It is easy to lose touch with reality in Lyon. You can cross the road to visit a boulangerie only to walk into a solid wall. The Banque Populaire’s ATM doesn’t take your Visa Card. Frustrated, you try to enter La Bistro de Lyon only to be thwarted again. The murals of Lyon do that to you.
On my first day in Lyon I hurried past a bookshop and made a mental note to return to browse the antique editions displayed in the window. Later, as I approached the shop I realised it was a fake, a trick of the eyes. It was one of the many trompe d’oeil murals of Lyon that adorn the walls of buildings. There are over 150 murals around the city though not all use the trompe l’oeil technique.
It all began in the 1970s when a group of students were discussing the closed nature of art and that on the whole it was confined within the walls of museums and galleries. Their conclusion was that murals would make art accessible to the ordinary citizen and would be free. It was an art form that had been lost but was alive and well during the Renaissance albeit within the four walls of churches, palaces and public buildings.
Ten of these students went off to Mexico to study modern muralism, an artistic tradition begun by the Diego Rivera who used storytelling and modified Renaissance techniques to get across political messages.
From this series of events the artists cooperative CitéCréation was born with the ideal that the murals would not just be decoration but would help people rediscover their community identity by tracing local history. The murals of Lyon would do this by storytelling in a visual and accessible way.
One of the earliest and best known works by CitéCréation is La Mur des Canuts. This huge mural is in the hilly district of Croix-Rousse. Once the home of silk weavers who were nicknamed canuts it was an industrial neighbourhood. Now it is much sought after place to live and has a bohemian ambience. The mural is a study of Croix-Rousse itself and includes characteristics of the district such as the long flights of steps on the slopes of the hills on which it is built.
Over time any neighbourhood changes. This is reflected in the mural which is renovated and repainted every ten years. Looking at photographs (like the one below) taken a few months earlier, before the latest renovation, I noticed that the details of the mural I was looking at had changed from those in the photographs.
Most notable is the greenery growing up the side of one of the buildings. There are now cranes reaching up in the background of the picture where none existed in previous incarnations. Shops had changed ownership and vehicles were more up-to-date models.
Detailed examination revealed that a student reading a newspaper had become a mother with toddlers and a lady photographing a her husband with their young boy was now photographing the same man and his teenage son and they were joined by their young daughter. The mural itself not only tells a story of life in Croix-Rousse but each renovation tells a story too.
Another one of the murals of Lyon also tells a story. La Fresque des Lyonnias depicts the history of Lyon with famous figures from the Emperor Claudius who was born in the city when it was Roman Lugdunum to the Michelin star chef Paul Bocuse. The pioneering film-making Lumière brothers, the aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Joseph-Marie Jacquard inventor of the loom that bears his name are there along with artists, a footballer and other Lyonnais notables. The complete mural is painted in the trompe l’oeil style making it difficult to establish where reality begins and ends.
Just down the road, on the left bank of the Saone is a secondhand book market. The building opposite appears to be a bibliotheque or library with a cafe but it is just another trompe l’oeil illusion.
At eye-level you are hard pressed to know what is real and what is not. Look up beyond the ground floor and the mural becomes a little more surreal. There are windows filled with giant books of all kinds. You realise the eye has been tricked yet again. The bookshop cafe is one place where you are not going to get a coffee in Lyon. It is affectionately known as La Biblioteque de la Cité or City Library.
As you wander the streets of Lyon you begin to ask yourself whether it is real or not; where does reality end and where does it begin? Rest assured that Lyon is real enough and there are numerous murals to explore.
In this post I have just chosen the three best known murals of Lyon. There are a number of other murals close to these three and some further out. You can read about them in the post Murals of Lyon (2)
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A tour to see the murals of Lyon is bookable from the Lyon Tourist Office and Convention Bureau
Declaration: I visited Lyon as guest of the Lyon Tourist Office and Convention Bureau. However, as always I maintain full editorial control over the content and my opinions, positive or negative are my own.
Heading to Lyon and need a guidebook? You will find a selection of books on Lyon in the Travel Unpacked Shop (£)