Contemporary art in Bordeaux

The CAPC is Bordeaux’s Museum of Contemporary Art. The initials CAPC stand for Centre d’Arts Plastiques Contemporains, which was the museum’s official name when it was founded in 1973. They have since changed the name slightly, but kept the old initials.

Entrepôt Laîné

The CAPC is located in an old warehouse near the harbor, which was used for many years for the storage of merchandise brought in by ship from the French colonies. The building is unusual (for Bordeaux) in that the outer walls are made mainly out of bricks, though the foundation and some of the inner walls and arches are made of stone.

The warehouse was built from 1822 to 1824 to store products such as sugar, coffee, cocoa, cotton, spices, dye plants and oilseeds which had been produced by planters in the colonies and were subsequently re-exported to northern Europe by Bordeaux merchants.

Nef et déambulatoire

The large room on the ground floor of the building is called the nef et déambulatoire (nave and ambulatory) — architectural vocabulary which is usually used for churches and hardly ever for warehouses. The interior space is quite stunning, but the artworks on display were anything but. The few sculptures and paintings were of mediocre quality (IMHO) and were surrounded by lots of empty space. But I believe the displays are changed frequently, so you might have better luck some other year.

Up in flames

This was my favorite piece of artwork on the ground floor, but only because of the young lady who happened to be walking in front of it.

Grande Galerie

The Grande Galerie (Large Gallery) on the first floor, i.e. one flight up, was empty when I was there, though theoretically it could be used for exhibits if they had anything to display.

Galerie Foy on the upper floor of the CAPC

OK, I agree that it’s ridiculous to dump a pile of coal on the floor, draw a white line around it and call it a work of art. It can’t even qualify as a provocation, since similar things have been done so often in recent decades.

On the other hand, I must admit that this was the only item on the entire second floor of the CAPC that engaged my imagination in any way, because it got me thinking about the ways coal has impacted on my life.

When I was eight years old, the first news story I ever followed from day to day was the United Mine Workers strike in America. As I have written in my post on the Zollverein Shaft XII in Essen, Germany, I was worried as a child because John L. Lewis, the glowering union leader on the front page of each day’s Chicago Daily News, was blocking our coal supply. I knew about coal because we had a big pile of it in a bin next to the furnace in our basement. My father assured me we had enough to keep us warm all winter, but I was dubious. Also I was worried that he might get stuck in downtown Chicago someday if the C&NW didn’t have enough coal to run its steam locomotives.

Much later I visited the German Democratic Republic (aka East Germany), where there were often piles of coal on the sidewalks in front of the houses — but in the GDR it was always brown coal, not the more expensive black coal as seen in this exhibit.

Still later, I had a phase when I used to take groups to Coalbrookdale, the historic coal and iron district at Ironbridge, England.

Germinal by Émile Zola

Several years ago, at the suggestion of a French friend (she gave me the book, in fact), I read the novel Germinal by Émile Zola (1840-1902), about the exploitation of coal miners in northern France in the 19th century.

Germinal was published in 1885, the year Victor Hugo died, and has often been compared to Hugo’s Les Misérables. The coal miners in Germinal are not only men, but also women and children who work barefoot down in the mine, with bare heads and bare hands. They go hungry when work is scarce and they get laid off.

The mine owner leads a relatively comfortable life, but he only owns one small mine. Eventually his mine is bought up by a large conglomerate, and the former owner is hired for a modest salary as the manager.

Oh yes, the horses. They are born, live and die in the mine, pulling the coal bins through the tunnels and never once seeing the light of day during their entire lives.

A secretive, bookish anarchist lives near the mine, and near the end of the book he blows it up, killing an entire shift of miners working down below.

Fast forward to the 21st century, when strip mining and the protests against it are an ongoing story in the German news media, along with frequent reminders about the huge contribution of coal to global warming. And recently I have been reading about the ugly practice of mountaintop removal in the Appalachian region of the United States, in which entire landscapes are destroyed and rivers polluted, just to get more coal.

Walls of separation

This is a map showing “walls of separation” in different parts of the world. It didn’t really interest me very much at the time, but I’m sure it would seem timelier now (in 2019), since the President of the United States wants to build a 3,145-kilometer wall (= 1,945 miles) along the border between the U.S. and Mexico.

Roof of Entrepôt Laîné

The address of the CAPC is 7 Rue Ferrere, 33000 Bordeaux, France
Location, aerial view and photo on

My photos in this post are from 2014. I revised the text in 2019.

See more posts on Bordeaux, France.

3 thoughts on “Contemporary art in Bordeaux”

  1. Very interesting – getting ready to re-read Germinal. Decades ago, right our of school, I worked for a salt company – including an underground mine in Hutchinson, Kansas. I was able to explore some of the older parts of the mine and was told that donkeys were born and died underground. The one difference was that underground was a pretty sweet place to work – 10 foot ceilings, 50 foot rooms, 72 degrees all the time.

    One day we had some coal miners visit, we were buying some rock movers that were designed for coal mines and they were helping with training. They were scared of the place – the ten foot ceilings made them very nervous, they were used to working in three foot seams and they thought the high ceilings would collapse at any moment (even though parts of the mine had been stable since 1923).

  2. In my adulthood I was told by my trainer that coal mine workers wore ‘dungarees’. This was in my 1st job as a salesman at a denims store where trainers often referred to workers using denim fabric as it was tough and suited their job requirements before denims became a fashion and was exploited for commercial interest.

    Next i saw Bollywood movies using steam locomotives in many scenes and songs. (‘Sholay’ movie has some famous scenes picturised on a steam locomotive. ‘Chaiyaa Chaiyaa’ song is another chartbuster track which was shot on a moving train).

    Coal is even today used by street food vendors in India to prepare hot chicken kebabs, 🌽 corn, sweet potato and served with lime salt and pepper.

    And there are more instances which I can relate with the pile of coal.

  3. The building itself looks very attractive and worth a visit for that alone. I usually find with this style of art that a few pieces engage me even if many do not, but personally I wouldn’t have been drawn to the pile of coal 😉

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