Blois is a small city of windy medieval streets nestled in the middle of the Loire Valley, just two hours train ride from Paris. It occupies an important and unique place in the way art is changing the landscape across Europe. The town is typically French with a mixture of rustic restaurants, charming bed and breakfasts and quirky museums and galleries. It’s where old and new art collide, with a hint of magic. But most importantly, throughout history, Blois has been a place where the arts of the past and the future collide.
Unique among the chateaus of the Loire Valley for its unusual mix of varying periods of architecture, Blois Château is the one of the most extraordinary in France, with a rich history of seven kings, ten queens and infamous assassinations. The architecture of the building is world famous, spanning from the 13th to the 17th centuries, encompassing medieval timber roofs, Renaissance staircases and neo-classical vaulted ceilings all in one building. The Château plays host to a light and sound show every evening at 10:00pm throughout the year, illuminating the exterior in a myriad of colours and images, to a roaring soundtrack that interprets the history of the building through audio and visual elements with narration. There are also temporary exhibitions throughout the year of French and international contemporary art. It's a stunning visual paradigm of European art and architecture over 400 years all in one building. During its evolution under each monarch, it would have seemed increasingly modern to the royal's contemporaries, whilst all the while maintaining the heritage of the older wings. Its proof that the new doesn't need replace the old, but can help it grow and evolve.
Musée des Beaux-Arts
Located inside the Château, this small but perfectly formed gallery contains an impressive collection of French painting and sculpture in the building’s Louis XII wing. It has important pieces of art from the European greats: Boucher, Rubens and Ingres. Opened in 1869 and containing over 300 works of art from the 16th to the 19th centuries, the works are displayed much in the same way as they would have been when the Château was a royal palace. It provides a fascinating insight in to the collecting tastes of aristocratic France, especially when explained by one of the insightful guides. It shows how the art over this period grew, along with contemporary collecting tastes, for mixing the Classical with the Renaissance to establish a new royal taste.
Fondation du Doute
The Foundation of Doubt is a contemporary art space, children’s music and art academy and café dedicated to the Fluxus art movement of the 1960's. Fluxus was an art and music movement inspired by the work of John Cage, who created on-the-spot musical compositions often playing instruments in unusual ways, and it quickly grew into a network of international artists who focused on creating impromptu art that involved the audience, often in humorous ways. The Foundation of Doubt contains work by acclaimed Fluxus artists including Joseph Beuys, Yoko Ono, Nam June Paik and Emmett Williams. The gallery is very much hands on, with a childlike jibe at stagnant museums and art academies. Dedicated to the French artist Ben, and opened in 2011 by the town’s mayor Jack Lang, who was at the time France’s Minister of Culture, the museum is a curios addition to a town steeped in history and traditional French arts. Located in a former nunnery, the absurdity of the foundation’s presence in Blois is fittingly Fluxus. As the only European centre dedicated to the art movement, it is a must for anyone with a passion for contemporary art. The temporary exhibition space also houses rotating exhibitions of international artists inspired by the movement, often with intriguing curation. The atmosphere of contemporary collecting, adding the new to the old, and breaking from tradition that the Foundation is so passionate about, mirrors the sentiment across the whole of Blois – from the medieval to the 21st century, everything is loved and respected with equal awe and intrigue.
Blois Cathedral of St. Louis
The cathedral was originally built in the 12th century, however after various renovations the majority is late 17th century Gothic. Situated on the edge of the old town walls, it stands proud against the windy cobbled streets. In another forward-thinking idea by the town’s ex-mayor Jack Long, the stained glass windows were replaced in 2000 in a series of specially-commissioned works of glass art by the Dutch artist, Jan Dibbets. Each of the thirty-three panels contain flashes of colours mirroring those in the original windows, but in contemporary patterns. It is a captivating mix of the old and new, with great effect, bringing in the interior of the cathedral in to the contemporary age. Historic monuments are often precautious of adopting such projects as this, but as is seen throughout Blois, when done with careful planning, respect and a sense of humour, it can achieve wonderful results – combining historical arts with contemporary arts can have beautiful results.
Blois is a city that thoroughly embraces the new – it also plays host to other smaller galleries, a museum of magic, and regular creative events. All art at some point has been new, cutting edge and contemporary – and been created and accepted by visionary people. Blois is an ever-evolving town, and a great example of how contemporary and old art can, and have, worked in harmony over hundreds of years.
Words by Richard Shenkin