Monday, 19 July 2010

The Good the Bad and the Ugly

The annual Fete de la Vannerie took place at the medieval village of Issigeac in the Dordogne last Sunday. It has been 9 years since I last visited so I was curious to see what changes might have taken place and together with David and Judy Drew we made the three hour journey. David is a good companion because he knows many of the professional French makers. He is also acknowledged as one of the leading experts on the making of the Perigourdin or Bourricou the spiral basket traditionally used to gather vegetables and walnuts and one of the baskets specific to this fair.

The first thing we noticed was that there seemed to be less Perigourdins on display this year, perhaps some of the older men who were making them last time are no more, and of those that were on display there were a lot that incorporated modifications of the traditional design that made them more decorative and less functional. The logic for some of these square, triangular or starfish (?) shapes was hard to fathom.

The training of French basket makers at Fayl Billot or at the Co-Op in Villaines is so rigorous (and excellent if you are making baskets for the baking or fishing industry) that to break the rules, which is what they probably have to do to be truly innovative, seems to be very hard for them. As a consequence those that seek to break free seem to make baskets that are immaculately woven but in extraordinary shapes or forms, as though just changing the form without changing the mindset will result in art. It's a pity that few of them seem inspired to make beautiful functional baskets ( as they know how to do) but adapted for contemporary life.

As with all fairs the content was very mixed. I particularly enjoyed the chestnut frame baskets made by Rene Parachout from Augignac on the borders of the Dordogne, Charente and Haut Vienne. His 'stand' was a minimalists delight, just a wooden table, the baskets and a hand written paper notice with his name and address. Nothing more was needed.

Francois Deplanches, who makes technically excellent willow baskets, is self taught and is also, unusually, a member of the British Basketmakers' Association. He told me that he draws inspiration from the work of some British makers such as Alison Fitzgerald and his versions of her 'ciathogs' I thought were particularly fine.

At the end of the day we watched a maker from Finisterre finishing a basket with wire stakes used for shellfish gathering. The handle required a great deal of skill, concentration and physical effort and he seemed genuinely surprised and delighted when he put the finished basket down on the plank and the gathered crowd burst into spontaneous applause, it was as though he had not noticed we were there.

It struck me then how important these demonstrations are in terms of teaching the general public about the quantity and quality of the work that goes into making a basket. Those that had watched this man would have had no doubt that it was worth every cent of the 31€ he was asking for it.

Clicking on the picture on the right will take you to more pictures of the Fete.

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