- The Washington Times - Friday, September 3, 2004

PONT AVEN, Brittany

From the fairy forest of Broceliande, where King Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot made their home when they were not across the Channel in Britain, to the mysterious megaliths built 70 centuries ago, Brittany is a province of France filled with romance, legend, art and history.

The connection between the two Britains is ancient. About 500 B.C., when the Celtic Gauls arrived in what today is Brittany, they named the peninsula Armor (land of the sea). The interior was Argoat, the wooded country.

The Romans arrived in the first century A.D. and remained for 400 years. During the sixth century, the Celtic Britons, driven out of England by the Angles and Saxons, emigrated to Armorica and gave it a new name, Little Brittany, which in time became just Brittany, or Bretagne in French. Britain, across the English Channel, remained Grande Bretagne, big Brittany.

The Arthurian legend arose from Celtic mythology passed down orally on both sides of the channel. In France, the familiar medieval version of romantic chivalry is primarily the creation of 12th-century poet Chretien de Troyes, whose five romances became the basis of the legend and future works.

The forest of Broceliande — Paimpont in the modern world — is the center of Arthurian activity. To enter the forest, a visitor goes up the Valley of No Return, so named because of Morgan le Fey’s curse that all unfaithful men would be unable to find their way out of the forest. The clear, calm lake is Vivienne’s crystal palace; at night, the fairies come out to see their reflections in the lake.

Vivienne is not to be confused with Tennyson’s Lady of the Lake, who gave Excalibur to Arthur, although in some versions of the legend, Vivienne receives the sword when it is thrown back into the lake; she is the inspiration for Keats’ “La Belle Dame Sans Merci.”

There is a real golden tree in the forest, the work of French artist Francois Davin. The tree, transformed by the sculptor from a burned ruin into golden stag antlers, symbolizes the beauty and rebirth of the forest after a terrible five-day forest fire in 1990. The sculptor painted the tree with gold leaf and surrounded it with five burned trees.

The Center for Arthurian Imagery is in the privately owned Chateau de Comper within the forest. For six months a year, the center offers exhibitions, films and guided tours of the forest.

The Breton kingdom, known as Britannia, remained an independent duchy despite Norman invasions and attempts by the kings of France and England to annex it until 1491, when the marriage of Anne of Brittany to Charles VIII of France set the scene for Brittany to become part of France.

The region remains a unique section of France with its legends, saints, customs, people and language. At the beginning of the 20th century, most of the population of western Brittany spoke Brezoneg, an ancient Indo-European language related to Welsh.

Beginning with the Third Republic at the end of the 19th century, speaking the Breton language was discouraged. Signs were posted in railroad stations stating, “It is forbidden to spit on the ground or speak Breton.” Recently, there has been a revival of the ancient tongue; about 300,000 people speak it, and bilingual schools are popular. It has not been spoken in eastern Brittany for centuries. Ironically, the French language was brought to Brittany from England.

For a tourist, Brittany offers a wonderful variety of sights, activities and experiences. It is fascinating and welcoming, whether in the lush green hills and valleys of the interior or the splendid craggy seacoast, the villages of gray stone houses with slate roofs, the Romanesque churches and chapels, the pagan and Christian monuments, the castles to visit or sometimes to inhabit as paying guests, the beaches, museums and, of course, restaurants and inns.

Brittany also is a land of unique festivals, in particular the many pardons that take place throughout the year in towns and villages. The word “pardon” dates from the Middle Ages, when popes granted indulgences for the remission of sins. The pardons are held to celebrate the saint’s day of a town or village. Some pardons in coastal villages involve the blessing of boats in the harbor or of sailors in port.

A pardon begins with a Mass, followed by a procession of colorful banners, statues, crosses made of precious metals and relics of the saint whose festival is being celebrated. Later, there’s dancing and music, often incorporating traditional Celtic instruments such as harps and bagpipes.

Costumes are no longer prevalent in Brittany, but the laces, tall headgear, bonnets and colorful aprons are worn on festival days, especially at the more important pardons such as that for St. Yves, patron saint of lawyers and redresser of wrongs, celebrated on the third Sunday of May in Treguier, or at the Celtic Festival de Cornouaille in Quimper in July, or the pardon of St. Anne of Auray.

Festivals include music, sports, medieval jousting and banquets, metalworking, theater, art and just about every topic imaginable.

Art has always been an integral part of Breton life, beginning thousands of years ago with the ancient stone circles. Like Stonehenge in Britain, Carnac in Brittany is a magical, mysterious place. Menirs and megaliths are scattered throughout the region, as are the beautiful carved stone medieval calvaries (outdoor representations of the crucifixion of Christ).

The light, the gentle countryside, wild seacoast and inviting beaches have attracted painters throughout the past centuries. Impressionists including Claude Monet and Paul Signac spent time in Brittany; cubist Henri le Fauconnier, surrealists Yves Tanguy, Andre Breton and Andre Masson loved the region; Pablo Picasso, too, spent several productive stays here.

The village that continues to be most strongly associated with a tradition of Breton art is the former fishing port of Pont Aven, where Paul Gauguin’s bedroom remains almost intact.

Because of the swift-flowing river Aven, the town once was famous for its mills; it is said Pont Aven had 14 mills and 15 houses. One mill remains in operation, although there are still numerous covered landings along the river within the village where the women came to wash their linen.

In 1866, a group of American painters settled in the town, intrigued by the surroundings and the local color. Gauguin arrived in 1886, followed by a group of French painters who broke with the impressionists and sought to paint with bright, direct colors and symbolic meanings, a movement called “synthetist” or “symbolism,” often considered to be the first stage of abstract or modern painting.

The painter no longer represented what he saw, but interpreted what he felt. The group, including Gauguin, came to be known as the Pont Aven School.

Today, Pont Aven could be called the Carmel of Brittany: Galleries abound; there is no shortage of shops, restaurants and cafes; the Bois d’Amour (the wood of love), where the Pont Aven painters spent many hours, remains a much-used site on the outskirts of the pretty town; and the delicious thin butter cookies that made Pont Aven famous from a culinary standpoint are plentiful.

Painting and art schools remain an integral part of Pont Aven, and the tradition is continued by the Pont Aven School of Contemporary Art, an American school established in 1993 and affiliated with the Rhode Island School of Design as well as several other art schools in the United States.

Each summer, 30 to 40 students are selected for each of two sessions. The students live with local French families, and the faculty is drawn from studio and liberal-arts professors primarily in the United States. Next year, the school plans to expand to include a spring semester.

Works of the Pont Aven painters can be seen in the Fine Arts Museum in Quimper, a first-rate provincial museum, although it has just two modest Gauguins. The museum has an extraordinary work of art, five huge pictures painted by Jean-Julien Lemordant in 1905 to decorate the dining room of Quimper’s fashionable Hotel de l’Epee.

The paintings represent typical Breton scenes such as villagers going to the pardon or collecting seaweed on the beach. When the hotel closed in 1974, the paintings were acquired by the museum, and they are exhibited in an elegant paneled room built to accommodate them and to revive the spirit of the hotel during museum receptions.

Quimper is a charming city, formerly a walled town with water on three sides. The ramparts were destroyed in the 18th and 19th centuries. In summer, the city’s numerous bridges over its two rivers are decorated with baskets of flowers. Across from the splendid Cathedral of St. Corentine, Quimper has a lovely old quarter of half-timbered houses, slate roofs and cobbled streets.

Faience pottery has been made in Quimper since 1690, and the town has a museum that highlights the elements necessary for making pottery. Its most famous potter was HB Henriot; the Henriot factory, acquired in 1984 by two Americans, is the only one still producing pieces with freehand decoration.

It is perhaps Brittany’s program of sponsoring contemporary art that makes it a place of special interest. We began a visit to some of the region’s art sites in the administrative capital, Rennes, a charming town made rich by commerce, administration and the army.

The city was founded by the Gauls and colonized by the Romans. Most of the medieval city burned in 1720 after a drunken carpenter dropped his lantern, but a small section of timber-framed houses remains.

Contemporary artworks blend with the old town. These include a glistening waterfall gliding down a black wall by Marta Pan, or the flat-surfaced black fountain with a white marble Grecian head lying sideways on the water and reflected in the fountain, the creation of artist Claudio Parmiggiani. Rennes has about 30 examples of public contemporary art.

Not far from Rennes, in Chateaubourg is an old mill that has been turned into a hotel and restaurant. What makes Hotel Ar Milin special is not only the excellent food, but the extraordinary sculpture park surrounding the hotel.

The owners of the hotel decided to turn their garden into a showcase every summer for young Breton artists. The works vary in size and design and represent a highly professional display in gorgeous surroundings.

Another sculpture garden and museum near Rennes is in the Orcan Forest at Noyal-sur-Vilaine, also a private initiative. The 15th-century castle has been restored, and together with the park, named Athanor, it serves as the background for the works of 20th-century sculptor Etienne Martin, an artist attracted to alchemy and the magic of stones.

The sculpture park in the Domaine de Kerguehennec Center for Contemporary Art, one of Europe’s largest, is in Bignan, where about 20 commissioned works by well-known artists are assembled in the meadows and woods. The outbuildings have been turned into exhibition spaces; exhibits change every two to three months and are open to artists of every nationality.

The 442-acre park contains such works as an upside-down canoe by Gilbert Zorio hanging in the trees, brightly painted sculptures by Marta Pan floating on the lake, and trunk markings by Ian Hamilton Finlay. The 18th-century castle dominating the park will be open next year as part of the cultural center.

Morbihan’s unique Art in the Chapels takes place every July and August and turns 23 primitive gray granite 16th- and 17th-century chapels into venues for contemporary artists. The chapels never served as parish churches but were open just once or twice a year at the time of a pardon, when about 15,000 people would gather for a mixture of religious and secular celebrations.

In modern times, these little chapels remained abandoned and closed until the communities formed an association with the Brittany regional government to promote an annual summer art festival in the chapels. The program has been in existence for 12 years.

The art is a dialogue between the avant-garde and the ancient. In the tiny chapel of St. Trephine, artist Gilles Le Lain has set wooden stools draped with thick blood-red and white paint throughout the length of the chapel. At first, there appears to be no connection between the work of the artist and the chapel with its beautiful 18th-century painted ceiling, but gradually, the mystery of the covered stools seems to connect with the mystery of the beheaded saint.

In Pontivy (once called Napoleonville), the large neo-Gothic St. Joseph’s Church has been transformed into a permanent exhibit of exquisite stained-glass windows by four contemporary artists. Similarly, in the restored 15th-century Chapel of St. Mande, Olivier Debre (brother of politician Michel Debre) created two controversial windows of glass painted to resemble a blue-and-white curtain.

From the leafy forests of eastern Brittany to the wild seacoast of the west; from the cities of Rennes, Nantes and St. Malo to the region’s tiny seaside villages and chapels; from the festivals celebrating sports and modern activities to the traditional pardons and Celtic music, Brittany is a land of enchantment and of art, religious and profane, ancient and contemporary.

TGV makes travel a snap

United Airlines and Air France fly nonstop from Washington Dulles International Airport to

Charles de Gaulle Airport, Paris.

In France, it is easy to get around with the excellent train system. The high-speed TGV trains go directly from the airport to Rennes in Brittany as well as to other regions of France.

Tickets can be purchased in advance from RailEurope, 800/328-7245 or www.raileurope.com. The company can provide individual tickets and reservations or special excursion tickets such as a four-day pass that allows travel on any four days in a one-month period.

LODGING

Chateau de Locquenole, Route de Port Louis, 56700 Hennebont; 33/2-97-76-76-76; fax, 33/2-97-76-82-35. The chateau dates from the early 1800s and is family-owned and -run. It has a large park, gardens and a swimming pool and is near the sea. Rooms are large and very comfortable; the kitchen is first-class.

Relais Equestre de Kersalous, F56310 Guern; 33/2-97-27-71-77. Owned by Annie and Olivier Pennarun, this bed-and-breakfast establishment is a working farm. The 17th-century building has been thoroughly modernized with five pleasant bedrooms and modern baths; Mrs. Pennarun is a fine cook.

PLACES TO VISIT

Ar Milin, 30 rue de Paris, 35220 Chateaubourg; 33/2-99-00-30-91; fax, 33/2-99-00-37-56

Domaine de Kerguehennec Center for Contemporary Art, 56500 Bignan; 33/2 97-60-44-44

Athanor Etienne-Martin Museum, Chateau du Bois Orcan, 35530 Noyal-sur-Vilaine; 33/2-99-37-74-74

Pont Aven School of Contemporary Art, Pension Gloanec, 5 Place Paul Gauguin, 79930 Pont Aven; 33/2-98-09-10-45; fax, 33/2-98-06-17-38; U.S. address: 269 S. Main St., Providence, RI 02903; 401/272-5445; fax, 401/272-5448

Art in the Chapels St. Nicodeme, 56930 Plumeliau; 33/2-97-51-97-21; fax, 33/2-97-51-98-87; www.artchapelles.com.

10:TOURIST OFFICES

Comite Regional du Tourisme, 1 rue Raoul Ponchon, 35069 Rennes Cedex; 33/2-99-28-44-30; fax, 33/2-99-28-44-40.

Office du Tourisme, Place de la Resistance, 29000 Quimper; 33/2-98-53-04-05; fax, 33/2-98-53-31-33.

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