Watercolor infuses a layer
of transparence into paper
moving it one step
through which we will see
weather, too, a screen, we see
a sky in time of trees, fields, field mice
with a fine layer of watercolor making them waver as if seen in the distance as if walking away
in the way that walking is always an away
later after said
a sky in time of landscape made in and of the sky.
To paint in watercolor is to paint with the weather itself, emanating others. On a blue day, say, January 18, 1916, the wind headed north-northeast, and the blue hills separated from the blue sky by a strip of pink, and in the foreground, green openly rolling softly toward trees.
The sky in time of war is no less peaceful over fields.
André des Gachons painted thousands of watercolors of the sky over La Chaussée-sur-Marne during the First World War—and long after—in the peace of plain air. You whistle it, and it becomes an aire, and a small shard of peace passes through the softer tissues. Or you sing as loudly as you can. Or you call out (to a friend) at the top of your lungs, as you sit with your brush holding on. These are all uses of the sky. He is sitting in a field with his back against a tree noting the minute details that make this day distinct from every other, layer after layer, of color in water, which is the essential feature of the sky as it gathers
it wanders that
migration that endlessly a door.
Weather has a capacity for beauty unequaled by anything else because when it is beautiful it is the beauty of the entire world all at once, and as such, is permanent and infinite and infinitely sinking in and when
in another moment, three crows uncross the sky.
It’s almost evening, and des Gachons is sitting in the Tuileries watching the lampposts that light the paths, one by one, come on. It is 1921, and the war is gone. A single bat flickers its crisp silhouette, that odd effect of evening in which the sky is paler than it’s been all day, and yet there is so much less light in it. In its dusty evening, in its October, later and later, in its rare shelter, in which children are playing in the dark.
Born in 1871, André des Gachons was painting landscapes by the age of six, and by the age of 18 was living in Paris, studying at the Académie Julian. He seems to have had a romantic, maybe even dramatic, character and made a solid place for himself in the Symbolist movement. He studied with both Bouguereau and Puvis de Chavannes, and his work had gained enough of a reputation by 1895 that an entire issue of the review La Plume was dedicated to him, and, in the same year, he had a solo show in the Salon des Cent.
In keeping with the Symbolist ethos, his early work is simply dripping with meaning. How interesting, then, that he chose, and fairly abruptly, to shift completely to a practice based on extreme literality, painting scene after scene that means nothing but itself. Which is the essence of the weather—it simply is, and, in fact, is the is itself, the manifestation of a moment, that which makes time tangible, increasing its immanence until it’s ubiquitous. After 1905, des Gachons painted nothing but the sky.
By 1903, he had drifted away from the Parisian art world and had begun a rather hermetic life with his family on a farm near the banks of the Marne. In 1913, he established his first meteorological observation station and that year joined a national network of over 2,000 volunteer weather observers who sent day by day detailed data to the Bureau central météorologique.
Aside: the pale, pale wheat of sky; it is always late, just when you wouldn’t think, and so pale that the fact, and the little that is actually light, and the synesthetic impact of that. I wait. Often at a crossroads as the light is falling away, I wait, never crossing, and watching, the crossing, the away.
To measure is to know
with a familiarity both intimate and tender
out his instruments:
not only a thermometer and a barometer, but also an anemometer to detail the wind, a pluviometer to measure the rain, and a hygrometer, which used a single strand of blonde hair to gauge the likelihood of same.
Des Gachons’ brother Louis was a printer, and with him, he designed a form, 20 x 30 cm, with charts for recording the temperature, the atmospheric pressure, the velocity and direction of the wind, and the density (if any) of the clouds.
Two frames, about 10 x 15 cm each, were left at the bottom so that he could translate that series of numbers into two landscape sketches, one in each of two directions, thus extending the territory of the science by insisting on the sensio-aesthetic as a determinate dimension. At that time, he could, of course, have simply taken a photograph, albeit not in color until much later. But working in watercolor underscores the corporeal, insisting on weather as something experienced by the body alone and never the mind. We take it in hand and through it, occupy the eye.
And the skin, the largest organ of the body, in its entirety, rises up toward it, upon which, in an infinitesimal layer, we are enveloped; we become its touch;
there is no difference
between the weather and us.
When the German army introduced the use of gas as an offensive weapon on April 22, 1915, the budding science of meteorology suddenly became crucial. To predict the wind, unwittingly become a weapon in itself, how weather directs all human behavior without ever appearing to appear therein.
June 23, 1915, wind headed due NE, a warm 20 degrees, and to the west, a clearing sky clears in patches of pale white and paler yellows above a farmhouse that probably has nothing to do with it—a tile roof that, though, oddly matches two patches of late light in deep peach off to the left. And the trees that are a part of it—that stand behind and loom beyond, the trees that extend the farm, and yet also hold it in—one tree in particular, on the far right, rising to a spire.
While a moment later, in a sketch to the north, the clouds a phalanx, entire, fragile, stuttering through its ghosted launch and flaunting lightly whiter streaks, vertiginous, which means rain in the paint that sees through the air.
Or July 20, 1915, early evening—blue clouds crossing pink. And lavender over the dense green forest to the west-northwest, while to the north-northeast, the sky is entirely shades of peach, cascading almost into orange where it reaches down into the trees.
January 9, 1916 was one of only three days on which des Gachons noted the effects of the war on the sky. He was 35 kilometers away from the German advance into Champagne and wrote in the margins of the form for the day: “The sky during and after the attack was perfectly normal and evenly homogeneous.” And later: “Have the clouds coming from the front been affected by the bombs? I don’t think so.”
February 17, 1916: wind from the north; temperature at 5 degrees with a sunset peach at the green climbing to a deep pink and then lavender for the rest of the sky of skeletal trees in the foregrounded green.
And yet if you turn to the west, the gradations of green from the center line forward, balanced by gradations of yellow up into their purple; it’s the trees, or rather their lines of force, that hold it all together, and, as the horizon is a perforation, he had the brazen inclination to let one thing see through another—through these trees thus the hills; through the hills, the river cuts.
He sent up a kite, the trace of a river in the sky.
And drift into sight—or torrent—sometimes the wind
tearing in rages
the kite to pieces scattered across a riverbank on hold.
And by five o’clock, if you turn toward
February 18, 1916: Wind and thunder from the north, and looking west at 5:05, a band of yellow (portends wind) in the sky between two skies of grey.
Sky volatile, even violent, sky made of nothing but light, even wind, which we picture white, a sky in shreds.
Or shredded sight
whereover and where
is split into seconds, which were whole at the time
the clouds thinned out
skidded into. And across, a white staccato
they silence the eye.
Des Gachons established a catalogue of clouds, finding ten distinct kinds:
Cirrus: among the superior of shattered crystal, ornamental in clearance, not having its own shadow.
Cirrocumulus: in higher stages of the smallest rain encased.
Cirrostratus: a solar holas betrayed of altitude, i.e. to mask the refracted sun, hall of mirrors, or flying saucer, or stack of them.
Altocumulus: middle distance, at times appearing as almonds when the rain has melted.
Altostratus: sometimes the entire sky.
Nimbostratus: overflowing unto others passing; meteorologists say shredded at the heart of the breast of it.
Cumulonimbus: when you encounter a stratum of air unaccountably stable, the clearing, with all its lanterns, often turns its own circus.
Stratocumulus: a soft white sweep, though he metaphorically said stone—or pebble, or rock—in fact, washed upward, a willow, a wander so often concrete.
Cumulus: you squeeze the drops, each rain, a mark, and the tower that results in blue moves off.
Stratus: across, we’re washing the solar plate until the sky grows cold, sharpening the edge of the sea.
Seen: 30 June 1916, a rising wind from the southwest with a temperature of 18 degrees, hygrometry 70; to the west-northwest, pyramidal blue, growing against a green underscored and left ascendant glowing white along a diagonal distinct—one could even say “clouds rampant.” Every cloud. Our oliphant. Our horn blown into the distant mountains, creating distance.