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Languishing in the Languedoc: Musée Fabre and Pavillon Populaire

13 Sep

Arriving in Montpellier after only two hours’ sleep, le petit train was the perfect way to relax and see the city – full of gorgeous architecture and intoxicating French culture.  Suitably resuscitated, I headed off to the Musée Fabre.   Mad I know, but my conscience wouldn’t allow me to miss such a well-known gallery.

Musée Fabre, Montpellier. Own photograph.

The Museé Fabre is housed within a 17th century Jesuit college and an 18th century Hotel de Ville brought together in a maze by a series of 19th century extensions.  It is as big as it sounds.   The current exhibition, touring from the Grand Palais in Paris, presents the works of Odilon Redon, a forerunner of the Impressionists, known for his fascination with the imaginary.

Odilon Redon, Crying Spider, 1881. Image via www.odilonredon.net

Redon is not an artist with whom I was familiar and I wasn’t sure what to expect but the exhibition is striking.  The opening curved rooms are painted dark blue, encouraging visitors to move around the space.  Although the rooms themselves are quite dark, all the works are well lit.  Peepholes allow previews of what is to come and, importantly, all the wall labels are in both English and French (this did deny me the chance to show that a summer course at L’institut was not a waste but I’m sure there will be other opportunities).

Redon exhibition, Musée Fabre. Own photograph.

Redon’s work presents dreamlike visions.  He had an affinity with the ideas of Edgar Allan Poe and many of his early works were inspired by Poe’s writing.  But he did not intend to recreate the scenes and, instead, his works were independent and freely created.

His most well-known work is Homage to Goya.  Although this series does not actually have any formal borrowings from Goya, the title revealed Redon’s desire to draw attention to his work by following the path acclaimed by critics.  This prompted much attention from the literary circle of the time, not least acting as the trigger for his friendship with Stéphane Mallarmé.  Redon began to display works from the series individually and provoked interest from collectors and exhibition organisers.

Odilon Redon, Homage to Goya, 1885. Image via www.moma.org

The dark tonal qualities of his early works radiate originality and character through his highly individual vision and near abrasive use of his medium.  Continuing in a similar vein, one of his slightly later series was inspired by Flaubert.  Again, these were categorically not illustrations but, instead, an aesthetic encounter expressed in literature and art.  From the 1890s, colour was
introduced as a more dominant element in his work and this swiftly became a permanent transition as he began to experiment with new forms.  For me, here, his works lose some of their mystique.

Mid-way through the exhibition the walls change to a deep rust orange colour; this denotes a shocking change in style as Redon took a renewed interest in the decorative arts, prompted by commissions from his growing circle of patrons.  Although his love of flora now becomes evident, he still extolled fantasy and undertook the decorative path simply with no excess or fuss.  This is far too drastic a change from his earlier work for me and from this point on the exhibition (or rather his oeuvre) becomes disjointed and a little confusing.  That said, there are some gorgeous works including one very unusual portrait that shows a delicate sympathy to his sitter.

Odilon Redon, Portrait of Marie Botkine, 1906-07. Image via http://picasaweb.google.com

The exhibition is beautifully curated and the changing colours of the walls serve well to show the developments of Redon’s career.  Upstairs, displayed on mustard yellow, Redon’s later works focus more on his interest in spirituality while continuing an evocation of the dream-like imagination and an interest in Classical mythology.  Gustave Fayet, one of Redon’s best patrons, bought Fontfroide Abbey (a gorgeous site and definitely worth a visit – I went last summer) and undertook its restoration.  He commissioned the library décor from Redon who created the large panels Day and Night as a synthesis of all his ideas.  The interior rooms of the Abbey have been specially opened for the course of this exhibition.

Fontfroide Abbey. Own photograph.

As I said, Musée Fabre is extensive and the permanent collections include works by all the French greats – there’s Géricault, Delacroix, David, Ingres, to name but a few.  The Soulages’ rooms present a more shocking contrast to the traditional space of the gallery; lit by a wall of translucent glass, many of the works are suspended in space, their startling black highlighted by the white walls.

Soulages at the Musée Fabre. Own photograph.

With the sun shining and beckoning me outside, it was hard to give these galleries the time they deserved but Musée Fabre is definitely worth a visit if you’re ever in, or near, Montpellier.

After wonderful crêpes in the Place de la Comédie, I headed to the Pavillon Populaire, just across the Esplanade from the Favre, for their Brassaï exhibition.  I have written about Brassaï fairly recently as he is one of the ‘greats’ included in the RA’s Hungarian photography exhibition and so I shall not go into too much detail about his work again.

Place de la Comédie, Montpellier. Own photograph.

This exhibition focuses on the artist in America in 1957.  As known from his famous Paris photography, Brassaï enjoyed looking at a city’s undercurrents and photographing prostitutes, drug addicts and seedy music halls as well as the better-known attractions.  In this way, he set himself apart from other artists of the time.  Perfectly displayed here in groups, his short exposures capture an amazing spontaneity – many of the shots have been captured in quick succession showing movement or the progression of time, often in comic ways that reveal remarkable insight into the mind of the artist.

Brassaï en Amérique, 1957. Image via www.paris-art.com

Again, different sections of the exhibition have different wall colours, a stylish presentation that the French pull off with aplomb.  Brassaï was a very talented photographer with an incredible eye.  His photographs of people from behind show a remarkable intimacy and offer a new perspective on city life.

It was time to head into Marseillan and have a siesta before cocktail hour!

Marseillan sunset.  Own photograph.

Odilon Redon, Prince du rêve, 1840-1916 is at the Musée Fabre until 16 October 2011, http://museefabre-en.montpellier-agglo.comBrassaï en Amérique 1957 is at the Pavillon Populaire until 13 October 2011, http://www.montpellier.fr/506-les-expos-du-pavillon-populaire.htm.

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