An artist, Pierre Soulages and his town, Rodez – Meanderings through France
by Annick Dournes & Frederic de Poligny
When his museum opened in Rodez in 2014, world-renowned artist Pierre Soulages dragged his hometown into the spotlight. Located in the middle of a triangle formed by Toulouse, Montpellier and Clermont-Ferrand in southern France, Rodez was hardly known outside France and now hundreds of thousands of tourists from all over the world go there every year. It’s a win-win situation both for lucky Rodez and for the lucky visitors who get the opportunity to discover this endearing town.
Set at the foot of the Massif Central mountains, Rodez is known for its freezing cold winters and hot summer days, but with over 300 sunny days each year you are more likely to have fine weather any time of the year. Perched on a massive outcrop of granite you will easily spot it from a distance.
The best place to start with is a visit to the local tourist office to get a map and follow the suggested itinerary going through the ancient town. Walking up and down the cobblestone streets it will help you spot the beautiful medieval houses and Renaissance mansion-houses. Most of them are built with red-rose sandstone. Don’t hesitate to go through their doors to get a glimpse at their beautiful inner courtyard with mullioned windows, corbelled turrets, outside galleries and balustrades. Don’t miss the amazing Armagnac House on Olmet Square, the fortress-like cathedral and its colourful modern stained-glass windows, or the Bishop’s palace and its elegant double stairway.
The beautiful Renaissance Jouery Hotel was turned into an archaeological museum, the Fenaille museum, in 1929 and shelters an astonishing and unique collection of “statues-menhir”. These 17 carved standing stones are 3.500 years old and the oldest large-scaled representations of mankind known in Western -Europe. All at once enigmatic and fascinating, they show standing men or women wearing weapons, jewels and clothes carved on both sides and we still know very little about the people who made them.
After this approximately one hour and a half walk, go to St Etienne square and stop at “O p’tit Bonheur” (this can mean “haphazardly” or “Little Happiness”) a newly opened café created by François and Anthony two young antique hunters who filled their café with dozens of books, old vinyl records and other antiques. While having a relaxing drink you can also make your choice among them.
The Soulages Museum is at walking distance from the city centre and was built on the side of a public park overlooking the surrounding countryside. It’s a long and low building looking like being recessed into the rocky outcrop. Five big square “volumes” made of red corroded steel protrude from it, their large bay windows giving a spectacular panorama view.
Pierre Soulages still is France’ best known painter and is internationally known as the “painter of black”. He was born in Rodez in 1919 and became a major figure of the post-war abstraction with his famous paintings made with walnut stain usually used on furniture. As a child he was fascinated by tree branches that drew combinations of lines. Nevertheless his paintings show nothing and his work is a total abstraction. His lines are neither branches nor ideograms and it is pointless to put words on his work in a needless attempt to describe it. To him “painting is the absence of words” and this is the reason why his works have no title. The viewer should not be influenced by the painter’s words and is free to feel whatever the painting “sends” to him.
Pierre Soulages made two donations to his hometown. The first one in 2005 brought about the idea of creating a museum dedicated to this unclassifiable artist. This 250 works of art donation included paintings on canvas and on paper etchings, lithographs, screen-printings, bronzes and all his preparatory works for the stained-glass windows for the Conques abbey. Creating these windows took him 8 years from extensive researches to find the perfect glass-maker, to the creation of different designs for each window. A whole museum hall is dedicated to these stained-glass windows that are truly unique. Conques is not very far from Rodez and if you have some time left you should drive to this landmark on the Pilgrim’s way to Compostello.
The second donation in 2012 includes some of his famous “Outrenoir”, that are also called “Beyond Black” or “Ultra-Black”. They are mostly huge canvases covered with thick layers of black paint, sometimes with additions of tar, rubber and other secret materials spread on the canvas with large brushes, knives, trowels… In the museum they are on display in big halls, facing large bay windows. Depending on the weather and on the time of day, the paintings absorb or reject light, looking matt or shinny or even reflecting the colours of the sky. Standing or pacing in front of them feels like entering another dimension. As Soulages says: “Ultrablack is like another country”.
Of course Rodez has a lot to offer to tickle your palate and the regional cuisine is a rich and hearty one. For an entertaining evening go to the “Bowling du Rouergue”. This is hardly a touristic address! Set in the middle of a shopping district away from the usual touristic tours this restaurant offers tasty food in a friendly and busy atmosphere. It’s a renowned meeting point for families and friends who come here for a good meal and to play a game of pool on one of the 12 bowling alleys. www.bowlingdurouergue.com
For a more refined cuisine in a quiet and sober place, go to the “Les Jardins de l’Acropolis”. The chef Dominique Panis and his wife Christiane carefully select their products suppliers, mostly organic, to make quality and tasty dishes such as “scallops with peanut and foie gras cream” or “side of veal with liquorice and cocoa sauce” or “homemade ginger bread with crystallized kumquat”… Fine and imaginative food! www.restaurant-acropolis.com
On the outskirts of Rodez you may go to the Hostellerie de Fontanges set in a beautiful historic home. There in the big dining room you will enjoy local cuisine with an innovative fusion touch by the young chef Mathieu Bessiere and the pastry chef, Michael Godzik. The menu changes almost everyday depending on the produce found on the daily market: quality and freshness are guaranteed! www.hostellerie-fontanges.com
Ideally set in the city centre the Hotel Mercure Cathedral is just a few steps away from the cathedral and 200 yards away from the Soulages Museum. This Art Deco building has recently been restored and the modern style rooms are simple but comfortable. The breakfast buffet is served in an authentic Art Deco room and will get you fully ready for your day in Rodez. www.mercure.com
For more information get in touch with the local touristic offices:
Text © Annick Dournes
Photos © Frederic de Poligny