The Lou Messugo Blog - life in the south of France from a British/Australian TCK's perspective, bringing you French culture, travel on the Côte d'Azur and beyond, expat issues and a little bit of je ne sais quoi all mixed up with a hefty dose of photography.
Santons, derived from the Provençal word santoun meaning little saint, are small painted clay figurines that are used to decorate Christmas Nativity crèches (cribs) in Provence in South-East France. If you've spent any time in this area during the festive season you may well have seen them either for sale in Christmas markets or in place on a decorative crèche somewhere. They are very popular collectables, with websites selling them to overseas markets, particularly USA, but they are much more than just tourist trinkets.
The history of santons dates from the French Revolution in 1789 when churches were closed, and Midnight Mass and church crèches were banned. In a bid to keep traditions and religion alive people started creating their own crèches in private homes and a small industry producing figures grew up around this, particularly in Marseille. Santon makers, Santonniers, originally created traditional Nativity characters but soon started to draw inspiration from life around them and began including figures from ordinary village life. You can find everyone from fishermen, tinkers, basket makers and water carriers to tramps, bakers, chimney sweeps and washer women alongside the baby Jesus, Virgin Mary, Joseph and the three Wise Men.
There are several well-known characters who grace every crèche such as the village idiot lou Ravi who is traditionally placed first to bring good luck. Boufareu an angel, guides people to the stable and is usually placed in a prominent position. Other notable characters include the blind man guided by his son, the Mayor, the priest, the monk and lou viel and la vièio (the old man and the old woman) positioned together either on a bench or arm in arm. There are plenty of other characters, all either taken from traditional Provencal Pastoral plays or contemporary culture. One notable comic personage is the Caganer, literally the "crapper", represented as a peasant spreading manure, usually with bare bottom and a poo behind him! This character was traditionally found in Catalan crèches dating back to the 18th century and is seeing a rise in popularity again. It is not considered disrespectful to put a caganer in a traditional crèche as long as it is placed at the back behind something such as a shed. It is thought to be both a symbol of fertility and an irreverent joke reminding us that no matter who we are, we all have the same bodily functions!
The santons are placed in a village setting with the crèche in the middle surrounded by typical bulidings like the church, a windmill, stables, cottages, a bridge and vegetation such as olive trees. To bring the scene to life moss is often used to represent grass and branches of rosemary and thyme make trees. Water is often fashioned out of aluminium foil.
Households tend to collect pieces, building up their collection by adding new figures every year, and even very occasionally commissioning figures to represent particular family members. The vast majority of santon makers are in the area around Marseille/Aubagne and since 1803 Marseille has held an enormous and very well-known fair, le Foire aux Santons, from mid November to the end of December every year. Locally in the Alpes-Maritimes, where there are 6 santonniers, the biggest selection is to be found at the annual fair in Mouans-Sartoux. It takes place from mid November to the 24th of December. Both these foires are great places to view the enormous variety of santons avaialble and all those displayed here are guaranteed "made in Provence". These fairs sort of unofficially mark the beginning of the Christmas season, a couple of weeks before city illuminations are switched on and regular Christmas markets open. Santons are also often sold at regular Christmas markets in the region and in specialist shops, especially in Marseille. If you want to see/buy santons out of season it's possible at the Musée du Santon Marseille, the shop/museum of master-santonnier Marcel Carbonel.
Santonniers each have their own style and some produce items that are so popular they are trade-marked. This was the case with the "Coup de Mistral", a shepherd in the wind created by Paul Fouque in 1952. It was the first time a santon showed mouvement, you could practically feel the wind blowing his cape and hat. Thanks to this particular figure Fouque became known the world over (in the santon-knowing world!) Other santonniers have paid homage to well known artists, poets and singers by creating santons in their image as seen here in this model of the folk singer Georges Brassens.
The best place to admire santons in situ on the Côte d'Azur is in the gorgeous hilltop perched village of Lucéram, behind Nice. Every year throughout December this medieval village is decorated with over 400 crèches, containing hundreds and hundreds of santons. For more on this unique and very special Christmas tradition, read here.
Have you heard of santons? Do you have any festive traditions like this where you're from? Do tell.
Public art is everywhere in France, whether it's a temporary installation for a particular occasion or something permanent, it's all around. Most towns no matter how big or small take pride in making their public spaces attractive; you can usually find fountains and sculptures alongside well tended flower beds and attractive borders even in the tiniest of villages. There's even art on the side of the motorways to brighten up your journey! And it's not all old by any means. New commissions go up regularly, I'm forever spotting something I hadn't noticed before and then realising that it's because it's new and wasn't there the last time I passed by.
Here are a few of my favourite pieces of public art on the Côte d'Azur.
Nomade, by Catalan artist Jaume Plensa, is a monumental sculpture of a squatting man looking out to sea on the ramparts of Antibes. 8 metres high and 5 metres wide, it appears from a distance to be made of lace but as you get closer you realise it is infact created entirely of steel letters painted white. It is open and large enough to walk inside, from where you can contemplate the idea of sculpture made from emptiness and silence. (If there aren't too many other visitors climbing all around you!) The white letters against the deep blue sky always look dramatic and I love photographing its different angles.
Another monumental installation by Jaume Plensa, Conversations in Nice is made up of 7 crouching men on pillars high above Place Massena, the central square, in Nice. These figures, created out of resin, light up in different colours at night, glowing gently from one tone to another to represent conversations between the 7 continents. I find it very soothing and love watching the colours change. During the day the crouching men keep watch over the busy central square that divdes the old town from the new.
Thanks to Margo at The Curious Rambler for the photo above
Shoal of Fish by Sylvain Subervie can be found on the seafront in Cagnes sur Mer, at the Eastern end of the Hippodrome. Made out of wrought iron, this sculpture consists of 12 fish of varying sizes from 2 to 4 metres. They play with the light and wind and better photographers than me have taken wonderful pictures of them, particularly at night.
The Thumb by César, located in the entrance of the Hotel de Ville in Nice (city hall), is an actual imprint of the artist's own thumb and is one of a series of several thumbs, located notably in Marseille and La Défense. This particular sculpture is the smallest at only 1.85 m high. The others range from 6-12 metres. César spent some time living in my town Roquefort les Pins and was also the creator of the bronze statues given to winners at the French equivalent of the Oscars, the "Césars". I've always loved pictures and sculptures of hands and love the realistic detail in this thumb.
Miles Davis by Niki de Saint Phalle standing outside the Negresco Hotel on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice. This larger than life statue of the famous trumpeter doesn't bear much resemblance to the musician himself but it's colourful and fun and evokes his spirit well.
For more pieces by Niki de Saint Phalle, MAMAC (the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Nice) has a sizeable collection of her art, including her take on the Loch Ness Monster a fountain made out of mirrors. While the items inside the museum can't really be included in this list of public art (though the museum is free) the monster is located outside on the forecourt between it and the National Theatre, thus rendering it public, and includable here. Also in this photo is Tribute to Alexander Calder, a wooden installation by Arne Quinze, which unfortunately, as I love it, is only temporary.
There are plenty more wonderful works of art on the French Riviera, this may well be the beginning of a series. What do you think of my choices? Do you have any favourite sculptures or other forms of public art? Do tell!