When I left to spend two weeks in Provence, I thought I knew what to expect. The vacation would be mostly about beautiful food and beautiful scenery – gorgeous town markets stuffed with olives, dried sausages and cheese, bakeries overflowing with flaky pastry and fresh baguettes, Van Gogh’s Cyprus trees and irises, dark purple lavender fields, world-class vineyards. And St.-Remy-de-Provence, our home base for the holiday, delivered on all of the above.
I didn’t expect to be moved by great art. Even though many painters created their most famous works in Provence, few of the canvases are still in the region. And I can guarantee that the last thing I expected was to be awed by a light show inside a limestone mine.
If it had been up to me, I never would have gone. My friend Sunny loves Gustav Klimt and had read that the nearby town of Le Baux had a Klimt exhibit. Once we got there, we found it was actually a Klimt light show. Just those two words – “light show” – made me roll my eyes. What kind of cheesy, new age crap was this?
We spent the morning in Le Baux wandering around the ruins of the chateau and popping into the shops. The views were stunning and the ruins fascinating. Even if the light show ended up being a bust, the trip was already worth it. As the afternoon heat hit, we headed down to the Carrières de Lumières, the old limestone mine that housed the Klimt show.
We walked from the blinding sunlight into the dark mine and for a moment I felt disoriented. I had expected a low, cramped mine with laser lights flashing, like a disco roller rink. Instead, we’d entered a space with soaring ceilings and massive smooth white columns and walls – and projected onto all of them were huge colorful paintings.
I stared open mouthed as classical music swelled around me. I tried to step forward and tilted off balance as the images around me morphed into something new. I thought the paintings would be static projections, but instead they changed, merging and bleeding into each other. No two surfaces in the massive mine had the same image at the same time – to my left was a painting of a statuesque redhead with sad eyes while straight ahead, across the room, was a pale woman with dark hair, her eyes closed and a small smile on her face. Everywhere I looked, there was something new.
Then the lights went out and the music died. After a few seconds of silence, the music started again and red flowers began appearing on the walls. Then yellow ones. Then blue. As I watched, an entire painting of a field of flowers appeared, layer by layer, on the walls around me. It was like watching the painter at work, building one idea on top of another.
I stood there, dumbfounded and emotional. I couldn’t remember the last time art had hit me this hard, had grabbed me by the eyeballs and not let me go. I felt like a small child experiencing something for the first time. I felt like Mary Poppins jumping into a chalk drawing. I was inside the paintings.
I stood there trying to figure out why this worked. Why wasn’t it cheesy and awful? I think it worked because the directors had created an exhibit that made me see the paintings as the artist envisioned them – intense, emotional and larger than life.
Ann Patchett, the novelist and essay writer, once wrote that writing a story is like trying to capture a beautiful butterfly. The live butterfly is colorful and moves with amazing grace just as the story idea, in your mind, is beautiful, graceful and alive. But to capture the butterfly (or commit the story to paper), you have to catch it, pin it and, yes, kill it in order to keep it in one place. The beautiful, graceful butterfly (or story) is now this dead lifeless shadow of its former self. The captured story is never as beautiful as the one in your mind.
I felt the same way about the Carrières de Lumières exhibit. Perhaps something about the size, the light, the music and the art direction brought the paintings to life in a way that a canvas alone could not. Maybe this was the emotion Klimt wanted me to feel when I stared at his canvases. Maybe this exhibit brought to life the butterflies he set out to paint.
My amateur photos don’t do justice to the experience. But they’re the best I have! Please visit the Carrières de Lumières web site for some truly stunning photos.