Blind man in Paris creates visions

Hugues de Montalembert sits in a garden framed by the stone columns of the Palais Royal and describes the refined, aging beauty before him.

"What impresses me a lot is the quality of the light," he says, turning his head. "I see this long corridor of trimmed trees that are in waiting, because they don't provide shade without their leaves in full bloom.... People pass by silently, but would maybe like to communicate."

Montalembert's vision of Paris is unique: The onetime painter and documentary filmmaker has been blind for more than 30 years.

That hasn't stopped him from staying "very visual."

"What is printed in the head isn't like a photo," he says. "It moves, and I think we arrange it in our own way."

To walk through the City of Light with a blind man is a lesson in exploring the senses. You seek out moments of beauty, those in front of you and those in your memory.

On one of his many visits to the Palais Royal garden in the heart of Paris, Montalembert, 66, turns a comment, a sound or a feeling into a narrative, often with the help of remembered paintings or literature.

The pitched roofs of the apartments around the historic palace are squat and "ugly," he notes with a mischievous smile. In contrast, the rows of columns framing the neatly arranged garden, cutting the light into slanted stripes, are "very beautiful."

Montalembert lost his sight in 1978, when two men forced their way into his New York City home looking for money. They stripped him, beat him and threatened to stab him. When the artist struggled to defend himself, one of the intruders threw what felt like hot liquid in his face. It was a base paint remover that burned his retinas.

Doctors stitched his eyelids closed, as they will likely remain for the rest of his life. The attackers were never found.

Since that day, he has created detailed visions from memory, almost the way a painter fills a blank canvas. To Montalembert, the exercise is a way of survival.

"I am afraid that the memory I have of the visible world will disappear little by little, to be replaced by an abstract universe of sound, smell, and touch," he writes in his new book, "Invisible," a poetic compilation written in English that includes excerpts from his diary and his first book, "Eclipse."

"My ability to create images absolutely must not atrophy. I must remain capable of bringing back the world I looked at intensely for 35 years."

To wake his mind into "seeing," he puts himself in visually rich surroundings that inspire him to imagine what he can no longer see. This gives him "a sense of life," an antidote to the isolation that blindness can impose.

"The stronger a visual surrounding you find yourself in, the more, maybe, your brain will catch something," he writes.

Soon after losing his sight, Montalembert embarked on a solo trip through several countries; he kept his intentions secret, lest anyone try to stop him. The journey took him, among other places, to the Himalayan valleys of India in search of a ballerina who had left him years earlier. He did not find her there.

More recently, he went to the Spanish island of Majorca, spending weeks climbing, alone, in and out of a cave tucked into a coastal cliff. He once came close to falling when he gripped a rock that broke loose. He was terrified, but continued visiting the cave.

He wrote of his solo travels: "I went to Greenland. I went there … to confront myself with a visually violent landscape, to force my brain to see.

"Say you are on the bank of that fjord, totally alone, in silence, and you have Manhattan in ice passing you, floating away.... Of course I didn't see it, but the image is so strong that it is very difficult for me to believe that I did not.... On the bank of the fjord of Ilulissat, I created my own vision."

In the narrow streets of Paris, Montalembert carries a bamboo cane as he walks at a brisk pace, chuckling when he accidentally bumps into or trips unsuspecting pedestrians ahead of him.

Montalembert, born into an aristocratic family from Normandy, rebelled against the expectation that he would follow family tradition and pursue a career as a military officer or a banker.

Instead, Montalembert left the family chateau, lived abroad and traveled on a modest budget. He made documentary films, including one about orphans of the Vietnam War, and occasionally sold his paintings.

The painting he had been working on when he lost his sight hangs in his Paris apartment, unfinished. It shows a large black man beside a horse and a small girl emerging from a dark background.

When the painting was nearly finished, Montalembert erased the eyes on each of the three figures, intending to redo them later. Later never came, and the figures were left with a thin, skin-like layer covering their eyes. The artist calls the work a self-portrait.

With Montalembert, you find yourself looking at everything closely, because he says that "there are people who see and people who don't see," and you hope to fall into the first category.

"Even with good ears and good eyes, you can be deaf to music and blind to beauty. I mean, unable to create with your ears or your eyes," he wrote.

So in the Palais Royal garden, a sanctuary from the bustle of the city, he looks for poetry, the "interior landscape," rather than a photographic image.

"I see this silent fountain, where the water doesn't flow," he says. "A fountain is dead when there's no water flowing through it."

He sits in the sun, wearing a light metallic band over his eyes to cover his scars. It resembles a pair of futuristic sunglasses, something a superhero might wear. The effect is both tough and stylish. Some people walk by in the garden, glance at him and look away.

"Paris is like the French," he says. "It is very reasonable. It's not eccentric. It's human and it's old. Modern time has a hard time penetrating into this city."

He draws a frowning face on the ground with his bamboo cane.

The city "is round with a river in the middle. There's no craziness. It's harmonious. St. Petersburg is all craziness. New York too," he says of two cities in which he has lived.

One of the most heartfelt compliments Montalembert can give is to call a person or place "crazy." Things have a "crazy beauty," and some of his favorite artists are insane too.

Many have used the same adjective to describe his travels. Montalembert says his solo journeys were experiments in overcoming fear. "It's totally normal to be afraid," he says, "but you have to remember that it's also totally useless."

He thinks of the work he has done since losing his sight, such as collaborating with a former lover, another ballerina, on "Hotel by the Railroad," a ballet partly inspired by the Edward Hopper painting of the same title. The work has been staged in Poland.

"You ask yourself about fear: You've lost your sight. You ask yourself what will happen to you; I'll rot in a corner! And then, a few years later you're in the National Opera in Warsaw, regulating stage lighting," he says. "I think that's great. We're wrong to be afraid."

Lauter is a special correspondent.

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