Famous for its wines, the capital of Aquitaine also has a lot to offer art-lovers
In the constant jostle for bragging rights as Europe’s best city break destination, Bordeaux is on a lot of people’s radar. A 15-year makeover has resulted in a redeveloped waterfront with a four kilometre-long quay hugging the curve of the broad Garonne river, the city has been voted the favourite of the French and three Michelin-starred chefs (including Gordon Ramsay) have opened restaurants there within a year of one another. With the opening of the LGV high-speed rail link this year, Bordeaux will be just over two hours from central Paris.
Birthplace of ‘animalière’ and sculptor Rosa Bonheur, Symbolist Odilon Redon, Fauvist Albert Marquet and Cubist André Lhote, Bordeaux is also where Goya drew his last breath – in 1828, after spending his last four years there in voluntary political exile from Spain.
Even the region’s most famous product, wine, has ‘crossed over’ into the art world, with many famous artists having designed Bordeaux wine labels. The Pauillac estate, for example, has commissioned the likes of Salvador Dali, Henry Moore, Wassily Kandinsky, Pablo Picasso, Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud to design each year’s vintage.
A good place to start a tour of the main art museums is the central Place Pey Berland, from which three are clustered within a few minutes of one another. The 16th century Pey Berland tower is actually the steeple and belfry of the adjacent – and beautiful – Saint-André Cathedral, kept separate from one another to protect the cathedral from the vibrations of the bells.
Occupying facing wings on either side of the Jardin de la Mairie (Town Hall Garden), the Musée des Beaux-Arts (Museum of Fine Arts) has some 330 paintings and sculptures, dating from Titian to Picasso. Built in 1880, both wings abut the Town Hall (formerly the Palais Rohan, completed in 1784). The south wing of the museum is dedicated to 16th to 18th century classical painting, including religious and mythological scenes, while the north wing displays 19th and 20th century art. Along with leading Bordeaux artists, the museum has works by French masters (Matisse, Renoir, Delacroix, Seurat, Dufy) and other big European names (Rubens, Kokoschka, Soutine, Veronese).
Information notices outline the key movements represented in each section, with emphasis on the French or local contribution to each one – from the mythological imagery and ancient history of ‘Academic art’ (William Adolphe Bouguereau, Jean-Paul Laurens, Évariste Vital Luminais) to the violently bright palette of Fauvism (Albert Marquet, Henri Matisse, Louis Valtat) and the passions, longings and human sufferings as vented in Romanticism (Antoine-Jean Gros, Guillaume-Guillon Lethière, Jean-Baptiste Mauzaisse). Other genres represented include Impressionism, Naturalism, Symbolism and post-war art. A beautiful ‘annexe’ of the Musée des Beaux-Arts, the Galerie des Beaux-Arts (Gallery of Fine Arts) a couple of blocks round the corner hosts special exhibitions.
Nearby is the Musée des Arts Décoratifs et du Design (Museum of Decorative Arts and Design), where objects from the 17th to the 21st centuries are spread out amid the antique panelling, chandeliers and parquet flooring of the 18th century Hotel de Lalande, one of the many fine buildings credited for the city’s Unesco World Heritage Site status. Despite being converted into a museum, the spaces in the mansion still capture the atmosphere of the family residence it originally was, with the original furniture and decor offering a glimpse of the lifestyle of Bordeaux aristocracy at the time of the French Revolution. In the exhibition Houselife antique objects were combined with some 350 works by contemporary French and international designers (one of the largest such collections in Europe), correlated by their function, bringing different eras together in a kind of cross-century installation showing the evolution of household furnishings, interiors, homewares and appliances.
Just off the waterfront to the north of the city centre, CAPC (formerly the Centre d’Arts Plastiques Contemporains), or the Museum of Contemporary Art, occupies a cavernous former 1820s warehouse once used to store foodstuff from the colonies. Soaring sandstone walls, high arches and exposed wooden beams form an impressive environment in which to show temporary exhibitions and selections from the museum’s permanent collection of over 1,300 works by nearly 200 artists. Visiting artists take advantage of the moveable walls to create site-specific installations. A nice touch: The wall-facing side of the lift has a window through which you can see unfolding as you go up and down an untitled wall painting by Keith Haring.
Named after its founder, a winery owner, the Bernard Magrez Institute of Contemporary Art occupies the beautiful Hotel Labottière, a private mansion in substantial grounds dating from the 18th century. Known for his 40 chateaux, Magrez supplements his own personal art collection, including works by Daniel Buren, Andy Warhol, Agnès Varda, Pierre Soulages, Sebastiao Salgado, Fernand Léger and many others, with loans from public and private collections. There is a series of special exhibitions, some in the modern, marquee-like annexe. An artists-in-residence programme and La Galerie des Nouveaux Talents (The Gallery of New Talents) underscore Magrez’ support of emerging artists.
In a lovely, two-story private museum in its own grounds in the southern suburb of Bègles, the Musée de la Creation Franche (with ‘franche’ taking the meaning of ‘genuine’ or ‘real’) has a collection of 14,000 works of ‘outsider art’, folk art and naive art. The museum was founded in 1989 in the former home of a fishing magnate by the artist Gérard Sendrey, who opted for the term ‘franche’ after being prevented for copyright reasons from using the more familiar term ‘art brut’, or raw art, as defined by the French artist Jean Dubuffet. Shown in rotating exhibitions, the collection emphasises the work of French self-taught artists and other marginal creators who make work outside the academic tradition of ‘fine art’. Sometimes referred to in French as ‘artistes singuliers’, these artists often have mental health issues or are otherwise alienated from the mainstream.
LE CORBUSIER’S CITÉ FRUGÈS
In the southwestern suburn of Pessac, Les Quartiers Modernes Frugès, or Cité Frugès, is a 1920s housing estate of 50 properties built by the industrialist Henry Frugès to house his sugar refinery workers. Frugès commissioned the then rising avant-garde urban architect Charles-Edouard Jeanneret-Gris, now famously known as Le Corbusier (1887-1975) to design a new form of inexpensive living quarters – economic, standardised, mass-produced properties which were geometrically sparse, minimalist and functional. Le Corbusier’s first large scale urban project and one of France’s first social housing projects, Cité Frugès was completed in 1926. Identically sized, prefabricated modules came in six variants and innovations included isothermic walls, suspended gardens and integrated garages. Outside, Le Corbusier added dashes of colour to brighten up the neighbourhood. Today the buildings house fashionable apartments and tourists and architectural students have become a common site.
HOW TO GET THERE
Ryanair operates a direct service to Bordeaux twice weekly from Edinburgh.
WHERE TO STAY
Minutes from the Museum of Fine Arts, Gallery of Fine Arts and Museum of Decorative Arts & Design, Mama Shelter is a lively, youthful hotel where the rooms have fun, quirky touches and the bar-restaurant is an integral part of local nightlife. A nice touch: free movies.