The French masters

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Europe -

Mediter­ranean in 1865 than Monet and Cezanne were pack­ing their easels and head­ing for the sun­shine. In the late 1940s, Pi­casso, Braque and Cocteau fol­lowed, cre­at­ing an artis­tic party scene dubbed les an­nees folles, or ‘‘the mad years’’.

The Riviera’s most pres­ti­gious new ad­di­tion is the Bon­nard Mu­seum in Le Can­net. Un­til his death in 1947, Pierre Bon­nard lived in this quaint, dreamy vil­lage over­look­ing Cannes with Marthe, his wife and favourite model, sur­rounded by palm trees and pet dogs.

Although Bon­nard was over­shad­owed dur­ing his life­time by fel­low Post-Im­pres­sion­ists, the new mu­seum gives him his due with a range of fine paint­ings and about 10,000 draw­ings. A few kilo­me­tres away, the in­ti­mate Pi­casso Mu­seum in An­tibes is housed in a cas­tle that hangs over the sparkling Mediter­ranean, a mem­o­rable aes­thetic ex­pe­ri­ence in it­self.

In 1946, Pi­casso was strolling along the beach with his lover-muse Fran­coise Gilot when he met the owner of the me­dieval Grimaldi cas­tle, who in­vited him to work there. Post­war short­ages meant that Pi­casso could not paint di­rectly on to the walls as he had planned; so in­stead he turned the enor­mous space into his work­shop for three months, paint­ing on wood and con­crete, us­ing oils left over by fish­er­men, and cre­at­ing hun­dreds of ce­ram­ics. A se­ries of pho­tos by his friend Michel Sima adds to the feel­ing of peep­ing in on Pi­casso’s sum­mer hol­i­day.

Ten kilo­me­tres in­land, the hill­top vil­lage of Sain­tPaul-de-Vence is home to a lit­tle-known artis­tic treat, Fon­da­tion Maeght. Here in this leafy en­clave of seren­ity lies work by a who’s who of post­war art — Modigliani, Kandinksy, Braque and Leger. The high­light is an out­door labyrinth cre­ated by Joan Miro, a rav­ish­ing blend of na­ture and art in which gi­ant metal stat­ues over­look spec­tac­u­lar hills. The mu­seum cafe comes a close sec­ond, with fur­ni­ture de­signed by Gi­a­cometti.

Per­haps the most orig­i­nal new artis­tic of­fer­ing lies in the quiet sea­side vil­lage of Men­ton, home to the re­cently opened Cocteau Mu­seum, in an es­pe­cially de­signed beach­front build­ing with sleek white por­ti­coes that evoke the rip­ples of the sea. While Jean Cocteau achieved in­ter­na­tional fame as a film di­rec­tor — thanks to works such as Beauty and the Beast (1946) and Or­pheus (1950) — he was al­ready well known in France as an avant-garde poet, vis­ual artist and the­atre di­rec­tor.

The new mu­seum owns 1600 works on pa­per, with a sur­real air in­spired by his foray into opium use. (‘‘Cocteau was a ge­nius,’’ a guide tells me with ad­mi­ra­tion, ‘‘but he was also com­pletely crazy.’’) It’s a short stroll to the Men­ton Mar­riage Hall, which Cocteau dec­o­rated with fres­cos about the Or­pheus myth.

A few min­utes’ drive away is his sea­side villa, Santo Sospir (Holy Breath), on Cap Fer­rat, the dra­matic promon­tory east of Nice. Its ram­shackle rooms have been left all but un­touched since Cocteau died in 1963, al­low­ing vis­i­tors to feel as if they are slip­ping into the past.

Cocteau dec­o­rated the walls and ceil­ings with hal­lu­cino­genic mytho­log­i­cal scenes, and even scrib­bled on the lamp­shades. Pho­to­graphs of the artist with friend Coco Chanel rest ca­su­ally on ta­bles, and draw­ings by an­other friend, Pi­casso, are ca­su­ally tacked on doors.

As you wan­der the villa, odd vi­sions of gods and satyrs ap­pear, in­ter­min­gling with views to the shim­mer­ing ocean. If there were ever a site that could jus­tify the artis­tic ob­ses­sion with the south of France, Santo Sospir is it. musee-or­ bac­ musee­bon­ fon­da­ men­



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