It was an action-packed weekend in southwest France. The vide-greniers (jumble sale) season got off to a flying start with a bumper edition in Caylus on Sunday. The SF was delighted with his purchase of an old computer screen to go with the ancient computers he is fiddling about with. I didn’t buy anything but enjoyed strolling up and down chatting with friends and marvelling at the things people find to sell.
But the highlight of the weekend was a visit to Albi, capital of the Tarn Département, for an evening of cultural entertainment. Every year on a certain date in May, museums and galleries throughout Europe open free in the evening up till midnight.
I have to admit that this initiative had completely passed me by in previous years but a friend asked if we would like to go to Albi this year. I readily agreed since the Toulouse-Lautrec Museum has been renovated and enlarged in recent years and this is one of my 10 things to do in 2011.
World Heritage site
We rarely visit Albi since it’s not our Préfecture and it’s about an hour’s drive from us. However, it is well worth the visit. The old town, built largely of pink brick, achieved World Heritage status last year, which has certainly given the town’s fortunes a fillip. The 13th-century Cathédrale Sainte-Cécile, an enormous red-brick, fortress-like structure, dominates the town for miles around, although I don’t particularly like it. It’s certainly imposing but has nothing of the majesty of Chartres or the grandeur of Saint-Sernin in Toulouse. However, the surrounding streets and alleyways are a delight.
The various cultural events were grouped under the title Nuit Pastel, the pastel trade being one of the foundations of the city’s medieval and Renaissance fortunes (like Toulouse). Le Musée Toulouse-Lautrec occupies the former bishops’ palace (Palais de la Berbie) opposite the cathedral. When we last visited, about eight years ago, only the upper galleries were open and they were rather tatty. Since then, at a cost of about 30m euros, the whole thing has been renovated and new galleries added in the basement.
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec is one of Albi’s most famous sons. Born of local aristocracy (his mother and father were first cousins) in 1864, his childhood was marred by illness and accident. He broke both legs and grew up with an adult-sized torso but short legs. It is now acknowledged that his problems were congenital, resulting from interbreeding. His personal appearance blighted his life and was probably responsible for his descent into alcoholism.
[Below is the covered market, tastefully lit up at night. The SF managed to weave into shot on the left just as I was taking it.]
Young Henri went to Paris with his mother after his parents separated and showed an aptitude for drawing. He eventually studied under the portrait painter Léon Bonnat, since his mother’s ambition was for him to become a fashionable painter of society figures. Henri had other ideas: Bonnat’s studio was in Montmartre, centre of Bohemian Paris and frequented by artists and writers. Toulouse-Lautrec took the inspiration for many of his works from the streets and cabarets in the area. He was highly skilled at portraying the colour and decadence of fin de siècle Paris without glamorising it. Individual figures stand out in his crowd scenes, in which he often included himself.
Toulouse-Lautrec’s dissolute lifestyle caught up with him and he died in 1901 at the age of 36, ravaged by the effects of alcohol and syphilis. After his death, his mother oversaw the establishment of the museum in Albi. A wonderful portrait of her by her son takes pride of place in the new downstairs galleries: straight-backed, haughty, eyes closed, she must have been a formidable woman. If I could choose any picture from the whole collection it would be that one.
Short life, prolific output
The new galleries put into perspective the astonishing variety and range of Toulouse-Lautrec’s work. Although short, his career was extremely prolific. He produced thousands of drawings and hundreds of prints (making the latter enabled him to be financially independent of his family). He also produced more than 700 paintings. His works now sell for millions: in 2005, Christies sold ‘La Blanchisseuse’ (The Laundress, 1888) for $22.4 million.
Toulouse-Lautrec’s prints, such as the Jane Avril and Aristide Bruand series, are well known. The museum also has some less celebrated works, such as a series of delightful small landscapes, which I had not seen before. The renovation works are not yet complete. I shall certainly go back.
Outside the museum and the cathedral, there were plenty of other things going on. They included dancers dressed up as devils setting off fireworks to the sound of drums. This all got a bit noisy for us séniors, so age gave way to youth and we left them to it.
Albi has plenty of other claims to fame. The Albigensian Crusade against the Cathar heretics in the early 13th century took place in the region. More on that another time.
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