Museums in alternative locations – La Piscine, Roubaix

I’ve visited a fair few museums over the years. The purpose built museums and the museums in spaces that have been transformed into display spaces whilst retaining elements of their previous use. This second category always has an extra level of interest, whether the buildings were, in previous lives factories, power stations, railway stations, shops or churches. But this week I have visited one that displays its heritage to sensational effect.

The ‘La Piscine’ museum in Roubaix, just north of Lille in northern France is housed in a swimming pool that opened its doors for the first time in 1932 before finally closing for the final time in 1985.

The building reopened in its new role as a museum of art and industry in 2001.

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The previous life of the building is present throughout with details such as the corroding water tanks in  the space next to the shop, and a stylish, but now disused entrance from the street. But the central space has an undeniable ‘wow effect’. Stretched down the middle is a pool area with sculptures and casts also displayed in this sunken part of the main hall. The decorative tiled edge of the pool is visible throughout and beyond this edge you wander through intimate exhibition spaces housed in the former changing cubicles that surround the pool. Alongside these are the foot baths that bathers would have passed through before reaching the pool area. The original tiling and decorative details have been retained wherever possible, both on the ground floor and the two levels of balconies around the pools.

But the real pièce de résistance are the way the semi-circular stained glass windows at either end of the building illuminate the space and are reflected in the water below, completing the circle as it were. It all works to stunning effect.

 

The collection itself is diverse, a few well-known names, Vlaminck, Dufy, Vuillard, Bonnard and Picasso plates and vases. But essentially it is work by lesser known artists (for me at least), mixed with applied arts in the form of textiles, fashion, glassware and ceramics. It’s variety is its strength and there is much to see that grabs your attention, even with a backdrop that is constantly calling your attention.

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Bonnard, Vuillard and an iPad

Whilst walking round an exhibition in the Amsterdam Hermitage I notice that the French artist Pierre Bonnard was born exactly 100 years before me. Bonnard, along with Vuillard and Gauguin are the star names in the exhibition. Their paintings are very familiar, making use of relatively simple approaches, flat areas of colour in Gauguin’s case and the direct and inconspicuously unhidden brushstrokes in the work of Bonnard and Vuillard.

All three were making paintings in a period when artists were coming to terms with what it was to paint in a period where photography was becoming increasingly visible in daily life. It makes me wonder about my own paintings and the place that new digital possibilities have found in my own production.

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Whilst walking round the Hermitage I find myself stopping to make a quick digital sketch of a sculpture on my ipad. It is an occasional pleasure, drawing whilst visiting a show, as much to make me look a little harder as anything else. Drawing on the glass screen really doesn’t feel to me at least as anything particularly different to paper in a book. Yet it does leave me feeling a little conspicuous amongst the tourists visiting what feels a pretty traditional sort of art exhibition.

I’ve been experimenting quite a lot in the last couple of weeks with drawing software for on the tablet. I want to experiment with my pupils at school after the summer with various digital drawing ideas. I am hugely curious to see whether the speed and directness of the drawing on the tablet can help bridge the nervousness that all art teachers will recognize when their pupils approach the virginal whiteness of a new sheet of paper. the urge to match this perfection can be quite inhibiting.

My own paintings have undoubtedly been effected by the possibilities offered by the digital age. I use a computer to create geometric forms and also painterly effects that are later transferred to canvases. For my pupils that is not likely to be the result or what is desired. Instead, what I am hoping for, is a less inhibited approach to their drawings, a directness of just making the work, yes kind of like the qualities found in the work of Bonnard and Vuillard and their paintings of 100 years ago.