Urban poetry? Mirrors of a changing society? A sense of helplessness, or a search for balance? Fragmented and isolated figures, or just insignificant clowns? Whatever Philippe Hérard’s street murals represent to you when you gaze upon them on the walls of eastern Paris, don’t expect him to tell you what they mean. He just paints them.
If you’ve ever walked around Belleville, on your own or with me, you’ve run across Philippe’s street art. Human-like (but not quite human) creatures pull each other along, suspended on a string. In another mural, a single creature lies atop a pile of life-buoys, faced by a mural on the other side of the plaza, where creatures climb on one another to reach for a single life-buoy.
Philippe Hérard, the artist of these puzzling murals, doesn’t talk much about his work. When I visited him in his appartelier or apartment-workshop in Belleville, a few of my questions were non-starters, so we got to talking more about food than his paintings. But he didn’t get off the hook entirely.
Verbal versus pictorial
I mentioned to him the conversation I’d had with other artists who were also hesitant to talk about their own work: is it the artist’s job to interpret what s/he’s creating? Or is it the job of the journalist, gallery owner, or other representative of the person’s art to put words on the work? What about artists who represent their own work? Can they market what they create if they can’t describe it with verbal, not just pictorial, language?
Philippe’s more academic work, the kind he exhibits in galleries around Paris, carries the simple title: cent titres. It’s a play on words with the French for “untitled” or sans titre. Except that cent titres means a “hundred titles.” To Philippe, whether there’s no title or a hundred, it’s up to the viewer to decide what the title should be, to take responsibility for their freedom of interpretation. A hundred different visions are possible.
Open Houses in Belleville
And there must also be hundreds of different visions of what it means to be an artist. Philippe says painting is his therapy. “I wouldn’t call myself happy, but my days are made up of moments of happiness.” A real revelation for him as a painter came in 2009, when he decided to “push out the gallery walls” and started creating street art in his immediate surroundings: Belleville and “Ménilmuche,” the nickname for Ménilmontant.
He was surprised by the positive reactions he received. Unlike his gallery shows, where people came to him, he was, through his murals, approaching people directly in the streets – all sorts of people who don’t normally step inside of art galleries. It was an opening up, an exchange, and since then, Philippe has joined the Association des Artistes de Belleville, and also participates in the Artists’ Open Studios, or Portes Ouvertes, every May in Belleville.
It wouldn’t let go
Philippe’s career as a painter began with a broken ankle. As a child laid up in bed with nothing to do, he began drawing when a wise uncle brought him a box of pencils and art paper. From then on, as Philippe says, “Painting reached deep into my gut and wouldn’t let go, and so I never did anything else after that.”
But Philippe’s father was a baker, pastry confectioner, and chocolatier – who would get up at midnight every…er… day, to put the bread to rise. So even though Philippe didn’t follow in his father’s footsteps, he loves to cook and spends time making his own croissants, brioches, and plenty of savory recipes, like the one for Two-ham Belgian endives he shared with me, which follows here.
Two-ham Belgian endives
The traditional French dish endives gratinées, smothered in Béchamel or Mornay sauce and baked in the oven, is delicious. And I love David Lebovitz’s technique for caramelizing and braising endives before the final cooking stage – I’ve borrowed and adapted his technique here.
But this dish is a more spring-like alternative to the traditional high-calorie stalwart, and doesn’t involve making a sauce – the pan juices, along with a touch of Cognac and a wisp of cream, eliminate the heavy sauce step and elevate this dish from humble Sunday-night food to a dish I’d serve to guests.
8 medium Belgian endives (about 2 pounds, or 900g)
2 tablespoons (30g) butter, plus a bit more for the baking dish
1½ tablespoons Cognac
1 large slice (about 3 ounces or 85g) best-quality cooked ham, sliced lengthwise into 8 strips
4 thin slices (about 4 ounces or 110g) Bayonne ham (or other country-style ham), sliced lengthwise into 8 strips
4 tablespoons heavy cream
⅓ cup (35g), or more, finely grated gruyere or emmenthal cheese
small handful of chives, chopped finely
special material: a wide stove-to-oven saucepan or enameled cast-iron pan with a tight-fitting lid (or you may use a saucepan to brown the endives and transfer them to a buttered rectangular baking dish).
how to make it:
1. Preheat the oven to 325°F (160°C).
2. Rinse the endives and trim off the tips and the ends – just enough to cut away the dirty stem. Peel away any outer leaves that look damaged or browned.
3. Melt the butter over medium heat in an ovenproof saucepan wide enough to hold the endives in one layer – but they should fit relatively snugly inside.
4. When the butter begins to foam, add the endives and caramelize (brown) them slowly on all sides for about 10 minutes, lowering the heat slightly if necessary (the butter will start to brown slightly too – that’s okay).
5. Add the Cognac, and place a piece of parchment paper over the endives. Cover the saucepan with a tight-fitting lid and place in the oven. Cook for about 1 hour, or until a knife poked crosswise into the endive meets almost no resistance.
6. Remove the endives from the oven and the saucepan, squeezing on them slightly to let the juices fall into the saucepan. Transfer the endives to a plate and let them cool slightly. Turn the oven up to 350°F (180°C).
7. Pour the cream into the saucepan with the leftover pan juices, and heat over medium for about 2 minutes, stirring to scrape up the caramelized bits on the bottom of the pan. The cream should look thick and light brown. Remove from heat.
8. Cut the cooled endives in half lengthwise. Place a strip of cooked ham in between the two halves, and put them back together, holding them in place while you wrap a slice of Bayonne ham around the whole endive (you can use a toothpick to hold the halves together if you like).
9. Place the endives back into the pan, or into a buttered rectangular baking dish, spooning a teaspoon of cream sauce over each endive as you go. Sprinkle the grated cheese over the endives, and cook in the oven, uncovered, for about 45 minutes, or until the cheese is brown and bubbly, or gratinéed.
10. Remove the endives from the oven, and sprinkle with chopped chives. Serve right away. I like to spoon over the endives some of the salty-bitter juice from the bottom of the pan, and then soak it up from my plate as I eat with a piece of crusty baguette.