Arman in Les Baux de Provence

Arman portraitMany towns in Provence play it safe when exploring the region's rich artistic heritage. But in the summer of 2011, Les Baux de Provence tried a bold experiment that turned the whole village into a giant installation fêting Arman, the avant-garde artist.

Les Baux de Provence has inspired many writers and artists before, including Dante Alighieri and Jean Cocteau. Some might say this beautiful village is an artwork in its own right. But for a few months it became a different artwork - an altogether edgier one.

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Born in Nice, Arman (1928-2005) had no direct personal connection with Les Baux de Provence, though like many others who could afford it, he stopped by now and then to dine at its top restaurant, L'Oustau de Baumanière.

Arman poster at Les Baux de Provence with La Grande NuitIt was a retrospective devoted to Arman at the Centre Pompidou in Paris in 2010 that inspired the mayor of Les Baux, Michel Fenard, to stage this exhibition.

Arman's daughter, Marion Moreau, supervised the installations at venues all around the village and Marc Butti and Emmanuel Amarger, who worked as the artist's assistants, were on site to keep an eye on things and answer visitors' questions.

The displays turned on a series of shocks, surprises and disconnections demonstrating Arman's mischievous spirit. The first thing that caught your attention at the approach to Les Baux was a large billboard (pictured) appearing to celebrate Vincent van Gogh's The Starry Night. But look more closely and you could see that something was not quite right about it.

More was revealed at the first installation, in the inner courtyard of the Hôtel de Manville, one of the most substantial and elegant Renaissance mansions in Les Baux, where the Town Hall also has its offices on the first floor.

Trolley Cascade by Arman at les Baux de ProvenceAs you went in, you confronted a gleaming silver bank of supermarket trolleys, arranged in rows and mounted on the wall opposite. This was Chute des Courses (Trolley Cascade, 1996, pictured) - which you could, if you wanted, read as an ironic reflection on the souvenir shops on the street outside selling tourist tat made in China.

Also in this space was that van Gogh look-alike image, which upon closer inspection was a collage made of paintbrushes. La Grande Nuit (Darkest Night, 1994) was Arman's version of the masterpiece, poised somewhere between homage and gentle parody.

In this location it acquired an extra meaning from the fact that the original was painted by van Gogh at Saint Paul de Mausole, near Saint Remy de Provence just up the road.

In the background, to add to the surreal atmosphere, Jacques Brel crooned gently: Arman had music playing constantly in his studio and the Belgian singer was one of those he especially liked to listen to.

Born Armand Pierre Fernandez, Arman acquired his nickname thanks to a careless printer who dropped a 'd' from his first name. In many ways, he's the quintessential mid-20th century artist.

At a moment when painters, writers and philosophers all over the Western world were  rebelling against consumerism, Arman co-founded in 1960 the New Realist movement with Yves Klein, Daniel Spoerri and others. Working with industrial components, everyday objects, even household waste, the New Realists set out to challenge traditional conceptions of art.

The second stage of the tour, an open-air space by the Post Tenebras Lux window, was a series of installations demonstrating this fondness for hoarding, scavenging and transforming found objects.

Old tennis balls, piles of ancient typewriters, golf clubs washing machine drums and bronzes of Lenin retrieved from the former Soviet Union then grafted on to a perfume still - they were all grist for his mill. Arman never threw anything away. Even the tops off empty paint tubes were recycled into art.

Elsewhere there were children's workshops and, on an upper floor of Les Baux' former water storage tank (now converted into an exhibition space), you could watch documentaries about Arman's work.

The fourth and final venue, the Hôtel de Porcelet, presented around 60 works by Arman in a more conventional gallery setting. They demonstrated the artist's fondness for "shooting" - stamping on paint tubes to produce Jackson Pollock-like splatterfests - and for his playful use of repetition and variation: assemblages or "accumulations" of dozens of examples of the same object: say, hammer heads or violins (Arman's first wife was a musician).

The Arman show didn't end at nightfall either. After dark, his work was projected on walls throughout Les Baux until 1.00am.

Poster for Arman in Les Baux de ProvenceArman is not well-known in some countries such as Britain, though he achieved early success in France, and was acclaimed in the US, where he lived for over 40 years, eventually taking out American citizenship.

Andy Warhol bought one of his pieces, a plexiglass dustbin - with real household refuse in it - and had it on display in his Factory, presumably until the stench got too much to bear.

According to some sources, a quarter of Les Baux' annual municipal budget was spent on this event and so it was a huge expense and a great gamble. The unspoken thought behind it was surely that Les Baux has become massively over-commercialised.

Even if the show was, perhaps, a little radical for some visitors, it must have given the village an extra shot of cultural prestige. For the same reason Les Baux also participates in the annual a-part Festival of Contemporary Art which is held each July in towns and villages all across the Alpilles.

Website for the Arman Community

Picture credits: portrait of Arman copyright Fondation A.R.M.A.N.; Darkest Night billboard and Trolley Cascade copyright S. Johnston.

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