department: mayenne (53)
broad sweep of the gently flowing Mayenne, which gives the département its name, the town of Laval is largely overlooked by tourists;
which is a pity. Its riverside setting, its history and association with two of
most influential ‘artists’ gives it a special intrigue.
south-west of Paris, east of the much larger
city of Rennes,
and for many visitors is simply a stop-over on the way to somewhere else. Yet
the town is both beautiful and celebrated, with a fine medieval centre of steep
and narrow cobbled streets flanked by half-timbered houses (colombages) that seem to lean on one another in lifelong repose and
around the end of the first millennium, Laval
has long been an important gateway at the crossroads between Normandy,
and Maine, and, as a result has a prized
architectural heritage that has earned it the sobriquet ‘Town of Art and History’.
two fine chateaux overlooking the river. The more modern is undergoing
conversion to a school for music and dance, while the older, a sturdy and
magnificent building dating from the 11th century, houses a collection of
artwork, including paintings by Henri Rousseau (1844-1910).
founder of the art naïf movement, and
most famous for his simplistic paintings of wild animals in jungle settings, was
born in Laval, in what is today the last surviving of five ancient gateways
into the old town. What makes Rousseau’s paintings so fascinating, and not a
little ironic, is that he never saw the exotic animals he portrayed in their
natural settings, and drew all his images from the published works of nature
travellers and writers.
elevated and terraced park ‘La Perrine’, a boat, many metres above the river
below seems out-of-place, until you realise that this is a replica of the
‘Firecrest’, a boat in which the French yachtsman, Alain Gerbault, became the
first person to sail single-handedly around the world in 1929. The park also
contains the tomb of Rousseau, tucked away in a quiet corner.
Laval was also the birthplace of Alfred
Jarry (1873-1907), a playwright renowned today largely for his creation of the
stylised figure of King Ubu (Ubu Roi), a parody of Shakespear’s Macbeth. Jarry was the forerunner of the
‘Theatre of the Absurd’ and of what he called pataphysique, the ‘science of imaginary solutions’. This branch of
surrealism found homage in the most unlikely of places, not least in Paul
McCartney’s song Maxwell’s Silver Hammer.
Not surprisingly, when Ubu Roi was first performed, with marionettes, it caused
a riot; the coarseness of the language and anarchistic overtones were too much
for the perplexed audience. Today, Jarry is celebrated, and in 2007 Laval is the focus of
‘The Year of Jarry’, featuring a series of performances of his plays and other
of Jarry’s birth still exists, but today it is a private residence and not open
to the public. But the tall, slender house in which he was given the Last Rites
– even though he was subsequently taken to Paris, where he soon died of
tuberculosis – now gazes across the ancient streets to an ultra-modern assembly
hall and conference centre, directly opposite a grand old building which the
local maire is hoping will become an
internationally famous fine arts museum.
Jarry was a midget but had a huge presence, and a sense of the bizarre that prompted
him to have each floor of his apartment divided horizontally to create twice as
many floors. Until his death he was frequently seen walking the streets with a
green umbrella – the Ubu symbol of middle-class power – dressed in cyclist’s
garb and carrying two pistols. Unknown to virtually the rest of the world,
Jarry is celebrated in Laval,
not least in a statue by Zadkine in the place Hardy de Lévaré, which portrays
Jarry on his bicycle, composing a play. This local man, whose tragic fondness
for absinthe precipitated his end, is a bizarre and mystical character.
Henri Rousseau on the
other hand is well remembered, and was nicknamed ‘Le Douanier’ by Jarry, in
response to Rousseau’s occupation as a form of customs officer along the rivers
The old chateau contains a reconstruction of his artist’s studio, along with a
number of Rousseau’s works on loan from worldwide galleries.