The Musée Fabre in Montpellier, Languedoc - a phoenix risen from the ashes
After a recent and expensive facelift, Languedoc's top art museum, the Musée Fabre in Montpellier, opens again to the public, showing off its impressive collection of paintings - from the 17th through to 20th century.
For 4 long years Montpellier has been without a museum worthy of such a dynamic city. Now, after an extensive renovation and some €62.5m, its Musée Fabre has reopened. Already Georges Frêche, the president of the Montpellier Agglomeration and the Languedoc regional council, is claiming that the Musée Fabre in Montpellier is one of the most beautiful Fine Art museums in Europe. He’s not a man known to mince his words, but here he has a point.
The Musée Fabre is housed in a maze of galleries within a 17th C. Jesuit College, an 18th C. Hotel de Ville and 19th C. extensions. Where before the connections were awkward and jarring, the architectural teams of Brochet-Lajus-Pueyo and Nebout have created intimate corners and passages. Pockets of dark wood house the intersections and contrast elegantly with the painted gallery walls. A whole new contemporary art wing has been added; all within the confines of Montpellier’s medieval street pattern.
The classical architecture has been well respected. Yet, at the same time, thanks to the undulating Montpellier landscape, 6m deep excavations of the courtyards have created a vast underground contemporary art gallery and a reception area, large enough to greet crowds of people. This latter space is sombre and holds tight to a bunker feeling; ironically it’s not the most welcoming of welcome spaces. The entrance has moved from an imposing wooden door in a side alley, to the graceful front courtyard.
Leading you into the museum is a commissioned granite and marble pavement installation by the artist Daniel Buren. Thousands of eager visitors have already left their footprints all over pavement and the exotic wooden floors; the hoi-polloi meets Fine Art.
The collection doesn’t hold many mega-names; don’t come here for Picassos or Van Gogh. Instead there are some gems given to the museum by collectors since the 19th C. The iconic ‘Bonjour Mr Courbet’ by Gustave Courbet is one of the more famous paintings in the collection. However, it is the donation of 20 pieces by the hugely famous living artist Pierre Soulages that has become the star attraction. These mammoth black canvases have been suspended in space within their own newly built gallery. Lit by a wall of translucent glass the monochrome space is an astonishing contrast to the other, more traditional, rooms in the museum.
The Head Curator, Michel Hilaire, has pushed for great changes. Not only has the character of the building been respected and the collection entirely re-hung, but he has introduced multimedia spaces throughout the museum. These are unique in the context of French Fine Art museums and are independent from the galleries – the paintings are left to speak for themselves. Visitors are positively encouraged to explore the collection through the computer terminals or freely available films and books (not ready for the opening, but coming soon we’re promised). Spaces to repose and recover from the bright galleries are a welcome innovation. Who hasn’t suffered from ‘museum foot’ after trailing around endless galleries?
The new musée Fabre is an elegant phoenix, risen from the crumbling dust of the decaying former museum. It’s not perfect, but you’ll have to look hard to find better in the south of France. I have to be a bore and wonder why, when the museum is 100% accessible for wheelchairs and prams, there are no changing tables for babies and why the Pourcel Brothers couldn’t open their restaurant on time. Even so, I’m ridiculously proud to have, at last, a museum in Montpellier worth boasting about.
- Helen Bevis