Written on the Wall – the Story of Lyon

Written on the Wall – the Story of Lyon

The story of France’s third largest city, Lyon, is written, or rather painted on its walls, in giant trompe l’oeil frescos that cover entire buildings to illustrate its evolution through the centuries. It began in 1987, when a cooperative of artists, CitéCréation, decided to “play” with the restoration of the Croix-Rousse, the historic hillside neighborhood once home to the Canuts, the artisans who, over five centuries, made the city the Capital of Silk.

La Fresque des Canuts

France-Lyon, Canut Fresco Detail

A detail from the Silk Workers’ Wall pays homage to the Canut past of the Croix Rousse.

Commonly known as Le Mur des Canuts (Silk Workers’ Wall), the city block-size trompe l’oeil fresco covers a 1200 square meter (13,000 square foot) blank wall. It illustrates the history and development of the neighborhood and the daily life of its inhabitants. At its center, a long stairway street emblematic of the Croix-Rousse environment gives a startling depth to the work. On both sides, apartment buildings with the tall windows characteristic of the weavers’ homes depict the current life of the area while reminding the viewer of the harsh nineteenth-century existence of the artisans whose life centered around the giant looms. One of the largest trompe l’oeil frescoes in Europe, the Silk Workers’ Wall has become a Lyon landmark

La Fresque des Lyonnais

In 1994-1995, following the success of the original fresco, the city commissions another project to honor its most illustrious citizens though the ages. The ideal canvas, an 800 square meter (8,600 square foot), seven-story blank wall along the right bank of the Saône River, is proposed by the residents of the Presqu’Ile neighborhood.

France-Lyon ,Fresque Lyonnais.

The Fresque des Lyonnais honors illustrious sons and daughters who left their mark on the city.

The Fresque (or Mur) des Lyonnais honors thirty illustrious native sons and daughters who left their mark on the city. From Sainte Blandine, a young early-Christian slave martyred during the reign of Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius and the Patron Saint of Lyon, to Paul Bocuse, the world-famous French chef and leading figure of the Nouvelle Cuisine movement, from one balcony to the next, the wall is a stage. The higher you look, the further you go back in history. On the third floor, I spot Juliette Recamier, the celebrated society leader whose Parisian salon drew the foremost literary and political figures of the early nineteenth century.

France-Lyon Fresque Abbee Pierre.

L’abbée Pierre and Paul Bocuse share the spotlight on the Fresque des Lyonnais.

André-Marie Ampère the eighteenth century physicist who founded the science of electrodynamics and gave his name to the unit of electric current (Amp. for short) is on the second floor. Well-loved contemporary figures are on the street level, including L’Abbée Pierre (1912-2007), a Catholic priest, active member of the Resistance during World War Two and founder in 1949 of the Emmaus movement to help the poor, homeless and refugees; and Bertrand Tavernier (noted film director and producer of such award-winning films as “Mississippi Blues” and “Life and nothing but”).

Did you Know?

France-Lyon Jacquard.

Joseph Marie Jacquard, inventor of the loom that bears his name.

Some Wall residents are now household names, like Joseph Marie Jacquard (second floor), the early nineteenth century weaver and merchant who developed the earliest known programmable loom. Which, by the way, played an important part in the development of other programmable machines, including an early version of the digital compiler used by IBM to develop the modern day computer.

 

 

France-Lyon Lumière.

The brothers Lumière and their moving pictures invention.

Then there are the brothers Lumière, Auguste and Jean, late nineteenth century inventors with over 170 patents to their name. The Lumière brothers played a major role in the history of photography and moving pictures. And yes, in French, the word for light is lumière.

 

 

Saint Ex and the Little Prince

Antoine de Saint-Exupery, pioneer aviator and author with his word-famous Little Prince.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, pioneer aviator and author with his word-famous Little Prince.

And let’s not forget Antoine de Saint-Exupéry on the second floor, side-by-side with the yellow-haired hero of his famous Le Petit Prince (The Little Prince), one of the most translated and best-selling books ever published. Although most widely remembered for this novella, Saint-Exupéry was a pioneer commercial aviator before the Second World War, working airmail routes in Europe, Africa and South America. He later joined the Free French Air Force in North Africa and disappeared during a reconnaissance flight over the Mediterranean in July 1944. Although Saint-Ex, as he is lovingly known in France, is not technically a household name, if you fly to Lyon, you will land at Saint-Exupéry Airport.

Le Mur des Ecrivains

France-Lyon Writers.

Over 300 authors who were born or lived in and round Lyon figure on the Writers’ Wall.

Just around the corner, La Bibliothèque de la Cité, better known as the Wall of the Writers, evokes a giant library filled with the works of authors who were born or lived in and near Lyon. Over three hundred of them are on file, representing all literary genres and periods from the Renaissance to the present, excerpts and quotes included. They range from Rabelais and Voltaire to Frédéric Dart (who under the pen name San-Antonio, after his famous character, is arguably the most famous contemporary mystery writer in France). Saint Ex and his Little Prince are here too, of course. The street-level consists of three trompe l’oeil storefronts and a mailman near a mailbox. The mailbox, however, is real.

Good to Know

  • The frescoed walls of Lyon are famous for their originality and artistry. To date, the artists of CitéCréation have produced over one hundred of them in Lyon and surrounding areas alone and close to 600 around the world. To find a list of their major works, check: CitéCréation , and for a comprehensive itinerary of the walls in central Lyon: Murs Peints.
  • Visiting – Fresque des Canuts, 36 Boulevard des Canuts, at the corner of Rue Denfert Rochereau. Best visited as part of a walking itinerary, it can also be reached by public transportation: Métro station Hénon (line C). Fresque des Lyonnais, 2 Rue de la Martinière, at the corner of 43 Quai St. Vincent, on the right bank of the Saône River. Best visited as part of a walking itinerary, it can also be reached by public transportation: Métro station Hôtel de Ville-Louis Pradel. Multiple Bus lines also service this area. Mur des Ecrivains, 6 Rue de la Platière, at the corner of the Quai de la Pêcherie, just a few steps away from the Fresque des Lyonnais.
  • Getting there – Lyon is easily reached by rail, with several direct TGV (high speed trains) connections throughout the day from Paris (2 hours), Lille (3 hours), Strasbourg (3 hours and 30 minutes) and Marseille (1hour and 40 minutes) as well as Geneva (2 hours). Lyon Saint-Exupery airport, with connections to Paris, Geneva and other major European cities, is located 20 kilometers east of the city. The Rhonexpress light-rail link offers easy access to the centre of Lyon in just 30 minutes. Note: Lyon has two main train stations. All TGV high-speed trains come into the new Lyon Part Dieu station, on the east side of the Rhone. Some continue, along with many local trains, to the old main station at Perrache, on the Presqu’ile, one kilometer south of the main square in the city, Place Bellecour.

Location, location, location!

La Fresque des Canuts

A Gift to Paris – the Legacy of Henri Cernuschi

A Gift to Paris – the Legacy of Henri Cernuschi

It’s a sultry late summer day in Paris. The kind of weather that has tourists wilting under every bit of shade to be found in the Tuilleries Garden. What better time to retreat to the cool comfort of one of my favorite well-kept-secret museums?

Paris - Avenue Velasquez grillwork

Elegant grillwork marks the entrance of the Avenue Velasquez.

Located on the secluded Avenue Velasquez, in a remote enclave of the posh eighth arrondissement just a few steps away from the Parc Monceau, the Musée Cernuschi is a unique gift from its namesake, nineteenth century Renaissance man Henri Cernuschi, to the city of Paris.
 

Who is Henri Cernuschi?

Paris-Cernuschi ceramic urns.

Monumental Chinese and Japanese ceramic urns set the tone in the main foyer.

The history of the museum is indissociable of that of the man. Born in1828 into a wealthy Milanese family, Enrico Cernuschi is an Italian patriot who flees to France in the wake the 1850 collapse of the Rome revolutionary government, and in time acquires French citizenship. In Paris, he becomes a prominent economist, banker and passionate Asian art collector who makes his fortune during the Second Empire (1852-1870).

Paris-Cernuschi Chinese Bronzes.

Henri Cernuschi’s Chinese bronze collection ranges from the Neolithic to the thirteenth century.

 

An ardent republican, he actively supports efforts to create the French Third Republic, which once again puts him in a precarious political situation during the violent socialist uprising known as the Paris Commune (1871). He wisely decides remove himself to the Far East, where during a seventeen month journey through Japan and then China, he amasses well over 4,000 works of art, mainly ancient bronzes and ceramics.

 

 

Paris - Cernuschi Mansion Museum.

The bequest of Henri Cernuschi turned his private residence into one of the foremost Asian art museum in Europe.

Upon his return in 1873, Cernuschi commissions the neo-classical Parisian architect William Bouwens der Boijen to design his private mansion on the Avenue Velasquez, where he lives surrounded by his continuously expending art collection. Upon his death (1896) he bequeaths the mansion and its contents to the city of Paris, with arrangements for it to be turned into a museum. Inaugurated in 1898, the Cernuschi Museum is now the second largest museum of Asian art in France after the Musée Guimet.

An Evolving Treasure Trove

Paris - Cernuschi Buddha.

The eighteenth century bronze Amida Buddha dominates the soaring central hall.

The museum has retained the atmosphere of the grand private residence it once was, noted especially for its Chinese collection that range from the Neolithic age to the thirteenth century, including rare mingqi (tomb figures) from the Han dynasty, 206 BC–220 AD. However, its most striking piece is the 4.4-meter (14.5-foot) high eighteenth century bronze Amida Buddha displayed in the soaring central hall. Purchased from a small temple in the Meguro neighborhood of Tokyo, it is also known as the Meguro Buddha.

Over the past century, the collection has grown steadily through donations and purchases to its current holdings of over 12,000 pieces, 900 of which are permanently on display. Today, in addition to showcasing one of the leading collection of Chinese art in Europe, the museum also features fine Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese works. And for the past century it frequently holds temporary thematic exhibitions of international stature. One more reason to periodically revisit this exquisite treasure trove of Asian art.

Getting to Know Zao Wou-Ki

The purpose of my recent visit to the Cernuschi Museum, other than escaping the scorching heat, is the opportunity to view a recent donation of works by another exceptional exile, the recently deceased Chinese-born French artist Zao Wou-ki.

Paris-Cernuschi Zao Donation.

The recent donation of works by Chinese-born French artist is the object of a major temporary exhibition.

Born in Beijing in 1920 and raised in Shanghai where his father is a banker, Zao Wou-ki’s precocious talent earns him admission at the age of 15 to the prestigious Hangzhou National College of Art (now the China Academy or Art). There, in addition to traditional Chinese drawing, painting and calligraphy, he is introduced to western perspective and oil painting, and develops an enthusiastic interest in Post-Impressionism. Drawn by the work of leading European artists, especially Cezanne, Matisse and Picasso he travel to Paris in 1948, a move intended to be temporary but soon becomes permanent due to the communist takeover of China. Within a few years he begins to develop the luminous style of abstract art that becomes evident in his bold large-scale paintings

Paris-Cernuschi Zao abstracts.

Budding artists experiment with ink on paper in front of a grouping of major abstracts works by Zao Wou-ki.

The works in the donation illustrate this key early period as he transitions from figuration to abstraction. It includes a number of his experiments on paper with charcoals, watercolors and inks. Then there are abstract ink compositions from the 1970’s to 2000’s as well as a striking series of late works on porcelain (2006-2009) that illustrate clearly the evolution of his artistic journey.

My visit concludes with the screening of Zao Wou-ki : Lumières et couleurs sans limites (Zao Wou-ki: lights and colors without boundaries), an enlightening hour-long documentary that puts into context the life and work of this fascinating artist widely recognized today as one of the foremost Chinese painters of the twentieth century.

Good to Know

  • Visiting – Musée Cernuschi, 7 Avenue Vélasquez, Paris. Open Tuesday through Sunday from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm. Closed on Monday and national holidays. Contact: Tel. +33 (0) 53 96 21 50. The entrance of Avenue Velasquez is located between n°111 and 113 Boulevard Malesherbes.
  • Getting there – There is easy public transportation from anywhere in Paris to the museum: Métro stations Villiers or Monceau (line 2) or Villers (line 3) 
or Bus stop Malesherbes/Courcelles (bus numbers 30 and 94).
  • It’s Free! As is the case with all the City of Paris-owned museums, entrance to the permanent collection of the Musée Cernuschi is always free of charge. Temporary exhibits have a nominal entrance fee.

 

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Cernuschi Museum