At night, the lights of Sète shine across the étang from Marseillan. During the day, Sète is a busy commercial port but it is also known for its art (and seafood). You could easily spend the day exploring its four museums and numerous smaller galleries. Sadly, I had time for only one. The Musée Paul Valéry is named after the town’s famous poet.
Musée Paul Valéry, Sète. Own photograph.
Musée Paul Valéry has recently undergone a major refurbishment – it is nicely designed and a pleasure to walk through. Their permanent collection focuses on local artists with a strong maritime theme but, unfortunately, it’s not up to much. Some of the works are really rather bad and it won’t take you more than ten minutes to walk through this part of the museum.
Musée Paul Valéry, Sète. Own photograph.
Upstairs is a different story and the current exhibition, Juan Gris: rimes de la forme et de la couleur, is an unexpected delight.
Born 1887, Gris’s family had determined he would become an engineer but, contrary to their wishes, he chose a more artistic route. Arriving in Paris in 1906, he met Picasso and numerous other influential artists of the time and witnessed the emergence of Cubism. There is no doubt that Gris was instantly smitten although, for some years, in order to make a living, the majority of his time was given over to contributing drawings to periodicals.
Man Ray, Juan Gris in 1922. Image via http://museepaulvalery-sete.fr/.
Gris watched and learnt from his artist friends. Borrowing techniques from the analytical style of early Cubism, he broke away from the Cubist palette and distinguished himself from Picasso and Braque by introducing his own vision, working in the style of Synthetic Cubism.
Juan Gris, La vue sur la baie, 1921. Own photograph.
I was already a fan of Gris’s painting and there is no doubt that he is a successful master of composition. His scientific mind is evident from his studies and some of his works are very minimalistic and austere.
The exhibition is extensive and follows Gris’s entire career – brief though it was. Quotes on the wall from Gris and his contemporaries are a nice touch. A series of unusual drawings from 1910-11 is an interesting inclusion that I hadn’t seen before.
During World War One, he developed his own syntax and his shapes are formed by an enigmatic interaction between line and colour. Gris invites the spectator to consider the forms he has presented. As objects balance and perch one on top of another, they vie for our attention in a subtle and understated way. His works are not about making big bangs but taking a back seat in a powerful way.
Juan Gris, Arlequin assis à la guitare, 1919. Own photograph.
Although still lives dominate Gris’s oeuvre, there are still characters all of whom have an identifiable aspect. Despite these recognisable features, the ‘portraits’ have an absence of reality – they are more human prototypes than actual people. The figures belong to a dramatised fiction, accompanied by an occasionally unsettling timeless silence.
After the war, Gris developed ‘visual rhymes’ where there was more room for metaphors of shape. The works from 1920-25 are striking for their extreme simplicity and thick heavy outlines. He repeatedly studies the same subject, managing to vary the method or portrayal each time with an almost poetic intuition.
Juan Gris, Personnage assis, 1920. Own photograph.
This is a large but easily palatable exhibition, spaciously hung and enjoyable to visit. The reflections in the glass are often a problematic distraction, but this is an on-going concern of mine.
Gris was prolific – although he painted for less than 20 years, he left around 600 paintings. This is a great introduction to the artist if you are not already familiar with him.
Directly across the road from the gallery is the Cimetière Marin – the Sailor’s Cemetery. Perched on a cliff and facing the sea, this is one of Sète’s most famous places and has one of the most stunning views. It also houses the grave of Paul Valéry himself. With an impressive air of Classicism surrounding the layered tombs, it is definitely worth a visit.
Cimetière Marin, Sète. Own photograph.
Sète itself is tranquil, yet bustling and unpretentious. If you manage to avoid the more touristy areas, it’s a charming town to visit. I headed off on a boat to tour the canals and then once more unto the beach. Surprise, surprise I headed back to La Ola for the rest of the afternoon to soak up some rays!
Sète. Own photograph.
Juan Gris: rimes de la forme et de la couleur is at Musée Paul Valéry until 31st October 2011, http://museepaulvalery-sete.fr/.