The French masters
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-orsay.fr baccarat.com shangri-la.com museebonnard.fr fondation-maeght.com menton.fr le-sud-jean-cocteau.org