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La Piscine, Musee d'Art et d'Industrie Museum at Roubaix, Lille

One of France's top art museums in the former La Piscine Baths, Roubaix

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La Piscine swimming pool, Roubaix, Lille

© Mary Anne Evans

Introduction:

La Piscine, a splendid Art Deco building in Roubaix, part of greater Lille, houses the Musée d’Art et d’Industrie. It’s one of the most exciting surprises in the Nord region, housing an impressive collection of 19th- and 20th-century art. The museum covers fine and applied art (a concept more English than French), and displays painting, sculpture, textiles, ceramics, and glass by both local and artists and internationally known names.

The Building and the Background

La Piscine was just that, a swimming pool built for the well-to-do and the principal bath house for the poor in Roubaix. One of France’s major textile centers, Roubaix grew hugely in the 19th century as workers flooded in to work in the factories and mills. The houses they occupied were basic, with no running water and no electricity. The idea was to provide the poor with a place where they could wash, so this ‘Temple of Hygene’ was built by the forward-thinking Mayor. La Piscine was an Utopian dream, welcoming, practically and very beautiful.

La Piscine was designed by Albert Baert and built from 1927-1932 in flamboyant Art Deco style. It was modeled around the Abbey of Cluny with a cloister and garden in the center and a chapel and restaurant, reflecting the old refectory idea.

The centre of the building is an Olympic-sized swimming pool, decorated with mosaic tiles that were inspired by the waves depicted in so many images by the Japanese artist Hokusai, and lit by a huge stained glass window at one end. The pool particularly was full of Freemasonry motifs. The pool runs from north to south; the window depicts the rising sun; the eye of knowledge is depicted everywhere.

When La Piscine was converted into a museum, the architects filled in much of the pool but left a long stream running down the middle to evoke its previous existence. Small changing rooms, which house some of the art, lead off the pool with corridors running in front and behind them where more exhibits are displayed. It’s beautiful and as you walk into the main area you’re taken back to its original purpose by a soundtrack of children, now long gone, happily splashing about in the water.

The Collections

The original collection came from the Industrial Museum of Roubaix which was housed in the building opposite (now the High School of Art and Industry). A rich and unusual mix of pattern books and textile samples from Coptic Egyptian up to contemporary work, it symbolises the connection between Roubaix and the textile industry.

Today the collections have hugely expanded. On display around the pool itself are sculptures that take in 19th-century neo-classical works by the likes of Henri Fantin Latour, Rodin and others, and 20th-century works by Bonnard, Vlaminck, Van Dongen and other leading artists.

A series of small rooms takes you through the grand 19th century tradition of painting through a series of themes like local painters, the Realists and an Oriental Room. There’s also a small but impressive collection of ceramics, showing superb examples from the works of the porcelain factory, through the likes of Picasso and Raoul Dufy to contemporary works by the Italian designer of the Memphis group, Ettore Sotsass, Rembrandt Bugatti, the Frenchman Philippe Starck and others.

For Practical Information on La Piscine, Roubaix, see the next page.
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