Wednesday, January 17, 2018

2017 Warren MacKenzie Advancement Award- Research in France

Grace Tessein
Louvre Museum

This past month I used a portion of the 2017 Warren MacKenzie Advancement Award to travel to France to research art and architecture related to reliquaries, major historical events, and funerary sculpture/monuments.

The first half of my trip was spent traveling through the Normandy region. The first city I visited was Rouen, in which the Ossuary of Saint-Maclou (Aître Saint-Maclou) is located. I wanted to visit this site because of its strange history. The site was originally used as a mass grave during the Black Death, then as another mass grave for a second plague, a school for poor boys, and recently it was used as a fine arts school. The walls of the half-timbered structure, which were built in the 1500’s, are decorated in carved wooden skulls, shovels and other motifs to illustrate its first uses. In one of the windows behind the dusty glass there is a mummified cat. Being in this space reminded me of the time I spent in Philadelphia this past summer. While preparing a site for new apartments in the Old City neighborhood, a mass grave of plague victims was unearthed. Construction halted to remove the bones. Both places made me think of what really lies beneath the ground I walk on. 

Detail of the Ossuary of Saint-Maclou
 The Ossuary of Saint-Maclou

 Mummified cat at the Ossuary of Saint-Maclou

While in Normandy, I tried to stop in many churches in search of reliquaries. I wanted to see how such precious objects were contained and on display. The body of work that I’m making is examining the preservation of memory through objects. One tiny reliquary I particularly found remarkable was in Bayeux Cathedral. It was behind a wooden door in the church wall and contained Saint Theresa’s “last phalanx of her ear-finger” which is the bone in the tip of your pinky finger. Such a small object was contained in a delicately crafted gold frame. Many of the other wooden doors remained closed.
St. Theresa Reliquary in Bayeux Cathedral

One morning of the trip I traveled to Omaha Beach to walk on the location of the D-Day Invasion. The landscape still bears evidence of those events. It also comes with a peaceful silence that I can’t quite describe. I took a sandwich bag full of sand back with me wondering if some molecule in it was present on June 6, 1944. I feel some urgency to preserve that time, since the people who have lived through it are swiftly disappearing.
Omaha Beach
The second part of my trip was spent in Paris. While there I went to a few amazing museums including the Louvre, the Sèvres Ceramics Museum, and Musée de l'Orangerie. The ceramics collection in the Sèvres was really inspiring for planning new assignments for teaching Beginning Handbuilding at LSU this semester. This vase pictured below was lovely, I look forward to sharing images with my students.

Vase de Beauvais, Manufacture de Sèvres, Simas, Eugène (dècor), Porcelaine dure nouvelle, Sèvres, 1901

Père Lachaise Cemetary was fantastic to see in person. The cemetery is filled with beautifully crafted tombs and bronze sculptures. Some of the figurative sculpture was really compelling; the grasping hands, stone relief, and shrouded figure pictured below were my favorites. It was wonderful to see how death and mourning were depicted in funerary art and sculpture over the past 200 years. 

Père Lachaise Cemetery 

Père Lachaise Cemetery 

Père Lachaise Cemetery 

Overall I feel I am still processing this experience, which was only possible because of the 2017 Warren MacKenzie Advancement Award. So much of what I saw feels relevant and important to the body of work I’m developing and I look forward to sharing how it progresses as I move toward completing my thesis exhibition in May of 2018. I'm sure the two trips, Philadelphia last summer and France this past month, will be key influences for my work after graduate school as well. 

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