The Two giants of Rodez in Aveyron – the French artist and the French chef, a winning and inspirational combination…
Pierre Soulages – Black to black
If you know a little bit about French culture then the chances are you’re already familiar with the internationally acclaimed painter and sculpture Pierre Soulages, if only for his iconic black and white image used in the posters for the Munich Olympic Games in 1972 and his reputation for working with black.
He’s allegedly a man with huge personal presence and was born in 1919 in Rodez (in the Aveyron) amongst the blacksmiths, printers and other artisans of the city. And if you’ve had an opportunity to see some of his famed “Outrenois”, you’ll also know that as I discovered, any preconceptions you might have had about the depth of his work and the limitations of working with one colour are totally misconceived.
Michel Bras – Black to nature
Another huge talent of the Aveyron is Michel Bras, a 3 Michelin star chef highly regarded not only across the region but across the world. Born in 1946, his father was also a blacksmith in the town of Laguiole, and when he was young, his mother opened a restaurant there to help make ends meet. The inspiration which that time provided him with is still very obvious today and he runs a highly acclaimed restaurant which in 2008 was voted 7th best in the world and which overlooks the stunning Plateau d’Aubrac.
He’s a small, bespectacled man but as I found out recently, he’s thoroughly prepossessing and very approachable, with an apparently encyclopaedic knowledge of wild plants, herbs and forgotten ingredients.
A reflection of sublime talent
The recently opened Musée Soulages Rodez, is the result of an astonishing donation by Soulages of some 500+ works and finally brings these two giants of French culture together. The museum building itself feels like a vast extension of Soulages’ work, designed as it was by Catalan architects, its vast post-modern, cubic frames of gently rusting Corten steel eating into the Rodez skyline with a tactile elegance.
Inside its muted black and steel interior is as much designed to enhance as protect the work it now houses which includes photos, etchings, lithographs, prints, the preliminary plans for the glass windows of Conques, paintings on both canvas and paper and some of the Outrenoir.
You don’t need to be a connoisseur to find the collection an absorbing journey through one man’s fascination with prehistoric shape, form, tone and light and it tells the story of his early work and influences right through to his Outrenoir work (which has been described as transcending darkness) and beyond. If you think it is all about black you couldn’t be more wrong and you’ll be surprised by the depths of the ochres, reds and blues of his early work and the huge diversity of light and texture.
Soulages was very clear that he wanted to the museum to “highlight the artistic creation process” in an easily accessible way and the museum includes an education department, a children’s workshop and library as well as the Café Bras, a “brasserie” restaurant owned and run by Michel Bras and his son Sébastien and open throughout the day. And I was lucky enough recently to get the chance to sneak into the kitchen and meet some of this elite team including Michel Bras himself.
A family source of inspiration
Explaining his 25 year friendship with Soulages and their combined love of running (Michel has run the New York marathon and is a keen triathlete), nature and the Aveyron, Michel Bras went on to explain how he continues to derive huge inspiration from the women of the region and their ability to use simple, local produce to make magnificent meals and to combine leftovers (yes really) in a way that’s wonderfully compelling.
“It is,” he explained, “what really unites Soulages and myself, the idea of creating something amazing and vibrant out of something simple, whether that’s a colour, a tone or a flavour and that’s the essence of the museum.”
The Café Bras, he went on to explain, is a living art with the menu changing daily or even hourly, depending what’s in the market, what’s fresh and what works for any particular time of day but his aim is to keep the cuisine essentially local and typical of the Aveyron. So what are the flavours, ingredients or recipes that really represent the spirit of the Aveyron, I asked.
“There are so many that I can’t choose just one,” he said reluctantly “but if I have to choose something, it would have to be Aligot (a potato and cheese dish unique to the region) and Flaune (a patisserie made with sheep’s milk and orange flower water).”
And what if his wife wants to impress him, I asked, feeling a measure of sympathy for a woman who’s cooking skills stand to be judged against the skills of the women of the entire region? “A litre and a half of crème brulée of course,” he replies with a laugh because theirs is a simple household where all the family muck in.
A luxurious experience
Whatever your views on modern art, if you find yourself in this corner of France, the Musée Soulages really is an experience not to be missed and something the locals are intensely proud of. Soulages’ work and techniques are utterly persuasive, absorbing and for me, quite irresistible. And what better way to round off a morning spent in the hushed tones of this extraordinary museum than with such meltingly delicious dishes as “Balade légumiere de fin d’été” or one of a selection of patisseries which are described on the menu as “Born from listening, forgotten times, watching, a memory: pastries & fruits for sharing, life’s simple pleasures.”
Lucy Pitts is a freelance writer and deputy editor of The Good Life France.