© C. Méravilles Grand Rodez

He remembers being asked, as a teenager, why he was painting using just black. He wanted to depict snow, he said, and the black made the negative space on the white paper look whiter. At about the same time, he discovered a book about the prehistoric cave paintings of Altamira, a breakthrough that opened his mind to every form of art that ever existed – beyond the constraints of traditional art history education that was just limited to a handful of recent centuries.

Pierre Soulages, who is aged 94, was described by France’s President as “the most exceptional living painter” during the opening of the new museum in Rodez named after the artist. With exhibits in some 90 museums, he has created more than 1,500 works of art, including paintings, engravings and sculptures; held countless exhibitions around the globe, and is the first living artist to have been invited to show at Saint Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum.

Soulages’ work sells for huge figures – one of his paintings sold for €5m at auction in London last year. So why haven’t we heard more of him? Possibly due to his use of black as the predominant (often only) colour. Soulages doesn’t explain this, simply saying he’s always been interested in black because it is both a colour and a non-colour. When light is reflected on black, it’s transformed and transmuted, opening a mental field all of its own.

His birthplace of Rodez, in southern France, has made two donations of Soulages’ work to the musuem, estimated at over €80m in value, comprising nearly 500 paintings, ranging from post-war oil paintings to his ‘Outrenoir’ (ultrablack) phase. The colour black is identified with Soulages’ brush but as the opening exhibition of the new museum proves, the artist’s world is far from being confined to darkness.

The museum didn’t want to be either a mausoleum or a monograph and was conceived instead as an unusual carrefour of creative currents. Designed by the Catalan firm of RCR Arquitectes, it covers 6,600sqm and takes the form of a succession of cubes covered with glass and weather-resistant Corten steel, which allows the formation of a protective layer of rust when exposed to the weather and blends with the surrounding landscape. The openings between the cubes offering vistas of the gardens, the town and the Aveyron mountains beyond.

Musée Soulages: Pierre Soulages’ Outrenoir, Until October 5. Jardin du Foirail, Avenue Victor Hugo, 12000 Rodez. Open Tuesday to Friday, 10am-12pm & 2pm-6pm. Saturday & Sunday 11am-6pm. Closed Mondays. Entrance is €7. Tel: +33 5 65 73 82 60

From France Today magazine

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