In the Powerhouse Museum’s collection is Anne Dangar’s wall plaque, an ‘Illustration to a poem by James Stephens’. It was created in the 1930s at Moly-Sabata, Dangar’s home, workplace and final resting place in France. Many of her other works are held in Australian and French museums and galleries and were strongly featured in the Sydney Moderns exhibition at the AGNSW, next to the works of Grace Crowley, Albert Gleizes and Dorrit Black. Recently I had the pleasure of walking in her footsteps when I visited and stayed at Moly-Sabata a few months ago for a residency.
Dangar’s life and work at Moly-Sabata are well-documented in the correspondence she had with Australian painter Grace Crowley who returned to Australia after their joint travels in France. But I often wondered what took Anne Dangar, the established Sydney painter, to leave Sydney at a time of great artistic change in Australia in the late 1920s to become a potter in a small village in France.
I first discovered Anne Dangar’s work and life over ten years ago. At that time my interest led me to the Gleizes Foundation in Paris, where I was invited to see her ceramic works. Down the corridors to the basement, through creaky doors, in the dark, lay the robust and earthy plates, jugs and pots, with recognizable cubist and geometric motifs, that Anne Dangar created at Moly-Sabata, an artist colony established by French cubist painter and theorist Albert Gleizes in the 1930s.
Moly-Sabata is an 18th-century boatmen’s shelter on the banks of the Rhône river in the small village of Sablons, 60 kilometres south of Lyon. It is here that Dangar lived and worked for twenty years following the ideals of Gleizes, his collectivist doctrine and visionary guidance.
Dangar died in 1951 and is buried in the vault with Gleizes in Serrières, across the river from Moly-Sabata. The road leading to the cemetery is steep but, from the hilltop, the view is breathtakingly peaceful.
After Anne Dangar’s death, Moly-Sabata continued to be run as a pottery studio and residence until 1955 when a spectacular flood destroyed most of the pottery production. Flooding in this area is common and in fact Moly-Sabata took its name from the expression Mouille-Savates (wet shoes) as the Rhône river frequently rises.
The place became semi-derelict and was eventually restored in the 1990s. Managed by the Gleizes Foundation and supported by the local councils, it has taken a new lease of life, with a strong support to contemporary artists and projects. In a certain way, Gleizes’s ideology of providing a pastoral environment for creative endeavours still remains.
The main house, including Anne Dangar’s bedroom, has been turned into cosy artists’ apartments; there is an office which is adorned with photos of Gleizes and his wife Juliette Roche, original paintings and prints; a large exhibition space opens onto the Rhône with its famous old wrought-iron balcony where, over the last decades, many artists have sat and reflected.
Four more artist studios have been added to the main house, in line with the architectural style of the building. The kiln which Anne Dangar built and struggled to get running is no longer operational but it still stands as a landmark at the entrance of the place. Anne Dangar’s pottery studio is being restored and is soon to be turned into a museum to accommodate the collection of her work.
I reconnected with Anne Dangar, ten years on, during my residency at Moly-Sabata. My artist studio overlooking the Rhône river was large and comfortable.
From my bed in the mezzanine, when I woke up at 6am, I enjoyed the changing colours of the trees on the opposite bank, going from a tender pink to an orange glow and progressively to the daylight array of greens.
After a quick coffee, I took a 30-minute walk to the bakery across the bridge to get my fresh baguette for breakfast. As usual, the locals saluted and even hopped off their bike to have a chat.
A sense of tranquillity and connection to the land prevailed. Maybe it was because it was the summer months in France. Maybe it was because of the endemic attitude of ‘retour à la terre’ (return to the land) that Gleizes and Dangar were searching for at Moly-Sabata.
I strolled back home along the Rhône, on the ViaRhôna, the 700km cycling path soon to join the Léman Lake in Switzerland to the Mediterranean sea, in the company of jumping fish, ducks and swans gliding on the river.
I had breakfast on the lawn with other artists, we chatted about our projects and our full day of painting ahead. I had decided to leave the comfort of my painting style and explore abstraction.
Every so often, some people stopped by at Moly-Sabata. “For her wedding in the 1940s my mother received a whole set of plates made by Anne Dangar. All the pieces are still intact and I like using them on special occasions”, said a visitor.
The locals and friends of Dangar told me about her veggie patch, her beehives, about the ducks that stayed in the garden and followed her to the river, about her discreet nature, about her painting classes with the local kids, about the harsh winters when she didn’t have much food, about her determination.
Slowly, as the weeks went by and through conversations with people who had met Dangar, it was finally a real woman of flesh and blood who emerged from the two-dimensional black and white photos I knew. It was Anne Dangar with a soul and a true human dimension.
As I was about to leave Moly-Sabata after a month of intense painting, I stood on the old balcony one more time and I contemplated the blue quietness of the Rhône, the greenness all around. It was easy to feel at home and inspired here. Anne Dangar never came back to Australia. I no longer believed it was from lack of means… now I knew it was by choice.