Albi, one of the pink cities of Southwest France, is about an hour’s drive from us. The landscape changes markedly en route, woodland giving way to vineyards and sunflower fields, hills to gently rolling countryside. As you descend the final slope towards the River Tarn’s flood plain, the city stretches before you, the tower of its monumental red brick cathedral visible for miles around.
We wouldn’t normally visit in the summer, but an exhibition twinning Toulouse-Lautrec with Degas closes on 4th September. The opportunities to see it were limited. We haven’t actually been to Albi since my choir sang there in 2015. This seemed to be a day when we had trouble finding our way out of places. More of that below.
When you approach Albi from the North, you get a wonderful view of the city from the bridge spanning the Tarn. The Cathédrale Sainte-Cécile dominates the skyline. This is the largest brick-built cathedral in the world. Construction began in 1282 and finished in 1480.
Both the stark exterior and its size were deliberate. The early 13th century was marked by the conflicts of the Albigensian Crusades against Cathar heresy. When the cathedrals were reconstructed after the wars, the Catholic Church needed to demonstrate its authority (hence the size) and also to protect the sacred interior (hence the fortress-like appearance).
The austere appearance rivalled the Cathars’ emphasis on poverty and ascetism. This is why the building material was brick rather than the usual stone for churches and cathedrals.
Later centuries saw the construction of the rood screen and the exuberant Renaissance frescoes, quite at variance with the cathedral’s exterior. We didn’t go in this time, since we’ve “done” the cathedral during previous visits. I must admit that Albi’s cathedral is not my favourite.
The neighbouring Palais de la Berbie, the former bishops’ palace, now houses the Musée Toulouse-Lautrec. Built in the 13th century, it is equally fortress-like. Successive bishops refurbished the interior to make it a comfortable residence while retaining the austere exterior.
During the 15th and 16th centuries, Albi experienced a golden age based on the pastel dye trade, like its larger neighbour, Toulouse. The sought-after blue dye was manufactured in the region from the woad plant. However, the introduction of cheaper indigo spelled the end of this apogee.
Pastel merchants ploughed their profits into mansions such as the Maison Enjalbert below. Apparently, among the wooden carvings on the facade is a little figure urinating. Human urine was used as part of the dye-making process.
Before the museum visit, there was lunch. We have discovered that it’s always sensible to book, especially during the high season. The summer holidays are winding down, but Albi was still quite busy.
Le Cascarbar is in the rue Saint-Julien, right opposite the cathedral. We sat on their shady terrace and enjoyed the set menu du jour, which is a very reasonable price and more varied than neighbouring restaurants offering the regional dishes cassoulet and saucisse de Toulouse aligot.
Suitably fortified, we walked across the square to the museum, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year.
Ravaged by hereditary bone disease, alcohol and syphilis, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec died in 1901 aged only 36. During his short life, he was extremely prolific. He bequeathed his works to his mother, who in turn donated them to his native city of Albi, Parisian museums having declined them.
The collection now comprises more than a thousand of his paintings, drawings and lithographs plus works by his contemporaries. The permanent collection occupies two extensive floors of the Palais. The building reopened 10 years ago after renovation to provide more exhibition space. The basement holds temporary exhibitions.
Toulouse-Lautrec and Degas
The present exhibition is entitled “Quand Toulouse-Lautrec Regarde Degas” and illustrates the admiration that Toulouse-Lautrec felt for Edgar Degas (1834-1917), who was 30 years his senior.
Many parallels existed between the two artists. They occupied the same quartier of Paris, frequented the same cafés, theatres and racecourses and had an overlapping circle of friends. They painted modern life. Instead of posed nudes and unexciting landscapes, they portrayed real people engaged in work, play or leisure: actors, singers, dancers, laundrywomen, jockeys and the demi-monde that had rarely featured in art before the mid-19th century. Both were interested in the human or animal form and in depicting movement. Neither artist is easy to classify.
Despite the similarities, it’s clear that Degas did not reciprocate Toulouse-Lautrec’s admiration for him, but Degas’ influence on his younger colleague is unmistakable. The exhibition displays their selected works in pairs or small groups according to theme, with a selection of works by their contemporaries.
Berbie Palace gardens
Having spent a long time looking at the exhibition, we decided not to view the permanent collection. We’ve seen it before, and we were in danger of overload. Instead, we wanted to see the bishops’ garden, of which we had tantalising views from the Palais. However, it’s not easy to get out of the Palais once inside. I eventually had to ask how to get into the garden, which turned out to be quite easy. No wonder we get lost on our walks.
The garden overlooks the river and the right bank of the Tarn. A vine-covered walkway surrounds the garden above a formal parterre.
After that, it was time to turn for home. After a slight hiatus when we couldn’t find the exit from the car park, we came upon a diversion owing to roadworks. If you’ve ever experienced a French déviation, you’ll know that the signs usually peter out after a while, leaving you stranded in unfamiliar territory. We drove for a long distance wondering if we would ever get out of Albi, when thankfully the signs resumed.
We agreed that we mustn’t leave it so long before visiting Albi again.
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