Dreams under Stone

St-Cirq Lapopie

St-Cirq Lapopie

I’ve been in St-Cirq Lapopie, le plus belle village du France, for a bit over a week now, and for the past several days I’ve been puzzling over a piece of conceptual art installed the center of the village. Made by South African artist Laura Emsley, it’s pretty close to invisible — or at least the only physical trace I’ve seen is the sign marking it. But it’s a great idea, and has me thinking about the history and meaning of this place in all kinds of ways.

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The sign and the rock face

She ripped out pages of The Interpretation of Dreams and stuffed them into fissures in the rock, on the Chemin des Artistes just below the Musee Rignault in the center of the village, just a bit below the church. Her primary interest appears to have been less undermining the church — though that may well be part of the allegory also — than thinking about the relationship between Freud and the village’s most famous 20c resident, Andre Breton, who arrived here in the 1950s and claimed never to want to leave again. He lived in a lovely house facing over the river, a bit up the hill and to one side of the Musee, also below the church but slightly at an angle to it.

Art is basically form plus allegory, right? So even if I can’t find the pages, I can comment on the allegorical structures they seem to create.

Allegory #1: Below the Church

Freud’s dream-pages in Emsley’s installation sit perhaps 50m below the towering mass of St-Cirq’s church, now lit at night as a tourist attraction, and no long sharing its imposing skyline with the 11th century fortifications above it that have long fallen into ruin. The restored and active church represents rock-hewn solidity, a buttress against disorder, square blocks set atop a 100m cliff at a bend in the river. At one time, St Cirq collected tolls from river traffic and from pilgrims heading for Compostela. Now it collects tourists, and artists. Beneath the massive stone form, dreams roil.

Allegory #2: Into the Cave

Emsley's Sign

Emsley’s Sign

The pages inhabit fissures in ancient limestone, opening into spaces in the rock not entirely unlike the nearby Grotte de Pech Merle, where 25,000 year old art is visible deep inside an ancient cave. Part of what I think about when I see (or don’t see) this installation is Freud’s words reaching down inside the rock toward the cave paintings. I wonder if the spotted horses, bison, aurochs, and the haunting wounded man emerge from the dreamwork of the Viennese doctor.

The Church

The Church

Allegory #3: Below Breton

Emsley isn’t only thinking about transforming the post-card view of St. Cirq into an allegory of dreams, stone, and French history. She’s also imagining one particular resident of the village, the surrealist poet Andre Breton, who came to St. Cirq in the 1950s and stayed off and on until his death in 1966. One project of Surrealism was to unloose the unconscious and give it flight. I wonder what Freud’s pages might mean, inside the porous rock on which sits Breton’s river-looking house: what’s destabilizing what? Do the poet’s fantasies rule the roost, or the doctor’s interpretive rules supply the fuel?

Breton's House

Breton’s House

This work, and a series of a dozen or so other conceptual artworks, are hosted by Maison Daura in St-Cirq. I believe they may be looking for artists in residence for next year.


Actually...I think this is Breton's House.

Actually…I think this is Breton’s House.


  1. Anne Harris says:

    What I would give to sit and talk about art as form plus allegory in a local café! This is such a great piece. I love the fun indeterminacy of which one is Breton’s house at the end. And all the thinking on stones and art in between. The current National Geographic has a rather remarkable piece about stone carvings by WWI soldiers (in northeastern France) in underground caves – it presses at the questions you have me asking (that I love to ask at the beginning of every “Caves to Cathedrals” art history course) about stone as primary and primeval medium. Thank you for this, Steve!

    • Thanks, Anne! It would be excellent to have your whole crew meet us in St-Cirq for dinner tonight, or maybe for a swim in the river plage, followed by the kids playing soccer in the narrow alley while we grown-ups talk allegory behind the garden gate. Another trip, perhaps?

      I am relatively sure that the second house is Breton’s — I found a local map after I posted the other picture. Thanks also for the amazing NG article about northern caves. We went yesterday to the amazing Gouffre de Padirac, a natural marvel of underground rivers and inhuman cathedrals. No art, but much wonder! Tomorrow, we hope, Lascaux II!

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