Full immersion in art at “La Piscine” in northern France – Meanderings through France n° 161
By Annick Dournes & Frederic de Poligny
In French “piscine” means swimming pool and since 2001 “La Piscine” is one of France most original museums. This public swimming pool was built between 1927 and 1932 in the best Art Deco style in Roubaix, a key city in the 19th and 20th Centuries French textile industry. For fifty years generations of children have had the privilege to learn to swim in this amazing building. Turned into a museum in 2001 it has recently undergone extension and renovation works. To celebrate its reopening it welcomes three major multitalented artists: Hervé Di Rosa, Alberto Giacometti and Pablo Picasso.
A little bit of history
When built during the interwar period this swimming pool was seen as the most beautiful one in France. It combined a 50m Olympic pool and a bath and shower establishement, at a time when hygiene was becoming a main concern for the authorities. The architect, Albert Baert, was inspired by Cistercian style and set two huge stained-glass windows at each end of the pool symbolizing the rising and the setting sun. Numerous bathtubs, a dining hall, a hair, nail and pedicure salon, Turkish baths and a launderette surrounded by a rose garden made this “piscine” a popular meeting place for local people.
Turning a swimming pool into a museum
After years of neglect the public pool closed in the 1970’s due to security issues. Unfortunately many Art Deco buildings were destroyed in the 60’s and 70’s and were replaced by ordinary, unattractive ones. Paradoxically the Roubaix swimming pool was saved from destruction thanks to the economic crisis that hammered the textile industry of northern France in that same period. In 1985 the local authorities became aware of the fantastic potential of this unique building and had the original idea to turn it into a museum dedicated to fine arts and decorative arts.
The project was assigned to Jean-Paul Philippon, a French architect, who had the intelligence to respect the building’s style and inner personality. The pool has been turned into a garden of sculptures set on both sides of a remaining small pool. It can also be used for fashion shows or concerts. The beautiful green and blue mosaics have been restored as well as the two huge stained-glass windows. The former shower stalls are now cases displaying ceramics, rare ancient materials and other decorative artefacts and the bathtubs area now shelters the museum’s collections of paintings and sculptures dedicated to 19th and 20th century artists: Vuillard, Bonnard, Dufy, Van Dongen, Foujita…
Since its opening in 2001 “La Piscine” is a total success. Unlike most museums where people just go to see new exhibitions, here visitors not only discover regular temporary exhibitions, they also come back again and again because they love the place. Price of the museum’s success it soon became too small to welcome an increasing number of visitors. This is the reason why 2,300 sq m of new exhibition spaces have just been added. The construction works have just been completed and “La Piscine” was ready to reopen on October 20th.
Giacometti, Picasso and Di Rosa: three major artists for a grand reopening
Hervé Di Rosa was born in 1959 in Sète (Southern France). This globetrotter artist finds inspirations and innovative techniques travelling the five continents. His colourful and humour filled paintings, sculptures, installations, animation movies or ceramics are recognizable at once. After decades of conceptual and intellectual art he has deliberately chosen to go back to figurative art. The present exhibition at “La Piscine” gathers 30 years of artistic travels during which Hervé Di Rosa has combined foreign know how and local arts with his own artistic vision. Far from exoticism and colonialism his work avoids clichés or easy options.
So far he’s been staying in 19 different countries to learn new techniques that have become parts of his creations. From Sofia to Kumasi, from Havana to Seville, from Tel Aviv to Miami, from Mexico to Bin Duong or from Addis Ababa to Lisbon this indefatigable artist was able to create using all kinds of materials. Cloth, telephone cables, lacquer, sequins, embroidery, stones, bronze, gold, earth, shellfish, ceramic, leather, glass, paper, pearls… they all fit in his limitless imagination. The exhibition is a burst of colours and humour.
The Picasso’s exhibition is centred on “L’Homme au Mouton” (Man with Ram) created during the Occupation in 1943. This real size sculpture is connected to the traditional iconography of early Christianity, the Good Shepherd. After months of preparation Picasso was able to make this statue in a single afternoon. Picasso saw it as an artistic and political response to academicism worshipped by the Nazis and as an allegorical personification of freedom and peace. The exhibition also displays Picasso’s preparation drawings as well as several other figurative sculptures and cubist paintings.
A new part of the museum will be presenting exhibitions linking works of art and their historical context. The very first one is dedicated the bust of Colonel Rol-Tanguy made by Alberto Giacometti in 1947. Rol-Tanguy was a French Resistance hero during WW2 and took an active role in the liberation of Paris. Several other sculptures and drawings complete the exhibition.
How to get to “La Piscine”
You can easily reach Roubaix from Paris. A TGV fast train will take you from Gare du Nord railway station to Lille in only 1 hour, then you’ll take the metro (line 2) right at Lille railway station and be in Roubaix (Grand’Place Station) close to the museum, in 30min.
By car you can take a ferryboat from Ramsgate to Ostend in Belgium and drive to Roubaix (it’s a one-hour drive).
More at: http://www.roubaix-lapiscine.com/
Text ©Annick Dournes
Photos ©Frederic de Poligny