BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
“Our Symposium should be about life in the garden, not plant life in the garden. And if you add a little wickedness, so much the better,” shares Alliance Française of Chicago’s legendary leader Myriam Bransfield on designing the venerable institute’s upcoming series on the arts of France, highlighting gardens as a place to emphasize wealth, power, and peace, and maybe make a little mischief.
Learn about Versailles and the Sun King’s secrets; the daring gardens of Charles and Marie-Laure de Noailles, France’s notorious patrons of the Surrealist arts; and the lived experiences in these sumptuous spaces presented in English both in person as well as virtually by three internationally celebrated speakers.
According to Conery Hoffman, the Alliance’s educational outreach director, the series, which begins this month, travels down “a pathway to a little mischief that went on when no one was looking” while exploring the “historical evolution and the art and beauty of these iconic retreats.”
Gloria Groom, the Art Institute’s chair of European painting and sculpture, plays a key part of the Symposium’s Planning Committee: “Brainstorming this year was particularly fun! I have been a part of the Symposium, formerly limited to the Decorative Arts of France, for decades and can say it’s been such a wonderful complement to my role at the museum. My recent exhibition ‘Monet and Chicago’ brought me closer to the mentalite française and their love of land and horticulture. Monet was not just a lover of nature, which he painted all his life, he was also a garden architect and artist,” she shares.
“Gardens are part of what make French, French,” she adds. “As an American, you can look at these exotic things perhaps a little more objectively. Gardens of the late 18th century are fantastic Cartesian structures, like painting with flowers. I recently saw a book that displayed the variations of colors in French flower borders. The subtle examples were like paint samples, 25-30 of the very slightest changes. And the whole subject is like French fashion, who doesn’t like to learn more about French gardens?”
Larry F. Norman, the Frank L. Sulzberger distinguished service professor of romance languages and literatures and theater and performance studies at the University of Chicago, opens the Symposium on September 9 with Louis XIV’s Palace of Versailles. The lecture will concentrate on the lived experience of the garden visitor.
“The Sun King’s Palace of Versailles helped shape European culture and history from the Baroque era through the French Revolution, and it continues to animate contemporary international culture,” Norman explains. “Dominating this spectacular display are André Le Nôtre’s gardens, which came to symbolize, for good and ill, the French formal garden as the prevailing model for courtly European imitation.
“As the Duc de Saint Simon phrased it, the monarch’s grandiose landscaping represented a ‘tyranny over nature,’ just as his personal reign represented absolutist rule. On the other hand, the gardens were also a liberating space of delight, a place for amorous adventures, the contemplation of cunningly subversive sculpture, and the viewing of sumptuous, and sometimes raucous, theatrical spectacles.”
Norman is the author of The Shock of the Ancient: Literature and History in Early Modern France, published by the University of Chicago Press. He has been has been a visiting professor at the Sorbonne and most recently at the Université Jean Monnet.
“The geometrical grandeur and monumental decorative scheme of the gardens were consciously designed to overwhelm those beholding it,” Norman says. He will conclude his program with his reflections on the eminent contemporary artists, such as Anish Kapoor and Olafur Eliasson, whose massive Versailles installations he believes have reimagined the garden experience.
Groom enlisted Laurent Le Bon, President of the Centre Pompidou since June, to speak via Zoom on September 22 on “Jardins en Exposition: Exhibition de Grand Palais de Paris,” in which he will retrace the history of the garden in the context of a museum. Le Bon was previously President of the Musée National Picasso-Paris.
“When I was in Paris in 2017 negotiating with the Louvre for the exhibition of El Greco that Rebecca Long so masterfully carried out, I was fortunate to have seen the Galeries Nationales exhibition which Laurent had conceived and realized,” Groom recalls. “Laurent was gracious enough to get me into the vernissage, complete with champagne of course, and because I was already in the building for meetings, he gave me a quick introduction to the exhibition before he was whooshed away for kudos and presentations.”
Historian and writer for the New York Times, The World of Interiors, Travel and Leisure, and former Decorative Arts Editor of AD, Mitchell Owens explores the gardens of Charles and Marie-Laure de Noailles on September 29. Patrons of artists including Man Ray, Dali, Cocteau, and Bunuel, the pair were often referred to as the “Vicomtes du Bizarre.” A master gardener, Charles de Noailles published a book on Mediterranean gardens and filled his own garden with surreal surprises.
The past year has been full of its own surprises, but the Alliance remains resilient: “If the events of the past year have taught us anything, it is that our desire to learn, to be entertained, and to experience a feeling of dépaysement is greater than ever. It is an exciting time for all of us at the Alliance Française. Challenges have brought opportunities. We’ve adapted in order to include not only our loyal audience, but also a new national and international following,” says Mary Ellen Connellan, Executive Director of the Alliance.
“Everyone who shares our interest in all things French will now be able to participate either in person or online in real time through a hybrid format at all three sessions,” she adds. “As always our speakers are of the highest caliber, top of their field, and experts at sharing their passion with us. We truly cannot wait to welcome all of our friends to La Rentrée this fall.”
She adds a special mention of the late Mary Blust, who was for many years a great supporter of the Symposium: “Although we are thrilled that our Symposium for the Arts, now in its 19th year, will take place next week, our joy is mitigated by the loss of our dear friend, Mary Blust. This year’s Symposium will pay tribute to this special lady for her years of generous support and leadership of the series.”
Another important champion of the Symposium is Myriam Bransfield, who deserves much credit for shaping it into what it is today: “I remember going to Jean Goldman, the incredible art historian who was so involved with the Alliance, and telling her we were planning to do a program on the Impressionists. I asked her how to make it memorable, and she responded, ‘My programs on the Impressionists are quite different, I tell about their personal lives.’ ” she recalls. “That has been a model for us: bringing real people to life.”
Bransfield is a lifelong Francophile: “As a child in Havana, I wanted to learn French. Instead of taking the two-hour break at lunchtime, I studied the language with the nuns, and later when I moved to the United States, I took Saturday classes. When I married and came to Chicago, I quickly discovered the Alliance, which was located then on North Dearborn Parkway. Taking lessons there has continued to be my escape. I currently take a class on current events each Friday, which really makes me work.”
She notes the many people who have been especially active in planning the Symposium over the years along her side, such as Janice Notz, Mary Anderson, and Conery Hoffman, whom she says “couldn’t be more of a leader on the project—it is more than just history [for him], it is a passion!” Bransfield relates the overwhelming gratitude she has also for the Alliance’s patrons and grand patrons for their generosity over this past difficult year: “When we had to cancel last year due to the pandemic, no one asked for their money back. Conery and I had much fun dropping off champagne, lavender, and macarons to say thank you. This year we anticipate being with our patrons and grand patrons at the special lunches following the program.”
Luncheon will be served at the Alliance for patrons and grand patrons who are asked to call the Alliance directly to make these arrangements. For further information and to register for the Symposium, please visit af-chicago.org.