With its spectacular light and famously easygoing lifestyle, Provence has long been a magnet for the world’s most celebrated painters and sculptors, and this legacy remains in the wealth of exceptional art to be found within striking distance of Château Saint-Martin & Spa and Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc.
Claire Wrathall embarks on a whistle-stop cultural tour of this fascinating region.
One only has to leaf through the first of the Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc’s Golden Books, signed and embellished with drawings by both Pablo Picasso and Marc Chagall, to gauge the eternal appeal to artists of Cap d’Antibes. Drawn by the glittering light, Chagall used to paint in one of the hotel’s waterfront cabanes. And while there’s no actual record of Claude Monet staying at the hotel, one can’t help feeling he must have painted here too: the scene he depicts in his 1888 painting Antibes (now in the Courtauld Institute collection) – looking across the Baie de Cannes to the Îles de Lérins, an angled Aleppo pine in the foreground – is precisely the view from the raised terrace to the left of the swimming pool as one looks out to sea.
Picasso at Villa La Californie in Cannes, 1955. The artist and his family previously lived at Villa la Galloise in Vallauris, adjacent to Antibes, from 1948- 1955
Picasso, meanwhile, has a whole museum in his honour, the Musée Picasso in Antibes’ 14th-century Château Grimaldi, where in 1946 he stayed for six months in a dank room on the second floor, leaving behind 23 paintings and 44 drawings – the foundation of its collection (which now runs to almost 250 works) – in lieu of rent.
But there’s an even greater concentration of art to be found near the Château Saint-Martin & Spa in Vence, which is a five-minute drive from the Chapelle du Rosaire, the little chapel for which Matisse oversaw everything from the stained glass to the priests’ vestments. It’s an austere but a ecting place, in stark contrast to another artist-decorated chapel in the vicinity: the Chapelle Saint-Pierre in Villefranche-sur- Mer, with its frescoes by Jean Cocteau depicting the life of St Peter, the patron saint of shermen.
The Château is also just 15 minutes by car (about 8km) from the Fondation Marguérite and Aimé Maeght. Aimé Maeght (pronounced Mahg) was a young lithographer with a shop in Cannes when, one day in 1930, Pierre Bonnard came in to order the programmes for a Maurice Chevalier concert, for which he had designed the cover. Sensing an opportunity, Maeght asked the artist if he could sell the original engraving. He put it in the window; it sold immediately. A friendship was born, and Maeght’s destiny as a dealer and collector ordained.
Claudia Comte’s “128 squares and their demonstration” (2015), on show at Domaine du Muy
His next significant break came in 1942 when, fleeing the Gestapo, he moved to Vence, where Matisse was living, and managed to procure a cow, the milk from which he would use to barter with the artist for paintings, resulting in 21 portraits, in all, of Maeght’s wife, Marguérite.
As soon as the war was over he moved to Paris, and by December 1945 he had opened a gallery on rue de Téhéran (now Galerie Lelong & Co) with an exhibition of Matisse drawings. Business was brisk. Soon he was showing Bonnard, Georges Braque, Alexander Calder, Marc Chagall, Eduardo Chillida, André Derain, Marcel Duchamp, Fernand Léger, Georges Rouault, Saul Steinberg… And as the gallery grew, so did Maeght’s superlative collection.
The creation of the Fondation Marguérite and Aimé Maeght, however, was prompted by the death of one of Maeght’s children. Braque suggested they might want to leave “something that would live after them” in commemoration, “somewhere that painters could show their works in optimum conditions”. A site was found near Vence, high up in the pine woods, within sight of the Mediterranean, with a dilapidated chapel dedicated, appropriately, to their son’s namesake, St Bernard, for which Braque and Raoul Ubac designed stained-glass windows.
A poster for Alexander’s 1969 exhibition at the Fondation Maeght in Vence
Miró was supportive of the project too, co-opting the Catalan architect Lluís Sert to create a sequence of architecturally distinctive white stucco and yellow-stone buildings topped with inverted arches – the better to reflect the Provençal light. And the Giacometti brothers, Alberto and Diego, conceived a courtyard. Elsewhere there’s a fish pond lined in a Braque mosaic, murals by Chagall, a fountain by Pol Bury, a sculpture-filled labyrinth by Miró, which, incidentally, inspired Duke Ellington’s classic jazz album Blues for Joan Miró in 1966.
Four years in the making, the foundation, the first privately funded arts centre of its kind in France, was opened in 1964 by André Malraux, the novelist-turned-Minister of Culture:
“Here you have tried something that has never been attempted before, to create a universe in which modern art can find its own place,” he said. “The result belongs to posterity.”
The ensuing half-century has seen a number of other such foundations established, most recently the Fondation Carmignac, which opened last summer on the island of Porquerolles, off Hyères, a 15-hectare sculpture park and a gallery showing 78 pieces from the 300-strong collection of works by names like Jean-Michel Basquiat, Alighiero Boetti, Yves Klein, Willem de Kooning, Gerhard Richter, Mark Rothko, Ed Ruscha and Andy Warhol, amassed by Edouard Carmignac, founder of one of Europe’s largest asset management companies.
“L’araignée 6695” (2003) by Louise Bourgeois, in its home at Château La Coste
Altogether easier to reach, and no less stellar in terms of its holdings, is the artist Bernar Venet’s foundation on a four-hectare site he bought in 1989 near the village of Le Muy, 65km west of Antibes, 75km from Vence. Here he shows not just his own sculptures, but pieces from his collection – works by friends such as Donald Judd and Sol LeWitt, as well as the likes of Carl Andre, Daniel Buren, Dan Flavin, and Frank Stella, who designed a chapel for the estate in collaboration with the architect and yacht designer IPI, in which hang six of his paintings.
Less than a kilometre away, you’ll also come to Domaine du Muy and its “parc de sculptures contemporaines” – largely site-specific works intended to interact with the landscape by the likes of Claudia Comte, Subodh Gupta, Carsten Höller, Tomás Saraceno, Conrad Shawcross and Liam Gillick, more of whose work you’ll encounter if you press on to Château La Coste.
Jean Cocteau’s Chapelle Saint-Pierre de Villefranche-sur-Mer, which he began decorating in 1956
Here the construction magnate Patrick McKillen’s sculpture park is worth the detour, not least for its architecture: Jean Nouvel built the gleaming chai (wine storeroom), Tadao Ando the main gate and art centre, Frank Gehry the music pavilion, and Renzo Piano the gallery, while Jean-Michel Othoniel transformed the original chapel; and there’s a prefab by Jean Prouvé adapted by Richard Rogers. But it’s the sculpture trail that’s the big draw: more than 20 works by Ai Weiwei, Louise Bourgeois, Alexander Calder, Tracey Emin, Andy Goldsworthy, Lee Ufan, Sean Scully, Richard Serra and Hiroshi Sugimoto. It is a place of rare enchantment, and further evidence of Provence’s unique status as a wellspring of artistic inspiration.