Friday, 14 September 2007

Cote d'Azur

Nice is a lovely place to visit at this time of year. Last week, a chance to visit the South of France was transformed at short notice by Best Beloved and me into a week of holiday: this meant I had to do rapid research to make sure I made the most of all the art on offer.

It really bugs me to find out I visited someplace and missed the most interesting garden, museum or view to be found there: we were staying near Nice and the surrounding area is simply stuffed with great things to see.

The Cote d'Azur was – and still is - such a popular area for artists and in Nice is a museum dedicated to Matisse and another to Chagall. But there's no need struggle with city traffic when in the charming medieval hilltop village of St Paul de Vence, only half an hour away by car, there is a museum of modern art and contemporary works: Fondation Maeght.

At the moment there's a Spanish exhibition on there with an enormous collection of Miro's works – all the famous pieces - but there are also paintings by Bonnard and Leger – as well as Matisse and Chagall – including wonderfully leggy sculptures by Giacometti and ceramic works by Braque.

The setting of the building lends itself to all the sculptures that are on display outside: courtyards and lawns, pools and pine clad hillsides all form a perfect background for some pretty wacky or positively wonderful forms. Miro was keen on mobiles and these and his disconnected surreal works seemed ideally suited to outdoors: wind, branches, leaves, air - the asymmetricality of nature.

Henri Matisse first visited the Cote d'Azur in 1916 and, fascinated by the light, continued to visit it until he eventually settled in Vence. It's fun to search out his works here: in a famous hotel restaurant at St Paul can be found sketches of his as well as those by other penniless artists who visited -Picasso, Leger, Braque, Dufy. An exciting treasure chest to come across.

In the Chapelle de Rosaire – a Dominican convent - just north of Vence, Matisse decorated the vault: the tiled walls have simple black line paintings but two walls have stunning stained glass windows. The light from these is wonderful – sunlight coming through the blue glass glows, the yellow is frosted and diffuses the light – and the whole design is exceptional.

Marc Chagall – born in 1887 of Russian-Jewish descent – fled Russia and lived in Paris before moving to America in 1941. But in 1949 he returned to France and settled in Provence where he began to work in stained glass – more of this another time – and ceramics.

In the former 11-17c cathedral (now the church of Sainte Anne) in Vence he designed a superb mural mosaic, 'Moses saved from the Nile', in the Baptistery. The sunshine, colours and elements of nature depicted in the composition were meant to evoke the joy of baptism. I thought that the space and simplicity – naivety - of it was mirrored in his painting 'La vie', seen in the Foundation.

The area still appeals to artists, not only because they are inspired by such as Cezanne and Matisse but because the light is so very different from anywhere else. Further on from Vence yet another hilltop village, Tourettes de Loup, has been transformed into a a place for artists and craftsmen to live and work.

Up narrow, steep and winding streets, in cavernous spaces through small doors you can see weavers, potters, jewellry makers and painters at work in their small ataliers. The old stone walls and steps, ancient wooden doors and shutters, window boxes overflowing with geraniums and pots with sedums all supply a ready made composition for the artistic.

Away from the hilltop towns there are pink painted villas, green shuttered windows and terraces shaded by lush green climbers: Cannes cum California. Passing open topped sports cars racing along the corniche makes me think of the roaring twenties and thirties and high society life on the coast then: I'm inspired to read Scott Fitzgerald's novel, Tender is the Night, again when I get home. Those were the days my friends, and this is the place.


Books: anything on Matisse & Chagall.
A Year in Provence (see blog archive, 9 July 2007)


Carla said...

My one visit to Nice was on the way to a hike through the Alpes Maritimes, so we only had enough time between trains for a quick look at the promenade and an amazing Russian church (or cathedral?) complete with onion domes. I keep meaning to go back some time and see more of the city.

Lucy said...

The Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Nice was built by Tsar Nicolas in 1912 for all thos emigrees who had decamped to the Riviera: now the Russian oligarchs decamp to London! I think there are probably nicer French cities to visit again than Nice: too much traffic! But do try the charming small hilltop villages around Nice like Eze, Tourettes, St Paul or Gourdon.