This 1880 piece by Georges Clairin deftly balances that effete, visceral over-ripeness which so consistently characterizes French Beaux Arts of the late nineteenth century with a captivating delicacy - precise and unhurried. Sprawled across an otherworldly divan which might almost be a funereal bier, Bernhardt's face draws the eye across a mass of super-feminine crêpe, tulle and lace. Perhaps the dress's resemblance to an oyster shell represents a crude visual pun? Assuming a coquettish and trickily alluring posture Bernhardt is yet contained – indeed, almost smothered – amidst the cavernous folds of this dress. The garment is provocatively tied with an oversized ribbon, a black knot which invites the viewer to loosen it and see all, garnished with fresh fruits and flowers. The portrait captures the paradoxically sexualized status held by this most enigmatic of actresses, who consistently placed her artistic innovation and integrity over her age's pressing preoccupation with sexual mores.
I have spent a lot of time in Lille over the last few years: a sprawling, old industrial city in the forbidding Nord-Pas de Calais region of France. Lille had (until recently) a laughably miniscule tourism industry. However, a decade on from Lille's election as European City of Culture 2004, there is now far more practical infrastructure than tourists of old would recognize. The city is less obviously designed with the intention of alienating outsiders: one must travel further from the centre to find that bankrupt dereliction which used to constitute the city's dominant tone. Lille, of course, is no longer a city-simple. It is an agglomeration, a métropole. Old Lille sits at the centre of this urban mass, a charming matrix of squares furnished in luxurious, Flemish baroque style connected by cobbled streets on a more functional, late 19th century model. It was during this latter period that, for the only time in its recent history, Lille was a major financial centre of Western Europe. The legendary Paris-Roubaix bike race is one of the few surviving indicators of the degree to which Lille was, with Paris, one of Industrial France's twin poles. Charles de Gaulle was born here, heir to a family of bourgeois industrialists, and mass reproduced images of his solemn face glare down at tourists as they hop between the estaminets (informal diners), enjoying local ch'ti cuisine and Flanders beer in all its staggering variety. It is only at some distance from this charming Vieux Lille that one finds what really defines the region. Grinding poverty remains common. Large immigrant communities have struggled to assimilate, encouraging an upsurge in extremist politics. A large Roma population contributes to Lille's significant homelessness problem, and the consequent petty crime wave has discouraged many tourists from returning. Roubaix, Tourcoing, Villeneuve d'Asq, Wazemmes, Seclin: one feels the phlegm just pronouncing their names. Run-down, coal-stained, largely suburban districts which, amongst some 80 other communes, make Lille Métropole the 5th largest city in France. As is characteristic of boroughs which have descended from immense wealth to quasi-bankruptcy, municipal counsels here blow through their budget trying to preserve the historical monuments of better times even as front line services battle stinging financial cuts. Many of the same financial problems affect these Lillois districts as dog local counsels across old Industrial England, especially in the North. Roubaix maintains a spectacular 16th century church across the grand square from its bombastic 19th century town hall, and also preserves an art gallery in the old municipal swimming pool. Villeneuve d'Asq, itself a truly hideous consequence of 1970s, hyper-functionalist urban planning, possesses the largest collection of Outsider Art in the world, alongside a surprisingly extensive, high calibre collection of 20th century modernist art (Picasso, Modigliani, Chagall, Calder, Braque etc.) Just a short trip from Lille, in the gorgeously decayed old miners' town of Le Cateau-Cambrésis, there is one of the largest collections of Matisse in the world. The financial burden of sustaining these cultural gems has far exceeded the minor revenues they attract from the region's slow trickle of tourists.
Tourcoing, though, is by far the least visited of these grimy neighbourhoods, and it is to Tourcoing that we will now turn. It is the home of a large, if rather uninspiring gothic church of the 16th century (almost always closed, in my experience) and a bland ex-convent of the 13th century which, having failed to resurrect itself as as a brewery during the '90s, now hosts contemporary art exhibitions. Then there are the massed estates, and line upon line of crumbling former factory-hand accommodation. Even Tourcoing, though, sat at the end of a long tram line from Lille and amongst the poorest areas of Northern France, maintains a Musée de Beaux Arts (locally known as the MuBa). The locals are just too stubborn to close these vast white elephants. On my most recent visit to Lille I decided I could no longer justify my failure to visit this institution and so made, rather reluctantly, the lengthy pilgrimage from my hostel, just north of the Place-Charles de Gaulle, to the heart of Tourcoing. I asked around for directions to the tourist office – most could not believe that there was a tourist office, and seemed offended when my map suggested otherwise. The Ch'ti tend to seem offended when engaging with foreigners. When I finally found the place, the Madame inside was asleep and (predictably) grumpy when I woke her. Finally, after some debate, I received a local map and directions to the diminutive MuBa which is set amidst a featureless, paved square – a square which, incidentally, also hosts much of the district's substantial community of dispossessed throughout the afternoon. The museum principally displays work by local-boy-come-good, the 20th century painter Eugène Leroy, the best of whose thickly spread oils are have long ago been exported to a small gallery in uptown Manhattan. Indeed, Tourcoing's museum achieves rather more highly on the quantity than the quality scale. Having persevered for an hour, and by now disgruntled, tired and cold (the tourist's perennial condition when holidaying in the Nord-Pas de Calais), I went to use the bathroom before returning home. Hanging, rather anonymously, on the wall between the gents' and the ladies' was a small canvas which I cautiously, and unoptimistically, approached. Hanging there – luminous, inescapably engaging, jarringly elegant after Leroy's broad brush murals – was the exquisite Georges Clairin portrait which I described at the beginning of this article. As if nobody was meant to see it, as if its dilettantish, aesthete charms had no place in this most proudly modern gallery, in this most bleak of French urban landscapes. The Clairin is hung so out of the way that I would suppose not one in ten visitors to the gallery can ever have seen it. It is an extraordinary moment when one finds it, though, and I can only recommend the trip out to Tourcoing to anyone who is reading – it is conclusively worth the schlep.
In 1900, this same Sarah Bernhardt starred in the first filmic adaptation of Hamlet (Le Duel d'Hamlet), which is also notable for being amongst the very earliest films to feature the actors' own voices. The picture is quite extraordinarily silly: actors mince and meander in their fluffy Victorian costumes, miming out a scarcely recognizable compression of the most earth-shattering moment in Western literature: the death of Hamlet. Bernhardt, though, is hypnotic. Starring as the Dane, one struggles to look away from her hyperactive duelling, creakily accelerated by the ancient celluloid technology. Camp, metro, trans: however this Hamlet identifies s/he is an entirely compelling Dane in a ludicrously silly film. Not akin to Maxine Peake's recent portrayal of Hamlet as semi-butch woman, nor comparable to the dramatically feminine portrayal of Hamlet attempted (apparently with some success) by Bernhardt's great theatrical forebear Sarah Siddons – this is an entirely novel, and never since mimicked reading of the young prince. I have no idea what to do with the film, but on the anniversary of Bernhardt's birth I find myself watching this brief clip again and again. Just as I felt when I found Sarah slumped on a divan outside the toilets at Tourcoing, I can't tell whether I'm entirely lost, or maybe just a little bit in love. Oscar Wilde once asked Bernhardt whether he could smoke in her company. 'Smoke?', she replied, 'I don't mind if you burn.'