Dark arts: a new museum dedicated to Pierre Soulages echoes the artist’s colour palette

Dark arts: a new museum dedicated to Pierre Soulages echoes the artist’s colour palette

’New Brutalism’ sums up some of the punch and swagger of the museum dedicated to Pierre Soulages that recently opened in his hometown of Rodez. As befits France’s greatest living artist, a feisty 94 year old, this building is entirely abstract, settling itself with bold, blocky monochrome slabs across a prime position in the middle of the city.

Soulages is known for his consistency, notably a lifelong commitment to the colour black, and the museum effectively pays homage to this palette, also including his dark blue and deep brown walnut stain tones. The chef d’oeuvre of Catalan practice RCR Arquitectes (aided closely by Narbonne firm Roques et Passelac), this geometric game of interlocking volumes is, like Soulages’ work, both utterly ’now’ and yet resonant of other eras of High Modernist certainty. 

Sprawling over 6,600 sq m on a series of stepped levels, the structure’s distinctive Corten steel conjures Soulages’ rusty ’brou de noix’ autumnal aesthetic and the sculpture of Richard Serra; likewise it’s glassed pavilion entrance has all the austere grace of Mies van der Rohe’s Neue Nationalgalerie. This museum would happily be mistaken for some sixties exercise in ’bunker archeology’, but with all the finish and finesse of an expensive contemporary cultural institution.

After the drama of its exterior silhouette, a jagged composition equally striking from every approach, RCR then excels with the actual galleries themselves, a chain of sumptuously somber salons that pull one along as if underwater. Views are discretely filtered through blinds, and all daylight carefully controlled, while the exhibition walls in varied dark hues explain Soulages’ status among the most refined decorators from Hicks to Haslam. 

Indeed if the museum’s aesthetic, beautifully hand-tailored Brutalism suggests Tom Ford on steroids, the final effect avoids all stridency, any sense of a gratuitous ’statement’, thanks to the in situ intimacy of the actual works. ’I demand nothing of the spectator,’ Soulages may boldly claim, but this building, his triumphant final testimony, demands at very least a deliberate détour.


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