One of the delights of finding kindred spirits is that when they suggest a place to visit, you know that there is a very good chance that you too will find the place to be special.
This happened again to me the other day, during my artist-in-residence stay at DRAWinternational in Caylus, France.
John and Grete McNorton, who established DRAWinternational as a centre for artistic investigation, research and practice, are two very special people, along with their lovely daughter, with whom I rapidly felt deliciously at home. They told me of the Abbey of Beaulieu, a Cistercian abbey decommissioned during the French Revolution and now a National Monument and contemporary art centre.
Nestled in a green winding, wooded valley just north of Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val, in Ginals, in the Tarn et Garonne Department, this is indeed a magical place to visit.
Originally founded as an abbey in 1144, the church was destroyed during the religious wars against the Cathars at the beginning of the 13th century. It was rebuilt from 1275 onwards, but was destroyed and rebuilt during the religious wars between Catholics and Protestants in the second half of the 16th century. From then on, until the French Revolution, the Cistercians had a difficult time surviving as their abbots were appointed directly by the King, as opposed to the Cistercian way of selecting an abbot.
Politics seem to enter every facet of life!
Then absurd hubris nearly destroyed the building as the new owners, after the Revolution, from the town of Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val; they wanted to move the whole structure, stone by stone, to their town. Luckily, the noted Prosper Merimee, one of the first Inspectors of National Monuments, stepped in and the building was saved by being classified a National Monument in 1875.
Rightly so, because after a joint restoration by the State and two enlightened citizens, Pierre Brache and Genevieve Bonnefoi, the abbey became a Centre for Contemporary Art, with the couple’s art collection left to the State as well. It is a wonderful, soaring, light-filled space in which to show art.
The day I visited, there was an exhibition of paintings and “boxes” by Montauban artist, Odile Cariteau, “Deambulations”. “Deambulation” in French means a strolling or a wandering, in this case a symbolic movement in time and space, linking an artistic and a monastic way of life.
Both modes of existence encompass realities other than the visible, experienced in solitude. Prayer and an artistic practice both dictate a particular way of life in their gentle unfolding of activity.
The big black and white acrylic canvases held up well, if repetitively, in the high Gothic-arched, quite narrow simple nave, transept and choir. Niches were filled with boxes, “Interior Spaces” filled with divers material, alluding to alchemy. A little too claustrophobic for my taste, but interesting. Perhaps the most arresting were the “Primordial Walking Sticks”, complex ensembles of wooden twisted branches adorned with ceramic beads and threads.
In the cool 13th century Gothic cellar, apparently intact since it was constructed (a comment on French priorities when it comes to wine and wine-making!), Cariteau had echoed, to a degree, the convoluted forms of these walking sticks in huge kakemono paintings hung in staggered rows. “Writings from Afar”, some were elegant.
The Abbey ensemble itself was far more compelling. The grassy lawn demarcated where the cloister had once been, and off it was the wonderful small Chapter House, with early 13th century, still polychromed massive arches and a feeling of great antiquity. It was a delight simply to sit quietly in the cool of this House and draw, somehow connecting with the monks of yore in their strict observance of an orderly, simple life.
There is also a current exhibition of modern art in the upstairs former dormitory, a beautiful wooden structure with high, high ceilings. “Supports/Surfaces et Apres” examines this movement that started in the 60s and 70s in France, when artists wanted to break with painting as pure painting. Whatever the art exhibition currently on at the Abbey of Beaulieu, it is well worth a visit to this peaceful remnant of another way of life, still timeless and serene in feel.
Around, the grounds still offer beautiful walks, with flowers to gladden the heart and magnificent giant trees to shade one’s path.
A special place indeed.