In Draguignan, a bold exhibition on the High Middle Ages

Draguignan, Var. “When Ricardo Vazquez called me and offered to do an exhibition on Lotharingia, I wondered if it wasn’t a group of students playing a joke on me”, remembers Isabelle Bardiès-Fronty, curator of the Cluny Museum (Paris). A few months later, the proposal from the Director of Cultural Affairs of the Var department came to fruition, in the form of a “carte blanche” exhibition, continuing the ambitious departmental cultural policy since the inauguration of the exhibition hotel in Draguignan (HDE Var), in 2021.

After exhibitions with unifying themes (“Ulysses” in 2021, “Mummies” in 2022), and whose content was praised, this year, the Department of Var dares a niche subject for its summer itinerary: “Almost unprecedented”, according to the commissioner. This route dedicated to the kingdom of the 10th century was built with some difficulties: the exhibition hall does not have any collections, it has no exchange currencies to obtain loans. Two institutions, the National Library of France (BNF) and the National Archives, however responded favorably with dozens of loans, reassured by the reputation of the curator, the quality of previous Var exhibitions and the modern equipment equipped with the HDE Var.

Art history for compass

It is in a subdued atmosphere (50 lux, no more) that the three floors of the premises are immersed, in order to be able to present numerous manuscript treasures. An unusual darkness for some visitors, but which is intended to be conducive to contemplation. The exhibition opens with an essential historical statement that situates the context of the Carolingian dynasties and, more broadly, of Europe at the turn of the year one thousand. The scenography, its atmosphere inspired by the palace of Aix-la-Chapelle, its worked luminosity, as well as the choice of works give the route an “art history” hue, highlighted by the curator.

The museographic choices make the tools of historical mediation visible: maps and dynastic trees are thus treated in relief and contribute to the general elegance of the scenography. The supposedly “arid” documents of history come to the fore here: the “diplomas”, the primary source of the history of the Kingdom of Lotharingia, are presented as central pieces in each of the rooms. However, the route here touches the limit of the carte blanche granted to the specialist in the Early Middle Ages: the centrality granted to these documents clearly reflects their historical importance, but creates redundancies in the route.

This sin of erudition does not, however, harm the general atmosphere of the journey that Isabelle Bardiès-Fronty desired. “conducive to delight”. The interest of this exhibition also lies in the highlighting of a contradiction between the geopolitical upheavals caused by the successions of Charlemagne and the great permanence of artistic forms, which for two centuries draw on the Carolingian Renaissance. The scenographer Vasken Yéghiayan mentioned during the preparation a “haiku exhibition” : an expression that sums up the efforts made (in the construction of the windows as well as in the lighting) to make each of the objects presented stand out.

Ivory sculptures and admirable manuscripts

Ivory is very present, with works from the school of Metz, the heart of the kingdom of Lotharingia. Leaning over his writing desk, a bird resting on his shoulder, Saint Gregory carved on a binding plate (Saint Gregory and his scribes, late 10th century), on loan from the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, is one of the great masterpieces in the exhibition. The object embodies both the virtuosity of ivory carvers and their inventive genius, with iconographic innovations in two directions. Then vellum produces exceptional handwritten works. The multiplication of loans (Berlin, Reims, Metz, Lyon, and BNF) gives a complete view of the various influences that feed this production. The most obvious being the antique reference, promoted by the Carolingian Renaissance, which shows a direct filiation with early Christian art.

The Carolingian kingdoms were also a land of innovation, with the invention of tiny caroline (round and regular writing), which has never been seen more beautiful than on the manuscript of theNatural History of Pliny the Elder, who came from Aix-la-Chapelle. The manuscript of Praises of the Holy Cross by Raban Maur, written in 810, deserves an exhibition in itself. This collection of poems, where geometry and sacred representation are combined in a regular grid of letters, is deciphered in a very concise short film. Here we touch on the artistic and intellectual outpouring which animated the Carolingian world, and which is reminiscent of the contemporary Badgad of Lotharingia or the Florence of the first Renaissance.

The exhibition deliberately does not dwell on the historiographical fortunes of the kingdom in the 19th century. Against this essentializing vision and the idea of ​​instability associated with the Carolingian period, the hotel of the Var collections lets the works tell another story.

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