François Hébel, director of the Rencontres d’Arles.
Why come back to Arles, the ‘city you do things for notwithstanding’? Why, as soon as you leave Arles, and leave the Camargue behind, does declaring your loyalty become an overriding obsession?
In 1987 a joyously enthusiastic group of women friends from Arles and journalists from Paris took me to the first show organised by a young native of Arles who had just set up his fashion house: Christian Lacroix.
Twenty years later, when the people of Arles heard that he would be drafting the programme for 2008, things all of a sudden took on new, emotional significance for them. During those twenty years Christian Lacroix has consolidated his image and asserted his Arles origins – but without visiting his home town much. Maybe there's an element of distress here.
He's not the only Arles native to love the place while keeping his distance. Might it have something to do with the historical burden: Roman capital in the fourth century, Christian stronghold in the twelth, a record of resistance to the state – royalist during the Revolution, Republican during the Restoration, Communist at the Liberation, right-wing when the Left comes to power and left-wing when the Right returns?
A tough, working-class town, with its river port, railway workshops, refineries and paper mills. A rural town, with its Camargue. A virile town, with its bulls, unpredictable Rhône and omnipresent pastis. A migrant town whose pink flamingo emblem masks more violent realities. Spaniards, Italians, North Africans, Gypsies, refugees, exiles, the permanently uprooted. A town cut off by an arc that runs from Marseille to Aix, Avignon, Nîmes and Montpellier, channelling Northern Europe towards Spain and Italy and leaving Arles in a blind alley.
An incredibly harsh town, with beaches at the end of flood barriers: magnificent Beauduc, accessible only by a shambolic track and the others with secret approaches. A touch of glamour during the Feria, when you dance all night to forget the pressures of the day. Splendour during the winter, when the wind-buffeted horizon throws up the light, only to be found in the flatlands, that drew Van Gogh. The romance of the hotels, where you catch your breath before plunging back into the Feria, the Rencontres or the Mistral wind. Culinary delights from transient chefs who have stayed on and won stars from the food guides. And the delicious dignity of those ancient buildings.
A town that is touching because out of date and not really necessary: who would care if Arles vanished beneath the waters? A desperate town, then, and a remarkable one for anyone with a real edge to their sensibility.
On her return to Arles seven years ago, Maja Hoffmann – a child of the Camargue before making the world her home, a Rencontres patron and the driving force behind a marvellous development project for the town – spoke of ‘a love story just waiting to begin again’. After backing artists, museums and environmental protection plans, notably in Switzerland and the United States, she will be unveiling this July a proposal to regenerate the Arles Rail workshops: a Luma Foundation-backed concept on an international scale, to be designed by Frank Gehry. Involving the purchase of the land in question, the project carries forward the vision of parliamentarian and Regional Council head Michel Vauzelle and has the backing of Arles mayor Hervé Schiavetti.
So that's Arles: many leave to get out of its shadow, but the pull is always there.
The fashion business's ‘Monsieur Lacroix’ – ‘Christian’, Arlesians call him – is the perfect outcome of this emotional/cultural mix. Uncertain as to whether art was his vocation, he went for advice to Jean-Maurice Rouquette, archaeologist, curator of the city's museums, founder of the Musée de l’Arles et de la Provence Antiques and co-founder of the Rencontres Photographiques. And armed with the subsequent reassurance, he opted for the Louvre School of Art – a surprising stopover for someone who would become one of the great couturiers.
When I suggested he bring his exacting artistic sensibility to bear on the Rencontres, I thought I was asking him to invite his five or six favourite photographers. But the more we talked the more I realised that his life was built around contacts with photography: the pictures he cuts out of magazines and pastes into notebooks for inspiration, the photos he commissions for his catalogues, his tours of galleries in search of additions to his collection. His world is wide, demanding, distinctive and quite radical.
This is someone who sets real store by creative sincerity, mistrusts the modish and eschews the spectacular. The selection process – one of dialogue between his own photographic vision, those close to him in the art world and the Rencontres team – was marked by the same uncompromising firmness one imagines he brings to the preparation of his collections.
The resultant programme is a most unexpected one: few fashion images, but a broad range of interests including vernacular photography, aesthetic explorations, political commitment and – of course – his own creative world; plus Arles.
He initially went to photographers whose work he knew, but from all of them he demanded something different, something from their secret garden. And only those who surprised him would find themselves working with him on the ultimate choice of images.
The people of Arles also contributed in their own way, delighted by the return of someone who belongs to all of them just a little. They lent their photographs and opened their archives; and the Musée Réattu has let him bring a magnificent installation to the Rencontres programme.
During these months of work, it was much less often a question of haute couture or ready-to-wear than of sensitivity and humanity – not to mention good times and enjoyment. I understand why it took so long to meet him, and why – notwithstanding those beautifully handwritten letters of discouragement – it was vital to forge on through the barriers built up around Monsieur Lacroix. He protects himself because once committed Christian gives his all. And then he is pure curiosity, listening to others but taking his own decisions and accepting responsibility for them: daring to tell artists this is not what he expected of them while also ready to give a chance to those still unrecognised. Demandingly loyal, he respects the independence of those he works with, while sometimes surprising them – as when he invited them to exhibit photographs they regarded as no more than souvenirs.
A visual arts connoisseur, Christian Lacroix brings to Arles a fresh reading of contemporary photography, his personal stroll. He bravely lays himself open in a field he is not yet associated with. He was the perfect choice for the new approach François Barré and I wanted for the Rencontres: annual changes of interpretation, discoveries, surprises, avoidance of the obvious and artists to the fore.
This kind of project depends on a cluster of commitment and talent. The Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur Regional Council has made an invaluable contribution with the opening of the Grande Halle of the French Rail workshops, the biggest of the buildings we could not yet use. This innovative project was carried through with the backing of tried and true private partners, led by the Luma Foundation, SFR and Fnac, whose support reinforces that of our public-sector partners. There are, too, the photographers, agents, agencies, studios, friends, the Museum of Decorative Arts in Paris and the National Audiovisual Institute, together with the Rencontres teams, who once again have adapted to an artistic world and its protean project.
Arles in 2008 is marked by the return of its children Christian Lacroix and Maja Hoffmann, who bring with them, like the Magi, that most wonderful of gifts: renewal through culture, sharing, celebration, intellectual rigour and rebelliousness. For which Arles is truly grateful.