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Eve Kelliher makes the French connection by visiting a unique outdoor sculpture exhibition in Normandy.
The closest a (not insignificant) number of us come to gardening at this time of year is dodging those whiffs of freshly mown grass. (Unless of course we actually want to immerse ourselves in residual associations with looming exams.) But an experimental showpiece in France turns the traditional “lawn, flowerbed and shrubbery” concept on its head.
In the process, it is recruiting an army of fans even from the ranks of those unburdened by the remotest inclination to grab a trowel or watering can.
Perched on a clifftop in Normandy, overlooking La Manche (the English Channel), Les Jardins d’Étretat represents my kind of take on a garden. This experimental, avant-garde space has been open to the public since 2017.
The gardens were founded by the fin-de-siècle French actress Madame Thébault in 1905 and have been revived and expanded by the Paris-based landscape architect Alexandre Grivko, the co-founder and artistic director of the international landscape and garden design company Il Nature.
Grivko has re-imagined much of the planting, added mesmerising topiary to the 3.7 acres and skilfully integrated intriguing contemporary art installations.
He was influenced by designer and architect Vito di Bari’s 2007 “Neo-Futuristic City Manifesto”, which calls for the blending of art, technology, ethical values and nature — ticking every box when it comes to sustainability in a satisfyingly organic way.
A hike up to the cascading gardens is worth every pant and puff. Do spare a gasp en route for the sea views and the panoramic vista of the charming Étretat holiday resort. This is, after all, the scenery that inspired artists such as Claude Monet, Jean-Baptiste- Camille Corot, Eugène Delacroix and Edouard Manet. Stroll around the maze-like garden routes and voilà, there’s Claude Monet himself (in sculpture form) at his easel.
There are seven enclaves, including a zen-themed garden and a “garden of emotions” and the ethos of the entire space is to nurture and grow artistic talent.
You see, Les Jardins d’Étretat is very much a creative combination of open-air contemporary art museum and experimental laboratory (in horticultural terms). Its permanent and temporary art displays’ wow factor will entice you to linger long.
The permanent display is an ingenious and witty dialogue of sculpted topiary and contemporary sculpture that appeals to all the senses. “Artworks are an indispensable core of the garden, whose main message, artistic integrity, dramaturgy and general ambience would have been lost without these sculptural highlights,” according to Irene Kukota of Les Jardins d’Étretat.
Traditionally, there are five major types of garden: regular French, landscape English, formal Italian, as well as Asian and oriental gardens. Experientially, Alexandre Grivko develops a new unique, sixth garden style which he envisions as the garden of the future. The permanent collection includes works by Greyworld, Samuel Salcedo, Agneska Gradzik, Sergey Katran.
Oscar Wilde at the turn of the 20th century believed that what is found in life and nature is not what is really there, but is that which artists have taught people to find there, through art. Les Jardins d’Étretat welcomes participating sculptors to explore various cultural concepts of “nature” in history of human thought and visual culture, and interpret them in their work.
Its exhibition Double Jeu (Man and Nature: Double Game) opened on May 17 and continues until November 1. Last Friday also saw the launch of the garden’s annual international sculpture competition in which 24 entrants from across the globe are participating.
The exhibition focuses on the relationship between humans and nature in its every aspect and detail from harmonious to consumerist and destructive.
“In this manner, Les Jardins d’ Étretat declares its adherence to the principles of neo-futurism and its concern for ethical values, current ecological situation and need for preservation of biodiversity on the planet,” added Irene.
Since 2016 the garden has promoted sculpture, installation and performance art projects. “Les Jardins d’Étretat is committed to support artists at every stage of their careers, welcoming emerging, mid-career and established international professional sculptors by inaugurating the new 2019 summer season group show Double Jeu,” added Irene.
Among the 24 participants are Gianna Dispenza, Gevorg Tadevosyan, Paola Grizi, Hywel Pratley and Georg Tadevosyan.
The exhibition explores interplay, interdependence and interconnectedness of man and nature, of whose relationship are born both discord and harmony.
“It is particularly important today to be aware of the fragility of nature and human life. Our civilisation depends on the state of ecology on the planet,” added Irene. “We would like to explore how humans can harmoniously and responsibly coexist with nature rather than conquer, consume and destroy it. And here the role of the creator is paramount.”
The winners of the professional competition will be selected by the jury of art critics, curators and museum professionals at the end of the summer.
Étretat itself is a quaint picture-postcard resort. I reached it by plane, train and automobile, flying from Cork to Paris, then taking an almost two-hour train journey from Gare St Lazare, followed by a half-hour car journey.
The local hotels also offer a charm all their own. I stayed a night in The Detective Hotel, a quirky little hotel that whisks you across several sleuth-specific eras, from Sherlock Holmes’ 19th century though to Emma Peel’s ’60s vibe, via Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple and even Magnum PI.
Word to the wise: Certain facilities are hidden from view and, believe me, there’s nothing like the call of nature to focus the powers of deduction when it comes to ferreting out your bedroom’s en-suite.
Here’s a clue: Sliding bookcases and decorative crystal ornaments are among portals to relief in the 12 detective-themed bedrooms.