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THE ARTS

Saint Joan of arts

The young heroine's image has resonated through five centuries of creative minds. A French exhibition, a bean can label and a fall TV series are but a few of the places you'll find her.

August 24, 2003|Suzanne Muchnic | Times Staff Writer

Rouen, France — Verdi and Tchaikovsky composed operas about her. Mark Twain wrote her biography. Sarah Bernhardt adopted her persona on stage. Ingrid Bergman and Jean Seberg played her in movies. French sculptor Emmanuel Fremiet fashioned a massive bronze equestrian statue of her for a central square in Paris. Japanese illustrator Yoshikazu Yasuhiko created a series of comic books about her.

And now the municipal art museum in this city where she was burned alive 572 years ago is presenting an exhibition about her: "Joan of Arc: History Paintings." Gallery after gallery of artworks glorify the French heroine as a peasant, warrior, prisoner and martyr. This is just the latest entry in a centuries-long parade that will have new U.S. entries in the next few years.

The illiterate 17-year-old farm girl credited with leading the French to vanquish the English in the Hundred Years War has long since achieved iconic status. Every French schoolchild knows that she followed what she perceived as divine voices telling her that God had chosen Charles, the ineffectual dauphin, to rule France. As the story goes, she gained the dauphin's confidence, rallied his dispirited army and effectively put Charles VII on the throne -- only to be tried for heresy and burned at the stake by the English-controlled French church.

All this transpired in two years flat. It took much longer for Joan of Arc to be vindicated by the French legal system and the Catholic Church. Twenty-five years passed before her 1431 trial was nullified, in 1456; nearly five centuries transpired before she was canonized as a saint, in 1920. But the length of the process only emphasizes her staying power.

"In the long history of France, she represents the image of the savior," says Jean-David Levitte, French ambassador to the United States. Unlike other French national heroes whose flaws are acknowledged along with their virtues, Joan of Arc is perceived as so "pure, decent and generous" that she is beyond criticism, he says.

Far beyond France's borders, "she has an almost unique standing," British feminist author Marina Warner writes in her 1981 book "Joan of Arc: The Image of Female Heroism." "She is a universal figure who is female, but is neither a queen, nor a courtesan, nor a beauty, nor a mother, nor -- until the extremely recent date of 1920 when she was canonized -- a saint. She eludes the categories in which women have normally achieved a higher status that gives them immortality, and yet she gained it." Evidence of that immortality shows up at the Grand Hotel Jeanne d'Arc in Paris and on the labels of Joan of Arc canned beans, produced by B&G Foods Inc. in New Jersey. Her image has been appropriated by Jean-Marie Le Pen's far-right National Front in France and by an American anti-smoking campaign. The title of a new collection of essays, edited by Dominique Goy-Blanquet, says it all: "A Saint for All Reasons."

Still, the volume of artistic juice squeezed out of Joan of Arc seems to exceed her stature. It's difficult to think of another historic figure -- apart from Jesus -- who has been such a persistent subject in the arts.

No one has compiled a complete record of all the creative works she has inspired, but the Joan of Arc Center in Orleans, the primary repository of information about her, has a collection of 160,000 documents and an additional 4,500 books, brochures and illustrations. Other sources list some 55 films and 500 plays and musical pieces. Scholars estimate that 50 books on Joan are published every year. On television, CBS presented a Joan of Arc miniseries in 1999, and it will release "Joan of Arcadia," a new drama series about a contemporary teenage girl who converses with God, this fall.

Paintings, sculptures and other visual artworks are also plentiful, probably numbering in the tens of thousands. Laurent Salome, director of the museum in Rouen, rounded up 88 paintings by 49 artists for the current show, which deals only with the century leading to Joan of Arc's canonization and doesn't even cover that period completely. A broader, more literary exhibition, "Joan of Arc: Images of a Legend," presented at Rouen's National Library in 1979, offered 500 images.

A woman of mystery

Much of her appeal can be attributed to the fact she is not only a real historical figure but also the star of "a famous story in the timeless dimension of myth," Warner writes. Endlessly adaptable, her image continues to be shaped by politics, social ideals and fashion.

Transcripts of Joan of Arc's trials have provided a factual springboard for legions of scholars and creative writers. But no one knows what she looked like, and that has left visual artists free to interpret her as everything from a barefoot mystic to a monumental Amazon to a female Christ. And even though it is known that she cut her hair short before doing battle, she is often portrayed with long, flowing locks.

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