Changer les idées
After a family tragedy, Aimé and Marguerite Maeght turned their summer house near Nice into a gallery and haven for artists. Today, it has one of the best private collections of modern art in Europe.
The Maeght Foundation sits in the hills surrounding Saint Paul de Vence, 30 minutes from Nice on the Côte d’Azur. The building is striking, but it’s the umbrella pines that you first notice on approach. These tall Mediterranean trees are far more glamorous than their Nordic cousins: with their free form, bending trunks and Dr Seuss tops, umbrella pines have something of the sculptural about them. Aimé and Marguerite Maeght started their foundation in 1964, not so much as a museum but as a place for artists to work together and exchange ideas, as well as exhibit their work. Aimé was a French gallerist, collector and publisher and the collection assembled at the museum before his death in 1981 reads like a survey of 20th-century modernist art. The pieces in the sculpture garden include work by Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, Alberto Giacometti, Alexander Calder and Jean Arp; inside, there are pieces by Henri Matisse, Joan Miró, Georges Braque and Fernand Léger. Being a fan of Ellsworth Kelly, it was so good to see his bold painting ‘Red, Yellow, Blue’, accompanied by a delicate lithograph outlining a cyclamen, both made during a stay in 1963. Although the stories differ, Maeght Foundation has something of the spirit of John and Sunday Reed’s Heide Museum of Modern Art in Melbourne. The foundation was born out of a tragedy in the Maeghts’ lives. After their youngest son Bernard died of leukemia, Léger persuaded the couple to take a trip to the United States for a change of scene – ‘se changer les idées’ – where they visited the Phillips Collection in Washington and the Guggenheim in New York. When they returned to France, they decided to turn the family’s summer property in the south of France into an artists’ haven. As Miró’s gallerist, Aimé had seen the artist’s vast studio in Mallorca, Spain, which was designed by Josep Lluís Sert in the 1950s. The Maeghts commissioned the Catalonian architect to design the foundation building. The complex, a modernist take on a traditional Mediterranean village, can be seen as a collaboration between Sert, Maeght and Miró. There are clean forms and geometric rationality moulded with white stucco and brickwork. Buildings open out onto patios and courtyards, and there’s even a bell tower for the chapel. In places, Sert’s building seems to take inspiration from the animal forms created by his friend Miró. The huge inverted arched roof resembles the horns of a bull, perhaps reflecting their shared Catalan origins. These zoomorphic forms give the Maeght a primitivist feel. Although this roots the architecture in a particular moment in time, it’s still powerful and impressive today. On arrival, a path leads through a sculpture garden towards the main building. The pines filter light onto a multitude of sculpture; a collision of colour and form all vying for attention on a fairly small patch of lawn.