Le grand homme de la nuit

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The park is immense: we leave the car near the house on the lake, where the couple lived, and where, we can imagine, Hélène planned her acquisitions. We walk around the house, a structure that inspires solid wealth, and a longing for a bygone age. The sombre bricks reflect in the water, children have left their bikes against the steps that lead to the wide terrace. We follow a narrow path that serpents on what must be, in winter, a very wet land. The ground is soft but almost dry, despite the recent torrential rain. The path takes us to a square building, in the style of the house, which encloses a well. Nearby we leave the main track to circle around a small pond covered with lilies: a beautiful toad meditates on one of the larger leaves, impassible. But we want to see the museum and the famed arboretum. Most visitors are cycling and we feel somewhat ashamed of driving.
The sculpture garden closes at four thirty, so we decide to go and see the Van Gogh gallery first, then visit the garden – a museum of modern sculptures and installations. Hélène had good taste, and a large (they say “unlimited”) budget. She bought Van Gogh both before the painter had achieved fame, and later. His early work is astounding: Van Gogh painted peasants in his native land. The Potatoes Eaters show the rugged faces and hands of a poor family, lunching under the light of a small petrol lamp. The beautiful Dutch white coiffes contrast with the dark garments. The profiles are almost medieval. The collection is an amazing treasure trove. We recognise some the best known paintings, the postman and his wife, the village main square at night – the stars in the Mediterranean sky! – the light of Provence. Hélène bought many avant-garde paintings, Seurat, Picasso, Monet, Mondrian… An hour goes by and we haven’t seen more than a third of the museum. You say that we ought to visit the garden, and then come back to see as much as we can before closure.
This is an enchanted place: the sunlight bounces across the green lawns, and lits the sculptures scattered over open spaces, reflecting in small basins, or part hidden in the trees. You guide us through the maze, and we watch, mesmerised, the variety of inspirations and forms. There is la femme accroupie de Rodin, there the columns of the Sacred Grove

Later, you walk back to the museum, as I continue to explore the garden.
I retrace our steps, and discover more hidden treasures. It is there, a little away from the main path, that I sense him. He stands, in the shade of a large tree, on a block of stone so that his small size is not immediately evident. As I look up the reptilian face, taking in the short arms, terminated into powerful triangular wings, and the cruel hooves, the sun disappears behind a dark cloud. The face is inscrutable, the enormous penis, half erect, exudes menace. I dare take a first picture that turns out blank, then try again, this time more successfully. I read the legend, “Le grand homme de la nuit”, and the name of the artist, Germaine Richier (1904-1959). I can no longer hear voices, nor the laughter of children playing on the grass. I feel the malevolent presence, and ask myself, was Germaine his victim? Suddenly I feel the need to move away from le grand homme.

I walk back to the museum, and look for you. “Did you see anything interesting?” you ask. “It’s a delightful place, and we must come back for another visit…” I reply cheerfully.

Inspired by a visit to the Kröller-Müller park and museum, near Arnheim, Netherlands

Germaine Richier (en français)

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