Monday, June 28, 2010

Art I'm Looking At: Musée Fabre, Montpellier

Yesterday visited the Musée Fabre, in Montpellier, to catch the last day of a special exhibition there of sculptures by Houdon and others. I had heard about the show months ago, having read a review of it in The New York Review of Books. It took a while to find the place--French road markings are not the most rational--but it was worth it.

There were about 40 busts by Houdon and others, along with Houdon's allegories of Summer and Winter (Summer is pictured here; photo from The Web Gallery). A few were bronzes, but they were mostly marble, plaster, or terra cotta. The highlights were the Houdon busts of Benjamin Franklin and Napoleon in terra cotta, a marble head of Voltaire, and a bust of Christoph-Willibald Gluck (the composer) in plaster treated to look like bronze (both by Houdon). Houdon had a way of putting a piece of his sitter's soul into his work. You get the feeling that the heads are about to speak. The Franklin and the Gluck busts were particularly good, I thought. There was also a Houdon plaster bust of Molière that I recognized from several reproductions of it I saw the other day in the town of Pezenas, where Molière worked for a spell.

I enjoyed the Houdon sculptures, but the museum's regular collection is of some interest, too. The museum was originally established in the 1820s by Montpellier painter François-Xavier Fabre. It houses paintings of his own that he donated, his collection of paintings by other artists, and several other substantial collections that have been given to the museum over the years, including most recently a large group of paintings by Pierre Soulages donated by Soulages himself (above is his Painting, April 30th, 1972).

There are several good little Corot landscapes, a good Courbet seascape (and several other paintings by Courbet that didn't seem up to his usual standard), a good portrait by Gabriel Metsu--a painter I don't know well, but I noticed several by him in the Louvre last week that I liked very much--, a good Zurburán, and an interesting portrait by Kees Van Dongen in the modern section. The modern paintings were of special interest to me because there are several very early academic works in the collection by painters that became impressionists or modernists. I didn't like these paintings much as paintings, but it is unusual to see, for example, Monet painting an old-fashioned still life of the "fruits of the hunt," or Vlaminck in his pre-Fauves period, or Robert and Sonia Delaunay or Francis Picabia painting traditional subjects rather than the abstractions (the Delaunays) and Dadaist/surrealist work (Picabia) they are best known for. And then there is the large room devoted to Soulages. Definitely worth a visit if you're in the area and you have an interest in this sort of thing.

Afterwards went to Sète and saw canal jousting (by chance) and then spent a couple of hours at the beach between Sète and Agde. I didn't know that jousting from big rowboats was a thing in Sète, but apparently it is. We went to find the beach, but had a hard time of it and ended up at the end of the town's main canal, which seems to empty into the port. There doesn't appear to be any beach in the town proper. We ended up several miles down the road on a stretch of pebbly, shell-strewn (mostly cockles) sand somewhere between Sète and Agde, which was just fine. The water was warm enough to swim in, but cool. I can't remember if I've been swimming in the Mediterranean before....

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