The Magic of Ochre: Australia and France
Text: Garry Benson
Photos: Garry Benson unless otherwise attributed.
Maslin’s Beach south of Adelaide is famous for two things – the nudist beach and the extensive ochre quarry. The southern end is where the caves and crevices of the ochre-coloured cliffs curve to form an idyllic cove of soft golden sand and azure blue sea. It was here that German artist Nikolaus Lang worked on a project intimately involved with the ochre cliffs – this image of Lang’s shows his working space at the cliff face.
German artist Nikolaus Lang’s Australian projects had to do with the perceptibility of colour. He set up complicated apparatus in Australian quarries to collect variously coloured sands that he then adheres to cotton fabric. The technical quality of these works is high with a poetic quality.
More enigmatic are those works that present isolated groups of pigments and colours as in one which featured 55 white porcelain plates filled to the edge with variously hued substances or as in ‘Ochre and Sand’ where he placed the conical mounds of ground pigment on a grid of white paper on the floor for the exhibition at the Art Gallery of South Australia called ‘Australian Imaginary Figurations 1986-1988.’
Through a complicated method of removing layers of sediment in sand quarries and ochre sites, Nikolaus revealed large tableaux that evoked Australian geology, landscape, the sky and sunsets but also the rock wall paintings of the Aborigines, their shields and signs. Lang dedicated the exhibition to the Kaurna Tribe (Adelaide area) and the Adnyamathanha of the Flinders Ranges.
I was involved in this project to the extent that the Art Gallery of South Australia commissioned me to design a brochure for the exhibition and I visited the site. The brilliant reds, browns, yellows and oranges of the ochre strata reminded me very much of the ochre quarries I filmed in the APY (Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara) Lands in Central Australia.
It was just a few months ago that I discovered an interesting connection to Maslin’s Beach and its ochre cliffs in the Luberon in Provencal France.
I have always been fascinated by the famous 35000 year old wall paintings on the walls of the Caves at Lascaux. Cro-Magnons sourced their range of ochres in the nearby Limestone hills of ‘Dark Perigord’, home now to the ‘modern’ villages of Montignac, Corréze, Les Eyzies and of course Roussillon.
It’s a commune in the Vaucluse department in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region in southeastern France and is famous for the rich deposits of ochre pigments found in the clay near the village. The large quarries of Roussillon were mined from the end of the 18th century until 1930.
Thousands of people found work in the quarries and factories. Nowadays the mining of ochre is prohibited here, to protect the sites from degradation or even complete destruction. Ochres are pigments ranging from yellow and orange to red. One of the former ochre quarries can be visited via the ‘Sentier des Ocres’ (Ochre Path), a walk of either 30 or 60 minutes through the old workings.
Because during the 18th century the demand rose for pigments to be used in the textile industry, the mining of ochres in Roussillon intensified. Numerous quarries and ochre factories, some of which can still be seen today, were situated near the village.
One example of an ochre factory, the ‘Usine Mathieu’, is named for the family that owned it from 1870 to 1901. It has been formed into a ‘Conservatoire’: a workshop serving as a museum. The quarries and factories were established in the villages of Roussillon, Villars, Gargas, Rustrel (with its Colorado provençal) and Gignac.
During the 20th century, mining techniques were modernized, which meant that more profitable ochre mines became exploitable. This resulted in a gradual closing-down of ochre mines in and around Roussillon. From the 1980s, tourism has replaced ochre industry as a source of income.
Apart from tourism, agriculture is the commune’s principal activity. Fruit, including cherries, peaches and melons are grown. Much of this is used in crystallised fruit production in nearby Apt. Wine-making is very important and there are several wineries producing red, rosé, and white wines within the Ventoux AOC.
So the similarities mirror my part of the Fleurieu Peninsula in South Australia that also has tourism, agriculture of the same type and wineries, gentle hills & a lifestyle to die for. Oh, did I mention we also have a nudist beach?
[The writer Samuel Beckett went into hiding from the Germans in Roussillon during the years 1942–1945. His novel ‘Watt’ was written there, and Beckett mentioned the village in his famous theatre play ‘Waiting for Godot’ (En attendant Godot, 1955).
Film director Henri Colpi shot this movie ‘Heureux qui comme Ulysse’ (1970) with Fernandel as the leading character in Roussillon; George Brassens wrote a chanson for the film.
Under the name of Peyrane, Roussillon is the subject of Laurence Wylie’s ‘Village in the Vaucluse’ (first edition 1957.)]