6th July Rouen and beyond.Checked out of the Hostel by 8.30 and headed off to the rail station for the trip to Rouen. The train was full of tourists heading to Giverny to walk through Monet’s garden and home and pay homage to the Impressionists and to gaze on the scenes that dominated the paintings of his later years. A very vocal Tour Guide, Australian judging from his accent, was organising a group of youthful art students into some sort of order for when they arrived at the station and the walk to the gardens. His loud explanations and descriptions kept our interest until they all spilled out of the carriage at Vernon.
We booked into the very new hostel on the out-skirts of town for three nights. The hostel has a strict no entry between 12.00 pm and 5.00pm policy so we ended up exploring the historic city and relaxing over tea and a beer at a cafe.
Rouen has preserved its medieval architecture which gives the city an atmosphere that has all but disappeared in bigger, more bustling centres.
We wandered the streets and poked around the Cathedral Notre Dame and the environs. The Cathedral was bombed during W.W II and has required extensive renovations in order to restore the building to its former glory. There are still areas around the Cathedral environs being restored today.
The streets are full of timbered 16th century houses, their street levels now shops and restaurants, with window boxes and fretwork decorating the frontages.
The main street is dominated by the Gros-Horloge, a gilded, ornate, large, one handed town clock that juts out over the bustling cobbled street that leads to the Cathedral.
The Cathedral holds the bones of Richard the Lionheart, the Cardinals of Amboise and Louis de Breze ,the husband of Henri II’s mistress Diane De Poiters as well as chapels devoted to local saints who include, among their illustrious group, Joan d’Arc who was tried, convicted and executed here in 1431.
Wednesday 7th July:
The Art Gallery has an exhibition of Impressionist paintings as well as works by Carrivagio and other earlier painters which we went to see on Wednesday as we reasoned we’d not get the opportunity to experience such an exhibition back home in N.Z.
What was noticeable was the number of people, of all ages and backgrounds, who were avidly reading the information boards, exploring each painting, pointing out places they knew and identified and having animated conversations about the works as they moved through the gallery. Perhaps it might have something to do with the accessibility of the exhibition - admission was 9 Euros with reductions available for students and job-seekers as well as local residents. To see such an exhibition in N.Z. would mean an admission price well over $50.00 and probably only exhibited in one city under intense security.
Anyway, the Art Gallery had collected 130 paintings by the Impressionists, sourced from around the world, as an exhibition to celebrate the importance of Rouen in artistic history. On show were paintings by Monet, Gauguin, Pissarro, Corot,Turner, Pinchon and others who had all, at some time, settled and painted scenes of the city and its environs.
We joined the queue and made our way into the already thronged gallery where we were greeted by three enormous canvases that I had only ever read about. The most famous being that of the members of the French Academy of Arts which has portraits of over 100 of the Academy’s members all engaged in animated discussion about Arts. Once past these epic pieces we entered the exhibition itself. We were guided through the development of the Impressionist school from Paul Huet and Corot who had begun to experiment with the effects of light on the motif of the scene to works by Turner and eventually Monet and Pissarro with their canvases exploring the effects of light on the buildings of the city.
Pride of place was given to the series of studies of the facade of the Cathedral that Monet had executed over his time in Rouen. The studies reduced the facade to a vague form with its structure being suggested by the interplay of light and shade depending on the season or time of day Monet had chosen to paint the scene. One could sense the effect such paintings would have had on the classicist school of art more favoured by society at the time when one could see the paintings across a complete wall of the gallery and thus understand what Monet was trying to do.
Joy was particularly taken by a series of paintings of people on the bridges of Rouen on a wet and windy evening in which the mood of the day was shown in the light, shade and reflections the artist had captured on his canvases.
From the Gallery we headed off to explore more of the history of the city. Joy found the execution spot of Joan d’Arc in the square where the Church in Joan’s name has been built. The buildings around the site probably look much as they did when the crowds gathered to watch her execution at the stake in 1431.
From there we poked around the streets, peered into magnificent examples of gothic architecture to marvel at the way the builders had pushed the boundaries of stone masonry to create such tall, airy and light buildings using the most basic of machinery. Nearly all the gothic churches in Rouen are in the process of restoration and reconstruction as the city repairs the ravages of War, of time and nature as the sandstone the churches are built of has weathered and eroded badly over the centuries.