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Celebrating the life and work of Pierre Soulages

Le carnet de France

Le Musée du Louvre is showing an unusual exhibit right now, to be presented until March 9, 2020. Why unusual? We know Le Louvre is an “encyclopedic” museum, much like the Metropolitan Museum in New York, and it does not normally exhibit modern and contemporary art. Such works can be seen at the Musée d’Art Moderne de Paris, at the Centre Pompidou and others.

This exhibit is to celebrate Pierre Soulages’ 100-year birthday. Maître Soulages was born in Rodez, in Aveyron, a hilly region in Occitanie, in southern France between Toulouse and Montpellier. He is alive and well and still working and, as a matter of fact, for this exhibit at the Louvre, he just created two huge vertical paintings.

At the age of 12, Pierre Soulages went one day with his school to visit l’Abbaye Sainte-Foy de Conques, a beautiful 11th century Roman style church. He was overwhelmed by its beauty, and decided right then, supposedly, to become a painter. Conques is a small village of less than 300 inhabitants, 23 miles away from Rodez.

Black abstract paintings are his signature. He often mentions this anecdote in explanation — as a child, while drawing lines with Chinese black ink on a white piece of paper, he was asked what he was doing, he replied he was painting a snowy landscape. “Il a souvent rappelé cette anecdote lorsque peignant enfant des traits d’encre de Chine sur une feuille blanche il avait qualifié son dessin de paysage de neige.”

As paints were expensive, he used (and still uses) walnut stain (“brou de noix”), and he made (and still makes) his own tools or uses carpenter’s tools to apply the paint. He has always been fascinated by the varied reflections of light on the black canvases.

He and his wife, Colette, met while he was studying art in Montpellier in 1942. They were married at the end of that year — both dressed in black. They live in Sète, a small fishing harbor town near Montpellier in a contemporary style house with a spectacular view of the Mediterranean Sea. His studio is located on the northern side of the house.

At the Musée Fabre in Montpellier, which Pierre Soulages used to visit frequently, a whole wing is devoted to his paintings. The main room is facing the northern side of the building, and he had the large bay windows covered with an opaque filter so that the sun can shine in the room without damaging the paintings. The canvases hang from the ceiling with nylon wires, a favorite way for the artist to display his works. Should you visit Montpellier, do not miss the Musée Fabre.

In 1986, the French Government asked him to redo the stained-glass windows of a church in Brittany. According to an article in La Croix L’Hebdo from December 2019, Pierre Soulages had no interest in stained glass windows, but then, after numerous conversations, it was decided he would redo the 1950s colored glass windows of l’Abbaye de Conques! His idea was to create a plain opaque glass so that the architecture of the Abbey, especially the details of the stone inside, would be enhanced. “My research therefore focused on a colorless, translucent glass that reflects the variations in natural light.” Pierre Soulages, a perfectionist, traveled all over Europe to find a glass manufacturer who could understand his project and help him do the 96 windows and the eight vertical loopholes of the Abbaye.

In addition to his perfectionism, the project had to face a few political and financial challenges, and it took eight years to be completed. The inauguration took place in July 1994.

When you are inside the Abbey, what is extraordinary with those windows is that the opaque glass, which looks whitish-grey, changes color with the natural light. They can look blue as well as pink. It is worth visiting the church at different times of the day. The shape of the panes also varies from window to window. Conques is also known as a stop on one of the ten itineraries of the Pilgrimage to Saint-Jacques de Compostelle, in the province of Galicia, Spain, so that during the summer months, the Abbey is very much admired by numerous pilgrims.

Rodez, very proud of the fact that Pierre Soulages was born there, decided to create and build a museum in his honor. In France, no other living artist has ever had this sort of offer. He accepted under one condition — that inside the museum, there would be a large space devoted to other contemporary artists. So, in 2014, in the center of Rodez, close to the Gothic Cathedral of Notre-Dame dating from the 13th century, a contemporary building made of steel in the shape of rust-colored cubes, became the Musée Soulages. François Hollande, then president of France, came to inaugurate it. Pierre Soulages and his wife Colette gave hundreds of paintings to the museum.

When at the Musée, do not miss watching the documentary on the making of the windows of the Abbey of Sainte-Foy. It is very informative and one understands better the making of this project.

From early on, just after World War II, Pierre Soulages got public attention and was able to sell. His canvases are usually large in size, and they can be single, a diptych or a tryptic. His paintings are entitled with the date of completion, e.g., “Peinture 222 x 157 cm, 15 janvier 1990”. He has exhibited all over the world and for the first time in New York, in 1949. The Fondation Pierre Gianadda in Martigny, Switzerland, (another not to be missed museum) had a major retrospective of Soulages in 2018.

Should you not be able to visit the exhibit at the Louvre, I can only encourage you to go to Rodez to visit “Pierre Soulages, le Louvre, etc.,” a show lasting until the April 12, 2020.

Last and not least, Aveyron has many other interesting sites, such as the medieval bastide (fortified village) of Villefranche-sur-Rouergue and, of course, let’s not forget the good food. Bonnes visites!

Martine P. Dulles lives in Tours, in the Loire Valley of France. She was a docent at the MET in New York and later a licensed tour guide in Charleston, where she and her husband lived for 11 years. She now organizes bespoke guided tours in France and may be reached at mpd@dullesdeleu.com. Visit her website at charlestonpromenades.com.

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