Impressionism returns to Normandy with a homeland festival

Claude Monet brought his easels to Rouen in 1892 to paint a series of its landmark Gothic cathedral, and eleven of those masterpieces are back home in France's Normandy region for a summer-long celebration of Impressionist art.

The Normandie-Impressionniste Festival kicked off at the weekend with yet another view of Notre Dame Cathedral in Rouen. Some 1,250 people each holding a fragment of a Monet cathedral reproduction over their heads created a giant live Impressionist painting, measuring 600 square metres (over 6,450 square feet), aiming to enter the Guinness Book of World Records.

"We are rediscovering Impressionism, which has been a bit forgotten in France, unlike Japan and the United States," says Laurent Fabius, a prominent Socialist deputy and former prime minister who helped spearhead the Normandy project whose theme will continue in the autumn with a huge Monet retrospective at the Grand Palais in Paris.

Normandy had great influence on Impressionism, says Fabius. "All of the major painters were here," he notes, drawn to the region for its "light, the scenery, the medieval monuments; all that will be rediscovered" in more than 100 festival events to run through September.

The Impressionist movement will be recalled not only in special art exhibitions but also with concerts, theatre, films, sound and light shows, a ball, and picnics and promenades in the footsteps of the artists - like Camille Pissarro, Paul Gauguin, Edgar Degas - who immortalised the northern France region.

In fact, "Normandy is considered the cradle of Impressionism," says    Jacques-Sylvain Klein, festival general commissioner and author of a book on the subject.

In the late 1800s artists boarded trains in Paris heading west to Normandy, which stretches from Giverny - Monet's home about 75 kilometres ( 47 miles) from the French capital - along the Seine river through the cities of Rouen and Caen to the Channel and Atlantic coastlines that wind from Dieppe and Deauville to Cherbourg and Mont St Michel.

The very name of Impressionism comes from a Monet work painted at the port of Le Havre in 1872 "Impression, soleil levant" (Impression of sunrise), which like all work in this artistic tradition tries to capture an ephemeral moment, says Klein.

In the historic Norman capital, Monet set up his studio in buildings across from the towering cathedral, wanting to capture the changing light on its western facade from morning to sunset, in sunshine and fog, working on several canvases at the same time.

Eleven of his 30 cathedral paintings are on rare display together at the Rouen Fine Arts Museum, including works from private collections and museums in Paris, Boston, Los Angeles and Belgrade.

That Monet looms as a pivotal artist of Impressionism is evidenced in France's new retrospectives but also in London's Christie's auction house. One of Monet's water lily paintings - another of his series' obsessions - goes on the block June 23    and is estimated to fetch up to 40 million pounds (58 million dollars, 48 million euros).

Whether inspired or envious of his fellow artist, Pissarro also showed up again in Rouen in 1896 and undertook his own series of paintings, the focus being the city's bustling bridges and Seine river banks. Eight of his 15 masterpieces can be seen in the special Rouen exhibit, capturing as he told his son Lucien in a letter "an idea of the movement, life and atmosphere" near the turn of the century.

Gauguin, long before he packed up for the exotic life of Tahiti, also was drawn to paint life along the Seine and the streets of Rouen, as seen in the works of the exhibit's third featured artist who later became a master of the post-Impressionist era.

Impressionism was a revolutionary movement in the art of its day and in keeping with that spirit the Normandy festival also highlights the work of contemporary artists in painting, photography and video.

"Impressionism was a breaking with tradition," says Fabius, who heads an intercommunal structure for development of the Rouen metropolitan area (CREA).

In keeping with that tradition, the festival looks at "what could be the Impressionist theme today," adds the 63-year-old who served as premier from 1984 to 1986 under president Francois Mitterrand and made an unsuccessful bid for the Socialist Party's presidential nomination in 2007.

An international video art exhibition set up in the gardens of the Seine-Maritime department building in Rouen delves into several Impressionist themes - revolution, light, intimacy, happiness, urban and rural - using the new medium that offers the artists the visual as well as movement and sound.

"Painting tried to create movement, but with video you can make that movement," says Silvie Defraoui of Switzerland, one of the featured video artists. It is also a medium that can do more than suggest a story, she adds.    "Video is not only to suggest things but to say things... and what you can say is clearer" than painting.

Other new art exhibits include photographs and video on Impressionist themes at the regional contemporary art foundation known as FRAC in Rouen and the Impressionism Museum of Giverny.

"All the disciplines of the arts are represented," says Klein of the Normandy festival. The full programme of events can be found at www.normandieimpressionniste.fr in both French and English.

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