Thursday, June 18, 2015

Saint Paul-de-Vence

Finalement, I am returning to the Cote d'Azur.  It seems so beside the point to apologize for such a delay so I won't.  We're all too busy, and for me there are simply entire stretches of days and weeks when I cannot turn to this blog.  'Nuff said!

The photo to the right was taken just outside the entrance to the village of St. Paul-de-Vence, and the sculpture, 'Venus,' is a work by Theo Tobiasse and was a gift to the village by the artist.  Tobiasse was born in Israel to Lithuanian parents, and in the 1930s they moved to Paris, where they hid in a tiny apartment from 1942 to 1944, never going outside until Liberation.  In 1976, Tobiasse moved to Saint Paul-de-Vence where he created a large body of work in drawings, pastels, paintings, pottery, stained glass, and sculpture (click on those mediums for access to the very good website devoted to the artist; on this site, I learned that he used to write personal messages in Yiddish that he glued onto his canvases and then painted over them, so that one couldn't read the messages without destroying the paintings).   He also began splitting his time between Saint Paul and New York before his passing in 2012.  

I took the photo of 'Venus' not only because I like it -- to me it seems to represent an exuberance about life and about the village of Saint Paul and the south of France in general -- but also because it reminded me of a similar sculpture I saw (and took a picture of) years ago in Venice.  But unlike the one in Venice, which was only on display temporarily, this one is, happily, a permanent fixture. 

Saint Paul-de-Vence is not necessarily any more charming or beautiful than any number of villages on the Côte d'Azur or in Provence, but it has three attributes that separate it from others: Marc Chagall's tombstone (pictured below, even though the inscription can't be read); the Fondation Maeght; and the inn/restaurant La Colombe d'Or.

During my visit last spring, I was seeking out Chagall's tomb because I had not seen it before, nor had I visited the cemetery, which is on the plateau du Puy, the highest point of the village and which was the original core of the village between the year 1,000 and the beginning of the 12th century.  Aimé and Marguerite Maeght are also buried here, next to their son Bernard, who died at eleven years old from leukemia.  Even if these notables weren't buried here, the cemetery is worth the climb as it's in a lovely spot with good views.

It had been some years since I last visited la Fondation Maeght, and it remains one of my most favorite places on earth and is one of the most exceptional foundations in the world.  Dedicated to modern and contemporary art, it was founded in 1964 by Marguerite (Devaye) and Aimé Maeght -- the name is pronounced Mahg, and the family is from Hazebrouck, near Lille, in northern France.  The couple married in 1928, and by 1936 Aimé was running his own gallery in Cannes where he sold paintings, decorative items, furniture, etc.  Throughout the war years, Bonnard and Matisse, who lived nearby, gave Maeght paintings to sell, and the Maeghts helped the two artists with supplies of food (Aimé, who had a background in printing and lithography, also prepared fake papers for members of the Resistance.  He caught the attention of the Gestapo, but thanks to a tip to Marguerite from the French police he was saved).  "Friendships and alliances evolved," notes Jan Birksted in Modernism and the Mediterranean: The Maeght Foundation (Ashgate, 2004), and after World War II it was Bonnard who suggested the Maeghts should open a gallery in Paris.  Matisse promised some of his most recent works, and Miró and Georges Braque joined the gallery.  In 1948 Louis-Gabriel Clayeux was named director of the Maeght Gallery, and he brought with him some new artists, namely Leger, Calder, Giacometti, Raoul Ubac, and Jean René Bazaine.       
The Maeghts had bought a property in Saint-Paul-de-Vence in 1950, and in 1953, when Bernard died, Aimé was left "without a taste for anything.  For the first time in my life, I began to let myself slide.  I must say, the painters were once again those who suggested what course I should take.  Georges Braque urged me to an undertaking that would help me overcome my grief, a place devoted to modern art...And Fernand Leger said to me, "If you do it, I'll bring my daubings.  I'll even paint the rocks."  (This is quoted from an article in London's Financial Times by Jackie Wullschlager, the paper's chief visual arts critic and the author of Chagall: A Biography, Knopf, 2008.)  The Maeghts visited the Barnes Foundation, Phillips Collection, and the Guggenheim in the States for inspiration, and they also visited Miró's studio on the island of Mallorca that was designed for him by Catalan architect Josep Lluis Sert.  Aimé really admired the studio, and he asked Sert to design the foundation's buildings, on the hilltop location above St.-Paul-de-Vence, a place where art and nature so perfectly blend together.  It was utter serendipity that a ruined chapel, dedicated to Saint Bernard, was discovered in the woods surrounding the site.  The chapel was restored, and Ubac and Braque designed the stained-glass windows.

It would be hard to believe, if you didn't already know, that the Maeghts, "shell-shocked with misery" (again to quote Jackie Wullschlager) could create such a beautiful and peaceful place.  There are pine trees all around and a view of the Mediterranean looking out past Miró's 'Pitchfork' on the edge of his Labyrinth.  The inauguration of the Fondation itself, presided over by André Malraux, took place on 28 July, 1964, and among the guests were Ella Fitzgerald and Yves Montand, who both performed. (And I love the story later, in the summer of 1966, when Duke Ellington met Miró -- jazz impressario Norman Granz was producing a music festival at nearby Juan-les-Pins and he had the idea of arranging for Ellington and his trio to play in the garden at Fondation Maeght, where Miró just happened to be working!  A Google search turns up a number of interesting references to Ellington's 'Blues for Joan Miró'.)

In 2014 the Fondation celebrated its 50th anniversary, with special exhibits on site as well as at locations around France.  It seems fitting that one of the exhibits was devoted to the art and architecture of Sert, and I caught it on its final day.  Interestingly, I didn't realize that Sert had worked on two house-studios for both Braque and Chagall but neither was completed.  Happily however, Sert's plans for the Miró Foundation in Barcelona, the School of Fine Arts in Besancon, and the house-studio for artist Zao Wou-Ki on Ibiza were all realized.

Opening on the 27th of June at the Maeght is 'On the Way,' devoted to the works of Gérard Garouste. According to the Maeght website, a quote from Rabbi Nachman of Bratsla -- "Never ask directions from someone who knows the way, you risk not getting lost" -- sums up everything about Garouste's process, as he chooses figuration and the study of myths just as he uses the adventures of Don Quijote or of Tintin to better explore human identity today.

The Fondation Maeght is open every day of the year, without exception, from 10 to 6 October to June and from 10 to 7 July to September.  In Paris, the Galerie Maeght, 42 rue du Bac, is open Tuesday to Saturday from 9:30 to 7 and Monday 10 to 6.  There is a great selection of beautiful prints, cards, books, etc., and a print I bought and had framed is by Braque (pictured below) with the words, "Avec l'age, l'art et la vie ne fout qu'un," which roughly translates to with age, art and life become one.   All the Maeght publications (more than 12,000) and lithographs are printed at ARTE studios, south of Paris, which Adrien Maeght (Aimé and Marguerite's son) opened in 1964.  Adrien's children -- Isabelle, Florence, Jules, and Franҫoise -- are (mostly) still involved in the family business (Franҫoise reportedly resigned from the board of directors over differing opinions on managing the foundation). In November 2014, Jules Maeght opened the Jules Maeght Gallery in San Francsico, 149 Gough Street.

Enjoying a meal or drinks -- or better, a stay -- at La Colombe d'Or is positively the thing to do before or after a visit to La Fondation Maeght.  Or even if you (inexplicably) have no interest in going to the Maeght, stopping in at La Colombe d'Or to have a look around is not to be missed, as this inn is far more than a place to stay or a place to eat: it's more of a museum, of both 20th century art and the history of a Provenҫal village.

The very brief history of this truly noteworthy place is that Paul Roux, a Provenҫal farmer, opened the restaurant and small inn in 1920, after returning from World War I.  His hostelry appealed to artists in the area -- including Léger, Braque, Picasso, Miró, Chagall, and Alexander Calder -- and he began exchanging room and board for artworks.  Paul's son, Francis, began to oversee the running of the hotel with his wife, Yvonne, in 1953, and Paul's grandson, Franҫois, took over in 2000 with his wife, Danièle.  (For a very good history, I refer you to 'The Artful Lodgers' by James McAuley, The New York Times Magazine, 10 May, 2015)

'Remarkable' is just one word that comes to mind when you walk through the public rooms of the inn and take note of what's hanging on the walls.  There are no plaques or signs of any kind identifying the works, so in this regard the place feels much more like a private home than a museum, which is of course what makes it unique (it reminds me most of the Hotel Restaurant Les Templiers in Collioure).  While I do wish there was some kind of published brochure, I suppose that would be beside the point, and anyway there is the spectacular La Colombe d'Or, the book that launched a publishing house -- Assouline, in 1993.   As James McAuley explains in his piece for the Times, Martine and Prosper Assouline spent a long time trying to convince Franҫois Roux to agree to the book's publication, and it was at La Colombe where Martine once discovered her son, Alexandre, who is now fully grown, serving a bottle of Champagne.  The bartender had stepped away, and as the job needed to be done, Alexandre filled in.  Martine and Prosper made Alexandre return his generous tip but they all now have this wonderful memory.  

For my visit last year, I tried to make a reservation to stay for a night, but the auberge was fully booked (there are fewer than 30 rooms) so I had to make do with a lunch reservation.  It was the second time I'd eaten there, but this time I requested a table in front of the hotel's namesake Léger mural, and when my friends Amy and Denise and I arrived, our waiter made a point of noting that our table was, indeed, facing the mural.

The restaurant's menu is fairly extensive, but I recommend choosing the classic Provenҫal dishes -- these are what the kitchen turns out best.  The food is not as memorable as the setting, and diners who are looking for more of a culinary high will be far more satisfied at Le Tilleul or at Les Bacchanales in nearby Vence, under the direction of Michelin-starred chef Christophe Dufau.

The wait staff at La Colombe are jollier, however, and it is them who I have chosen to share photos of here, rather than the same photos that everyone else takes.  They really made our meal, and deserve to be acknowledged!  

 To again quote from James McAuley, the Fondation Maeght "would not likely exist in its current form without its smaller, older sister," and La Colombe d'Or "remains the classic maison paysanne of French folklore, the mountain hut, the mythic escape -- in this case, to the looking glass between life and art, as if the two were never distinct."