In France, debating very high art
Saturday, January 15, 2011
IN TOURS, FRANCE This graceful old city on the Loire River has long been considered typical of France. New products get tested here because the consumers of Tours mirror national tastes, for instance, and foreigners come here to learn French because the local accent is considered the norm.
So it was perhaps inevitable that a raging controversy would explode over plans for the Loire Woman, a statue of a reclining nude designed to be 50 feet high and 120 feet long with her thighs evocatively opened.
With the Loire Woman, the 230,000 people of Tours, 150 miles southwest of Paris, have once again assumed their role as national representatives - arguing passionately over a work of art before it is even begun.
There is nothing France loves better than a heartfelt argument, over just about anything. Politics here generally revolve around polemics. But if the dispute is about ideas - or even better, art - that is France's highest form of national discourse, guaranteed to occupy columnists, nourish fancy dinner conversations and fill cafes with pros and cons.
Historically, French people at the time argued vehemently over the Versailles Palace, the Eiffel Tower and Impressionist painters, not to mention I.M. Pei's glass pyramids at the Louvre. All are generally admired by now. But art lovers had at it again more recently over out-of-sync exhibitions by Jeff Koons and Takashi Murakami in the usually august salons of Versailles.
In Tours, clients at the city's hottest tea salon these days are talking about nothing but the Loire Woman, a regular customer reports. In the wider world, more than 11,000 residents participated in a week-long survey organized by the Tours newspaper, the Nouvelle Republique. Results published Friday showed 49 percent opposed the project outright, 38 percent supported it and 13 percent endorsed the statue but preferred to see it erected at a site different from the one planned.
Michel Audiard, the puckish local sculptor who launched the $3.8 million project, says he has nothing against his opponents. A number of national publications have been talking about the controversy since it erupted, he pointed out, promoting his fame as a creator even among those who might hate his art.
"This has created a great buzz," he said in his studio on the edge of town, smiling contentedly. "It's magnificent."
Audiard, 60, is perhaps best known for his quirky designer fountain pens, one of which was given to then-President Bill Clinton as a protocol gift. Here in Tours, he authored the unusual wall of a McDonald's restaurant that is covered with images of famous people and their most humorous quotes, including nuggets from Marilyn Monroe, Winston Churchill, Charles Baudelaire and Woody Allen.
Audiard was born in Paris but chose early on to live in the Tours area. After several years in one of the chateaux that line the Loire nearby, he moved to the city and set up an art studio and specialty metallurgy shop in an industrial zone.
Audiard said he has done only one monument-size sculpture before, a 45-foot-high commission looking out over the sea in Equatorial Guinea, due to be inaugurated in June. But he has been thinking about the Loire Woman one way or another for a quarter of a century, he said, as a way to glorify the main river running through his adopted region.
In a bow to the environment, the statue will be constructed out of cardboard, plaster and other materials designed to be recyclable, he said. "She will herald tomorrow's habitat," Audiard declared grandly on a Web site dedicated to his project.