ghost.

Till the drop of ripeness exudes,
And the year is over.

And then the fig has kept her secret long enough.
So it explodes, and you see through the fissure the scarlet.
And the fig is finished, the year is over.

That’s how the fig dies, showing her crimson through the purple slit
Like a wound, the exposure of her secret, on the open day.
Like a prostitute, the bursten fig, making a show of her secret.

That’s how women die too.

The year is fallen over-ripe,
The year of our women.
The year of our women is fallen over-ripe.
The secret is laid bare.
And rottenness soon sets in.
The year of our women is fallen over-ripe.

When Eve once knew in her mind that she was naked
She quickly sewed fig-leaves, and sewed the same for the man.
She’d been naked all her days before,
But till then, till that apple of knowledge, she hadn’t had the fact on her mind.

She got the fact on her mind, and quickly sewed fig-leaves.
And women have been sewing ever since.
But now they stitch to adorn the bursten fig, not to cover it.
They have their nakedness more than ever on their mind,
And they won’t let us forget it.

Now, the secret
Becomes an affirmation through moist, scarlet lips
That laugh at the Lord’s indignation.

What then, good Lord ! cry the women.
We have kept our secret long enough.
We are a ripe fig.
Let us burst into affirmation.

They forget, ripe figs won’t keep.
Ripe figs won’t keep.

Honey-white figs of the north, black figs with scarlet inside, of the south.
Ripe figs won’t keep, won’t keep in any clime.
What then, when women the world over have all bursten into affirmation?
And bursten figs won’t keep?

Matisse, FigLeaves, 1948

Matisse, Fig Leaves, 1948

Finally, I had to include Matisse, having written about him yesterday.  In 1947 , he wrote about some fig leaves that he was drawing, saying how he was searching for the qualities that made them ‘almost unmistakably fig leaves’. He did not want to record exact copies of particular leaves. Instead, Matisse said, he worked to find the ‘common quality’ that united things despite their visible differences. He wrote of searching for an ‘inherent truth’ about the fig leaves.

Julian Merrow-Smith, Still life with figs and grey bowl

Julian Merrow-Smith, ‘Still life with figs and grey bowl’

Painting with scissors: Matisse’s cut-outs at Tate Modern

Painting with scissors: Matisse’s cut-outs at Tate Modern

Fortuitously, my recent trip to France was bookended by visits to exhibitions that showcased Matisse at the beginning and at the end of his career.  Towards the end of the first day I visited the Musee Matisse in his home town of Le Cateau-Cambresis, which houses an astonishing collection of his work, including striking examples from his younger years.  Then, on my way back through London, I  went to Tate Modern to see Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs, an unparalleled gathering of 130 of the joyous, exuberant works made by Matisse in the last decade of his life: a period which he regarded as a second life, a gift of time. A period in which he turned to painting with scissors. Continue reading “Painting with scissors: Matisse’s cut-outs at Tate Modern”

A summer of Matisse: the colour of music

A summer of Matisse: the colour of music

Music and colour may appear to have nothing in common, but they follow parallel paths.  Seven notes, with slight modifications, suffice to write any score.  Why is it not the same for the visual arts?
– Matisse

Our recent short break in Nice coincided with the final days of a city-wide tribute to Matisse – Un Ete Pour Matisse – that consisted of eight exhibitions celebrating his work and legacy presented in museums across the city.  I wrote in my last post about two of the three shows we managed to see; this post is about the third – Matisse: The Music at Work at the Matisse Museum (which was also celebrating its 50th anniversary). Continue reading “A summer of Matisse: the colour of music”

A summer of Matisse: Palm trees, palms, and the rhythms of jazz

A summer of Matisse: Palm trees, palms, and the rhythms of jazz

When we landed in Nice for a long weekend, a city-wide tribute to Matisse – Un Ete Pour Matisse – was just drawing to a close.  Comprising eight (yes, eight!) exhibitions celebrating his work and legacy, we managed in the short time we were there to see just three. Continue reading “A summer of Matisse: Palm trees, palms, and the rhythms of jazz”

Matisse in Nice: through an open window

Matisse in Nice: through an open window


We arrived in Nice for a long weekend to celebrate my birthday just as a summer-long tribute to Matisse was drawing to a close.  Nice 2013: A Summer for Matisse brought together many of the city museums to celebrate the artist who chose to live in Nice for more than thirty years.  2013 also marked the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Musee Matisse in Nice. Continue reading “Matisse in Nice: through an open window”

A new state pensioner’s salade Nicoise

A new state pensioner’s salade Nicoise


For my 65th birthday we flew to Nice for a long weekend.  Quite possibly, it’s my favourite city, relaxed and unpretentious, its face turned south to the Mediterranean and the broad sweep of the gorgeous Bay of Angels; a city with a beach and a promenade enlivened every hour of the day by a parade of strollers, rollerbladers, joggers, cyclists and bathers. Continue reading “A new state pensioner’s salade Nicoise”

Picasso in Bruges?

Picasso in Bruges?

Picasso in Bruges poster

Wandering around Bruges in July, we spotted a poster advertising an improbable-sounding art exhibition: Picasso in Bruges. We were strolling through the courtyard of Oud Sint Jan, Old St. John’s Hospital, an 11th-century hospital established to care for sick pilgrims and travellers.  It’s one of Europe’s oldest surviving hospital buildings.

Today part of the hospital complex holds the Hans Memling museum which we intended to visit, but overlooked after being sidetracked by the Picasso poster. The diversion proved worthwhile though, as the exhibition turned out to consist of drawings and lithographs – all of them from a private collection – not just by Picasso, but also by the likes of Joan Miro, Marc Chagall, Henri Matisse and others. The exhibition was pretty extensive, spreading through a series of galleries on two floors that overlooked the beautiful hospital courtyard.

Laura Knight La Grenouilliere 1910
Laura Knight, La Grenouilliere 1910

There were few oil paintings in the exhibition, though one of the first works we encountered was – Laura Knight’s La Grenouillere, painted in 1910. La Grenouillere was a riverside restaurant by the Seine a few miles outside Paris that had been frequented by Monet and Renoir.  The name literally translates as ‘frog pond’ but doesn’t refer to ponds or frogs as such.  At the time ‘frog’ was a slang term used by young men to refer to girls. Though that might have been one reason for the place’s attraction for the two painters, in the summer of 1869 both were drawn to paint the sunlit reflections on the water and the shades of greens and blues of the trees and the river. The two paintings would be amongst the first Impressionist landscapes.

Monet La Grenouillere 1869
Monet, La Grenouillere, 1869

I don’t know why Laura Knight chose to paint an almost exact replica of the central detail of Monet’s painting. Perhaps as a tribute: in 1907, Laura Knight and her husband moved to the artists’ colony in Newlyn, Cornwall where she began painting in an Impressionist style. This small work must have been painted there.

Claude Monet Campagne 1866
Claude Monet, Campagne 1866

My favourite work in the exhibition was this small drawing in coloured chalk by Claude Monet called simply Campagne. There was another work by him, too – a pastel, sketched from the balcony of the Savoy in 1901, of Waterloo Bridge.  Monet stayed at the Savoy three times after the hotel was recommended to him by Whistler. He used pastels and tan-coloured paper, bought on Charing Cross Road, after his paints, brushes and canvasses were delayed on the way from France.

Miro- Terres De Grand Feu 2
Miro, Terres De Grand Feu, 1956
Miro- Terres De Grand Feu
Miro, Terres De Grand Feu, 1956

There were several lithographs by Joan Miro on show, including a series entitled Terres De Grand Feu that had been produced for an exhibition that opened at the Galerie Maeght in Paris in 1956, before travelling to New York.

There were many wonderful late works by Matisse – all of them lithographs from the 1950s, some of them reproductions of drawings, others of paper cut-outs. Here is a gallery of some of them.

Matisse made hundreds of drawings, original prints and illustrated books. A biography of the artist  at sums up the extraordinary creativity of the last 14 years of his life in these words:

This last art form included what Matisse called his ‘flower books’. These were beautiful objects in themselves, inspired by the tradition of the Medieval manuscript. Faces, body parts, lovers, fruit and flowers reveal Matisse’s exquisite arabesque lines, along with an extraordinary sense of colour. For the celebrated Jazz for instance, the images are characterized by brilliant colours, swirling lines and arabesques form series of jewel-like shapes, in themes which range from the circus to female forms amongst the sea. Matisse made his images from coloured stencils based on paper cut-outs.

In 1941 Matisse was diagnosed with cancer and, following surgery, he started using a wheelchair. […]  However, Matisse’s extraordinary creativity could not be dampened. Une seconde vie, a second life, was what he called the last fourteen years of his life. Following and operation he found renewed and unexpected energies. This new lease of life led to an extraordinary burst of expression, the culmination of half a century of work, but also to a radical renewal that made it possible for him to create what he had always struggled for: “I have needed all that time to reach the stage where I can say what I want to say.”

With the aid of assistants he set about creating cut paper collages , often on a large scale, called gouaches découpés. By manoeuvring scissors through prepared sheets of paper, he inaugurated a new phase of his career. The cut-out was not an abdication from painting and sculpting: he called it “painting with scissors.” Matisse said, “Only what I created after the illness constitutes my real self: free, liberated.” Moreover, experimentation with cut-outs offered Matisse innumerable opportunities to fashion a new, aesthetically pleasing environment: “You see as I am obliged to remain often in bed because of the state of my health, I have made a little garden all around me where I can walk… There are leaves, fruits, a bird.”

Picasso Doisneau
Picasso photographed by Robert Doisneau

And so to Picasso.  Introduced by one of Robert Doisneau’s iconic photographs of the artist, the core of this exhibition consisted of prints from the 1950s. They included Dancer (1954), deftly created from a few coloured crayon strokes; Danse (1956), that creates a sense of joyous freedom out of a few black squiggles, two lines of scribble and two patches of coloured scrawl; and an autographed postcard of two hands, one giving, the other receiving a gift of flowers – again, the essence of simplicity, but vibrant and intensely emotional. There was also a magnificent little bronze statuette of a bull.

Danse, 1956
Danse, 1956

Then there were the doves. Picasso painted the dove as a symbol of peace repeatedly after the Second World War, reflecting his membership of the French Communist Party and support for the Mouvement de la Paix.  In October 1944, less than six weeks after the liberation of Paris, Picasso, aged 63, joined the French Communist party.  Shortly after, in an interview for L’Humanité, Picasso claimed that he had always fought, through the weapons of his art, like a true revolutionary. But he also said that the experience of the second world war had taught him that it was not sufficient to manifest political sympathies under the veil of mythologising artistic expression. “I have become a communist because our party strives more than any other to know and to build the world, to make men clearer thinkers, more free and more happy.”

Poster for Peace Conference, 1962
Poster for Peace Conference, 1962

In 1950 he was awarded the Lenin prize for his involvement in the Mouvement de la Paix, for which he had designed the emblem of a dove. His propaganda value as a prestigious artist was incalculable, and he generously donated time and money to the Party and associated organisations. He marched with the Front National des Intellectuels, but his contributions mostly took the form of paintings he donated for sale to raise money for related charities.

The matter of Picasso’s support for the Communist Party, even after Hungary in 1956, remains problematic.  But it’s probably true to say that what really motivated Picasso politically,  from Guernica onwards, was a deep commitment to peace, international understanding and equality. He avoided using overtly communist symbolism in his work and refused to work in the socialist realist style favoured by the party.

At the height of his involvement, Picasso toured Europe to promote the communist-supported Mouvement de la Paix, gave large donations to many communist causes, and produced a huge quantity of emblems, posters and portraits for communist publications on demand. His dove became a ubiquitous symbol of peace in the post-war era.

Picasso paints on glass
Picasso paints on glass

Also on display were preparatory drawings that Picasso made for the chapel in the town of Vallauris dedicated to peace.  The drawings were prefaced by this panel:

Right up until the end of his life Picasso remained committed to world peace. Works that reflect the horror of war and oppression on the population are numerous. In 1951, to celebrate his seventieth birthday, the town of Vallauris organised a party in the castle chapel of the city. Pablo Picasso came up with the idea of painting the chapel with the theme of war and peace. This project was both political and artistic.

Politically, Picasso was still very involved with the Communist Party as well as being Vice-Chairman of the World Peace Movement. Artistically, Pablo Picasso wanted to leave his mark by painting “his” chapel as other artists had done before him. In fact he really wanted to follow in the steps of Matisse who had painted the Chapel of the Rosary in Vence, and Chagall who had painted the Chapel of Our Lady of All Graces d’Assy. However, contrary to Matisse and Chagall, Picasso left out any religious characters and painted a Temple of Peace. The actual work was completed very quickly but was preceded by about 300 preparatory drawings that Picasso drew between April and September 1952.

Picasso highlights

And what of Bruges?  Well, what is there to add to the volume of words that have been written about this perfectly-preserved medieval town?  We walked from one end to the other, arriving eventually on the banks the main canal that encircles the town, connecting it to the still economically-important port of Zeebrugge.  Every vista beguiles the eye, but perhaps the best was the last, just before returning to the railway station: the begijnhof, a section of the town reserved for the Beguines, lay sisterhoods of the Roman Catholic Church, founded in the 13th century in the Low Countries, communities of widows or elderly unmarried women who vowed to serve God by tending the poor and sick, though without retiring from the world and taking vows like nuns.

We queued for frites in the main town square, ambled through the antiques market, visited the lace museum, lay on the grass beneath the turning blades of the still-working windmills on the canal bank, and drank tea across from the town hall as the horse-drawn tourist carriages driven by women in straw hats trotted past over the cobblestones.

Bruges gallery

See also

A visit to the Matisse Museum in Nice

The Matisse Museum, which we visited this morning,  is situated on the hill of Cimiez, and we reached it by walking through the gardens of the Franciscan monastery and the park with Roman ruins. Nearby is the Hotel Regina where Matisse lived for a time. The Museum has been open since 1963 and houses a collection of works left by the artist to the city of Nice where he lived from 1918 until 1954. Continue reading “A visit to the Matisse Museum in Nice”

Chapelle du Rosaire by Matisse

Chapelle du Rosaire by Matisse

Today we took the bus up into the hills to the small hilltop town of St Paul de Vence (1€ ticket!) to visit the Maeght Foundation and then on to Vence to see the Chapel du Rosaire, designed by Matisse.

The Chapel of the Rosary is a small chapel built for Dominican nuns in Vence. It was designed and decorated by Matisse between 1949 and 1951 and houses a number of Matisse originals. Matisse himself regarded the Chapel as his masterpiece.

In 1941, Matisse, who lived most of the year in Nice in the south of France, developed cancer and underwent surgery. During the long recovery he was particularly helped by Monique Bourgeois, who had responded to his advertisement seeking  “a young and pretty nurse” and who took care of Matisse with great tenderness. Matisse asked her to pose for him, which she did, and several drawings and paintings exist. In 1943 Monique decided to enter the Dominican convent in Vence, and she became Sister Jacques-Marie.

Matisse eventually bought a home at Vence, not far from the convent. She visited him and told him of the plans the Dominicans had to build a chapel in Vence. She asked Matisse if he would help with the design of the chapel. Though he had never done anything like it, but Matisse agreed to help, beginning in 1947.

There are three sets of stained glass windows, making use of just three colours: an intense yellow for the sun, an intense green for vegetation and cactus forms, and a vivid blue for the Mediterranean Sea, the Riviera sky and the Madonna. The two windows beside the altar are named the ‘Tree of Life’, but the forms are abstract. The colour from the windows floods the interior of the chapel, which is otherwise all white.

For the walls, Matisse designed three great murals made by painting on white tiles with black paint and then firing the large sections of tile. Behind the altar is a large image of St. Dominic, founder of the Order of Dominicans.

On the side wall there are abstract images of flowers and an image of the Madonna and Child, all created in black outlines on the white tiles. On the back wall of the chapel are the traditional 14 stations of the cross. Although the 14 stations are usually depicted individually, Matisse incorporated all of them on one wall in one cohesive composition.

Matisse also designed the priests’ vestments for the chapel, using the traditional ecclesiastical colors of the religious seasons: purple, black, rose, green, and red.

Postscript: here’s a moving extract from the BBC Modern Masters series in 2010, in which Alastair Sooke visits the Chapelle du Rosaire: