A luminous, blue tree explodes above the Paris rooftops of the 5ième arrondissement. L’arbre bleu (or the blue tree) is the flâneur’s reward for roaming the streets of Paris in reverie and without a map.
This 2000 mural by Belgian artist Pierre Alechinsky, completed in situ, is at the intersection of rue Clovis and rue Descartes. At Alechinsky’s request, the painting has been accompanied by a poem by his friend and renowned French poet and writer Yves Bonnefoy.
The tree’s radiance is in stark contrast to its metropolitan environment: it is a bright blue column with only a few errant splashes to mar its clean lines; the branches emanate from the trunk like an open palm, fingers outstretched. The image reminds the observer that nature still has a place here – although it is somewhat camouflaged by the crowds and the congestion of buildings.
But the border of this central motif tells another story: Alechinsky, 84, delights in imperfection and the margins provide a narrative of their own. Each block in the border of l’arbre bleu reveals the troubled fragments of this urban world: charred trees have succumbed to civilization and now wilt against the concrete backdrop; bursts of royal blue spatter blemish the other blocks of the frame.
Bonnefoy, 87, has written extensively about the meaning of spoken and written words. His style is unembellished with a simple use of vocabulary that can be misleading: he manages to imbue a sensuality into this sparseness of language. As such, it is the ideal complement to Alechinsky’s l’arbre bleu.
The poem gently intrudes on the individual’s consciousness and suggests that this image is sufficient to begin a dialogue about how humans interact with their environment and specifically, how art can bring us closer to nature. The poet further explains that although it is only the image of a living tree, this “torn, soiled tree of the streets” is vivid enough that a bird perches on it, the wind moves it – even the sun shares its hopeful rays with it.
L’arbre bleu was a natural sequel to Alechinsky and Bonnefoy’s initial collaboration: in 2009 Bonnefoy had written a book about the artist’s pictorial method of expression in Alechinsky, Les traversées (The Crossings). He was well prepared for this text having written numerous essays on the subject. The book also explores his involvement with the CoBrA Group, a radical art movement from 1948 to 1951, of which Alechinsky was one of the founders.
Alechinsky is the sole surviving member of the CoBrA Group. (The name was coined by one of the founders, Christian Dotremont, from the initials of the members’ hometowns: Copenhagen, Brussels and Amsterdam.) The Group was inspired by primitive art and children’s drawings. Their painting is characterised by vibrant colours, and vigorous brushstrokes; this liberty of movement is evident in l’arbre bleu. Critics have dismissed Alechinsky as “the man who grew up to be a child” and his art as infantile scribbling, but this spontaneity is representative of the CoBrA movement.
In the early 1950s Alechinsky became enamoured with oriental calligraphy: this highly stylized way of writing with an ink-wet brush allowed for greater variations in the curve and thickness of the lines he used in his work. His experience as the Paris correspondent for the Japanese journal Bokubi (The Joy of Ink) further informed his artistic methods. But the overriding trait of his art remains the combination of writing and pictorial signs.
L’arbre bleu differs from “standard” graffiti in that it was not created under cloak of darkness, but was commissioned; however, it still fits into the category of street art as a political vehicle that is countercultural. The painted tree explores our relationship to nature and underscores the fact that the concrete jungle can be fertile ground for the imagination.
But the real strength of l’arbre bleu lies in its economy: the painted image and the poem are layered with meaning. They articulate that nature can be accessible anywhere. Alechinsky and Bonnefoy have redefined the concrete poem: its lyricism unfolds amid the circuitry of the city – the painted tree no more out of place than a real one would be.