Beyond Paris: A Day at Chartres Cathedral Thursday, Aug 28 2014 

This summer, I made a long overdue pilgrimage back to la Cathédrale de Chartres - Chartres Cathedral. It had been nearly 25 years since my last visit during my graduate school days in Paris. I wanted to refresh my memory of this crown jewel of gothic art and architecture and also to get in a tour with Malcolm Miller, the famous Englishman who has made Chartres his life’s work. I succeeded on both counts, although I must say I now regret not having been to this sacred gem more often over the years.

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Located about 50 miles southwest of Paris, the charming town of Chartres makes a great day trip from the French capital. Local trains run approximately every hour from the Gare Montparnasse in the 14th arrondissement. The easy journey takes about an hour and costs around 23 euros round trip. The church is a 5 to 10 minute walk from the station.

In a country that abounds with gorgeous gothic churches and cathedrals – Notre Dame de Paris, St. Denis, Reims, Amiens, Bourges, Rouen, to name a few – what is it that makes Chartres so special?

First, Chartres, a UNESCO world heritage monument since 1979, is the best-preserved of all of Europe’s Gothic cathedrals. Today, most of its stained glass and sculptures remain intact from when they were created in the 1200’s. Wonderfully enough, the cathedral’s sacred art survived the ravages of time, the mobs of the French Revolution and also the destruction of the two World Wars. Sometimes, the acts of preservation were deliberate. In 1939, for example, les vitraux (the stained glass windows) were removed prior to the invasion of the Germans. They were then restored and replaced after the war.

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Second, the architectural design of Chartres is amazingly unified. The fact that the church was built in the space of about 30 years – very quickly as far as cathedral-building goes – is a main contributor. A bit of history: There have been five churches on the site of Chartres, each previous one destroyed by fire or war. After the great fire of 1194, the cathedral as we know it today was rebuilt in the early 1200’s. To be fair, some details of the church have changed over time, like the north spire which was destroyed by lightning in 1506 and then rebuilt in the flamboyant gothic style. (This answers the question about why the two spires are different!) But it is important to remember that most medieval churches have undergone significant alterations since their construction. At Chartres, the architecture of this medieval church has remained remarkably consistent over the centuries.

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Finally, Chartres is also noteworthy for the matchless expertise and enthusiasm of British-born Malcolm Miller who began giving tours of the cathedral in 1958. Miller first came to Chartres from the U.K. when writing his thesis on the cathedral for his degree in French from Durham University. He then decided to make Chartres his life’s work and stayed on in France. He has written numerous books, appeared in documentaries and given lectures abroad. For his significant contributions, the French government has recognized Miller with the Chevalier of the Ordre National de Mérite and Chevalier of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres awards.

However, Miller is at his best when leading English-speaking tours of the church and its iconongraphy which he does at 12noon and 2:45pm from Easter to the end of October (except Sundays or during religious ceremonies). The cost is 10 euros per person. Miller also offers private tours. For Miller, such are the riches of Chartres that no two tours of his are ever like.

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The Saturday I visited the cathedral, I made sure Miller was on tap for the noon tour. We started on the interior with a sweep through the nave, then sat in the pews as Miller deciphered a cycle of stained glass and the biblical symbolism within and finally went outside to unlock the stories of the exterior carvings. Most fascinating were the metaphors he used to speak about all the sacred art at Chartres. He likened the cathedral to a library yet the texts are not books; they are the narratives contained in the 12th and 13th century stained glass and sculptures. At the time the church was built, paper was nearly non-existent and printing had not been invented. Most people could not read or write but they could ‘read’ the sacred texts of the colorful windows. Miller added that there is so much material at Chartres that one can never take in all the ‘books.’ Hence, he is still learning himself. Alternatively, he said, Chartres cathedral is like a book with the church’s architecture as its spine. The text is the unfolding of time from Creation to the Last Judgment as seen in the medieval stained glass and sculpture.

As we took our tour, we could see that restoration of the church is ongoing. It is clear which parts have been newly cleaned and which still are dark with soot and pollution whether in stone or glass. A couple of weeks after our visit, a large section of the church was going to be closed off for some time as the painstaking work began. And plans were announced this summer that the American Friends of Chartres are raising funds to restore Bay 140 of stained glass. As part of the restoration effort, they are sponsoring the exhibition of the restored glass at a major museum in the U.S. next year. This would be the first time ever that Chartres stained glass would travel to the States. Wow. The institution to host the exhibit has not yet been announced – stay tuned for that one!

Meanwhile, here is a look at the newly restored Belle Verrière window with the Blue Halo Virgin which is perhaps the most famous stained glass at Chartres. The startlingly bright colors, including the famous Chartres blue, just pop out at you.

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To sum up, visiting Chartres is to be transported to the Middle Ages and its rich sacred art, a very meaningful experience whether one is religious or not. If you have the time and the inclination to go, here are a few thoughts for making the most of your journey: Go on a Saturday – the charming town is bustling with activity and the weekly outdoor market. When you first arrive, see the cathedral in the morning light. Then go back in the afternoon for a whole different view. Take a tour with Malcolm Miller before he retires! Take the time to decipher an entire cycle of stained glass – and notice the characters at the bottom who sponsored the piece whether bakers, carpenters or other medieval tradesmen. Have a nice lunch outdoors at one of the restaurants by the church – and enjoy the view of the cathedral nearby. Be sure and walk around the exterior perimeter of the church – the details and angles are fascinating. And last but not least, relish the less crowded church atmosphere when compared to Notre Dame in Paris. Bonne visite!

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Cathedral Notre-Dame of Chartres (Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Chartres)

Cloître Notre-Dame, 28000 Chartres

 Open: Daily 8:30am-7:30pm

 Entry: Free

NB: Located near the cathedral are the Centre International du Vitrail and the Ecole Internationale du Vitrail et du Patrimoine which are dedicated to the history and art of stained glass. Their superb cultural offerings include lectures, excursions, exhibitions and training in making ancient and contemporary stained glass.

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French Take-Out ~ La France à emporter

For a little armchair travel to Chartres with Malcolm Miller, you might want to check out his book in English on the topic: Chartres Cathedral by Malcolm Miller (1997), ISBN 1878351540. For further reading, an array of other books is also available at the church’s lovely bookstore located just to the left as you enter the cathedral.

The French Coffee Table Book of the Decade Wednesday, Aug 20 2014 

Not long ago, I promised myself no more books. As a former French professor and a book lover in general, I have way too many books and can’t seem to edit my collection. But this past spring, a fabulous new French volume appeared that I just couldn’t pass up.

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Jacques Garcia, Twenty Years of Passion: The Château of Champ de Bataille celebrates the magnificent restoration of the historic Normandy château Champ de Bataille by French owner and world famous interior designer Jacques Garcia. Garcia acquired the run-down property in 1992 and slowly began to bring the 17th and 18th century gem back to life. The result is a truly stunning French architectural, decorative and garden experience which is brilliantly recorded in this oversized coffee table book. Two-inches thick and full of exquisite photos by the extraordinarily talented French photographer Eric Sander, the French book was published by Flammarion in France last winter and the English version in the U.S. this spring.

I recently had the chance to meet with Eric Sander in Paris. We had an engaging conversation about his photography for Champ de Bataille and some of his other projects. Eric began his photojournalism career in the late 70’s and since then, his work has appeared in major magazines and publications worldwide along with more than twenty books. For the past several years, he has focused more and more on capturing beautiful French estates and their gardens through photography. Here are some excerpts from our conversation about Jacques Garcia’s baroque and rococo masterpiece (translated from the French):

Elizabeth: How did it happen that you were chosen as photographer for the book?

Eric: It was a wonderful series of events. In 2008, I was working on a book of the Manoir d’Eyrignac in southwest France and had a great relationship with the owner Patrick Sermadiras. During the project, he would often say to me, ‘Tu sais, tu devrais aller voir le jardin du Champ de Bataille, c’est le plus beau jardin privé de France.’ (You know, you should go see the gardens of Champ de Bataille. It’s the most beautiful private garden in France.) One day, he called Patrick Pottier, Champ de Bataille’s landscape designer, to introduce me and to tell him that I was going to call him about taking a few photos sometime. All that led to my going there in October. 

October 10, 2008 – 8:40am: “It had frozen during the night for the first time that season. It was a good sign. When I arrived at the château, I was warmly greeted by Jacques Garcia who then said: ‘Hurry, Eric. In all the time I’ve been here, I’ve never seen such beautiful light.’ He suggested that I go up to the third floor balcony. I was running behind one of his staff who showed me the way. We went through a moody corridor full of stuffed wild animals, a leopard, a lion, an insect collection – it looked like a movie set – before finally arriving upstairs out of breath. And I opened the window to the most beautiful morning ever in the world. Then, startled by the noise, a group of pigeons suddenly took flight right in front of me. Totally surprised, I changed my camera focus quickly and had enough time to grab four images. It was a gift from heaven – my camera was in the right mode to capture the birds…It was an extraordinary moment.”

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That morning, the light was so exceptional, the kind that one rarely sees in a lifetime. I ran around for two hours taking photos. I was truly amazed by the size of the property. Then I rejoined Monsieur Garcia who offered me a glass of champagne. I showed him several images and he was surprised by the incredible beauty of the light. I was asked to join him and his other guests for lunch. We had made contact.

I was so fortunate the way that first meeting turned out. A few months later, Mr. Garcia hired me to photograph the interiors of the château. I then proposed a feature on the gardens to the French magazine Point de Vue and then a piece on the château to Le Figaro. Both were published. One thing led to another and then Mr. Garcia told his editor at Flammarion that I would be the one to shoot Champ de Bataille for the big book they had in view. I was terribly honored and proud to be chosen to photograph one of the most beautiful estates in France.

Elizabeth: How many times did you go out to Champs de Bataille to photograph? Clearly, you captured it in different seasons – how did all that work? 

Eric: From the beginning of the project until the last day of shooting, I went there 18 times often for two or more days at a time. I went in all seasons to capture the gardens and the various rooms in the château as soon as they were restored or redecorated. Jacques Garcia has a massive collection of museum-quality furniture, artworks, objets d’art and more. He is always changing around the interiors of the château which makes things very lively at his place – and it kept me very busy! I also had to respect the wishes of his very talented editor Suzanne Tise, an American from North Carolina who has lived in France for 35 years.

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Elizabeth: How did you decide what to focus on inside the chateau? In the gardens?

Eric: JG made a list of the most important art objects in his collection, and I made sure to focus on these. Suzanne was also often there and she would help arrange them into marvelous “still life” poses. They really are the “pièces maitresses du château” (absolute masterworks of the château).

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Elizabeth: What was it like working with Jacques Garcia?

Eric: It is very easy to work with JG. He is so charming and always in a good mood. But you have to deliver what he wants. That said, from the moment he decides to work with you, he has total faith in you and your abilities. He is also a wonderful host who makes the most of every moment.

Elizabeth: How long did it take to do this project? Did you stay at the estate when you were photographing?

Eric: We stayed at Champ de Bataille as privileged guests. There was champagne, a full staff, a beautiful bedroom with an antique canopy bed. We had our meals in all the wonderful venues of the property – the orangerie, the Indian palace in the summer, the two dining rooms of the château. We even dined in the salon of Apollo with a gorgeously set table next to the fireplace. It was magnificent and magical to be in the middle of this remarkable setting, yet it was so livable too. Not like a museum at all.

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Elizabeth: What was your favorite shot in the château? In the gardens?

Eric: My favorite photo in the gardens was the rising sun with the pigeons in flight. For me, it signified heavenly beauty and also the auspicious beginning of an incredible project. For the interiors, that’s difficult to say. I think I liked the green salon best with the objects and portraits of Marie-Antoinette and Louis XVI. It’s a setting bursting with history yet it’s a extraordinary mix of emotions at the same time. You have not only the very refined taste and sensibilities of the late 18th century but also a sense of the tragic end of this king and queen.

Elizabeth: What did working on this book mean to you?

Eric: This book is the work of a master of decor, of settings and of a beauty of perhaps the best era of French style. Champ de Bataille is a property completely unique in all the world – a rare melange of Louis XIV, Nicolas Fouquet and Louis II of Bavaria – put together by the inimitable Jacques Garcia. I was very privileged to work with the interpreter of this exceptional place – a big merci to Jacques Garcia and to Flammarion and Suzanne Tise who had faith in me and my work.

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This sumptuous book is a treasure trove of the ultimate in French 17th and 18th century style, brought to life for the 21st century. Perusing the images and accompanying text will afford endless hours of pleasure and discovery of the French art de vivre. The quality and scope of the book, however, mean that it costs a pretty penny – the retail price is $125, although it can be purchased at amazon.com for around $78 at the moment. One gets a lot for the price – the book is about two inches thick and weighs over 8 pounds.

Given the richness of the material and the presentation, Jacques Garcia, Twenty Years of Passion gets my vote for the French coffee table book of the decade, maybe even the best coffee table book ever. Think about giving it to yourself as a gift, putting it on your Christmas or birthday wish list, giving it to a friend, offering it to an antiques loving friend (Garcia got his start roaming French flea markets with his father), sharing it with your favorite interior designer. It might even be the French gift of the decade!

* Photos courtesy of Eric Sander. Many thanks to Eric for sharing his amazing talent and photo stories with us.

Jacques Garcia, Twenty Years of Passion: The Château of Champ de Bataille

 
 
By Jacques Garcia and Alain Stella (authors), Eric Sander (photographer)
Flammarion
March, 2014
Hardcover, 400 pages 
 
NB: Champ de Bataille is open to the public and receives about 30,000 visitors per year. It is located 40 kilometers from Rouen in Normandy. Click here for the Château’s web site and more information. To view a short interview with Jacques Garcia about Champ de Bataille in French, please click here.
 
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Luscious French Drawings Wednesday, Aug 6 2014 

When visiting to museums in France and other parts over the world over the years, I’ve noticed that paintings are usually the main attraction. Museum-goers seem to prefer the often vibrant colors and textures of paintings over other more ‘austere’ forms of art such as drawings or prints. In addition, paintings typically are set off by beautiful frames, a phenomenon which directly or indirectly communicates “Look at me! I’m an important work of art.”

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Gorgeously framed Impressionist works from the Musée d’Orsay and the accompanying crowds of visitors

Fortunately for museum-goers in the U.S., the Dallas Museum of Art is offering an exciting opportunity to contemplate fascinating drawings and other works on paper now through October 26, 2014. The DMA’s new exhibition entitled “Mind’s Eye: Masterworks on Paper from David to Cézanne” showcases a variety of works on paper including drawings, watercolors and pastels by famous and lesser-known European artists. Notable about this show is the special spotlight on the artistic process and creative imagination of the artists as well as the fact that many of the works on paper are shown in magnificent frames.

At the “Mind’s Eye” press preview in late June, DMA Associate Director of Curatorial Affairs and former curator at the Louvre in Paris Olivier Meslay introduced the exhibition to the large group. He noted that the 120 works on view come from the DMA’s own collection and also significant loans from private collections in North Texas. The perhaps once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see these privately-owned works adds a special dimension to show, he confirmed. (You may remember the Marmottan Museum in Paris had a great show this past spring on Impressionist paintings from private collections all over the world – it was a big sellout of course!)

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Meslay also described the show’s departure from traditional methods of displaying works on paper. Typically, museums mount these types of works in very neutral, almost-disappearing thin frames. Here, the DMA has chosen to display the works on paper in lovely, often ornate frames, some of which come from the DMA’s own Reves Collection and some from the private collectors themselves. To my mind, the frames add a wonderful dimension to the enlightening presentation of the exhibition’s works.

Following his introduction, he and co-curator Bill Jordan, former director of the Meadows Museum and Deputy Director of the Kimbell Art Museum, led our group on a tour through the exhibition galleries. Arranged in roughly chronological order, the arresting drawings, sketches and watercolors focus on European art from the French Revolution in the late 18th century to the birth of modernism in the early 20th century. The works by Delacroix, David, Manet, Degas, Van Gogh, Cézanne, Schiele, Mondrian, Picasso, and other artists span almost 150 years of creativity. The show’s curators pointed out the many ways the artistic creations reveal the working methods of the artists. You can literally see and almost feel the energy and vitality of the artists’ minds seeking to express their visions on paper.

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According to the exhibition’s curators and DMA Director Maxwell Anderson, a sub-theme of “Mind’s Eye” is the encouragement to collect art, i.e. that art collecting is not something reserved for a privileged few. “One of the goals of the Dallas Museum of Art is to encourage collecting within the community. There is no better example of how to do this than to highlight the Museum’s graphic holdings together with those that have been assembled in private homes throughout the area,” said Anderson. In essence, drawings are more available – and affordable – for those who have an interest in collecting art.

“Mind’s Eye” also includes ancillary displays such as how to care for and conserve works on paper as well as the various materials artists over the centuries have used to create paper-based works of art. In my opinion, seeing the actual samples of ink, pencil, charcoal, pastels, watercolors and other media is a wonderfully educational complement to the exhibition, particularly for those who have never taken a studio art class.

The exhibition is accompanied by a 240-page full-color catalogue, edited by Olivier Meslay and William B. Jordan, with contributions by Esther Bell, Richard R. Brettell, Alessandra Comini, Dakin Hart, William B. Jordan, Felix Krämer, Laurence Lhinares, Heather MacDonald, Olivier Meslay, Jed Morse, Steven Nash, Sylvie Patry, Louis-Antoine Prat, Richard Rand, George T. M. Shackelford, Richard Shiff, Kevin W. Tucker and Charles Wylie. The publication is distributed by Yale University Press.

To sum up, this exhibition is a must-see for art lovers of any stripe. And the preponderance of French artists makes it a must for Francophiles as well. A few thoughts for enjoying “Mind’s Eye” to the fullest: Allow enough time to really look closely at the drawings and absorb what the artists were trying to accomplish. Notice the ways the artists use the white of the paper to create forms and images. Take in the frames and how they set off these works on paper. Bring the kids – drawing and coloring are a time-honored childhood pastime. Finally, once you have nearly reached the show’s exit, turn around and go back through the galleries in the opposite direction from which you came (assuming gallery traffic allows). It’s amazing how many new things are visible by trying this technique. Bonne visite!

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The Harvest, 1895, by Camille Pissarro. Pen, ink, and lead white gouache on paper. Dallas Museum of Art.

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 Still Life with Apples on a Sideboard, 1900–06, Paul Cézanne. Watercolor. Dallas Museum of Art.

Dallas Museum of Art
1717 North Harwood
Dallas, Texas 75201

Museum Hours: Tuesdays through Sundays 11am to 5pm, Thursdays until 9pm. Closed Mondays.
Special Exhibition Tickets: $8 per person. Click here for further DMA visitors’ information.

Photos of Olivier Meslay and the Pissaro / Cézanne images courtesy of the Dallas Museum of Art.

French Take-Out ~ La France à emporter

In addition to the “Mind’s Eye” exhibition in Dallas, there are a host of other French-related art shows on view across the country. Check out these various offerings happening from coast to coast:

San Antonio:  Matisse: Life in Color. Also on view: The Art Books of Henri Matisse. San Antonio Museum of Art. Through September 7.

Houston:  Charles Marville: Photographer of Paris. Houston Museum of Fine Arts. Through September 14.

Los Angeles:  Rococo to Revolution: 18th-century French Drawings from Los Angeles Collections. J. Paul Getty Museum. Through September 21. Also in LA: Expressionism in France and Germany: From Van Gogh to Kandinsky. Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Through September 14.

Oklahoma City:  Gods and Heroes: Masterpieces from the École des Beaux-Arts, Paris. Oklahoma City Museum of Art. Through September 14.

New York City:  Miracles in Miniature: The Art of the Master of Claude de France. Morgan Library & Museum. Through September 14.

Washington, DC:  Degas / Cassatt. National Gallery of Art. Through October 5.

Boston:  Daguerre’s American Legacy: Photographic Portraits (1840-1900) . MIT Museum, Cambridge. Through January 4, 2015.

Coming This Fall:

Dallas:  Bouquets: French Still-Life Painting from Chardin to Matisse. Dallas Museum of Art. From October 26, 2014 to February 8, 2015. Also on view at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, VA (March 22, 2015–June 21, 2015) and the Denver Art Museum, Denver, CO (July 19, 2015–October 11, 2015). Images courtesy of the Dallas Museum of Art.

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Ft. Worth:  Faces of Impressionism: Portraits from the Musée d’Orsay. Kimbell Art Museum. From October 19, 2014 to January 25, 2015.