Politics of art: village divided by bequest from painter

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The village quarrel is an art form in France but a poisonous village quarrel about art is somewhat unconventional.

A generous would-be bequest from an internationally celebrated artist has convulsed the beautiful village of Gorbio, close to the Mediterranean and to the Franco-Italian border. Sayed Haider Raza, a much admired Indian-born artist who has lived in the hill village for 50 years, offered to give Gorbio 20 of his own paintings, worth several million euros.

He also offered €900,000 to create a foundation to help the village to look after them. In return, he asked that the paintings, and some by his late wife, should be shown for a minimum of 50 years in a medieval tower which is Gorbio's pride and joy.

The mayor was delighted. A majority of villagers signed a petition which enthusiastically welcomed the gift. But the village council voted this week by 10 votes to two to refuse Mr Raza's conditions.

The assistant mayor, and political opponent of the mayor, Patrick Truchi, explained: "Perhaps in half a century, Raza will be considered another Picasso ... On the other hand, this stuff may not be worth a rabbit's fart."

M. Truchi said that he and his supporters accepted the principle of the gift but could not accept the idea that two of the three floors in the Tour Lascaris, a recently restored medieval gem in the centre of the village, should become a shrine to Mr Raza's work.

"We are being offered an exceptional opportunity," protested the mayor, Michel Isnard, himself an artist. "How can we let that go begging?"

The future of the artist's collection of his own work, plus several canvases by other painters, including Fernand Leger, will now be one of the key issues in the Gorbio municipal elections next March.

According to some villagers, Mr Raza's generous offer has fallen victim to venomous local politics. No less than three "lists" of opponents of the mayor are expected to fight the village election.

One village councillor spoke anonymously to the local newspaper, Nice-Matin, this week, He said that he feared that his car would be vandalised if he spoke on the record.

He said that the real issue was the tendency of the mayor to make hasty decisions which the village might regret later. "None of this business is clear," he said. "How can we give up a valuable public space for half a century?"

On the other hand, how can a village which lives partly on income from tourism refuse an opportunity to be placed on the artistic map of the world?

Mr Reza, 85, is considered to be one of the greatest living Indian artists. One of his canvases was sold recently by Sotheby's for more thana million dollars. His work – both abstract and landscapes – is said to combine the rich colours of Indian art with the "modernist", geometrical approach of European art of the 20th century.

The artist is travelling abroad and has not made any comment on the controversy back home.

"They're a bunch of imbeciles," said a restaurateur in the village. "What will Raza think when he finds out?"