Saturday, March 12, 2011

We Dali a bit

We went to the best museum ever. It is in Figueres, Spain, just across the border from France along the Mediterranean. It is a small town where Salvador Dali grew up. There is a museum there dedicated to his life’s work. He designed the museum after the Civil War. The building was an old theatre where he held his first art show when he was 14 years old. Today, the building is pink with loaves of bread on the side. They aren’t painted on. They are each three dimensional loaves that form a hideous repeating pattern. On top of the building are very large eggs. I believe the message is “Art is rising and that’s no yoke” or maybe “This is eggsactly the place for a leavening experience” but maybe I misunderstood. I shall torment you no longer with my interpretations.

Dali was a character. His art is showcased in two separate buildings. One is the pink building. The other has a full size diver amongst other interestingly dressed people bronzed above the entry. Apparently, Dali was a forerunner at performance art as well and showed up to an art opening in the suit. You can see by the picture that this was not a neoprene, figure-hugging black suit but the old tank helmet Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under the Sea type. He also worked with many mediums and not just paint. He sculpted, designed jewelry, buildings, furniture and so on. He even worked with Walt Disney on a short animation that was never released.

His Surrealist art must have coined the term. It is beyond bizarre and really looks like he enjoyed drugs quite a bit. However, when asked if he did drugs he replied, “I am a drug. Take me.” Gotta love him. He must have been a hell of a great party guest. His house is also a must-see. It is about an hour away on the coast. Sadly, it was closed until mid-March so we were four days too early. It has a swimming pool where wild orgiastic parties were held. This upholds my party guy theory.

His body is buried in the museum under a Cadillac taxi behind which is a large stack of tires with a boat on top. You can see it in the two pictures above. If you drop a coin in the slot by the Cadillac, it will rain inside the vehicle. I just dare you to come up with the interpretation of that one. Did I mention the blue condoms hanging from underneath the boat? There is no layout for his museum and no guide. When he designed the museum he said there were two kinds of people, those who needed no description and those who aren't worth a description. So we are left to interpret the pieces on our own.

We saw a room filled with original Dali oil paintings, many of his wife, Gala and her breasts. Another interesting room was the living room set up as a tribute to Mae West. Her eyes are paintings on the wall, her nose is a fireplace and her lips are a couch. Her hair is the curtains at the entry. You climb some stairs to view it.

There were many other bizarre art pieces but one of our favourites was the jeweled heart that actually beat. We took a video for you. While we browsed the giftshop, Rhys picked up a pair of lips, a Cadillac taxi and a pencil to stack together and said, “I’m a Dali expert”. I think that sums it up nicely.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Les Baux

You really need to use some imagination at Les Baux to see the castle. It must have been huge. It was once again situated atop a high rock overlooking the valley below. They could really pick the locations. Being built on solid rock did have some drawbacks, however. Access to water really sucked. Get it? Okay, crass. At any rate, there was no sucking water from a stone here. They created a system of gutters carved into the stone that would collect the rainwater. Otherwise, they had to haul it up by donkey from the valley. This was more challenging during siege.

The most interesting thing about Les Baux is that the lords of the castle were descended from Balthazar, one of the three kings who brought gifts to Christ at his birth. Perhaps even more incredible is the legend that says Christ was born right here in Les Baux.

Les Baux’s hometown boy, Yves Brayer, a Van Gogh-like kind of guy has work housed in a museum here. A very large work by Yves is located in the penitent’s chapel where the entire chapel walls are covered in his interpretation of Christ’s birth. One wall shows the birth. One wall shows Christ as king and one is more of a “starry night” impression. There are four walls but the last wall was the doorway and I don’t remember the theme. Another church across the street houses the cart of Christ. Each Christmas this is dragged through the streets by a lamb to celebrate the birth of Christ.

You’d think with this close connection to God the town would have a history of grace and goodness but alas, the lords of Les Baux were renowned for their cruelty and the town was no more peaceful than any other medieval town of the time. One lord threw kidnapped victims who weren’t ransomed off the tops of the castle walls. Once you’ve been to the top you know what a very long flight that was and what a rather unfortunate landing.

The castle had some interesting old trebuchets and a reconstructed battering ram. Many of the castles seem to have these and they are quite fascinating. It is hard to imagine a time when a device that took an hour to reload was considered one of the most deadly and could sometimes end a siege just by being brought into view. This castle was destroyed by the French king in 1483 and then by a different French king again in 1632. The lords here had a different point of view on the whole religion scene but when you are descended from an eye-witness doesn’t that count for something? By 1632 the French crown was really ticked and actually charged the townspeople of Les Baux for the costs of destroying their castle. Now that’s angry.

I really liked this town. There was a lot to like. The castle had a windmill and a pigeonerie, both of which were only allowed to be owned by a lord. That is so telling, isn't it? Both of these items could have lifted someone out of poverty and helped them acquire some wealth so both had to be forbidden. Because the mill was located at the castle, the farmers had to climb all the way up the mountain with their wheat in order to grind it. It was a fairly social affair as it took quite a while. You'd wait while the grinding was done. Pigeons were also big business. They could eat the eggs, the meat and use the pigeons for communication purposes so having a pigeonerie was profitable. The laundry was located in the lower town and was a communal affair in the 14th century. While the men were off chatting at the windmill, the ladies were gathered around the washing stone. There was enough here to give a real sense of time and place. In all, a very enjoyable visit.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Roman theatre

The best preserved Roman theatre we have seen is at Orange (see picture on left). There was also one in Arles (picture below) but it was nowhere as well preserved as the one in Orange. All the major Roman towns had an arena, theatre and some even had a circus. A circus is a big race track where the chariot races took place. Before arenas were built, the gladiator competitions would take place in the circuses as well. The Romans used theatres like the arenas, to entertain the masses and to impart their culture to all of the new colonies. Also like the arena events, the theatre was free and you were seated by social class with the richest citizens sitting in closest, knights (or horsemen) next and the prominent business types after that. The theatre performances were also paid for by taxes applied to the rich. Unlike the arena events, however, theatre was older than Rome. The Romans took the theatre from the Greeks, along with many of the first shows.

Theatre was extremely popular and at the height of the Roman Empire, more than 100 days of the year were set aside for theatre. In early Roman theatre, they watched Greek plays. If a tragedy was showing, they would have a short comedic sketch at the end to bring the audience’s emotions back up. The comedy routines always involved the same four characters and usually used satire. The tragedies were not as popular as the comedies, however, and as Roman theatre progressed, the tragedies and Greek choruses were gradually phased out in exchange for comedies and pantomime. I thought it was interesting the Romans enjoyed mime. I’m not sure if this is where it began but given its close association with France, it is interesting the Romans of Provence also enjoyed it.

Women were allowed to attend performances and were also allowed to perform. The theatre became quite raunchy and immoral for a time and women actually performed nude (due to popular demand). This was towards the end of the Empire around the same time the gladiator fights were deteriorating into bloodbath executions of untrained prisoners. Sounds a bit like television and movies, doesn’t it? I wonder if our society is in decline?

When we visited the theatre in Orange the other day we experienced the chill of the Mistral. It was lovely and warm when we left Venasque but as we walked around the theatre we huddled in freezing little lumps trying to protect ourselves from the freezing cold wind. It must have been a good six to ten degrees colder and we weren’t really prepared for it. The theatre in Orange is one of only three in the world where the Roman theatre wall still stands. The other two are in Syria and Turkey. This one was standing but the hundreds of columns were gone and all of the statues except the emperor were missing. The one of the emperor had been pieced back together. The town had been sacked several times and the theatre was burned but the wall persevered. Apparently, when one of the French kings attacked the city, he left the theatre standing because he was so impressed by its beauty. Interestingly, just like the areanas, the theatre had also been used as a city-fort during the middle ages.

While the weather in Orange did not encourage us to linger, we had a lovely day in Arles looking at the theatre and arena. We enjoyed a wonderful lunch at an outdoor café there. It was the first of probably many such lunches now that the weather is warming up.