HISTORY

20 Years Down the Line

Bernar can sometimes tell himself that this place was waiting for him. He was looking for a “hangar.” Here he would find his “real home,” a cut above Paris or New York, a space that would one day house his foundation. When the artist decided to buy the property at Les Serres in 1989, it had already lived many lives. It had been organized around a “weir,” then a mill, which was built by a certain Panescorce in 1737 on the left bank of the Nartuby river, less than 2 kilometers north of the village of Le Muy, in the Var countryside. The local lord gave Panescorce the privilege of using “as many saws as he pleased.” Louis XV was just starting his reign; the sawmill stayed in operation until the eve of World War I. […] Les Serres forms a hamlet which still looks like something straight out of a different century. An elegant Provençal house, barns, and “the flour mill”—a building with strange pointed-arch windows—were built around Panescorce’s original mill, no doubt in the late 19th century. The hamlet is reached via a small hump bridge, which despite its local epithet is not the least bit Roman. It was built in 1829 after terrible floods that hit the region in 1803 carried off a bridge further upstream. Les Serres is a haven of tranquility undisturbed by noise from the outside world, or even the expressway, which is actually very nearby. Only the river can be heard, now rippling, now roaring, and the shrill cry of the black swans that Bernar and Diane keep in a pond. The mill fell silent long ago. For two centuries, up until the eve of the Great War, the hamlet resounded with the screech of metal saws, the clunk of wood planks, the rumble of flourmill wheels cutting through the water like ships. Whether it existed prior to Panescorce’s day or was created and developed by him and his ancestors, a milling activity has at least been recorded at Les Serres since the mid-nineteenth century. The record can be found in a document headed “Louis-Philippe, King of the French” and dated November 14, 1844, a whole century after Panescorce was granted the right to set up his sawmill. A “Mister Bouis” is presented as being the owner of “the factories...on a diversion of the Nartuby...comprising wood sawmills and a flourmill.” […] The hamlet of Les Serres had been divided up. The “Château” changed hands again in 1952, passing to the Curtillets, a family of doctors from Lyon, one of whom had been the first Dean of the Algiers medical faculty from 1910 to 1922. The family still lives there today. The mill was bought by a non-trading real estate company that funded its restoration through “compensation for war damages” and sold it on January 3, 1957 to “Mister Marcel Luc Amédée Paulvé, company director,” the man who, a few years later, would transform life in the hamlet of Les Serres. In 1957, Marcel Paulvé was fifty years old. Eleven years earlier he had set up the Société d’Exploitation des Procédés Paulvé (SEPP), a company that made railway switching control systems, in Champagne-sur-Oise, near Paris. […] Paulvé had developed a device that would make his fortune: the “Paulvé switching regulator,” which is still in use on the railways. The factory at Les Serres immediately started manufacturing them, to the tune of over a thousand per month. With its simple design and delicate implementation, the “regulator” system ensured the rail would switch perfectly into the right place and transmit this information to the signal box via an electromechanical circuit. To meet the demands of the French and foreign railroad networks, Paulvé revived the industrial tradition of Les Serres. The SEPP was soon pushed for space in the lower rooms of the mill, where manufacturing was already underway. New spacious bright premises had to be built: a long, 1,800-square-meter building that would house the business for the next twenty years. Paulvé was a multi-talented man, an inventor as well as a manufacturer. Since the end of the war he had filed countless patents in fields as varied as railroads—his “Electromechanical detector of railroad circulation” was fitted on thousands of grade crossings in France and abroad—firearms, machines to cut brushwood, and even holy medal embossing. […] His real passion, however, the one that led him to leave Champagne-sur-Oise for the Var countryside in the first place, was what was known in the early 1960s as “nature protection.” The mill and factory at Les Serres would be the showcase for his commitment, the demonstration that industrial activity and respect for the environment could go hand in hand. When Paulvé had to dig up a field of vines to build the factory, Var-Matin reported that he replanted “blackberry bushes and a harmonious forest of cypress, olive, birch, and willow trees.” At the mill, which he “restored to its full primitive charm,” and the industrial premises he had built, he “fitted bacterial trays for wastewater to ensure that all water discharged into the river is perfectly filtered.” Throughout the twenty years he spent in the Var region, Paulvé always had friends in the local and national press to support and defend him if need be. In September 1962, a year after moving south, Paulvé launched the procedure that would lead to Les Serres being registered as a local heritage site. He wrote to the mayor of Le Muy to ask him for a “favorable opinion” and to transmit his request to the departmental sites commission: “We have striven to bring the mill at Les Serres back to life and to preserve the splendor of the site, enhance its beauty through new plantations, and by pruning the old trees, so that visitors can stand on the old bridge crafted by our elders and admire the wonderful setting in the background, the white spume of the two magnificent waterfalls, which next year will be visible at nighttime thanks to two newly installed projectors. We would be most pained to think that this little corner of Provence might one day disappear.”
HISTORY
Jerome Cavaliere, Marseille / Archives Bernar Venet, New York
It took just over three years for the application to be considered; on April 15, 1966, a decree by the French Ministry of State for Cultural Affairs registered Les Serres “among the picturesque sites” in the department. A week later, a rave article in the daily newspaper Nice-Matin hailed “the man who bought a pile of overgrown ruins a few years ago and managed to revive the splendor of old...utilizing all the sophistication of science for the cause of art and truth.” From then on, Les Serres became part of an “educational tour” for associations, clubs and high school classes. “Mr. Paulvé most kindly showed us round his estate. Man and nature have joined forces here to make a kind of masterpiece, where beauty and utility live together in harmony,” wrote the Bulletin de la Société des Sciences Naturelles et d’Archéologie de Toulon et du Var in its July-August 1966 issue. “Factories are not incompatible with the protection of nature, pupils from Lorgues high school witnessed a fine example at Mr. Paulvé’s factory in Le Muy,” said the headline in Le Provençal on March 26, 1971. […] By then, Paulvé had been in Les Serres for ten years. The SEPP employed forty people. […] Yet Paulvé had detractors in Les Serres as well. Paulvé and his factory would move, but not until 1982 and not very far from Les Serres either, to a 13-hectare plot purchased in 1974 in the neighboring village of La Motte that now houses his two companies, since taken over by an international group. […] Silence returned to the hamlet. The workshops were closed down, some of the machinery was moved out. Marcel Paulvé went to live in Cannes and the mill, the empty factory shell and the grounds were put up for sale. Just two of his former employees, Laszlo and Marika Szalaï, stayed behind, to take care of welcoming potential buyers. […] Silence returned to the hamlet. The workshops were closed down, some of the machinery was moved out. Marcel Paulvé went to live in Cannes and the mill, the empty factory shell and the grounds were put up for sale. Just two of his former employees, Laszlo and Marika Szalaï, stayed behind, to take care of welcoming potential buyers. One day in the fall of 1988, a man named Francis Venet arrived at Les Serres. He had just retired and his “little brother” Bernar had given him a mission: to find a property where he could spend the summer and permanently store part of his contemporary art collection and his works. Francis Venet visited over twenty properties between the Côte d’Azur and the foothills of the Alps. Ten or so struck him as being interesting enough to house Bernar’s project. On visiting them, Bernar gave each a mark “out of ten,” like a schoolmaster. He instantly awarded Les Serres a “nine,” because it was “a little pricey” and because there’s no such thing as perfection. Five years of dereliction had left their mark. The mill, which had been restored in “rustic-Renaissance” style (in 1959, Jean Marais shot a scene of the film The Hunchback of Paris here), was barely inhabitable and the factory was still cluttered with spare parts, cables, and pipes. While the “dark, old-fashioned” building had only moderate appeal for Bernar, discovering the factory was a “shock”: this huge space, with its exceptionally high ceiling, vast windows streaming with daylight, and reinforced floor designed to carry the heaviest machines, was exactly what the artist was looking for. At the time it merely had “potential” that could be fulfilled with “time and work.” The bill of sale was signed on June 20, 1989 and major conversion work started almost immediately. The mill and the factory were entirely painted white and Bernar created a special set of steel furniture that contrasts spectacularly with the dark wood in the mill. Diane did a lot to moderate her husband’s overtly “minimalist” demands: the soul of Les Serres owes a good deal to her indubitable taste. Over four hundred trees were planted to preen and screen the site... later a building designed to be a gallery was built by two young architects, Charles Berthier and David Llamata, and a 22-meter-long “bridge”—a Cor-ten steel structure dotted with “random holes”—was laid across the Nartuby. 1989–2009: the “potential” has been fulfilled, despite the artist objecting to the “stable state” that he links to death, though the story here is only just beginning. The mill, the factory and the river—which once again powers the turbine of the electric generator—have gone back to being working tools. Les Serres said it loud and clear to the artist twenty years ago, when Laszlo and Marika first opened the door to the factory: this place is not a vacation. “I like to use the term ‘factory,’” says Bernar. It is a word he has always heard: his parents, brothers, childhood friends and neighbors in Saint-Auban-sur-Durance always worked at “the factory.” The “factory” is where the scrawny child who marveled at Rembrandt, Cézanne, and Paul Klee was destined to end up. The factory at Le Muy is not the one in Saint-Auban. But it is not an entirely foreign territory either. On the banks of the Nartuby, like the banks of the Durance, men have thrown all their weight and creative energy into wielding willpower over matter. What appeals to Bernar here is the patient, stubborn labor of men—artists and workers alike. The factory at Le Muy is not the one in Saint-Auban. But it is not an entirely foreign territory either. On the banks of the Nartuby, like the banks of the Durance, men have thrown all their weight and creative energy into wielding willpower over matter. What appeals to Bernar here is the patient, stubborn labor of men—artists and workers alike.

Robert Arnoux

Translated from French to English by John O’Toole

Excerpt from « Vingt ans après », by Robert Arnoux, published in Robert Arnoux, Bernar Venet: L’expérience du Muy, Somogy, Paris, France, 2009, pp. 14-29.

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