Just as Parisians are contemplating their annual summer break by the sea, we thought it appropriate to travel ahead of them and offer a glimpse of one exhibition that might merit time away from the beach
The most famous native son of the Mediterranean port town of Sète is the poet Paul Valéry, who is buried in the sailors’ cemetery that is the subject of his best-known poem, The Graveyard By the Sea, so it is only fitting that the new exhibition, “Paintings and Poetry,” at the museum named after him, located on the hillside just above the cemetery, pays homage to poetry.
The director of the Musée Paul Valéry and curator of the exhibition, Maïthé Vallès-Bled, also happens to be the director of the city‘s poetry festival, Festival Voix Vives de Méditerranée en Méditerranée, which brings 100 poets from countries around the Mediterranean to the city every July. She has had the excellent and ambitious idea of choosing 250 paintings from the museum’s collection and asking poets of her acquaintance to each choose one and write a poem about it. As she pointed out at the opening of the show, the poems make one stop and really look at the painting, and “a work of art only exists if someone looks at it.”
Many of the paintings, which range from the 17th century to the present, have rarely or never seen the light of day since they joined the collection through donations or as gifts from the French government.
Happily, the subject of a good many of the paintings is Sète itself, making it a great way to enhance a visit to the city. The painting shown at the top of this page, Albert Marquet’s “Sailboats in Sète” (1924), might well have been illustrated by Valéry‘s The Graveyard By the Sea. The poet describes a visit to the cemetery at high noon, during which he contemplates the boats on the tranquil water below, their white sails calling to mind the image of doves pecking on a roof.
Like so many of Marquet’s paintings, it seems almost simplistic but radiates a wealth of charm thanks to his exceptional use of light. The longish poem, by Philippe Delaveau, that accompanies it in the exhibition conjures up the figure of Valéry staring at the sea like the painting’s “man in a straw hat who watches as a sailor walks by and two peaceful children … dream of long, perilous journeys.”
While famous names like Marquet, Gustave Courbet and Raoul Dufy are among the painters represented here, some of the more interesting works are by less-familiar local painters like François Desnoyer, Gabriel Couderc, Colette Richarme (I loved her portrait “Janik in a Gray Beret” , in which the subject’s face looms large in the foreground, with a colorful landscape in the background), Jean Hugo and Pierre Fournel.
A warning for non-French speakers: the poems are in French only, but those who can’t read them will still get plenty of enjoyment from the paintings themselves and perhaps even be inspired to write their own poetic flights of fancy.