The first view of the 15th century castle Chateau de Chaumont in the Loire Valley, France is like opening the pages of a children’s fairy tale picture book. Perched above the village of Chaumont-Sur-Loire on a low cliff over the river, the rounded white turrets capped with conical roofs of black slate took my teenage daughter straight back to her childhood. “I want to dress up like a princess again!” she cried as we crested the hill.
Don’t expect the decadence of the greatest French palaces like Versailles and Fontainebleau. Over the plank drawbridge and through the gift shop of Chaumont, the interior is rather plain. Some rooms stand out like the Council Chambers with its wall-to-wall 17th century majolica tiling. But in most, a few tapestries decorate rooms otherwise sparsely furnished with period pieces.
Then you discover the contemporary artwork. Floor to ceiling tulip bouquets on the walls seem right out of some classic Dutch painting. Except these are not paintings. They’re scans of flowers depixilated and enlarged to look as sumptuous and erotic as any the old masters could conjure.
But it’s the stained glass exhibition by artist Serkis Zabunyan known as Sarkis – pieces of which are hidden in every possible corner and cranny – that has us eagerly searching the corridors and rooms.
Upstairs, we discover apartments recently vacated, cheap wallpaper and bits of plumbing hanging from cracked plaster. In the attic, the rooms are close to closet-size, shabby and stuffed with dusty artifacts easily mistaken for junk. A jumble of rusty helmets from suits of armour is blanketed in dust. There’s a moth-gnawed elk head in another room, broken glass, cobwebs, splintered doors and crumbling walls everywhere we look.
And also everywhere we look, hanging to catch any ray of available light Sarkis’ 72 panes of stained glass, each a glimpse through the humanist eye of the artist. Inspired by the loneliness, the isolation he encountered at Chaumont itself, Sarkis evokes these same feelings in abandoned rooms. The palm of a hand cups flame, a path reaches through a forest in winter, a patient lies dying, a tree blossoms. We leave, gripped with melancholy.
Outside, the art is far more whimsical. Some twenty designers have each created a garden for Chaumont’s annual festival. Most are themed gardens worked around sculptures or installations. One of the first we come upon is an army of golden garden gnomes marching in full revolt, rakes at the ready.
But we’ve only just begun. Fingers of a giant hand frame a planting of white flowers and grasses. A flock of blue metal butterflies takes flight in a garden of lavender. Along the floor of a steep little ravine, mist sprays up from nozzles hidden among the lush greenery to create a fleeting fog.
A strange, insect-like swing precariously balanced invites the weary to sit, perchance to dream.
Beyond the garden, small buildings hide more installations – a flock of flying garden tools and a tree trunk made of white bandages. In the woods beyond, it’s as if Maurice Sendak’s wild things went on an all-night rumpus, weaving branches and thatch into sculptures as they played.
Weary as if we’d just awoke from a spell, we rest on benches and peer among the trees around us. Large stones balance in bare limbs. An ancient pine shades a loosely woven cone the size of a bus.
We look out over the rooftops at the Loire River scattered with fishermen and bathers, then make our way back down to the little town. The setting sun drenches Chateau de Chaumont and the hillside in golden light.
Enchanted… we leave, enchanted.
All Photos By Darcy Rhyno – All Rights Reserved