Aquarelle for the end of time

Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time is linked to the unknown watercolour – aquarelle – seen above by a chance overgrown path. Here is the story…

While staying recently outside the delightful fishing port of Saint-Gilles-Croix-de-Vie in the Vendée region of France I visited the museum devoted to the artist Henry Simon. Born in 1910 in nearby Saint-Hilaire-de-Riez, Henry Simon was one of a group of artists who explored the light and landscape of the northern Vendée in the 1930s. He spent time painting in Algiers in 1950 before returning to the Vendée where he lived until his death in 1987. Simon said that “Water is an always changing plastic element which allows a thousand different visions in a very short time”, and if he is known at all today outside the Vendée it is for his mature output which explores the relationship between the people of the region and the omnipresent sea. But there is an unknown darker side to his work, and the connection between this and the Messiaen quartet struck me as soon as I saw the original of the watercolour in the museum in Saint-Gilles-Croix-de-Vie.

In 1939 Henry Simon - who was a keen amateur musician - was mobilised into the French army. After being captured at Dunkerque in 1940 he was sent to Stalag 1B prisoner of war camp in East Prussia - now Poland. He continued painting while imprisoned, and after he returned to France in 1941 published twenty of the watercolours in a limited edition volume with a text by his brother André titled Compagnons de Silence (Comrades in Silence). Reproduced above is Le violinist au camp which Simon painted in Stalag 1B. As is well known, Olivier Messiaen was captured while serving as a medical auxiliary in the French Army, and the Quartet for the End of Time was composed in Stalag V111-A, a prison camp also located in what is now Poland. Simon's aquarelle is dated '1940/41' while Messiaen's quartet was given its first performance in Stalag_VIII-A in January 1941. Although the two camps were three hundred miles apart the coincidence is startling - or maybe it is not a coincidence?

France prefers to celebrate the folkloric elements of its past rather than the les années noires of 1940-45, and to my knowledge the connection between Henry Simon’s prison camp painting and Messiaen’s quartet has not been made before. The admirable Espace Henry Simon in Saint-Glles, which was created from the artist’s derelict studio and is managed by his daughter Monique Simon, sells reproductions of his paintings, but they do not include the sombre Le violinist au camp. However, when I expressed interest in the watercolour Ms Simon undertook to reproduce it, and I thank her for her co-operation. The copyright lies with the artist’s estate and the image above has been slightly cropped - interest in commercial reproduction should be directed to Monique Simon. Elsewhere I ask Was Olivier Messiaen part of the Vichy myth?

Also on Facebook and Twitter. Please respect the copyright of the reproduced Henry Simon painting. Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk


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