Monday, June 15, 2009

Travel Journal: Nice/St Paul-de-Vence

The Mediterranean Music cruise about which I've been writing reached a peak upon our arrival in Nice, the heart of the French Riviera. The twin poles of Elba and Nice balanced perfectly on an axis of natural beauty and cultural richness. If I preferred Elba's exotic island atmosphere for an ideal vacation setting, then Nice offered that unforgettable Mediterranean setting with significant doses of art.

Our morning began with an excursion to the hill town of St. Paul-de-Vence, off the sunny coast towards the Alps which dip down into France. One could not ask for a more compelling juxtaposition of mountains and sea. Nor could one ask for a more engaging day of 20th century art in such a charmed setting. St. Paul-de-Vence is home to the Maeght Foundation, a remarkable house of work collected by and created for the patrons & curators Marguerite and Aime Maeght.

A sculpture garden with mosaic lined walls and works by Braque, Calder, Chagall, and among others, Leger, lead the viewer to the house itself, which rivals the Barnes Foundation for the ratio of space to masterpiece. Stained glass by Miro and Braque were among the unfamiliar works in this gallery of masters. Chagall's sprawling "La Vie" (Life) dominated a room where it simply dwarfed its more petite neighbors. Bonnard's Gauguin-tinged "L'ete" (Summer) did the same in an adjacent room. A series of late, typically playful and surreal "bird" paintings ("Femme l'oiseau") filled the Miro room. New to me were abstract works by Jean-Paul Riepelle and Bram van Velde--the former more abstract expressionist; the latter cubist. Amy was particularly taken with Wilfredo Lam's sensually cubist canvas, "La Fiancee de Kiriwina," another discovery for both of us. Hauntingly familiar, like Doppelgangers, were the existentially minimalist sculptures of Giacometti. A courtyard of his signature "stick figure" bronzes led to a Miro Labyrinth, full of larger-than-life figures, creatures & combinations. The Spaniard's sculptures served a leavening purpose by inspiring some bearable lightness after the pervasive angst of his Swiss colleague.

That visit alone would have been sufficient for the thirstiest of modern art pilgrims. Our day continued, however, with visits to the two great single-artist museums in and around Nice: those of Chagall and Matisse. The Chagall museum (officially named National Museum Message Biblique Marc Chagall) was organized by the artist himself upon giving some 50 paintings--almost all on Biblical themes, arguably the central focus of his oeuvre--to the government of France. The museum was planned specifically for and around the series of huge murals depicting Old Testament stories--from the Creation to stories of Abraham, Jacob, Noah and Moses. In addition to these narrative and symbolically potent canvasses in the "Nave" of the museum, a "chapel" off the main room is devoted to a series of 5 paintings that are the ultimate sacred Valentines in gorgeous red & pink oils: Les Cantiques des Cantique (The Song of Songs). A stunning walled mosaic of the prophet Elijah is visible outside that room, from a gallery opposite, across a small reflecting pool. On the other side of the museum's sanctuary of Biblical paintings is a triptych that combines Jewish, Christian, and Russian imagery with typical Chagallian abandon. "Resistance/Ressurection/Liberation" feature his porous blending of images and symbols, the coexistence of the sacred and the sensual, and the high and low (and the blurring of all those lines). In short, the proximity of his work to kitsch fuels his critics and inspires his admirers; I am obviously and unashamedly one of the latter. The museum also had his series of 7 Creation stained glass windows, perhaps the most beautiful modern examples of that classic & sacred genre.

I have to admit I have always been less impressed--less moved, less engaged is more accurate--with Matisse. I would prefer to spend time with Chagall or Miro or when I'm feeling schizophrenic, Picasso. Cezanne and Manet are my favorites leading up to the twentieth century, and the line of abtract expressionism from Kandinsky to Pollock and De Kooning and beyond has always sustained my interest and imagination. Matisse (and Gauguin) have just not "done it" for me. I realize the problem is mine, and I continue to seek treatment for this and my many other "faults and derelictions" (Whitman), and of those I've tried, the visit to Matisse's house in Nice was by far the best remedy. The rooms contain a somewhat chronological history of his development and career, an interesting collection of sketches and drawings, and examples from nearly every period of his storied life. Most moving (therefore for me surprising) were the plans and models of the chapel in Vence he designed for a long-time friend. Juxtaposed with the Renaissance murals that inspired him, this late work possessed a very moving & human quality I had heretofore missed in the curvy figures and blue cut-outs stereotypically associated with this 20th century giant.

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