Back Roads Bonanza

With a little extra time on my hands after installing my exhibition in Athis de L’Orne, France this summer I was able to tool around the under-traveled, inland, and completely charming  Basse Normandie region.  I know I’m not the only one with the strategy of traveling the back roads if you want to increase your chances of stumbling upon interesting oddities.  This post confirms the wisdom of the circuitous meander.

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My hostess and co-director of ArtTerritoire, Domique Delomez,  called this my “butterfly map”. Butterflies! I like that: a far more poetic description of the post-its I stick on my road map to mark stop-worthy curiosities.

My hosts recommended the addition of a new butterfly to my map: a magical, microscopic chapel tucked in the woods: the Ste. Genevieve Chapel. They didn’t say why I would like it but they felt certain I would. So off we went, choosing our route by following our “butterfly” landings.

The first omen we had that this would be a good day came as we entered La Sauvagère,  designated as “un ville fleuri” by the Normandy Tourist Bureau. The flowers  on every stoop and portal were lovely indeed, but what got us to screech on the brakes was this fellow:

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and then as we got out of the car and looked up the street we saw a beckoning line up of chain saw carvings:

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Turns out La Sauvagère hosts a chain saw carving contest every year.  Nice! Won’t be long til there’s as many chainsaw sculptures as flower pots. Then La Sauvagère can be re-designated as “Ville Sculpté”.

Tucked away on the back side of La Sauvagère lies another treasure–a lovely roadside grotto.

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Those of you who are followers of my blog will know that I’m a fan of this curious genre of roadside art.

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Onward on the twisty turny roads we travel, hoping to find the neolithic dolmen “La Table au Diable” that is marked with a little symbol on our Michelin map.  After taking this wrong turn and that wrong turn and traversing a couple fields twice over we found this awesome 5,000 year old burial chamber! IMG_5295

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Named “Table au Diable”” by those wishing to give the only  possible 18th century explanation for how this gigantic stone could have been moved into place–surely the work of the devil.  I gotta admit–it IS hard to imagine regular humans achieving this feat

We press on in search of even more fertile grounds…

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As enigmatic as the “Table de Diable” is so too is the La Tour de Bonvouloir. A cryptic reference in a tourist pamphlet to the phallic nature of this 15th century tower was enough to get us to drive the winding road to the community of Juvuigny-sur-Andaine.

Legend has it that the 15th century Lord Hugues was forced to abandon his ancient, exhausted horse at this spot in the forest. When Hugues returned the next day he found his steed, who had quenched his thirst in the nearby spring, completely recovered. Intrigued by his stallion’s miraculous transformation, Lord Hugues jumped into the spring . He, too, emerged astoundingly rejuvenated. Feeling his oats, off he went to present himself  to the Lady of Bonvouloir. (Translate: Lady of “Goodwill” !) She accepted his hand and together they produced a large and handsome crop of offspring.  Lord Hugues left his mark on the land by erecting la Tour de Bonvouloir ,  a symbol of his potency. Oy!

We thought we’d have La Tour de Bonvouloir to ourselves , but to our surprise and delight we found the grounds around the phallic tower hopping with dancers in a lively celebration of Norman culture.

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We could see on our map that our ultimate destination, La Chapelle de Ste Geneviève was less than a kilometer away if one dared to cut through the woods, but we couldn’t risk  bush whacking at sunset, so we climbed back in the car to continue our circuitous route.

In the middle of a peaceful stretch of forest a teeny weeny chapel emerged by the side of the road.

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The little structure looked more like a gnome’s home than a chapel, with impish carvings all around.

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I wanted to slip inside this magical little space, but the door was locked tight so I had to content myself with peering through the grill.

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Here is Abbot Honoré Derouet the last pastor of the nearby St Front church, who took it upon himself to restore this 1856 chapel  which had been toppled by a tornado in 1923.

L'abbé Derouet à Sainte-Geneviève auprès du calvaire Saint-Hubert.

Derouet carefully cobbled together the original stone blocks,  added his own carvings outside and in, and dedicated the chapel to “his” saint, Ste. Geneviève,  the patron saint of peace– an apt choice for the Abbot who had spent a few miserable years as prisoner of war in Germany during WWII.

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To keep himself sane in prison, Derouet took up carving, sculpting whatever bits of wood he could lay his hands on. In his life time Derouet carved over twenty calvaries. He joked he would present these sculptures at the gates of heaven and demand entry.

Abbot Derouet dreamed of making the Chapelle Ste Geneviève a serene gathering place for his fellow prisoners of war as well as a tourist destination. To this end he cleared the trees in front of the chapel to expose a beautiful view of the countryside and added carved benches, tables, and sculptures. He even added a restaurant, creperie, and children’s amusements.

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This old postcard shows that the site was once indeed a popular attraction.

Today the restaurant and  creperie have disappeared, the forest has grown back up, the vista has been obscured, but the magic and peacefulness of the place that Abbot Derouet created remains.

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In the last hour of sunlight we hop back in the car deciding it’s time to point ourselves back to a Michelin “red” route to make a speedier return. But then,  just as we turn the last bend of our “yellow” road,  Surprise! Up pops this friendly face to bid us bonjour  and adieu.

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We look on the map. Ha! We find our new green friend lives in the speck of a village named “Etoile”– “Star” in English. And indeed, he is the star of our back roads day.


 

 

More Underground

My last post featured three quirky cave environments in France. You might think that would complete my postings on the French underground, but two more visits must be described: both with top ratings on the quirk-o-meter.

The tiny village of  Dénézé-sous-Doué , a village in the Loire region for which Wikipedia can find nothing to say except; “Its church and the attached cemetery have the distinction of being away from the village.” Really, the entry is just this one sentence! I have never been so disappointed by Wikipedia and Geez–are they ever missing something!  Dénézé-sous-Doué is home to one of France’s most intriguing mysteries: La Cave aux Sculptures. After poking around a bit we found the non-descript entrance leading to steps down, down, down, deep under sleepy Dénézé-sous-Doué.

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This is only sign of business I saw in Dénézé-sous-Doué. Things are not exactly hopping in Dénézé-sous-Doué, at least not above ground!

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In front of us a 24 meter long, multi- chambered cave revealed itself , carved every inch with hundreds of bas-relief figures emerging from the walls.

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Despite serious archaeological efforts, no definitive explanation or even dating of these carvings has been agreed on. There are no other examples of similarly carved caves in Europe so no clues can be found elsewhere. Clothing , hairstyles and musical instruments typical of the Renaissance era

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This lady is playing a medieval bagpipe

help date the sculptures to the 1500’s. One of the archaeologists dated the sculptures based on his observation that some of the female characters are wearing underwear (!!), the  practice of which did not take occur until the 1500’s. Oh, for close archaeological scrutiny! I did not discern any underwear but I don’t know if that tells you more about my observational skills or about the keen eye of the French archaeologist. I can tell you one thing though; given that the French word for “bra” is “soutien gorge”, which translates as  “throat supporter”, I would say there’s a cultural divide between the American and French understanding of underwear.

It is generally agreed that these three figures:

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are a blasphemous representation of King Henri II (in the middle) with his wife, Catherine de Medici (depicted scandalously with her breasts exposed–no soutien gorge for her!) on the left, holding hands with Henri’s mistress, Diane de Poitier, on the right. This is not the only scandalous bit of carving.

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I might add, besides love-making couples there is at least one depiction of self-pleasuring. I have spared you the full frontal, but here’s the fellow caught in the act:

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There are several screamers such as this breastfeeding mom:

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And several heads with no bodies and limbs strewn about and some devilish monsters that I was unable to photograph for lack of lighting. Incredibly there is even a sculpture of a Native American– the first known depiction of a Native American in Europe! Apparently there is documentation of a Native American who was brought to live in Anjou, France in the 1500’s so finding his likeness in this cave is not so far-fetched a notion.

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There’s plenty of Christian references, but they are loaded with parody. The customary figures in the sculpted Pieta– Mary, Joseph, Jesus– have been replaced by Catherine de Medici as Mary, holding her son, Francois II as Christ and the Cardinal of Guise sits in for Joseph. Mary Stuart as Ste Jeanne, looks on. It makes my head hurt to try to untangle the unseemly relationship between the French royals and the church during this period of the Religious Wars. If you’re determined to try to wind your way through this Gordian Knot, here’s a good synopsis that will help you.

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All this was enough to get the cave sealed off in 1633 by a priest who felt his flock might be led astray by  images of debauchery and blasphemy. Hmmm, the cave closure, according to another account was perhaps in 1740. Well, what’s a hundred years between archaeologists?  Whatever the case, La Cave aux Sculptures was completely forgotten until 1956 when–you guessed it–village children, playing in the fields, stumbled upon the underground passage.  The site was opened to the public in 1973. Here’s a terrific video shot with much better lighting than I had at my disposal. (Don’t worry about the French subtitles–the images are excellent.) There remain passageways blocked with debris which hold the promise of countless more figures to be discovered.  Much research still needs to be done to determine the meaning of this work.  Current theories include:  a work of political satire, a site for pagan rituals, a holy site of miracles and cures, a meeting place for initiation rites for the fraternal order of stone masons (there’s a few ram sculptures, the medieval symbol of the stone mason), a 3D illustration of Rabelais’s tales of devilry (he came from the neighboring village and made references to the demons of this region)

After dwelling in the ancient subterranean world of La Cave aux Sculptures my visit to the nearby site, l’Hélice Terrestre felt like futuristic travel to another planet. However l’Hélice Terrestre is just a few a few kilometers away in the village of Saint-Georges-des-Sept-Voies.  As one would expect in troglodyte country, l’Hélice Terrestre (translation: Earth Helix) is underground, except, well, the part that’s NOT underground! Here’s a view from the highest point of the helix.

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And like any good troglodyte helix should, this helix spirals its way down, reaching deep into the bowels of the earth.

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As I tunneled my way down the light receded til I was in pitch dark, feeling my way down by inching my feet forward and running my hands along the damp, mossy walls. I was only able to see the carved forms for the split second of the flash of my camera. ( I must admit that when we visited there was no one (except one black cat) at the site. I’m not entirely sure we were supposed to be wandering around l’Hélice Terrestre on our own. If you have the good fortune of visiting you will hopefully have your path more illuminated than I did.)

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L’Hélice Terrestre  is the work of Polish sculptor, Jacques Warminski  who had spent some of his childhood vacations in nearby  l’Orbière, one of the last remaining Troglodyte villages in France. L’Orbière was completely abandonned in 1950, but kept alive in Warminksi’s imagination. It served as the inspiration for his life’s culminating work.  Warminski created this mind boggling sculpture in four years time in the early 1990’s. It doesn’t seem possible that stone carving of this intricacy on this scale could have been accomplished just in four years, but unlike La Caves aux Sculptures, the dates for L’Hélice Terrestre are not in dispute. Jacques Warminski died in 1996 at the age of 50, just two years after completing L’Hélice Terrestre.

Currently l’Hélice Terrestre is being maintained and kept open by Warminski’s widow, Bernadette Alberti and is  used as a site for comtemporary art performances.

It’s All in How it’s Packaged

Those of you who know my sculpture Jessica working on Torpedo--Xiaolu photo IMG_4933                                                know that I’ve been a bit label-obsessed for the last couple of years. Well, actually make that for the last 30 years, when I started collecting sardine and olive oils cans: IMG_3241   IMG_3242 IMG_20140407_100300849 (close up of my kitchen wall) So how incredibly great that I got to visit two label-intensive museums in a row during my recent travels to Germany. Heidelberg houses the very quirky yet tidy Museum of Packaging, IMG_0857 (I ask you: does this ad make you want to run out and buy a Frigidaire?) a private collection of ads and brand labeling, mostly from the past hundred years. All kinds of commercially packaged products are on display, from soda to cigarettes to dish detergent. The best aspect of the presentation is the social commentary that one can deduce by seeing the evolution of labeling styles of a particular product ( such as Nivea hand cream–and darn–I was so enthralled by the evolution of Nivea that I forgot to pull out my camera) since its inception to current times.

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Much, much older labeling and packaging can be seen at the Heidelberg Apothecary (and Alchemy) Museum. IMG_0809  IMG_20150403_070946157_HDR

Magnificent cabinets of tinctures, brightly and ornately painted hand blown bottles, majolica-glazed ceramics vessels to hold the various ingredients for medicines, room after room devoted to the magical, mystical art of healing. You’d start to feel better just LOOKING at these pill bottles…

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And, this may be off topic, but the Alchemy room!  Every manner of metal and glass stills, each one a sculpture in its own right, and en masse–oh, swoon! IMG_0824 IMG_0826 IMG_0835 Before closing out–I want to circle back to product labels. A wonderful visit to Seligmann Bauer’s House in the Jewish Museum in Trebic, Czech Republic had the unexpected bonus of a beautiful display of 1940’s packaging in the poignantly preserved general store of Mr. Bauer. IMG_1130  IMG_1131 IMG_1137

I would definitely buy bobbins even if i didn’t need them if they came in this box!

Is there a wee bit of irony that this post comes from someone who is known to rant against the current obsession with marketing and “branding”? Ah! But this is different!

Historic, Haunting Eastern State Penitentiary

For those of you who pining for a very unusual and moving site visit closer to home (OK, I’m making an assumption a lot of my readers are from Boston) you could visit the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia while I am visiting medieval crypts in Germany. This 1800’s prison, is now a Beautiful Ruins and has been open to the public since 1994.  It is for this institution that the term “penitentiary” (meaning prison) was coined. The revolutionary wagon wheel structurephiladelphia 085 of the architecture was designed to house inmates in solitary cells (a Quaker based idea, considered a forward thinking, humane notion at the time!). The theory was that alone with their own thoughts, inmates would  meditate on their misdeeds and become penitent. On the bright side each inmate was encouraged to spend time outdoors for recreation and gardening. Corporal punishment was banned and, amazingly, Eastern State Penitentiary had central heating, running water and flush toilets in the cells before the White House did!

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Besides the incredibly evocative ruins that one can walk through

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this historic site runs a very interesting, dare I say, QUIRKY, artist opportunity. Artists can apply to do an art installation occupying one of cells. There are about four installations up at a time. Here’s a couple:

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In the above installation the entire interior surface of the cell, walls and furniture are covered with knitted fabric)

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This was an absolutely riveting installation: a video projection of a trans inmate describing her heartbreaking experience in prison.

(Sorry, I did not note the names of these artists so cannot give them credit here. I anyone knows, please tell me and I’ll add that in)

I keep mulling over proposal ideas in my head. Perhaps one of you will be tempted to submit a proposal. Let me know if you do. Next deadline for submission of proposals: June 17, 2015.

OK, next blog post (assuming I can figure out how to do by phone) will be from Germany–the much anticipated Ossuary trip.