T J McNamara on the arts
T J McNamara is a Herald arts writer

TJ McNamara on tour

By T.J. McNamara

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Henri Martin 1860-1943 (part of the triptyque des Saisons) Salle Henri Martin, Le Capitole, Toulouse
Henri Martin 1860-1943 (part of the triptyque des Saisons) Salle Henri Martin, Le Capitole, Toulouse

The fine city of Toulouse, on the river Garonne, has an air of Italy about it. It is immensely proud of its Capitole, the long neo-classical building on the edge of the city square, its long history and its artists.

One wing of the building is devoted to paintings and murals dedicated to the glories of the city. The approach to this work is up a grand staircase filled with paintings devoted to love and on the ceiling, there is a vast symbolic painting of the spirit of Toulouse co-operating in the nation's defence.

Then there is the Salle Henri Martin which is a fascinating large room given over to murals by Henri Martin who was born in the city. Their quiet beauty is in complete contrast to the overwhelming rhetoric of the big paintings in the Salle des Illustres which follows.

Henri Martin (1860-1943) is one of those exceptional painters who doesn't quite make it into the art history books, but whose contribution is highly distinctive in its own memorable way.

As a young painter in the 19th century, he trained in the academic manner then, captivated by the Impressionists, opened his mind to colour, light and landscape. The Symbolist movement in France and Belguim gave him a taste for dream and finally the Post-Impressionist Seurat, who painted his work as a mass of tiny dots of colour, helped establish Martin's own style.

The combination of all this was a mastery of modern mural wall painting. The large room of the Salle Henri Martin is lined with two big paintings and a number of slightly smaller panels.
These are spectacular works, filled with colour light and sunshine, are painted in a brilliant manner with rapid touches.

Close up, they are interesting rhythmic splashes of paint where you can feel the very movement of the artist's arm. Stand back and everything coheres into people, landscape, sunlight and movement.

These are not heroic allegories in the grand manner but depictions of everyday life in and around Toulouse. On one wall, he glorifies the pastoral life outside the city. Beside the Canal de Midi, lined with poplar trees, men with scythes, wearing straw hats against the sun, make a rhythmical monumental group as they cut the grass.

Near them, a trio of girls dance happily. Close by a mother, alongside the lunch basket, feeds her child. On the other side of the canal men are loading hay. These everyday activities are bathed in sunlight that shines through the pattern of poplar trees making the colour of their leaves vivid. The long shadows they throw unifies the composition and intensifies the feeling of light. It is the light bathing the landscape rendered with such delight in colour that lifts this ordinary scene into a pastoral vision.

This exaltation of republican values is continued on the opposite wall with another aspect of life. This is a long view across the Garonne to the walls of the city. Walking quietly along the banks of the river are philosophers and administrators, although some lovers are stirred into the mix.

Groups of men in late 19th century hats and overcoats, stroll in discussion along the river, some looking upward, some bowed in thought. All are recognisable portraits of Toulouse intellectuals including the figure of Jean Jaurès, the great politician, later assassinated in Paris for his republican opinions.

The scene across the river is instantly recognisable today although the washerwomen no longer hang their sheets to bleach in the sun and the long bathing sheds are gone. On the bank is a steam shovel, modern at the time, and an image of progress.

These rich paintings are supplemented by panels of the seasons, the one showing the cold of winter is particularly impressive not only for the tall black columns of trees but also for the cold windswept snow. There is one swirl of black paint which becomes a traveller fighting the wind.

Yet for all the brilliance of the painting of light and weather, these make everyday life into something grand and filled with life and optimism. The overall effect is both spectacular and touching.

This is in complete contrast to the next room, the famous Salle Illustré, with its marble columns and its vaulted ceiling and its big paintings full of heroic rhetoric done by a dozen different artists.

The tone is set by a statue commemorating the great mathematician Fermat. In the Salle Henri Martin, above the paintings, are portrait busts of the famous men of Toulouse where Fermat takes his place. In the next room there is a big marble sculpture with the same Fermat being inspired by a huge, nude and buxom muse.

There are certain ironies. One end wall shows a big painting of the entry of Pope Urban II processing into Toulouse to preach the 1st Crusade. It aroused the ire of the city's counsellors who were violently anti clerical.

This is the room now used for weddings. It is a grand space for an occasion.

- NZ Herald

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