Les Carrières de Lumière (The Quarries of Light) warranted an overnight trip to Arles, about two and a half hours from Carcassonne. Grand disused limestone quarries have been turned into a luminous multi-media experience.
Les Carrières de Lumière lie just below the village of Les Baux-de-Provence, and nestled in the rocky outcroppings of the valley.
From our parking space along the approach road, we could see the church of Les Baux-de-Provence atop the sheer rock cliffs. A ten-minute walk up a sequence of stone steps and ramps brought us to the village’s defensive gate…
…and today’s relaxed tourist village.
(After having visited La Cité de Carcassonne so many times, we recognized many of the same “traditional” shops along the winding streets of Baux. The same tourist commerce apparently is woven through all the popular destinations.)
After the climb up the hill in the Provence heat, we found a cool indoor restaurant. We enjoyed summer salads and glasses of rosé, while looking out over the rocky valley.
The walk from Baux to the quarries winds through the limestone outcroppings.
We started to get a sense of the quarried hillside as we were waiting to enter the exhibit at our prescribed time. The Provence blue sky, the scrubby pines and olive trees, and the sounds of cicadas entertained us as we waited.
The story of this place is interesting. In the 19th century, the name of the quarry was Les Grands Fonds. The great building boom in France of the 1800s required prodigious amounts of carved white limestone. Probably what you see in your mind’s eye when you think of Paris is boulevards formed by neoclassical apartment, public and institutional buildings, with carved window frames and decorative balconies. Much of the stone for Paris and the other cities in France came from this and neighboring quarries. However, after the First World War, architectural concrete and steel supplanted limestone. Demand fell away, and in the 1930s the quarry closed. In 1959, Jean Cocteau set his avant-garde film The Testament of Orpheus amid the monumental quarry chambers. In the 1970s, multimedia artists started experimenting with the stone walls as projection canvasses. Starting in 2012, the town of Baux-de-Provence engaged Culturespaces to create the sound and light experiences that we were just about to discover.
As we entered the chamber, all was dark as the previous showing finished. We couldn’t perceive the space nor understand its size. But as general lights came up, which softly lit a few walls, we could discern the planes of giant square piers and ceiling panels.
The lights dimmed again to black, and the first part of the presentation arose: Dreamed Japan: Images of a Floating World.
What a moment before had been scaleless tofu-like blank walls became glowing moving panels of color and pattern. It seemed like the walls had turned to light. Music by Ryuichi Sakamoto filled the space as stylized oceans, fish, forest spirits and more floated around us.
The second and primary part of the presentation was entitled, Van Gogh: Starry Night. The text that follows comes from the exhibition panels.
The introduction highlights Van Gogh’s expressive strength, thanks to the density of colors. Van Gogh’s penetrating stare appears, captivates visitors, and invites them to enter his inner world.
Music: Jean-Baptiste Lully, Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme LWV 43 Ourverture
The Provençal light
The first sequence is set in the heart of Provence, from the Alpilles to Sant-Rémy. In Le Semeur au soleil couchant (Sower at Sunset, Arles, 1888), the Provençal sunlight invades the canvas and fills the exhibition space with its light. The wheat field was largely painted in various shades of blue and the sky in yellow: the inversion of the colors shows the degree of freedom with which he treated the landscape.
Janis Joplin, Kozmic blues – Luca Longobardi, White Room
The early works
Contrasting with this explosion of light, the dark and sombre tones of the northern landscapes represent the harshness of the peasants’ daily lives, in some of the artist’s lesser-known works. Many portraits of fishermen and peasants move across the walls, followed by their villages and houses, and the interiors of the houses with the famous Les mangeurs de pommes de terre (The Potato Eaters, 1885). This masterpiece highlights the painter’s style, which was influenced by the corail realism of The Hague School during this period.
Sofia Gubaidulina, Quatuor à cordes No4 – Edward Grieg Peer Gynt, Op.23, No18, La chanson de Solveig
The Sunflowers, a series of seven still life’s painted in Arles in 1888, marks the artist’s return to Provence. An explosion of bouquets and multicolored petals illustrates the shift towards color. The viewer’s eye is drawn to L’Amandier en fleurs (Blossoming Almond Tree), which Van Gogh painted at the end of his life (in 1890) to celebrate the birth of his nephew Vincent Willem.
Bedrich Smetana, Má Vlast “Vitava”
The period in Paris
In paris at the end of the 19th century, Van Gogh painted a series of suburban landscapes before urbanisation, from Asnières to Montmartre. The Moulin de la Galette became one fo the artist’s favorite subjects. During a brief transition period, in a journey that led the artist from Northern Europe to the South of France, all the power of his chromatic palette is expressed in his work.
Giacomo Puccini, La Tosca “Vissi d’Arte”
Arles, a town in the South of France, left a lasting mark on Van Gogh’s oeuvre and enabled the artist to fully develop the treatment of light in his paintings. The highlight of the exhibition presents the most famous paintings from his Arles period: Terrasse de café le soir (Café Terrace at night, 1888), Le Café de nuit (The Café at Night, 1888), La Maison jaune (The Yellow House, 1888), and, lastly, La Chambre (Bedroom at Arles, 1888). This painting features in the background of many portraits of people who Van Gogh met. The portraits are followed by the correspondence with his brother Théo.
Miles Davis, Ascenseur pour l’échafaud – Moses Sumney, Doomed
Olive trees and cypresses
Recurrent motifs in Van Gogh’s oeuvre, cypresses and fields of olive trees fill the exhibition space. Van Gogh reinvented the landscape genre by representing both the beauty and the turmoil that he saw in nature in the series of Cypress trees he painted in 1889. The sublime and ominous atmosphere is found in the nocturnal sky ablaze with thousands of stars in Starry Night Over the Rhône (1888) and Starry Night (1889)
Antonio Vivaldi, Les Quatre Saisons, concerto pour violon No2 en sol mineur “l’été” 3e mouvement Presto – Luca Longobardi, Mozart Recomposed
As the presentations progressed, we slowly strolled among the giant piers. The music and the images flowed around us, from floor to ceiling. If any of you, when you come visit us, want to experience Les Carrières de Lumière, we will happily take you there and enjoy it all again.