Pierre Soulages (1919 – 2022)

Whilst at the Fernand Leger exhibition at the Musée Soulages in Rodez, it was a perfect opportunity to see the works of the artist after whom the museum was named, Pierre Soulages, who was born in Rodez in 1919. The museum was opened in 2014, enabling the largest collection of his works in the world to be on permanent display. Soulages and Colette, his wife of eighty years, donated 900 works to the museum. However, just a few days after my visit, on 26 October, Soulages died in Nimes at the impressive age of 102.

Pierre Soulages, aged 100

There was an extreme contrast between the colourful works of Leger in one room and Soulages in the next. With Soulanges there were no bright, primary colours or cheerful subjects – instead, vast blocks of black and brown and minimalist works in Brous de noix. Temporary exhibitions at the museum are usually of artists with a connection with the works of Soulages, but on this occasion the paintings were so different that I wondered what possible connection there could be. Yet there were several – the two artists not only knew each other and admired each other’s work but they also worked together. For example, in 1952, at an event to commemorate the fifth centenary of Leonardo da Vinci at Chateau d’Amboise, Léger designed costumes and Soulages the sets for an evening performance.

Pierre Soulages ‘Brou de Noix, 65,7 x 50,1 cm’ (1947)

Whilst in many of Soulage’s paintings black dominated, he explained that “my instrument is not black but the light reflected from the black.” In other words, they were ‘beyond black’; in fact he called the technique ‘outrenoir’. He applied the paint in thick impasto layers and then worked on it with tools to achieve the complex textures he wanted. In earlier years he had also painted in walnut stain, applying bold brown strokes to the canvas to produce an effect which again provided a contrast to the bright colours of the neo-Fauvists of the period.

Pierre Soulages ‘Peinture 162 x 114 cm’ (1958)

In 1938 Soulages enrolled in the Ecole des beaux-arts in Paris, but did not stay as he disliked the traditional techniques taught there and he sought his own way, rejecting the trends in abstract painting of the time. This made him more noticeable and he was successful quite quickly. After military service in World War II, he exhibited at the Salon des Surindépendants in 1947, in Germany the following year and at the Venice Biennale in 1954. In 1954 he also exhibited in New York, gaining recognition in the United States during the time that Abstract Expressionism was being promoted. He would later be made an Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Pierre Soulages ‘Design for stained-glass windows’

The windows installed in Abbatiale Sainte-Foy de Conques

Between 1987 and 1994 he produced 104 stained-glass windows for the Abbey Church of Saint Foy in Conques, the preliminary designs for which are also on display in the Rodez museum. He was the first living artist to exhibit at the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg. A retrospective of his work was also held at the Centre Pompidou in Paris in 2009 – 2010 and the Louvre held a major exhibition in 2019 – 20 to celebrate his one-hundredth birthday.

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