France uses the last days of summer to open her doors and invite the world inside for quick peek behind the scenes. It is a national campaign, with chateaux and public buildings across the nation open to the general public for the weekend. Lines start in the early hours for places like the Elysée, presidential palace and the Prime Minister’s home at Matiginon. In years past we have seen the mineral collection at the prestigious Ecole des Mines engineering school, the carnival museum, the green houses of the Luxembourg Gardens with their orchid collection for the senate, and the Observatory nearby. Last year, we stopped by the Manufacture de Sèvres.
This year, I was not in the mood to stand in lines and deal with crowds, so we just went for a stroll. It would seem the universe had other plans for us, and along our walk we passed the fine arts college, Ecole des Beaux Arts. The school was open to visitors and I was very curious to see inside, because the school has been getting a lot of press lately.
It is a beautiful space, evoking an abandoned Italian palazzo of fading ochres and falling plaster with patina all around. The chapel has been stuffed full of statuary. Renaissance horsemen face off medieval tombstones, Micheal Angelo’s Virgin is not far from a Roman god. The works are all plaster replicas of masterpieces, set out for the students to study, draw, photography.
In the auditorium there is a large mural of the masters. da Vinci chats away with Reubens, Van Dyke shares a laugh besides Fra Angelico, all of them looking down at the students below, sitting on stiff wooden benches, listening to a lecture as the butts go numb.
There is a covered courtyard, flooded with light, where students can work in the sun, protected from the elements, and a smaller, arcaded courtyard that leads to the chapel. A memorial to students who died fighting for France in the First World War dominates the space, a large chestnut tree reigning from above, nature faces tragedy in absolute beauty and our day has been enriched.
All this glorious history comes with a price. The price of upkeep and renovation. The school desperately needs to be brought into the age of modernity, a little wifi here, perhaps a sound system there. Which is why it has been in the news. Ralph Lauren visited the space and was smitten. He has agreed to wire the school, renovate the chapel and ensure a classical, yet sustainable art education of generations to come.