From the Belle Epoque and Beyond with Art in the Midi-Pyrenees
Few things ooze “France” to me more than those Moulin Rouge themed posters that celebrate fin de siècle bohemian Paris. That sly black cat on a scarlet background, the haughty-coy stare of Aristide Bruant, all blood red scarf beneath flat black hat. And, of course, all those Can-Can dancers awash in endless frills of knickerbockers and absinthe-fuelled vice.
In short, the art movement inspired, driven and invented by one Henri Toulouse-Lautrec.
The red windmills may turn in Paris, but the birthplace of the man himself – the artist who invented advertising – came from much further down south in the region called the Midi-Pyrenees.
It was his hometown of Albi, close to capital city Toulouse, that gave me my first travel writing break.
As Albi and its military-style cathedral geared up for its UNESCO World Heritage Site moment, I made my way through the blush pink corridors of the former Archbishop’s Palace. Once a bastion of the Inquisition, the Palace now showcases portraits of prostitutes, absinthe-drinkers and other apparel of the Belle Epoque.
It’s hard not to smirk at the building’s change in fortunes amid the Matisse, Dufy, Van Dongen, Degas and the world’s largest collection of work from Henri Toulouse-Lautrec.
But the Palais de la Berbie isn’t the only Bishop’s Palace to switch sides in terms of culture and art in the Midi Pyrenees.
Close neighbour Montauban also lets its cloisters celebrate creative work. The 17th century Musée Ingres also used to house a bishop but today fills its vaults with collections from not one but two local boys who came good.
French Neoclassical portraits from Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres stand with sculptures from Rodin-educated Antoine Bourdelle (who himself went on to instruct Matisse, Maillol, Iché, Giacometti and Richier.) All in, more than 4000 pieces of art manage to pull off an archaeological feat of resting within the 16th century hearths and arching stone walls without giving the impression of overcrowding. And that’s without taking into consideration the Gallo-Roman archaeological artifacts that wait in the Salle du Prince Noir, a vestige itself of the Hundred Year War.
But of course, art isn’t solely about the past.
It lives on through colloquial phrases (the term violin d’Ingres in French refers to people who have a second skill) and, of course, it lives on through artists who are very much still alive.
One such man is Pierre Soulages, one of the most sought after living French contemporary artists, whose works are currently shown in more than 90 museums worldwide and whose exhibition at the Parisian Pompidou in 2009 attracted more than 500 000 visitors.
He built his name on the back of his Outrenoir work (or Beyond Black) which explored the way that light reflects, dances, bounces and flips around on black surfaces.
2014 marked another big milestone for art in the Midi Pyrenees with the opening of the Musée Soulages, dedicated to work by the man himself. It houses drawings, paintings, engravings and letters as well as the preparatory work for arguably his most famous piece: the 104 stained glass windows for the Romanesque Conques Abbey Church, the religious space that first inspired him to become an artist.
Soulages set down a few conditions before gifting his collection to the people of his birthplace in Rodez. He determined that a 500 square metre space should be reserved for temporary exhibitions that showcase the work of younger artists.
And so 2015 sees the arrival of “Le bleu de l’oeil” from Claude Lévêque, which runs until 25th September this year.
Die-hard Soulages fans, meanwhile, can immerse themselves further in his work through the “Retrospective” collection that arrives later in the year. This ensemble of 230 pieces aims to illuminate his post-war “brous de noix” collection of deep, walnut-stained strokes.
And for those who prefer something with more flashes of brilliant colour? There’s always time to go back to Albi and revisit the Moulin Rouge through the work of Henri Toulouse-Lautrec.