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One olive tree

IN a hilly, stony field near Sanary in the south of France are ancient olive trees, gnarled, contorted, split by wind, weather, and age. They have already lived perhaps a thousand years and are as beautiful as the rugged face of an old man. One tree on a ridge became ``l'olivier par excellence'' for the French painter Edouard Pignon. He discovered it in the early 1950s and for several years spent most of each summer happily sketching, designing, making notations, and finally painting this tree.

Pignon found he liked to alternate the activity of months in Paris's whirlwind of ideas with the quiet of the country and working alone. He rented a house and made friends with the few local people, who occasionally came to visit, brought presents of fruit and nuts of the region, and even posed for him. Those summers were for Pignon periods of total immersion in nature.

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The huge, sturdy olive tree seemed to draw the artist to it, closer and closer. His eyes ran over the curves and twists of the trunk and branches, to the patches of blue sky peering through. Everything became interrelated and formed a systematic whole around him.

This experience, this learning to see, confirmed Pignon's desire to reduce drastically the distance between spectator and spectacle. Instead of sketching as he had been taught (at a distance of five times the height of the subject) he found another reality by placing himself very near the tree. With no foreground, background, or views to the side, he brought out its vitality and determination to live.

At the 1958 Bienniel of Sao Paulo, the painting ``Trunk of the Olive Tree'' received the Grand Prize.

Habitually, Pignon works by series on the same theme. Pictures evolve as the result of months, maybe years, of on-the-spot studying. With him it is never a question of a first impression or a rough draft to be developed on a canvas. In a studio and ready to paint, he is surrounded by hundreds of preparatory draw-ings and notations that serve as a starting point. The subject is now a part of him -- no need for memory-joggers.

The initial approach is creative observation. ``I try to just let myself go, to be there, a painter aiming to describe something that actually exists. . . . The task is not to copy but to seize reality. . . . I am probably not easily read; however, I am never abstract. . . . Each of my paintings is based on the vitality of a human being, a wave, or a tree.''

In 1985 an exposition at the National Galleries of the Grand Palais in Paris honored Edouard Pignon's 80th birthday. The large retrospective recognized this master of contemporary art as one of France's greatest painters. Anna and Giorgio Bacchi

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