Tag Archives: Year Abroad

Lyon’s Fête des Lumières: Commercialist extravaganza or installation art at its finest, asks French and Art History student Marianne Thomas

The city of Lyon, located in the heart of the French hexagon, is a beautiful and vibrant one, bursting with a wide spectrum of cultural events that is ever-surprising in its variety and seemingly never-ending in its frequency. It’s arguably little wonder then, that after choosing Lyon to be the location of my compulsory Year Abroad last year, I was just as excited to experience the weekly art markets and the annual film festival as I was to explore the city itself. However, there was always one highly-acclaimed event that stood out in the calendar more than most and that I looked forward to from September onwards: Lyon’s annual Fête des Lumières, coming to town on 6th December.


The city of Lyon

The city of Lyon


A gigantic festival of lights, it’s not difficult to see why just the idea of the Fête des Lumières held such appeal for the History of Art student in me. Each year on the first weekend of December, every corner of Lyon is illuminated: building-sized video installations, pyrotechnics and dazzling light displays stretch from the concrete housing-block communities of the inner suburbs to the sprawling, fountain-laden squares of the city centre, and transform after-dark Lyon into a living, breathing canvas. Thousands of artists apply each year with the hope of securing a small area of the city to show off their expertise in their chosen field; the festival undoubtedly gives many installation artists an unparalleled opportunity to exhibit their work in an imaginative way outside of the gallery.

Subsequently, after seeing numerous photos of the spectacles offered by previous years, I was understandably excited to see what 2013 would bring, and assumed that the citizens of Lyon – being lucky enough to have this event on their doorstep – would feel the same.



An installation in one of the city’s squares, December 2013


Nevertheless, in the lead-up to December, I found that, upon talking to local residents, most of them didn’t seem to share in my excitement. Some groaned with dread at the thought of the imminent collapse of public transport in the wake of all the tourists, but many more bemoaned the fact that the festival had become so commercial in recent years and that the “true spirit” of it had been masked by gimmicks and consumerism. After learning more about the history and facts of the Fête, it became clear that both of these viewpoints were fairly understandable.

After all, amazingly, Lyon’s Fête des Lumières is the third most-visited annual festive event in the world, with only Rio Carnival and Oktoberfest beating it in the leaderboard. That’s to say that, on average, four million tourists flock to Lyon every year for an event that is barely advertised outside of the city itself, and is practically unknown in the UK. Suddenly, the transport-related anxiety made a lot of sense. The argument of the Fête being overrun by commercialism also seems to follow on pretty naturally; the origins of the festival are far from concrete, but the generally-accepted version of the narrative is that the Fête is a tribute to the Virgin Mary for saving the city from the plague during the 1600s, and that lighting up building façades and placing candles in windows is the Lyonnais way of giving thanks for the miracle. However, it’s easy to see that this prominent spiritual aspect of the festival could be easily forgotten amongst the bright lights and fireworks.

So when the Fête des Lumières finally rolled around in December, I was no longer sure what to expect. Was it going to prove to be the commercialist extravaganza that I’d been warned about, or the enormous, explosive art installation that I’d hoped for?



The town hall ‘on fire’


I was pleased to find that it was predominantly the latter. Although perhaps many art critics would not consider a festival of lights to be an example of installation art in its traditional sense, there is no reason to dismiss it from the category altogether. The way in which the existing architecture of the city was moulded to fit each artist’s requirement was extraordinary: with the use of incredibly-intricate lighting projections, the town hall and fine art museum were seen to be “demolished”, before being rebuilt into a rainforest and then an underwater kingdom, amongst many other creative destinations.


The Fine Art Museum being transformed into a rose garden

The Fine Art Museum being transformed into a rose garden


An existing mural painted onto the side of a local boulangerie was “animated”, its characters brought to life, while the banks of the Rhone river were transformed into a light-up orchestra. Of course, the streets were fit to burst with bodies cramming to see the spectacles, and the sheer number of stalls enthusiastically selling mulled wine was much higher than I would have expected, but a touch of consumerism didn’t mean that the event could not still be regarded as a prime example of the flexibility of installation art.

In fact, witnessing the festival made me think back to a question that all History of Art students will be very familiar with from the first few nervous weeks of first year: What is Art? It doesn’t always have to be a Pre-Raphaelite painting from the National Gallery, or even the most recent and most ‘out-there’ Damien Hirst creation. At its basis, art is arguably about producing a reaction, and there’s no question that the Fête des Lumières continues to do that year after year, showcasing the best talent of this specific artistic niche in an unorthodox, citywide exhibition that celebrates and the Lyonnais landscape and adds a touch of magic to it too.

So if you ever want to experience an installation exhibition with a difference, Lyon in December may just be the place to go. It may not be “high art”, but it certainly shows how adaptable and all-encompassing art can be, and you’ll never be short of a glass of vin chaud as you watch architecture metamorphose before your eyes.

Marianne is studying a History of Art and French. To find out more about this degree programme see here. Read Marianne’s other report on living and working in Lyon here.

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A year abroad is not all about studying…Holly Wain escapes for a weekend of Renaissance architecture in the Loire Valley

During my year abroad in Poitiers I have been taken back by the friendliness towards international students. This has ranged from Poitevins, who have offered all sorts of help to navigate the often tricky French systems, to a real willingness to share French culture and welcome me into Poitiers’s traditions. An example of this is the organisation named ‘Poit’étrangers’ which is managed by the town council and the university.

Poitiers 1

The aim of the organisation is to put international students in touch with French families in the region who want to share culture and interests and to start new friendships. In November of last year the town hall organised a reception of international students where I met a very lovely couple who live in a tiny village in the countryside surrounding Poitiers. Edith and Jean-Pierre have been part of the organisation for some years and love to show students around the region. I was thrilled to hear about their idyllic French stone cottage overlooking the fields of Poitou-Charentes, and after talking about my studies in art history, Edith proposed a weekend to the famous royal Loire Châteaux.

The weekend of 9th March I took the train and found myself in tranquil countryside where I was very well looked after and was able to sample some delicious homemade French classics. Bright and early on Saturday morning we took to the road to travel to Blois situated on the river Loire and home to Francis I’s lavish château. Comprising of four distinct wings around a single courtyard, the chateau of Blois showcases varying styles from different periods of French architecture: the 13th century medieval fortress which includes the largest gothic hall in France; the Louis XII wing dating from 1501 which shows Italian influence; the Francis I wing from 1520 with a Renaissance spiral staircase; and finally the Gaston d’Orléans wing from 1638. This last wing illustrates the work of 17th century architect François Mansart, an architect that I am currently studying in the art history department of the University of Poitiers. It was therefore extremely interesting as I was able to get a real sense of the monumental effect created by Mansart’s use of architectural orders.

The famous ‘Francis I’ staircase at Blois.

The famous ‘Francis I’ staircase at Blois.

The Gaston d’Orléans wing at Blois, Mansart’s perfect mastery of the orders.

The Gaston d’Orléans wing at Blois, Mansart’s perfect mastery of the orders.

On entering the château we found all sorts of art forms acquired and commissioned by Francis I who acted as a ‘protector of the arts’. We also saw the lavish decoration of the king’s bedchamber including details that I had never known of before, such as the tradition of painted and gilded beams.

Pondering sculpture and tapestries at Blois.

Pondering sculpture and tapestries at Blois.

In the afternoon we travelled further down the Loire valley to arrive at Azay-le-Rideau which was announced in the brochure as ‘a jewel of Renaissance architecture’, and I was not disappointed!

The rear elevation of château Azay-le-rideau, surrounded by a moat and gardens ‘à l’anglaise’.
Holly Loire

We followed a guided tour around the 16th century château which took us up into the great attic and to sumptuous royal apartments. The tour gave a sense of the way of life led by one of the château’s original owners, Gilles Berthelot (financier to Francis I), and even details on the very interesting sleeping arrangements! Apparently, due to the difficulties with heating such large rooms all the guests would sleep top and tails in the beds together… so not as glamorous as you might imagine!

Azay-le-Rideau is not the largest and maybe not the most spectacular château in the Loire Valley but I found the 16th architectural details fascinating and the gardens were of particular interest. They demonstrate the growing taste during this period in France for the garden ‘à l’anglaise’ as opposed to the French model where symmetry reigned, reflecting the absolute reign of Louis XIV. The English garden, a reflection of a more liberal political system, was comprised of meandering paths and an impression of nature left in its original and wild state. Who would have thought that gardens and politics could have such links!

Holly and her Poitevan host on the staircase at Blois

Holly and her Poitevan host on the staircase at Blois

Through the organisation Poit’étrangers, my ‘welcome’ family and I had a great weekend discovering the heritage of the Loire Valley. I am very grateful for their kindness and willingness to engage with students from all over the world.

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Our first ‘View from Abroad’ post, by Beatrice Hughes, studying in Padua as part of her History of Art-Italian programme

When you think of Italy, you might think of a few of these things: Renaissance art and architecture, pasta, pizza, olive oil, small fiats and coffee. As an art history student, you would think that on arriving in Padua I would go straight to The Scrovegni Chapel to see Giotto’s legendary frescoes. And I did; last time I was here in June. However, on arriving here a second time, I decided to pursue some more modern art, having already spent a lot of time in Italy looking at the classics.  As it happens I struck gold on this mission, even narrowly missing the artist himself who was returning from the city centre.

It was a particularly muggy day last week with that kind of temperature which makes it difficult to physically move your limbs faster. I’d located on the map an exhibition of the works of Paolo del Giudice a little out of town and set off from my apartment on my medieval little street. I took my time getting there in the oppression of the afternoon heat.  When I arrived, I found a stunningly curated exhibition in a high-ceilinged warehouse. The canvases were spatially positioned well apart from one another and some were suspended in mid- air from the ceiling.

The huge, raw and expressive oil paintings  of Italian architecture and industry really took my breath away, which doesn’t happen very often.  The artist Paolo del Giudice has an impressionistic knack for capturing the formative, lineal and tonal essence of a building/face/object, but without the sentimental and ‘wall-flower’ type interpretation of the Impressionists.

As for pasta, pizza, small fiats, coffee, architecture and olive oil; check! When I arrived in my apartment there were no plates, there was no bedding, not even a fork. But there was a gigantic 2 litre bottle of homemade olive oil.


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