Clervaux - A view from our expert author

Clervaux Luxembourg Europe by Tim SkeltonClervaux's castle and church dominate the town's view © Tim Skelton

The picturesque setting of this town, nestled in a steep-sided valley, forms the perfect backdrop to the world’s most important permanent photo exhibition.

Approaching Clervaux by road, you may have little idea it’s there at all until you stumble upon it. Hidden in a valley and surrounded by plateaux, the only clue indicating human habitation is the tower of Clervaux Abbey peeking above the horizon. The main approach road from the east drops dramatically off a ridge via a series of hairpins, offering great views of the charming little town with its pretty church, and the strikingly white castle at its centre – the whole area feels hemmed in by the sheer wooded slopes all around. The castle is home to ‘The Family of Man’: the world’s greatest photographic exhibition, recognised by UNESCO for its cultural importance.

'The Family of Man'

What is without a doubt the world’s most important permanent photographic collection reopened in 2013 after some much-needed restoration work. This was the brainchild of Luxembourg-born American photographer Edward J Steichen, who created it in 1955 for New York’s Museum of Modern Art. He commissioned a team of prominent  contemporary photographers to capture the world of the 1950s on film. No fewer than 273 individuals from 68 different countries were involved – of the 503 photos, only four were taken by Steichen himself. The exhibit caused a great stir, and was seen by nine million people when it went on a world tour during the late 1950s and early 1960s. In 1964, it was given to Luxembourg by the American government, honouring Steichen’s wish that his baby find a permanent home in his land of birth (his family had emigrated when he was 18 months old, but when he returned he was greeted as a home-coming hero). It’s been in Clervaux Castle since 1994.

The cultural significance of this fascinating glimpse into the 1950s was recognised in 2003 when it was added to the UNESCO Register of the Memory of the World. Thematic rooms take you on a trail telling the story of man, covering subjects from love and birth to work and war. Thirty-five sections arc through a tale of hope, despair, and back to hope again. The exhibition isn’t just great because of the subject matter – it’s thoughtfully presented too. Playful subjects are treated playfully (photos of people holding hands in rings are displayed as a ring of pictures), while serious subjects are static and straightfaced. It also provides an honest account of the age – early photographs show man’s excitement at harnessing the atom and looking towards a golden future, then a shot of an atomic explosion brings everyone crashing back to reality.

What you get from the story is up to you. Many pictures are open to interpretation and yours may be different from everyone else’s – it was Steichen’s intention that no answer be more or less valid than any other. This is one exhibition you should pass through twice. Make the journey on your own to see how the images impact you; then go round again in the company of a multimedia guide (€3.50) to hear the ‘official’ version. It may surprise, and will certainly open your eyes to things you missed.

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