I think it is rare to be so surprised by a regional gallery or museum, yet that is exactly what has happened to me on my visit to my friends Penny and Annie, who live in Southwest France. I knew the work of Pierre Soulages from a catalogue Ross has of his work, but to view it in person was to see the art in a completely different light. Although we had sadly just missed the temporary exhibition ‘L’Atelier de la recherche patiente, un métier‘, based on Le Corbusier’s “self-portrait” of his career, the Musée Soulages‘ complete curated experience, from the food in the cafe to the architecture to the work itself left me breathless.
Opened in 2014, thanks to a donation by the artist of 500 works to the town of his birth and designed by the Catalan firm RCR Arquitectes, the Musée Soulages sits on the brow of a hill within the renovated Foirail Gardens. The building consists of undulating weathered corten steel boxes, their rusted exterior sympathetically echoing the pink-grey colours of Rodez and its medieval Cathedral, as well as the art it has been designed to display.
The Curator of the collection calls it
‘…a nod to Soulages’ very first paintings on paper, his walnut stained pieces and the copper plates that served as the matrix for his etchings.’
When entered from the back, the building presents itself as a traditional modernist pavilion. The wall of glass is overhung by the cantilevered roof, offering a shaded public communal area for people to meet and relax. The cafe and restaurant are run by the Michelin three-star chef Michel Bras. The large white lobby is welcoming but gives nothing away to prepare the visitor for what is to follow. On descending two floors down a vaulted staircase into the bowels of the building, the bright white walls give way to beautiful dark patinated steel echoing the tones of the Soulages artwork on display. The wide low galleries you enter are a stark and stunning contrast.
Our visit was immeasurably enhanced by a enthusiastic gallery attendant who chatted to us explaining Soulages’ involvement in the concept for the museum and what he and the architects’ aimed to achieve. Her knowledge and passion was infectious and really helped us gain a better understanding into the artist’s quest to capture light and contrast in his work. In one of life’s odd coincidences, having recently watched Ross produce walnut stains and inks in the kitchen at home, I was confronted with paintings that the artist has produced throughout his career using the very same walnut stain! Traditionally used in the area by furniture makers, walnut stain produces wonderfully rich, warm, transparent browns and blacks.
One of the biggest surprises for me was the large volume of prints on display in the collection. In 1951 Soulages began a collaboration with the renowned printer Roger Lacourière. Always one to enjoy exploring the potential of new materials and techniques, he wrote that he ‘took to engraving because something emerged in etching that didn’t in painting’.
Having been studying printing over the past couple of years. I could write an entire article on Soulages’ etchings, lithographs and screen prints. I will limit myself to saying that I have been inspired by the way he embraced the process without constraints, elaborating on his mistakes, and often allowing the plates to be eaten away by the acid to produce wonderfully unpredictable and irregular results. As with the Walnut Stain works, Soulages returned to printing again and again, producing well over a hundred prints in the fifties and sixties.
Pierre Soulages is probably best know for his Outrenoir paintings. Meaning ‘beyond black’, these works use light reflected off the thick manipulated paint which results in constantly changing colours and patterns on the surface of the paintings. The changes in depth, angles and undulations of the black oil or acrylic paint surfaces reflect the light in completely different ways. The end results are monochrome paintings which shift and dance in the changing light conditions. Never has a single black surface seemed so alive.
In 1986 the French government commissioned Soulages to create new windows for the abbey church of Conques. Dating back to the 11th century, the original stained glass had long since been lost. Having first visited the church at the age of 12, and with an understanding of the monks’ need for contemplation and privacy, Pierre set about exploring how to create windows that filled the building with light and contrast, the preoccupation that had driven his work throughout his career. Working with master glass maker Jean-Domingue Fleury, they eschewed traditional coloured glass compositions in favour of a variety of translucent colourless glass that produces a contemplative quality of ever changing light within the building.
Outside of France, Soulages’ reputation is at best patchy and at worst he is seen as a one-trick pony. This is a huge disservice to his work which I think deserves far wider international recognition. That his 2009 retrospective at the Pompidou Center, which attracted over 500,000 visitors, was the largest show the museum has ever devoted to a living artist is an indication that his work is far more significant and relevant than is currently thought. If you are in Aveyron area add Rodez to your itinerary, in fact wherever you are in France make the detour to visit this wonderful museum, you won’t regret it.
All text and images © Jonathan Dredge.