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Make sense of... French motorway art

Giant boars, cockerels, horses and strange geometric shapes sprout from the roadsides of the motorway network.

Why? Because of the 1% artistique, a law dating from 1951 which aims to support artistic creation and encourage the populace to appreciate modern French art.

The law says that whenever a new public building goes up - such as a school, police station, court or library – 1% of the cost of construction should be spent on one or more works of art to be integrated in the building or located near to it.

The 1% is calculated on the total, pre-tax cost of the work minus architect’s fee, roadworks and furnishings. If the money is less than €30,000, it may be limited to buying a ready-made piece. If it is more than this, an artistic committee is set up to put the work out for tender and commission the art, with advice from the conseiller en arts plastiques (art adviser) from the regional directorate of cultural affairs (Drac). In theory, any branch of art can be involved, whether sculpture, painting, light or sound installations. The artist does not have to be French but should be set up for tax and social charges in France.

The 1% artistique concerns all central state constructions and in some cases local authority ones. It also comes into play for major renovations of a site, if a change of use is involved.

It is estimated that more than 12,000 projects by 4,000 artists have been involved in total since the law was passed.

The scheme was associated first with schools and was championed by sculptor René Iché. Les Journées du 1% artistique is held in some years in schools and higher education – the next one will be March 30 to April 5 2019 – promoted by the education, culture and agriculture ministries, to celebrate the 1% art associated with educational buildings around France.

It was extended to buildings associated with other ministries during the 1970s and finally autoroutes in the 1980s, although because of their very high cost it is technically 0.1% in their case. As a result, so-called art autoroutier has flourished, a cousin of the art giratoire that can be seen on many French roundabouts and which is funded by local authorities. As it is very visible, it reaches people who would not go to art galleries.

The artist benefits from a “right to have their art respected”, and it cannot be moved or changed without their permission. Regional committees and the private motorway management companies are involved in commissioning the art for motorways.

“Motorway art” ranges from a classical column broken into pieces between Saint-Etienne and Clermont-Ferrand (called La Colonne Brisée, 1984), to a horse sculpture l’Archeval (1997) at Vivy, Maine-et-Loire, or Woinic (2008), a 50-tonne piece at a service station at Saulces-Monclin in Ardennes (pictured left) said to be the “world’s biggest boar”.

Woinic cost the Ardennes council no less than €650,000 and it has trademarked its image to use in promotional material. A boar is the Ardennes’ symbol so this one had an obvious local significance as does the Poulet de Bresse (1999) at Dommartin-lès-Cuiseaux in Saône-et-Loire (top left). Others leave you scratching your head, such as the 25m-tall Signe Infini (1994) to the north of Lyon – a version of the infinity symbol in steel – or the Vrilles Lumi­neuses (1995) at Rogerville in Seine-Maritime, which is two big screw-shaped lit-up masts.

Some art inspired by local culture is still not obvious at first glance: Sur la trace des Vikings (On the trail of the Vikings) on the Autoroute de Normandie at Tourville-la-Rivière, looks like a ball with arrows attached (below).

Les Chevaliers Cathares (1980) near Narbonne in the Aude (bottom) has been described as resembling bunkers or burqas and is probably  the only motorway art immortalised in chanson – Francis Cabrel wrote an unflattering song about them.

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