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Art review: Mirabilis at the Palais des Papes

16 November 2018

Katy Hounsell-Robert sees an extraordinary assemblage in Avignon

© Fondation Calvet: Musée Calvet/photo Caroline Martens

Eve, Porte de l’Enfer, 1880-90, by Auguste Rodin (1840-1917), plaster, gift of the Rodin Museum, 1928, from the Calvet Museum, Avignon

Eve, Porte de l’Enfer, 1880-90, by Auguste Rodin (1840-1917), plaster, gift of the Rodin Museum, 1928, from the Calvet Museum, Avignon

ALTHOUGH the Popes completed their 90-year-old reign in Avignon, and returned to Rome more than 700 years ago, the city is still dominated by their presence, partly by the famous bridge of St Benoit, who was told by God to get it built, but especially by the Palace of the Popes, one of the largest and most magnificent buildings of the 14th century.

Luckily it survived the French Revolution by being used as a barracks. It is now a venue for cultural events, including an annual international Festival of Music and Drama in the main courtyard in August, a huge Rose Festival every June, the Millévin wine festival, with processions, musical celebrations, and wine market in November, and this year the venue for a unique exhibition, “Mirabilis”, in the great Grand Chapel (52 metres long), with its gracious Gothic windows and vaulted ceiling.

It contains selected objects and art from Avignon’s main museums and art galleries. From the Petit Palais museum, once a Cardinal’s residence, and from the Calvet Museum, the private collection of Dr Calvet, come religious paintings and sculpture. From the Requien Museum, the private collection of Esprit Requien, comes an amazing collection of birds, butterflies, and stones; and from the Roure Museum come objects and paintings of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including a Picasso sanguine drawing of Stéphane Mallarmé and the Dante of Henry De Groux, obtained by Jeanne de Flandreysy.

“Mirabilis” is curated in an unusual way; for it is “staged” by the internationally renowned French fashion designer Christian Lacroix, in his characteristically dramatic and individual style. His priorities are diversity, shape, and colour, and he ignores traditional categories and chronological layouts, trampling through boundaries to achieve an all-encompassing, exciting, sometimes startling, even irreverent exhibition, to persuade people to look at art and craft in a new way.

If he is better known for his exotic women’s clothes and menswear, handbags and perfumes, his background shows him to be a true art connoisseur, having studied art history at Montpelier University and undertaken further studies at the Sorbonne and École du Louvre, and having completed a dissertation on dress in 18th-century French paintings. He intended to become a museum curator, before he changed track and launched his fashion house in 1975.

M. Lacroix says he is a “curious” person, in as much as he wants to get to know and understand everything that he sees. Each of his 400 personally selected pieces celebrates an aspect of life as a miracle, no matter how humble it may seem in the world’s eyes, and is placed carefully to be appreciated fully.

The wide centre aisle contains 19th-century pieces: a beautiful bed and canopy worked in a floral red pattern next to a Sumerian on horseback in full uniform of lacquered leather and iron, and behind him a delightful little children’s bicycle in the shape of a horse, perhaps to prepare the young for a military career.

Irreplaceable religious medieval statues and paintings from convents and churches near by, salvaged after wars and the Revolution, take up a large area. A large 15th-century limestone Virgin and Child, 126 cm high, which had graced the entrance to the Celestine Convent, represents a young Virgin realistically arching her back to support a very lively, wriggling baby. From the same convent around the same period is a small stone bust, the hair and beard carved in great detail, believed to represent God the Father.

From the garden of the Inquisitor at the large Dominican Convent comes a Pietà, while an even earlier (12th-century) marble piece is Joseph’s Dream, from the Abbey of St Ruf, a small meditative order now defunct, showing the angel visiting Joseph in a dream to reassure him of Mary’s virginity. Among these, M. Lacroix has placed Auguste Rodin’s Eve, a small shapely figure in plaster, hiding her head in her arms apparently in self-reproach for what she has done, and yet giving the feeling that she knows that she is beautiful and God will forgive her.

We are not allowed to forget the popes: even the backbone of Pope Innocent Vl (1632) is on show, and on shelves near by the busts of all nine popes, giving a face to Innocent Vl. With his delight in mixing for effect, M. Lacroix has placed on the bottom shelf the masks of Bacchus and other pagan gods. He has also hung a painting of jolly skeletons next to a famous 17th-century oil-painting of St Peter Being Saved from the Waters by Antonio de Bellis. The cardinals are also remembered with paintings and reclining stone heads from their tombs.

M. Lacroix also presents statues of various religions, some prehistoric, a bronze Etrurian priest of 5 BC, a grey sandstone Khmer head, c.1200, and the Hindu goddess Parvati in bronze (19th century).

Interspersing the paintings and sculpture are many colourful pots and plates from Roman Gaul and all over the world, including a very large polished jar and a first-century drinking horn of blown glass, a collection of various 16th-century bells from China and Italy, and personal possessions, such as an anorak from Alaska, made of seal’s intestines and cotton cord, and a child’s moccasins. There are also fossils from the dinosaur age and semi-precious stones, including coral and quartz in their uncut state, and natural copper.

Large birds of prey or exotic colour perch on small branches, and in showcases crickets and grasshoppers look like fairies, with their slender bodies and huge wings; but fish and butterflies, although beautifully preserved, really need to be seen in their natural habitat.

The exhibition is so richly diverse and so beautifully presented that it will have almost universal appeal.

“Mirabilis” is at the Palais des Papes, Place du Palais, Avignon, France, until 13 January 2019. Admission is included in the entrance fee to the Palace (€12 with concessions). Phone 00 33 4 32 74 32 74 (individuals); 00 33 4 90 27 50 00 (groups). www.palais-des-papes.com

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