Power stations, churches, swimming pools and other outdated places…they all turn into art galleries in the end. Now, at Lens, in northern France, it’s the turn of a slag heap.
But this is no usual conversion – more a miraculous transformation. A grimy plot has metamorphosed into a glowing, ethereal showcase of France’s most cherished treasures. Its name, Louvre-Lens, sums it up: one of the world’s greatest museums has opened an outpost in a former mining town that doesn’t even rate a mention in the 2013 Rough Guide to France. But, just as the Guggenheim stormed into Bilbao, this new gallery will certainly power into the next edition.
The new building that has risen on a site cleared of mining detritus is a breathtaking cluster of vast glass rectangles. Low-rise and translucent, they seem to be barely there. But the lack of solid walls allows the scale of the spaces to dazzle. Step inside and you see straight through from the ticket desk to the distant cafe in one sparkling sweep.
The wow factor, though, is yet to come. The Time Gallery is a white hangar, awash with light. As you enter the floor curves down to reveal a panorama of works from Paris: rarely-seen pieces dotted among familiar faces. It’s like going to a party where you spot old friends among interesting-looking people you don’t know. When I visited there were so many chattering visitors milling around that I half expected someone to come and hand me a glass of wine.
If no drinks were forthcoming, there was plenty to compensate. I wandered around in a trance-like state, drifting from one gorgeous piece to the next. Although the gallery starts with ancient sculptures and leads you through to 19th century paintings, the freestanding displays tempt you in different directions. It’s easy to get sidetracked and lose the thread.
The works are not also-rans from the Paris storerooms, but include major paintings by names such as Rembrandt, Raphael and Claude. There are Egyptian mummies, Islamic ceramics and Canova’s extraordinary marble sculpture of a hermaphrodite (which three children were eagerly drawing: I wondered what they were making of it).
For anyone familiar with the Paris Louvre, it’s hugely exciting to see these pieces in a setting which quite literally presents them in a fresh, new light. Freed from imposing corridors, and hand-picked to tell a story, they are easier to appreciate both individually and as a group. The plan is to rotate the works by ten percent each year, so icons including Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People will head off home in December, and others come to take their place.
Louvre-Lens ought to be a great day out from London, with a tasty boeuf parmentier (French shepherd’s pie) at the cafe for lunch. But right now it’s not an easy trip. I took the first Eurostar of the day from St Pancras to Lille Europe station, then walked to Gare de Flandres where a cafe owner who I asked for a milky coffee (only permissable in France for breakfast) served me a double espresso instead since it was past 10am. Thank goodness, because the local train from there stopped at every station en route to Lens. I then took the shuttle bus to the gallery (a beautiful tree-lined pathway takes 25 minutes to walk, but I wanted to save my legs for the art). The whole journey took four hours: it would have been quicker to get to the Paris Louvre. A bus that meets the Eurostar might get Londoners to the gallery in half the time.
*Louvre-Lens opened in December 2012. In addition to The Time Gallery it has a temporary exhibition space. Next show is Rubens, from 22 May.