The Royal Abbaye of Fontevraud (sky view).
© Région Pays de la Loire / M. Gross
The banks of the Loire are lined with white, tender tufa stone. All along the river and in the surrounding countryside, its pale color and rough yet soft texture unite Romanesque simplicity with Angevin Gothic flamboyance, Renaissance splendor with the elegant rigor of the Age of Enlightenment. The continuously reinvented Royal Abbey of Our Lady of Fontevraud has fostered uninterrupted dialog since its founding in 1101. Here, in the necropolis of the Plantagenets, the humanist Eleanor of Aquitaine’s recumbent figure lies reading for all eternity. In Saint Benedict’s chapel, artist François Morellet (1926-2016) evoked the lighting bolt of the storm that once reached the patriarch of Western monks in his cave. Fontevraud is all this: a centuries-old abbey in dialogue with contemporary art, a Unesco World Heritage Site featuring bold evocations and uchronic connections. This regional museum housing a national collection received the "Musée de France" label even before opening.
Here, legend joins history and the past joins the present. A new conversation is starting between the site’s architectural space and the keen eye of passionate collectors Martine and Léon Cligman, one an artist, the other a textile manufacturer. Over a period of about 60 years, from auctions to galleries, foreign lands to discoveries, they acquired 19th and 20th-century paintings and sculptures, non-European objects and antiques, exploring their evocative power and the visual relationships between them. They have decided to share their collection, which can now be experienced at Fontevraud. After the Cligmans donated the collection to the French state in 2018, the region invested €11.8 M to build the museum, which the couple supplemented with a €5 M endowment fund. Fontevraud thus becomes the setting for a public collection in the very heart of the region where the textile tycoon's companies were located—an artistic and human adventure to share an idea of creativity, its freedom and its strength.
Blending in With the Memory of the Stones
In the late 18th century, the last building was constructed behind the abbey complex’s austere façade. It successively housed the stables, the “Fannerie” (hayloft) and the bread oven for the nuns and laypersons. In 1801, Jean-Antoine Chaptal—Napoleon’s Interior Minister, who also drafted the decree establishing museums in the provinces—repurposed the abbey as France’s toughest prison. From 1814 to 1963, it housed 1,300 inmates, including writer Jean Genet. Thus, in a twist of historical irony, Chaptal’s jail is now a "Musée de France".
“To rehabilitate this historic space,” says Christophe Batard, the head architect of historic monuments who is overseeing the worksite, “we left volumes dating from 1786 intact and designed a loop route." The collection’s content determined an atypical approach. "This is a museum of collectors offering their joint vision of the works without categorizing them by period, technique or genre," says director Dominique Gagneux. "To ease visitors into the spirit and evolution of the collection, we avoided the usual labels and created, on all three levels, a world where forms, materials and colors respond to each other. These relationships affirm the coherence of the whole. Each makes its own connections. Moreover, we didn’t attempt to replicate the original hanging of works that were moved from a private place to a public site. Then, designer and scenographer Constance Guisset opened up a route punctuated by picture rails with dulled angles, offering a roaming experience to provoke astonishment, curiosity and reflection.
“What’s more,” says Ms. Gagneux, “a leitmotiv emerges from the pieces as a whole: none is excessive, neither in the colors nor in the dynamics. All the objects and paintings are based on a synthesis of forms and reflect an empathy for others, sometimes tinged with melancholy.” Examples include two drawings by Degas, La Repasseuse (A Woman Ironing) and La Femme surprise (The Surprised Woman), followed by two of his statues of dancers standing in front of two portraits by Eugène Carrière. The Cligmans seem to be telling us, “This is where our eye comes from. This is what we love and where we’re going.” With complicit enthusiasm, they show without explaining, feel without theorizing. In the abbey's former porte-cochère, four bronze figures from sculptor Germaine Richier’s life-sized chessboard celebrate a superhuman verticality in front of a view of New York by Bernard Buffet. Ms. Guisset has pushed this interplay of relationships and comparisons to the point of making certain pieces speak. An alcove outfitted with loudspeakers houses a Sumerian statuette of a praying man, one of the collection’s oldest pieces, and Au Maroc (In Morocco), a painting by Maurice Marinot, an artist and master glassmaker to whom a room in the old bread oven is dedicated. An Oriental dialog takes place where the artist and a religious man at prayer tell their stories, talking to each other despite the thousands of years between them. Freed from a purely scholarly discourse, the works are open to every possible emotion. Their amazing diversity, from Jean Lurçat’s tapestries to Himalayan masks, makes for a flowing visit to a museum of the imagination for all.