Everything was a huge surprise in the city of Arras where I went after having heard of the exhibition « Arras vous fait la cour » (Arras courts you ) of 100 chefs d’œuvres lent by Versailles. As always, it is hard to lead Parisians to the French provinces and the two hour drive to this northern city of Picardie was so easy and so pleasant that I intend to go back for a few days to see more museums.
Arras’ main square, Place des Heros, is like a mini Brussels Grand Place with the perfection of its 69 medieval houses. This town of 44 000 inhabitants, where Robespierre was born in 1758, has a XVII th century belfry and beautiful monuments. Next to the main square, we had a delicious lunch of pâtisseries, at Christian Duployez, a chef who specializes in forgotten cakes. The chestnut and chocolate “barquette” and the “solferino” were a find. And so we were in full form to visit the very grand Abbaye de Saint Vaast (1754), transformed in an art museum, and its Versailles treasures exhibited in style.
When you enter the cloyster of the former abbey and walk along the lovely black and white paved corridors, you immediately feel the grandness of the royal palace. The first room with the bust of Louis XIV by Varin, theatrically set in a decor of the Ancien Escalier des Ambassadeurs, gives the tone and you are won over. In the second room, Gobelins tapestries designed by Charles Le Brun, are overwhelming with their descriptions of XVII th century luxuries.
Seeing them is like watching a movie, with Colbert and all the métiers d’art competing for the King’s attention. Frédéric Beauclair’s scenography has a lot to do with the success of this amazing exhibition, curated by Beatrix Saule in Versailles and Anne Esnault, her collegue from Arras.
The pieces of furniture, vases, clocks are of course amazing in quality but they also appeal to all publics, as they are set in decors that have nothing to envy Robert Carsen’s or Pier Luigi Pizzi’s. The very high maze with bronze animals, the water fountains, the Grand and Little apartments, all rooms compete in poetry and luxury.
And one feels totally enchanted in this uncrowded and human size version of the palace of Versailles. What a fabulous idea to have included Arras in this partnership. Many art schools from the area have worked with their students on creating contemporary related items, include a “carriage” made of a Smart car, and this is also a fun experience. (closed Tuesdays, until March 20)
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