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Arts & Culture / Destinations / Expat Club trips / History / Trip reviews

A Little Louvre in Lens

A Little Louvre in Lens

With more than 10 million visitors a year, the Louvre is the world’s most visited museum. It’s also the world’s largest, so it’s not surprising that it can be a bit overwhelming. But if you want to see some of the world’s great treasures, you don’t have to venture into Paris. The Louvre has smaller museums in Abu Dhabi and Lens, Pas-de-Calais, a mining town located about 200 kilometres north of Paris.  In October, Expat Club journeyed to Lens.

The Louvre-Lens is the baby brother of the Louvre and home to 200 masterpieces on loan from the Louvre Museum in Paris.

Reflective walls, concrete floors and open space provide an ideal atmosphere for masterpieces. ©Deborah M. Bernstein

From a Coal Mine to a Museum

The Louvre-Lens opened in 2012, transforming a former coal mine into a regional jewel. The museum was built in Lens to re-energize the city and give it an economic boost.  It’s also part of France’s commitment to decentralizing culture.

Lens has an intriguing history that dates back to its days as a fortification from Norman invasions. It changed hands — from a Flemish city to part of the Spanish Netherlands –before becoming part of France.

Coal was first discovered there in 1849, and mining turned Lens into an important industrial city with immigrants arriving from Poland to help with coal mining shortly thereafter. The last coal mine closed in 1986.  Twenty-six years later, the city was blessed with the opening of a world-class museum and major sports stadium, improving the city’s economy.

Arriving in Lens

As we drove through the old mining town, we saw remnants of its past — old stone houses and pyramid-shaped coal tips rising from the horizon. The days of yore were quickly forgotten as we pulled into the museum drop-off area.

Our guide shared insights and historical context in the Gallery of Time. | © Deborah M. Bernstein

 

The Louvre-Lens is a sleek, modern structure featuring wide open spaces, concrete floors and reflecting anodised aluminium walls. The centrepiece of the museum is the Galerie du Temps, or Gallery of Time. Here you can discover 5,000 years of history in just 3,000 square meters. Look up. You’ll find a timeline engraved on the wall above you indicating the era of the art.

The colorful lid of the sarcophagus of the Lady Tanetme (in the background) dates back to the era from 945-715 BC. | © Deborah M. Bernstein

 

Start your journey in the 4th millennium BC and travel from Antiquity through the Middle Ages to the modern era. The museum mixes periods, techniques and civilisations, all clustered in geographical areas and chronological order. It makes it easy to understand how one region of the world affected another.

“The subtle interplay between the different works displayed chronologically, reveals borrowings and exchanges, as well as innovations and shifts across time and space,” the museum narrative explains.

Botticelli’s “Madonna and Child with Seven Angels” |  © Deborah M. Bernstein

Masterpieces

Each year, the gallery changes the layout and renews its collection. We saw the Renaissance art of Botticelli (Madonna and Child with Five Angels), a contemporary-looking ceramic basin (below) from the studio of Bernard Palissy (1510-1589), Rubens’ spectacular Ixion, King of the Lapiths, Deceived by Juno (1615), and an intimate family portrait of Claude-Marie Dubufe’s family, which dates back to 1820.

Bernard Palissey’s ceramic basin with fish, serpent and snake dates back to 1600. | © Deborah M. Bernstein

 

Rubens’ masterpiece “Ixios, King of the Lapiths, Deceived by Juno,” is on display in the center of the Gallery of Time. | © Deborah M. Bernstein

 

You can even find a French national treasure! It’s the colourful marble and porcelain table, which last sold for 120 million euros!

 

This table is one of France’s national treasures. | © Deborah M. Bernstein

 

It was given to the Baron de Breteuil, known as the “Teschen Tafel.” The baron played a critical role in the Treaty of Teschen negotiations in 1779, which involved a treaty between Austria, Prussia and Saxony.

Celebrating 100 Years of Polish Connection

Art and photography from Poland were featured in two temporary exhibitions. They commemorated the 100th anniversary of the signing of an immigration and emigration agreement between France and Poland. The agreement brought thousands of Poles to France to work in the mines. 

Wladyslaw Jarocki’s “Hutsuls” depicts mountain life in the Polish frontier. | © Deborah M. Bernstein

 

“The exhibition traces this very special moment in the history of Polish culture, where despite the division of the country between Russia, the Austrian Empire and Prussia, the artists will create a true Polish identity, which we have could name since the ‘Polonity.’  It presents how artists, inspired by national history, landscapes and the peasantry, have shaped images of Poland for the Poles but also for the rest of the world. Generous and evocative, their painting is often at the forefront of the European pictorial modes of the time.”

 

There are about 150 paintings by renowned artists including Matejko, Chelmonski, Malczewski or Kossak, which are on loan from Polish national museums. | © Deborah M. Bernstein

Capturing Little Poland

A second, smaller exhibition – Photographing “Little Poland,” 1924-1939, features 100 black and white photography by Kasmir Zgorecki.  Zgorecki was part of the Polish diaspora of workers who moved to France’s Northern Mining Basin for work.

A self-portrait of the photographer

 

A boilermaker by training, he worked as a miner for six months before turning to photography. His touching photos immortalise the emigration, life and death of Poles who lived in mining towns like Rouvroy in the Pas-de-Calais. They also give an intimate look at how Poles integrated into France while keeping their traditions alive.

The painting exhibition continues through January 2020 and the photography exhibition through March 2020.

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