The vagabond who turned theft in an artform

A Norfolk and Norwich Festival exhibition is inspired by a French vagabond who turned theft into an art form and who stole into Norfolk nearly 50 years ago. IAN COLLINS reports.

Our fine city of Norwich has had a peculiar attraction for some of the 20th century's most famous – sometimes celebrated, altogether artful — crooks.

Most of us can recall the surreal drama when gangster Reggie Kray was on his deathbed in the honeymoon suite of Thorpe St Andrew's Beefeater Town House Hotel. But back in the early 1960s Norfolk was largely unaware of an even more sensational visitor, who was here to witness a wedding and maybe to fit in a little shoplifting on the side.

Jean Genet — the Jean Genie of the David Bowie song – was officially a former vagabond, petty thief and gay prostitute since becoming the darling of the French literary scene for his daring plays and part-fantasy memoirs. But old habits die hard.

After encouraging a young protege named Jacky Maglia to desert from the French Army (the mentor himself having been expelled from the Foreign Legion for homosexuality following a teenage spell in a penal colony), Genet led Jacky across Europe. They came to Norwich when the lad fell in love with a Norfolk lass.

The bizarre visit takes up just a dozen lines in Edmund White's 800-page biography of Genet, the author explain-ing in parenthesis: 'Genet always liked out-of-the-way and unfashionable places.'

But just picture this...

Most Read

'Jacky had met and fallen in love with a young Englishwoman named Jacqueline, who shared his interest in cars. Apparently it was Genet who encouraged Jacky to marry the woman, although little is known about the event.

'She was the daughter of a village policeman who listed his profession as such in the church register. Jacky's witness, Genet, entered his profession next to the policeman's as 'voleur' ('thief'). The wedding took place in Norfolk.'

Since Jacky's youthful passion for stealing cars, Genet had been sponsoring his ultimately rather successful career as a racing driver — now buying him a Lotus. He also funded Jacky and Jackie's marital home, but the marriage didn't last.

Although the story really needs more research, and even as outlined may contain elements of a Chinese whisper, there is already enough here for a novel. Ditto the bare bones of Reggie Kray's deadly encounter with Thorpe St Andrew.

But now the Genet tale has inspired a Norfolk and Norwich Festival exhibition by veteran avant-garde artist Marc Camille Chaimowicz — who returns to Norwich University College of the Arts with a sequel show to his 2003 exhibition inspired by the French artist Jean Cocteau.

The display — commissioned by NNF11 and by Nottingham Contemporary which will host an expanded version from July — is a typically baffling and beguiling assembly of works on paper, theatrical props, furniture, slide projections, documentation of an imaginary casting session for Genet's 1947 play The Maids, and videos charting Chaimowicz's pilgrimages to the author's childhood home in Burgundy and to his grave on the Moroccan coast.

A second section is devoted to the political Genet – champion of the 'landless nations', ranging from America's Black Panthers to the Palestinians, with whom this abandoned son of a prostitute identified as fellow orphans.

Having himself pondered French and Polish roots while growing up in Stevenage New Town, Chaimowicz is an expert on the art of dislocation, and of embroidering the barest facts of other people's lives into a highly personalised fiction.

While his colourful collages combining figures, fashions, flowers, jewels and patterning refer obliquely to the au-thor of The Miracle of the Rose and Our Lady of the Flowers, they tell us far more about the artist.

Pity we're not getting the exploration of the writer's relationship with the great Alberto Giacometti which is reserved for Nottingham.

Genet claimed late in life that the sculptor was the only person he'd met for whom he had unreserved respect. This although he had shunned his hero for years, having stolen a prized portrait drawing of Matisse from his studio.

The old rogue would be 100 now were it not for his death in 1986 on the same day as Simone de Beauvoir – who, along with partner Jean-Paul Sartre, had hailed him as the embodiment of Existentialism while carefully hanging on to her purse.

t Jean Genet...The Courtesy of Objects, Chapter One is at Norwich University College of the Arts until May 21, Tues-Sat 12pm-5pm, admission free,