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The impressionist movement is closely linked to Normandy - and the newly-reunified region is making the most of the links this year with a major festival devoted to it and, in particular, impressionist portraits

The impressionist movement is closely linked to Normandy - and the newly-reunified region is making the most of the links this year with a major festival devoted to it and, in particular, impressionist portraits

by Oliver Rowland

IMPRESSIONISM – one of the world’s most loved artistic movements – can plausibly be claimed to have started in Normandy - and the region is celebrating it on a massive scale this year.

Around 450 different events are planned on an impressionist theme from April 16 to September 26 in a festival which will be the first major event to bring together all five departments of the new united Normandy.

There will of course be dozens of art exhibitions but also many other impressionist-inspired events, from stage and music shows to déjeuners sur l’herbe (picnics, inspired by Manet’s risqué painting; a forerunner of the impressionist style).

The Festival Normandie Impressionniste (normandie-impressionniste.eu) will be the third, after 2010 and 2013, and focuses on the portrait, one of the less well-known aspects of a movement more often associated with landscapes.

Festival director Laurence Reulet said: “The festival is perhaps the symbol of the political fusion of Normandy and the first major cultural event for the reunified Normandy.”

Once again an ‘impressionists’ train’ will be run throughout the festival period. Last time it linked Paris with Giverny and Rouen; this time it will also go to Le Havre. Combined tickets with a trip and museum visits will be on offer.

The fact that the most famous impressionist artist, Monet, lived at Giverny in the Eure - where visitors can still see his water lily pond – is one of the major factors linking impressionism and Normandy but many other notable artists also stayed and painted in the area.

However it was Monet’s atmospheric painting Impression, Soleil Levant, which shows the port of Le Havre in dawn twilight which gave the movement its name.

It featured in an 1874 exhibition of avant-garde painters which got a bad review in magazine Le Charivari in a piece headed ‘The exhibition of the impressionists’ (see opposite page). The critic described the paintings as hideux croûtons (loosely translated as ‘hideous daubs’). Posterity has decided otherwise....

Normandy is also home to important art collections, notably Le Havre’s MuMa which has the largest French impressionist display outside the Musée d’Orsay.

Ms Reulet said this year’s theme was chosen by leading names from the arts and politics who are associated with the festival such as writer and Académie Française member Erik Orsenna, foreign affairs minister Laurent Fabius and entrepreneur and arts patron Pierre Bergé.

She said: “They spoke to the curators of the major museums – the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Rouen, the MuMa at Le Havre and Giverny... and the theme of the portrait came out, because it’s true that when you think of impressionism, you think of landscapes, but a lot of characters were painted by the impressionists – and they were everyday, normal people; not nobles. Resting in the countryside or in the middle of reading a book on a sofa... We rarely put the spotlight on these people who were witnesses of their period – real people, real lives, real partners, real girls, people at work – including children, who are the focus of an exhibition at Honfleur.

“For certain museums the theme is tricky because it’s not what’s most representative of the impressionists, but they will bring out instead a ‘portrait’ of the painters. For example at Rouen we’re going to find the home life of the painters, the studios of Monet, of Caillebotte [painter and organiser of impressionist exhibitions]... or their friends, their family, their muses. They’re not necessarily going to hang up portraits, but they will be creating a portrait of a painter.

“In Honfleur we can say it’s the portrait of part of the society – its youth.”

Ms Reulet said the festival will also bring out comparisons between the portrait at the impressionists’ period and today, from modern art to the selfie.

“You ’re going to find a lot of contemporary art and a lot of photos. We’re asking if today the portrait is treated in the same way, with the same intentions. Why are we so self-obsessed? And was it the same in the 19th century?”

Ms Reulet said the festival will also have many linked events. “For the last two years the different museum curators have travelled the world reserving paintings that they would like to have in their shows – there will be work by Caillebotte, Sorolla [Spanish portrait artist who was successful in Paris], Degas etc. But also exhibitions of contemporary art in the FRACs [contemporary art collections at Caen and near Rouen], or in libraries or artothèques, and of photographs by people like William Klein and Charles Fréger.”

There will be live shows based on the festival’s theme at venues including the national theatres in Caen and Rouen, as well as concerts by the Opera of Rouen. The opera house is also organising a competition based on the Sonate de Vinteuil, a fictional piece of music that plays an emblematic role in Proust’ novel In Search of Lost Time, which is set in the impressionist period.

A version based on hints in the novel will be worked out by a composer and students from the Rouen conservatory, then posted on social media so other musicians can suggest variations on it. The ten best ones will be performed by the opera’s orchestra during the festival.

In another project, local people across the region will knit patches of colour to be placed together to make a giant copy of a Monet painting which will be displayed outside in major towns.

New this year is a carte du festivalier – a card for €4 (available online or at major museums and sites), giving reduced price access to events plus other advantages such as reductions in hotels.

Organisers will also propose different ‘circuits’ to make the most of the festival, depending on the profile of the visitor. “We’ll have a ‘week-end’ circuit or one for people that like to see art, or for families with children, or something for people who like something unusual and off-beat; or one for students where everything is free; or ‘geographical’ ones, such as from Paris to the sea, or Caen and the beaches, or Cherbourg and the Mont Saint-Michel.”

Photo: Detail of Les Phlox by La Toux 1889 ©Musée de la Roche-sur-Yon

The festival in numbers

1st major festival for the united Normandy
1.8m visitors came to last version in 2013
450 events including :
22 celebrations such as déjeuners sur l’herbe and
guinguettes (19th century open-air café/dance)
51 professional art shows; 57 amateur ones
45 music events
5 dance events
18 theatre shows
66 educational events
Specially decorated trains, will
run between Paris and Normandy


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