RA Magazine Autumn 2008
Issue Number: 100
Maeght and his magicians
Art critic Richard Cork first visited the Fondation Maeght as a teenager in the Sixties.The work on display there, and indeed the building itself, had a profound effect on him. To mark a major exhibition of modernism at the RA, he recalls his impressions of this ground-breaking gallery and celebrates Aimé Maeght, its visionary founder
Discovering the Fondation Maeght came,for me, at the end of a momentous gap-year adventure. In the early summer of 1965, I drove with some friends to Morocco. Despite continual breakdowns, our ancient Bedford van took us as far as Marrakesh. But soon after we returned to Europe and began driving west along the Côte d’Azur, our limited supplies of cash ran out. So we stayed in Cannes, where I scratched an unpredictable living by drawing portraits of tourists and sailors in the old harbour.
One day, strolling there with a sketchbook under my arm, I heard my friend Tim exclaim: ‘Look! There’s Picasso!’ He was right. The 84-year-old artist, instantly recognisable, was seated at an open-air table having lunch with his wife Jacqueline and some guests. Tim persuaded me to introduce myself to Picasso and ask him to sign my sketchbook. Overcoming huge embarrassment, I did so. Picasso proved very friendly, and we talked for a while - especially about his dynamic The Three Dancers painting, which he had recently sold to the Tate. Then he seized my sketchbook, signed it with immense vigour and drew a series of swift, billowing lines underneath.
After thanking him, I went back to Tim and proudly displayed the drawing. He urged me to go back and draw Picasso’s portrait. I balked at the idea, but Tim rightly insisted: ‘You’ll never get such an amazing opportunity again!’ So I summoned up my courage and went back to Picasso’s table. He amused himself by pulling clownish faces while I struggled to define his mobile features and astonishingly intense, coal-black eyes. In the end, he very generously approved of my efforts and announced that he would now draw my portrait. Astonished and delighted, I handed over the sketchbook and Conté crayon. With prodigious speed and certainty, Picasso drew me. I still have the result: an effortless, witty sketch of a smiling adolescent with one eye placed unaccountably on my nose.
Picasso was the first artist I ever met, and this miraculous encounter quickened my eagerness to see, at first hand, the work of the great modernists on display near Cannes. Early one morning, in brilliant sunshine, I hired a moped and set off on an ambitious day-long expedition. My aim was to visit a trio of outstanding locations: the Picasso museum in the former Château de Grimaldi at Antibes, the Fernand Léger Museum at Biot, and the recently opened, widely discussed Fondation Maeght on a hill outside Saint-Paul de Vence. It could have been a exhausting schedule, yet I somehow succeeded in encompassing all three. And the destination that excited me most of all was the extensive new centre commissioned by the Paris-based art dealer Aimé Maeght.
Since 1945, Maeght had built up a stable of artists second to none in modern art, embracing Bonnard, Matisse, Miró, Calder, Giacometti and Braque. The latter four will be splendidly represented in the Royal Academy’s new show based on the Maeght collection. But nothing could have prepared me for the impact of the Fondation itself, designed with such flair by Josep-Lluís Sert. Rather than simply creating a boastful showcase for the Maeght family collection, Sert responded to the history and
character of the site, as well as ensuring that the distinct character of individual artists was reflected in the different parts of the Fondation.
Before embarking on this venture, Maeght had listened carefully to the advice offered by artists he respected. At an early stage, Léger counselled him to learn from the Barnes Foundation in a suburb of Philadelphia, where Matisse had painted an exuberant mural of dancing figures to greet everyone visiting this superb collection. Maeght, however, wanted something more than a museum. He aimed at a creative centre providing space for poetry and music events as well as temporary exhibitions and accommodation for artists.
His involvement with the area was intense. Back in 1928, he and his wife Marguerite had been married in Cannes, where they set up a shop called Arte, selling radios, modern furniture and paintings by local artists in the front window. So Maeght knew the district well, and helped ease the anxieties of both Bonnard and Matisse when they found themselves isolated in nearby Le Cannet and Nice during the Second World War. Bonnard was stricken by the death of his beloved wife Marthe in 1942, and he told Matisse about ‘my grief and my solitude, filled with bitterness and worry about the life I may be leading from now on.’ Matisse was equally upset by the suffering inflicted on his daughter Marguerite, who had been savagely tortured by the Gestapo. Both these elderly painters benefited from Maeght’s unfailing attentiveness. This energetic and ambitious man, a war orphan who had trained as a lithographer at Nîmes, knew exactly how to win over eminent artists, though the story that he presented a Rolls-Royce to Braque when he agreed to sign up with the gallery is, sadly, apocryphal.
Although Maeght became a major dealer only after opening his premises at 13 rue de Téhéran in Paris, he never sundered his connections with the south. They remained alive in his mind and when his son Bernard died tragically of leukaemia at the age of eleven, Braque suggested that Maeght and his wife should create a foundation for the arts in the boy’s memory. The project took just over a decade to complete. Even so, Maeght knew precisely where the commemorative centre should be built once he discovered that a potential location, just outside Saint-Paul de Vence, contained a small ruined chapel dedicated to Saint Bernard. Braque designed a stained-glass window for the new memorial chapel, while Miró pointed Maeght in the direction of a suitable architect.
Sert had designed a new studio for Miró at Cala Mayor, a spectacular seaside setting just outside Palma de Mallorca. The building impressed Maeght so much that he commissioned Sert to design the Fondation. And when I arrived there on my moped, less than a year after André Malraux had officially opened it in July 1964, Sert’s subtle blend of interior and exterior spaces proved a revelatory experience. Until then, I had been accustomed in London to viewing art in imposing nineteenth-century buildings. But here, on a seductive site overlooking the Mediterranean, innovative modern art was given an equally adventurous setting.
The great white wings of the concrete roof curve upwards, as if in flight. Their airborne poise gives the so-called Mairie building a weightless character, and the Braque room inside offers a view through a glass wall of a pond outside. Beneath its water, a mosaic of darting fish designed by Braque reminded me of decorations in Roman baths.
So, this boldly modernist art centre looks backwards as well - above all, perhaps, to the great Minoan temple of Knossos in Crete, where the bull-man myth was celebrated. Miró seized on the Minotaur when he planned his Labyrinth among the pine trees carefully preserved in the grounds of the Fondation. Bulls’ horns are evoked in his gesturing Lunar Bird, carved from Carrara marble. Both this sculpture and the playful Solar Bird beyond are reminiscent of prehistoric cult objects. Their curving forms also echo the canopies on Sert’s roof and, throughout my visit, I was continually made aware of an enlivening, well-judged dialogue between art and architecture.
The artist who impressed me most of all, though, was Giacometti. Until then, I had encountered his work only inside galleries.
The Royal Academy’s exhibition concentrates on the work of the four artists most associated with Aimé and Marguerite Maeght: Joan Miró (1893-1983), Alexander Calder (1898-1976), Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966) and Georges Braque (1882-1963). Matisse and Bonnard, whom the Maeghts had known in the South of France, provide a prelude to the exhibition.
Braque’s rich and sombre late canvases and Giacometti’s disturbing and solitary standing figures evoke the darker side of post-war French art. By contrast, Miró’s exuberant and poetic abstract works and the brilliantly coloured floating shapes of Calder’s mobiles explode with a joie de vivre.
This is the first exhibition that explores the close relationship these artists had with the Maeght family. After the Fondation opened in 1964, the artists continued their close association. Maeght encouraged them to explore the creative possibilities of printmaking, which resulted in an impressive array of prints and livres d’artistes (artists’ books) by all four artists. He also published the periodical Derrière le Miróir, which was produced for each exhibition.
Together, the paintings, sculpture, ceramics and prints reflect the important role that Aimé Maeght played as dealer, patron and publisher in establishing a new and bold spirit in art.But here, unforgettably, he is given an ample and uncluttered courtyard. I retain a very special memory of walking out into this wide, expectant space, where Giacometti’s tall and etiolated figures possessed an arresting sense of stillness. They had not been made for this location: both versions of Standing Woman, as well as Walking Man and Bust, were originally intended for the Chase Manhattan Bank Plaza in New York. Yet they had never been installed there, and are surely far more potent in this alternative arena. The full-length figures haunted me with their vulnerability. Near-skeletal, they looked closer to death than life. The more I gazed at them, however, the more resilient they became. And the vitality embodied in the nearby bronze Dog made me realise how defiant all these fragile creatures really were.
Giacometti’s smaller figures can be found in the low-ceilinged cloister gallery nearby. Sert, who was also working for his former teacher Le Corbusier on a building at Harvard University, gave the Fondation Maeght monastic feeling, with structures based around quadrangles. I was stimulated by the variety of spatial experiences provided here. And Maeght encouraged his artists to experiment with different media - hence Miró’s monumental ceramic Egg, installed at the centre of a small pool. Hence, too, Pierre Tal-Coat’s Mosaic Mural, dancing along a boundary wall, and Chagall’s mosaic, showing a pair of ardent lovers united in marriage.
A whole range of emotions, from joy at one extreme to grief at the other, can be encountered at the Fondation. Walking round, I felt an exhilarating sense of release conveyed by artists who had been given the opportunity to work on a large scale in such a congenial setting.
The presence of an extensive library also testifies to the Maeghts’ passion for graphic art. They were determined to provide their artists with the finest facilities and technicians, thereby ensuring that their publishing venture, also called Arte, gained an international reputation. Poets were often brought into a fruitful alliance with artists, and together they produced a memorable sequence of books. Maeght, who had executed many catalogues and posters as a young man, felt especially proud of this enterprise. It produced arts reviews written by leading critics, as well as monographs and catalogues devoted to the artists promoted by the gallery.
The exhibition at the Royal Academy contains plentiful evidence of the stimulus Aimé Maeght provided to artists, poets and writers. He died in 1981, but the Fondation ensures that everyone can still share his enthusiasm if they visit this irresistible haven - half temple, half hill-village - in the Mediterranean light.
Miró, Calder, Giacometti, Braque: Aimé Maeght and his Artists
Read more about this exhibition
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