Courances: The garden of unearthly delights

The grounds of a French château have been transformed by 15 of the most outré names in fashion. Louis Jebb is inspired by an otherworldly Eden
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The Independent Online

Visitors to Courances, near Fontainebleau, this summer may be astonished by what they find. A small boy wearing an enormous tangerine ruff and restraining a black labrador sits astride the fountain at its entrance. A ghoulish ring of wraiths haunt the jetty of a gloomy wooded lake, and a purple-swathed Venus peers out from beneath her orange dreadlocked fringe along the tree-lined borders of the historic French gardens.

Visitors to Courances, near Fontainebleau, this summer may be astonished by what they find. A small boy wearing an enormous tangerine ruff and restraining a black labrador sits astride the fountain at its entrance. A ghoulish ring of wraiths haunt the jetty of a gloomy wooded lake, and a purple-swathed Venus peers out from beneath her orange dreadlocked fringe along the tree-lined borders of the historic French gardens.

Each is the brainchild of one of 15 designers invited to dress the exquisite 18th-century statues at Courances for a summer exhibition called "Autour de Miroir". And each is as thrilling to discover as they are unusual to behold.

The project is the culmination of an art project undertaken by Valentine de Ganay, a writer and landscape designer, and the youngest daughter of Jean-Louis de Ganay, the owner of the château. The author of last year's Courances, a collection of images and pensées from contemporary artists and sociologists that redefined what a book about country houses could be, she understood how compelling the backdrop of rich greens and soft greys might be for designers to play off. And she has had the foresight to commission some of the most exciting designers working today to bring her artistic vision to life.

Most striking among the fashion installations at Courances are those where the designers have pushed their dressing of the statues beyond mere costuming of the figures, and have related them to the wider landscape. At the far end of the main vista from the house, around a massive statue of Apollo, Olivier Theyskens of Rochas - best known for dressing Madonna, Nicole Kidman and Jennifer Aniston - has created "Jean d'Arc". In a masculine reimagining of St Joan's funeral pyre, timber has been stacked up against Apollo and dressed with tendrils of black and white silk ribbon that trail down a massive flight of steps to the pond known as the Rond de Moigny.

Elsewhere, an amusingly up-to-the-minute image is created by the French avant-garde artists Olivier and Michèle Chatenet, who have dressed Pomona, the chaste goddess of gardening, in tightly moulded silver foil and cling film - sandals and all - seizing on her notably short skirt to turn her into a contemporary queen of the red carpet, ready for the latest club opening in the Meatpacking District of New York.

The family have long been making waves with their subtle rethinking of the château and its park as a work of art. The Marquis Jean-Louis de Ganay has devoted a lifetime to the restoration of the gardens, which date back to the 16th century, and has shaped the alleys that pierce the ancient woodland into vaulting "cathedrals" of trees. Working at once with the eye of an artist and an estate manager, he has modernised a classic landscape which rivals the near-contemporary parks at Versailles and Vaux le Vicomte for splendour while being softer in form and different in character and flavour.

Before the Marquis de Ganay's forebears - the Comte de Béhague and the Baron de Haber - rescued Courances in the 1870s it had been abandoned for 40 years, a windowless shell with trees growing on the first floor. It was visited by the artists Sisley and Renoir in its sleeping-beauty years when it was "collapsing piece by piece, like a sugar lump forgotten in some damp corner".

And now, 140 years after the Impressionists' visit, and nearly 50 years after her parents first succeeded to the care of Courances, Valentine has brought her own artist's sensibility to reshaping perceptions of the house and park. This latest project seeks to fufill the artistic potential of the château, yet has all the qualities of a successful art installation.

The most voluptuous of all these installations is the treatment given by the Paris-based Japanese designer Tsumori Chisato, to La Baigneuse, an early 18th-century statue of Arethusa from the garden of the royal palace at Marly. (Her pair can be seen in the Cour Marly, recently created at the Louvre, in Paris, by IM Pei's practice in the latest stage of the grand remodelling of the museum.) Chisato has thrown profuse lengths of polka-dotted and multicoloured parachute silk around the recumbent figure, providing her with a grand train that sweeps around the banked-up turf amphitheatre in which La Baigneuse reclines.

Bravest of all is the German installation artist Stephan Schwarz, who has created La Vraie Baigneuse in full sight of the watching Arethusa. He has placed a primary-coloured kite-like launching stage on the edge of the Grand Miroir (in startling contrast to the greens of the surrounding expanse of lawn). From this stage, by way of showing up the idleness of the recumbent Arethusa, he launches himself to swim in the clean but chilly waters, kept cool by the constant currents of flowing spring water that give Courances its name.

Schwarz's nonchalant self-irony is all of a part with the humour of the whole project - the visitor is first greeted by the château's fearsome stone heraldic dogs, zipped into cotton suits like two oversized soft toys by the French designer Robert Normand. It is an all-encompassing wit that is proof that an ancient house with a haunting past can be made into an artist's work in progress with a challenging future.

The château and park at Courances are open to the public at weekends and on public holidays, 2pm to 6.30pm, until 31 October. The fashion expo 'Au Tour de Miroir' will be on until 1 August. On weekdays, tours are reserved for groups and by appointment only. Telephone 00 33 1 40 62 07 71 (Monday to Friday) or 00 33 1 64 98 41 18 (weekend). Courances is 35 minutes' drive from Paris. Take the Lyon autoroute, A6, and leave by exit 13, following the road to Milly-La-Forêt, which has signs to the village and château of Courances

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