On the third and final day of our trip to Toulouse, it was a day for art. Setting off in the late morning, we first returned to the Christmas market and Place du Capitole in search of one of the city’s treasures.
We had tried to enter the Salles des Illustres the previous day, having been told it was a must-see, but could not work out where to enter from as the front doors of the Capitole were closed. This day, however, they were open.
After sampling a roast chicken and onion bap in the market – which was more onion than meat, but nonetheless delicious – we headed towards the entrance.
The Salles des Illustres, or Hall of the Illustrious, is truly beautiful and probably my favourite part of our trip to Toulouse. In ornate style, with gold trimmings and incredible paintings, it is certainly something to behold. I particularly enjoyed walking through the Henri Martin Room that boasts impressionist paintings across all of the walls. With large strokes of paint and a wonderful use of colour that transcends both the impressionist and classical styles of painting, I could have stayed in this room for a long time.
Built in 1605, the room is one of the oldest in the Capitole and once housed portraits of the Capitouls, the chief magistrates of the commune of Toulouse during the late Middle Ages and early Modern period. In 1900, the artist Henri Martin was appointed to give the room a new lease of life. In the paintings, he chose to depict both the countryside and the city, evoking the passing of the time in each painting.
Moving through, we came to the main hall. Redesigned by Paul Pujols between 1892-1898, where he converted three smaller rooms into the one, the hall is decorated with incredible painted ceilings and walls with statues of famous figures and Roman Gods.
Embellishment work was conducted at the end of the 19th century by architect Paul Pujol, who designed a new ceiling with a continuous vault for which he also produced the painted décor. The paintings around the walls of the Salle des Illustres were executed by various Toulouse artists, each of them having a defined theme: Toulouse City of the Arts and Culture, the glorious deeds of city life, and the defense of the fatherland. These canvases were hung on the walls between 1894 and 1928.
Having fully taken in the room, we headed back through to the Paul Gervais room, which is decorated by the artist’s work. The decoration of the former wedding hall carries the theme of love and a happy source of life in its different ages. The work of Paul Gervais deviates somewhat from the usual scenes of wedding halls, depicting civil wedding, family virtues and scenes of gallantry.
Content with our musings on the inside of the Capitole, we headed towards the Garonne (making sure to use our metro tickets…). We wandered along the banks of the river and stopped at another small market briefly.
We looked across at Pont Neuf, a beautiful 16th-century bridge that, despite its name (new bridge), is actually the oldest bridge in Toulouse. On the opposite bank, we saw the Hotel-Dieu Saint Jacques and Le Dome de La Grave, both once hospitals for the sick and those rejected by society, ie. beggars, prostitutes and the insane.
Continuing along the bank, we came to the next bridge – Pont Saint Pierre – which we crossed on our way to Les Abattoirs, Toulouse’s modern art museum.
In truth, I definitely prefer the older styles of painting. The modern art museum, for the most part, consisted of confused looks – mainly because there was very little in the way of an English translation. Nevertheless, I found it incredibly interesting and particularly enjoyed exploring the different ideas floating around the art world.
The first exhibit took us through the conflict in Colombia. The project brings together almost 40 artists all sharing their reflection on the ongoing war in the region. I particularly liked the striking poster-esque art of Antonio Caro with works including Colombia written in Coco-Cola font.
I felt that this piece by Libia Posada is especially impactful in her depiction of a heroine over a map of Colombia. In my opinion, you don’t need to read the text to see the strength and resilience of the screen-printed woman.
One room was dictated by an installation by Delcy Morelos. The artist has indigenous origins and came from one of the regions most affected by the violence. A zona roja or “red zone” battered by guerrilleros and paramilitaries in the department of Cordoba. He chose to depict his experiences by painting the walls red – literally. The room contained interlinking blocks lashed with red paint.
Continuing through the galleries we came across Libia Posada again with her maps drawn on legs. I really liked these images as it not only depicted the paths that these women have trodden on and the pain and suffering attached, but also shows the diversity and differences of those caught in the conflict.
Natalia Castaneda’s ceramic work was creepy in the depiction of odd body parts washed up amongst the debris. Whilst I was mesmerised by Clemencia Echeverri’s video installation that chopped scenes of a fast running river with bodies disappearing in the current.
Downstairs we wandered through Hessie’s Survival Art exhibition. Hessie was one of the rare mixed-race artists active on the French scene in the 1970s. Her singular body of work consisted of a mass of artworks in which she transformed embroidery and collage into a message of feminism. Through repurposing the traditional craft materials of women, she challenged the status quo and aligned herself with the avant-garde movements, such as minimalism and the women’s liberation movements. Whilst I didn’t particularly like Hessie’s artwork, I find her life story and what she stands for fascinating.
Also on the bottom floor was an installation by Vivien Roubald. I couldn’t tell you what they were meant to be or the concept behind it. Three glass domes were hung from the ceiling with various mechanisms and lights within them. They were actually rather beautiful.
Heading to the top floor, we encountered the epitome of avant-garde in some very unusual pieces from artists such as Dado and Karel Appel. In truth, we skipped through this section pretty quickly.
At the end, there were some rather lovely prints by Nicolas Daubanes, which I quite liked. We then watched a video installation by Lola Gonzalez. Whilst strange, it was definitely my favourite part of the gallery and has stuck with me since. The video Rapelle-toi de la couleur des fraises (Remember the colour of strawberries) depicts the story of two lovers and their adventures to an unusual house where three men live. You are unsure as to who these people are or why the events unfold, but the journey is mesmerising as it uses the extensiveness of silence to communicate human connection.
We rushed through the remainder of the gallery, having taken our fill of modern art. We then headed back to the Palace de Justice, this time actually taking the time to have a look at it and stop for a bite to eat at a local bakery. Then we jumped on a tram to the airport for a good five-hour wait before our flight.