I've long harboured a wish to paint. When I visit museums of modern art, I inevitably get a moment - as I suspect many of us do - of thinking, 'Well, I could do that.' Usually, this is in front of a canvas with three or four dots on it, perhaps a squiggle or two, and a title like Infinite Entrails #3. Or else a collection of paperclips dangling from a thread, called Seek And You Will Find. As a result, our garden shed is full of what look like rusty bedsprings, electrical wiring and old bicycle pumps, but which are in fact works of art in the making. My favourite is a glass oven door, called The Discovery of Joy, to which I'll add some drops of paint before taking it along to Tate Modern. Every so often I look at it, wondering what colour the drops should be and how exactly to apply them. The tip of a brush? A syringe? My big toe? Then the door goes back in the shed and the Tate will have to wait a little longer.
So I always admire people who actually produce pictures. One such is Rahim Najfar, whom I had the pleasure of meeting in his gallery in Bonnieux. Perched on the side of a hill in the north Lubéron, an hour's drive from Aix, Bonnieux is one of the 157 Plus Beaux Villages de France. Started in 1982 by the Mayor of Collonges-La-Rouge in Corrèze, the aim of this association is to 'protect and promote the outstanding heritage of these exceptional villages and thereby provide them with an alternative to rural exodus. [...] We aim to avoid certain pitfalls such as villages turning into soulless museums or, on the contrary, "theme parks". Our well-reasoned and passionate ambition is to reconcile villages with the future and to restore life around the fountain or in the square shaded by hundred-year-old lime and plane trees.'
Whether Bonnieux entirely avoids the pitfalls is debatable. On a mid-October Friday (market day), well past the peak season, there were still plenty of tourists, mostly American. Very few market stalls or shops offer anything other than arts and crafts, all so pretty they'll decorate dressers and sideboards the world over, till a few years later a declutter sends them to a car boot sale. And food, of course - there's plenty of that. Cheese, charcuterie, olive oil, herbs, all guaranteed 100% pure and natural. I'm sure most of it is, especially in a place like Bonnieux, but suspicious minds like mine tend to retain the information that half of supposedly local olive oil, for example, comes from Spain, or the 'authentic Provençal' nougat you bought at 69 euros a kilo is made in Hungary.
But that's enough cynicism. Bonnieux is a delight to stroll around, and when you enter Rahim's gallery, what you see is authentic art. By which I mean there's a personal quest - tourists' expectations come second. He paints the surrounding countryside, but often adds borders where you see an influence of Iran - Rahim left his native country after the 1979 Revolution, and though he's never been back since, some of his pictures hark back to Persian miniaturists. 'That was at art school,' he explained. 'Three days a week it was free expression, so I'd go off and pretend to be Gauguin. The rest of the time, we had to study the miniaturists, imitate them. I hated it - such a constraint! It's only later you realise the discipline was so valuable.'
I told him we'd been in Iran too, before the revolution; we brought back an enamel box with miniature men on the lid, darting this way and that on miniature horses. I didn't say we're decluttering - the box is now in a drawer marked 'car boot sale'. I would have liked to buy one of his pictures, but we're not decluttering so far as to empty our bank account of 800 euros. Thoughtfully, though, Rahim prints cards for those who don't have that sort of money to spend. We bought a dozen, which seemed to delight him as much as if we'd snapped up the whole gallery. And when I got back home, I retrieved our little box from the car boot drawer and restored it to its rightful place on the dresser. Whether it can compete with A History of Casual Telepathy, currently on display in our garden shed, I leave for you to decide. Alternatively, you can view more of Rahim's beautiful artwork here.