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A pilgrimage to the French Riviera or 5 Artists Chapels in the South of France

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A pilgrimage to the French Riviera or 5 Artists Chapels in the South of France

“Today, culture does what religion used to do. Culture has, in essence, taken religion's place, because in contemporary society religion plays a much smaller role than it did a hundred years ago,” a prominent Parisian art gallery owner told me in a recent interview. I remembered this quote as I stood in front of the altar in the small Chapelle du Rosaire in the town of Vence on the French Riviera. The interior of the church is a masterpiece by Henri Matisse. The building still serves as a chapel, and here we can say that art and religion meet literally under one roof. In addition, nowhere else but in the French Riviera will you find such a high concentration of small, unique chapels that have been made special by the touch of an artist. Matisse, Picasso, Cocteau, Chagall, Braque...they've all left their mark here, and the search for these marks can become a true pilgrimage.

Foto: A pilgrimage to the French Riviera or 5 Artists Chapels in the South of France
The Inside of the Chapelle du Rosaire in Vence
Photo: www.henri-matisse.net

The Chapelle du Rosaire enchants the visitor with a fantastic simplicity and plays of light that change depending on the time of day, thereby also changing the mood of the space. One's sense of time vanishes and the visitor is pulled into a humble silence. This feeling is, of course, only heightened if there happen to be no other visitors in the chapel at the time. The Chapelle du Rosaire is located very close to the villa that Henri Matisse rented when he moved to Vence in 1943. The artist was then 73 years old and already quite ill. He had always considered himself an atheist, and his involvement in the design of the chapel came in large part thanks to his friendship with his former caregiver and model Monique Bourgeois, who had become a nun. The Chapelle de Rosaire was Matisse's dedication to the Dominican nuns. By 1951, when the chapel was finished, the artist was too ill to attend the dedication ceremony. He wrote: “This work required of me four years of an exclusive and tiring effort and it is the fruit of my whole working life. In spite of all its imperfections, I consider it as my masterpiece.”

Matisse designed not only the chapel's stained glass windows and wall frescoes, but also the blue-white design on the roof, the gilded bronze crucifix and altar candleholders and even the ornaments on the priests’ robes. The colour palette of the stained glass windows is very simple – ultramarine blue, green and lemon yellow – and the design resembles leaves seemingly emerging from nowhere to reach for the light, dividing the chapel wall into slender lines from the floor to the ceiling. Due to his illness, Matisse had resolved already in 1941 to no longer work with brushes and oil paints, giving preference to scissors and paper that his assistants painted with bright gouache paints. Thus, the artist was able to work even while confined to his bed. This style later became known as “paper cut-outs” and was considered revolutionary for its time. 

Matisse also used this technique to create the models for the chapel's stained glass window designs, and he paid particular attention to the selection of colours. For example, in his opinion the colour red disturbed the effect of calmness – something he wished to achieve in the space – and therefore this colour was not used. But at the same time, the artist wanted the colours used in the chapel to act upon on the visitors’ feelings “like a sharp blow on a gong.”

One wall of the chapel is covered with a white fresco on a ceramic base that uses simple graphic lines to depict the Virgin Mary and her child surrounded by a slightly chaotic jumble of blossoms or maybe clouds. It has been rumoured that Matisse's inspiration for the Virgin Mary was Pablo Picasso's lover at the time, Françoise Gilo, and her young daughter, Paloma. However, Jacqueline Duhême, who was Matisse's model from July 1948 to August 1949, maintains that she was the inspiration for the Virgin Mary. Whatever the case, it is said that Picasso, despite having recommended his own ceramicists to Matisse to help create the chapel's wall, was terribly jealous of his fellow artist. Picasso is said to have created his own chapel, which is named La Guerre et La Paix (War and Peace) and is currently a part of the Picasso National Museum, out of this jealousy and spite.

The museum next to the Chapelle du Rosaire contains sketches and six sets of vestments that Matisse designed for the priest. The colourful robes are richly decorated with crosses, stars, fish and other fable motifs and look more like theatre costumes than sacred clothing.

Matisse did not limit himself to Christianity alone; one of the frescoes in the chapel is full of references to Islamic art and was inspired by his earlier journeys to follow the footsteps of the Moors in Spain and North Africa. In 1950, he wrote: “I believe my role is to provide calmness, because I myself have need of peace.”

Foto: A pilgrimage to the French Riviera or 5 Artists Chapels in the South of France

Not far from the chapel, surrounded by a large garden and contemporary art objects, is the restaurant of French star chef Christophe Dufau. A small gate leads from the restaurant's garden out onto the street where the chapel is located. Restaurant guests often finish their lunch with a visit to the chapel, which is usually open in the early morning or in the afternoon. It's actually quite fun to watch the guests, having drunk their espressos, follow the meandering path through the herb garden and past the doghouse, one after the other taking their afternoon pilgrimage. There is usually almost no one else on the small street except people on their way to the chapel. Dufau says that he also often visits the chapel, because, due to its unique lighting, the mood in the chapel changes not only at various times of day, but also at various seasons of the year.

Foto: A pilgrimage to the French Riviera or 5 Artists Chapels in the South of FranceFoto: A pilgrimage to the French Riviera or 5 Artists Chapels in the South of France

In contrast to the Chapelle du Rosaire, Picasso's War and Peace chapel, located about a half hour's drive away in the town of Vallauris, no longer serves as a house of God. Nor was it a sanctuary during Picasso's time. The locals of the town gave the building to the artist on his 70th birthday as a thank you for the pottery renaissance that Picasso had inspired there. The town had once been a centre of pottery, but it had lost its lustre until a visit by the artist gave a boost to the craft again. 

Picasso locked himself into his workshop for two months and let no one inside except his son Paulo. The War and Peace chapel was Picasso's last work devoted to the theme of peace, following the legendary dove that he created for the First International Peace Conference in Paris in 1949. The inspiration for the dove is said to have been a very realistic image of a pigeon given to him by his friend and competitor Matisse. When working on the chapel, Picasso began with the theme of war – violent and destructive scenes in which the central element is a horned Death in a horse-drawn chariot holding a bloody sword in one hand and a vessel full of bacteria in the other, symbolising chemical warfare. On its shoulders Death carries human skulls.

On the opposite wall of the chapel, the theme of peace was created later and includes practically all associations we have with the idea of peacetime. In the very middle is Pegasus, ploughing the earth under a bright sun of peace, consumed with his work of rebirth. Next to him is a musician, a dancing girl and a man juggling with a container full of birds in one hand and an aquarium of golden fish in the other, possibly symbolising the fragility of peace. The trees are full of fruit, a child nurses at his mother's breast, someone writes, another person is preparing food...and life unfolds in its natural rhythm. Both compositions are huge (over 100 square metres) and completely cover the chapel's vaulted ceilings and walls. 

At the altar end of the chapel are four human figures, each of a different skin colour (black, yellow, red, white), holding up the dove of peace basking in the sun. The chapel itself is small and has no windows; the only natural light enters through the door. Picasso lived in Vallauris from 1948 to 1955 and was by far the village's most famous citizen. On the same square, a few steps from the chapel, is the pottery museum, which contains many works by Picasso and his contemporaries: Jean Cocteau, Georges Braque, Henri Matisse and Marc Chagall.

Foto: A pilgrimage to the French Riviera or 5 Artists Chapels in the South of FranceFoto: A pilgrimage to the French Riviera or 5 Artists Chapels in the South of France

Cocteau's dedication to the sea

Jean Cocteau, for his part, is said to have convinced the local fishermen in the small town of Villefranche-sur-Mer to entrust him with the artistic makeover of a small 14th-century seaside chapel (the Chapelle St-Pierre) that was being used as a storeroom for fishing equipment. Cocteau was known as the “eclectic genius” due to his many talents (poet, author, designer, painter, director) and was also famous for his reputation as a dandy, his bohemian lifestyle and the opium demon that undeniably left its mark on his work. 

Cocteau was a friend of Coco Chanel, Edith Piaf, Pablo Picasso and Marlene Dietrich, and one of the loves of his life was Jean Marais. When in Villefranche-sur-Mer, Cocteau always stayed at the same place, the Welcome Hotel. Officially, his room was No. 22, but he was also given a second room in which to smoke his opium. Cocteau began with the design of the chapel in 1956 and when he finished, he wrote: “When I open my window onto one of the most beautiful harbours in the world, there is the Chapelle St-Pierre just below, blinking at me with its candelabras straight from the Apocalypse.” 

The visitor's head may begin to spin a little upon entering the small sanctuary, because Cocteau's images whirl about in a riot of colour. The chapel was Cocteau's dedication to the sea, fishermen and the beautiful demoiselles of Villefranche. Here we find episodes from the life of St. Peter, who is the patron saint of fishermen, as well as reflections of Cocteau's own friends and images from his films. The stained glass windows contain elements of the Apocalyse. The chapel is now owned by the Villefranche fishermen's coop; local fishermen may get married in the chapel, but people of all other professions must suffice with just admiring Cocteau's masterpiece. The small village's harbour was once full of wooden fishing boats, but now only a couple of them remain, looking as if they've wandered in by accident among the countless yachts. There are small restaurants all along the harbour front, and life here rolls along at a peaceful pace, as if in a time capsule that even the tourists cannot disturb.

Foto: A pilgrimage to the French Riviera or 5 Artists Chapels in the South of France

In 2011, the Jean Cocteau Museum was opened about 25 kilometres from Villefranche-sur-Mer, in a town called Menton located almost on the Italian border. Maybe it's due to the proximity of Italy, but Menton differs very much from the rest of the coastal towns and cities of the French Riviera. For example, as opposed to Nice, whose promenade currently resembles something more like an international Babel and where the inheritors of past glamour now spend their days behind the walls of luxury villas, Menton does not seem to have lost its soul. 

The town, unique for its location near both sea and mountains, is full of ornate Belle Epoque villas and charming shops selling practically everything possible made of lemons. Lemons are the pride of Menton, which was at one time the largest supplier of the fruit to Europe. Since the 1930s, the town has hosted a lemon festival every February. But Menton only became a part of France in 1860. In the 13thcentury it was a part of Genoa, in the 14thcentury a part of Monaco, and in the early 19thcentury it was a protectorate of Sardinia.

Foto: A pilgrimage to the French Riviera or 5 Artists Chapels in the South of FranceFoto: A pilgrimage to the French Riviera or 5 Artists Chapels in the South of FranceFoto: A pilgrimage to the French Riviera or 5 Artists Chapels in the South of France

Menton is special for its proximity to both mountains and the sea, and the temperature here is said to be on average three degrees warmer than elsewhere in France. One of the most noticeable landmarks in Menton is the Belle-Epoque-style market hall located right on the edge of the medieval Old Town and across from the Jean Cocteau Museum. The history of the museum is likewise interesting. The initiative was begun by Severin Wunderman, an American businessman and passionate collector of Cocteau's works. Wunderman had been obsessed with the artist since the age of 19, when he obtained his first work by Cocteau. 

Shortly before his death, Wunderman bequeathed his entire collection, along with a generous monetary donation, to the French state with the condition that it ensure a suitable home for the artwork. Located on the edge of the water, the museum is only one storey tall, but its graphic black-and-white architectural form resembles a tooth, or maybe a row of hands held up in the air. The designer of the museum, French architect Rudy Ricciotti, has stated that he wanted the building to embody the contrasts so abundant in the artist's life. The windows look completely black from the outside, but on the inside they are transparent and allow views of the sea and city to enter the building. In a way, the museum is a no less extravagant resident of the city than Cocteau himself. In addition to Cocteau's artworks, the museum also contains oeuvres by his contemporaries Picasso and Modigliani. Here one can also view episodes from Cocteau's films, including his 1946 masterpiece La Belle et la Bête (Beauty and the Beast).

There are two other Cocteau-themed stops in Menton.Unlike the museum, both were projects directed by the artist himself. The first stop, Musée du Bastion, is located in a 17th-century stone bastion just a little further along the shore from the Jean Cocteau Museum. Cocteau created the museum's interior mosaic. The second is the Salle des Mariages, located in Menton's town hall (Hôtel de Ville). In the late 1950s, Menton's mayor asked Cocteau to create the interior for the marriage ceremony hall, which is still in use today.

In recent years, and thanks to Argentinian chef Mauro Colagreco and his two-Michelin-starred restaurant Mirazur, Menton has also become a gastronomy destination. Mirazur is located on a small hill on the outskirts of town, and its windows provide views of the Mediterranean Sea. Downhill, spreading across many levels of terraces, is the restaurant's vegetable, fruit and herb garden. Here, peppermint, sage, wormwood and chives grow under orange trees, while vegetables occupy the higher terraces. The food is faultless as the chef gives free rein to his creativity in terms of both flavour combinations and presentation.

Chagall's sanctuary among the grape vines

Foto: A pilgrimage to the French Riviera or 5 Artists Chapels in the South of FranceFoto: A pilgrimage to the French Riviera or 5 Artists Chapels in the South of FranceFoto: A pilgrimage to the French Riviera or 5 Artists Chapels in the South of France

A slight shot of hedonism in the French Riviera's air is a part of its flesh and blood. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that our fourth “artist’s chapel” – the Chapelle Sainte Roseline, decorated with a mosaic by Chagall, a work in bronze by Giacometti and stained glass windows by Raoul Ubac and Jean Bazaine – is located on the grounds of a vineyard. But this has not always been a vineyard. With help from the monk Roubaud, an abbey was opened there in the 11thcentury, which was supervised from 1300 to 1329 by Roseline, the daughter of the Marquis de Villeneuve. She was known throughout the region for her piety and generosity, and the locals therefore named the abbey after her. 

Foto: A pilgrimage to the French Riviera or 5 Artists Chapels in the South of France

Roseline was made a saint in the 19thcentury, and her mummified body now lies in a glass sarcophagus in the small chapel, right across from Chagall's mosaic. In the 14thcentury, with the support of the Pope of Avignon, the abbey grounds were turned into one of the first vineyards in Provence. When businessman and art collector Bernard Theillaud bought the vineyard in 1994, his ambition was to make the ancient abbey into a wine and art destination. The vineyard was awarded cru classé status already in 1955, and today the property is home to many works of contemporary art living in a delightful symbiosis with the ancient legends. The chapel is still a pilgrimage destination, and those who also enjoy indulging in this life's hedonistic aspects follow the chapel with a visit to the nearby wine-tasting room.

Works by Chagall, Giacometti, Ubac and Bazaine were installed in the chapel in 1975 on the initiative of Marguerite Maeght. The Maeght family of art dealers, collectors and publishers is one of the largest patrons of art in the region, and their art foundation in the small French Riviera town of Saint-Paul-de-Vence is celebrating its 50thanniversary this year. When it opened its doors for the first time in 1964, it was the first museum in Europe to be built as a home for modern art.

Foto: A pilgrimage to the French Riviera or 5 Artists Chapels in the South of France

The foundation's beginnings, however, can be traced back to a sad event for the family. Namely, when Marguerite and Aimé Maeght's son Bernard died of leukaemia in 1953, the artist Fernand Léger, a friend of the inconsolable parents, suggested they take a trip to America. It was there, having been inspired by the Barnes and Guggenheim foundations and having been urged on by friends, that they decided to open their own art space and dedicate it to their son. The Maeght's wish was to create a modern, functional museum that would also fit in organically with the large Mediterranean garden; they wished for it to serve not only as a museum but also as a supporting institution of sorts for artists by offering them a space where they could freely express their creativity. The Catalonian architect Josep Lluis Sert, who had recently finished designing a studio for his friend Joan Miró in Palma de Mallorca, was invited to help in the realisation of the project.

It is symbolic that a small chapel, the ruins of which the Maeght family had discovered as construction began, was to become the centre of the nascent foundation. The chapel was restored and integrated into the whole architectural ensemble; the artists Ubac and Braque, also friends of the family, created the design for the stained glass windows. Today, the family's enterprise is continued by the Maeght's children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

The day I visit the FondationMaeght building to meet Isabelle, Aimé Maeght's granddaughter, there are so many visitors to the anniversary exhibition that the only quiet space Isabelle finds is in the kitchen. As we drink coffee, Isabelle smokes one cigarette after the other and slightly resembles Peggy Guggenheim. She considers Braque her third grandfather. 

“He was a wonderful person. He loved me as his granddaughter. I was the only one who was allowed to enter his studio. Of course, I was very proud. You can imagine. I was just sitting there and talking with him. I was eight when he died. I was very young, but for me it's still alive. He was so beautiful. Very tall, with his white hair and grey-blue eyes. For me he represented something strong.” 

Recounting her family history, she adds, “I'm always saying that the foundation was born out of a drama. From my uncle who died of leukemia. Back then the artists told my grandparents to please do something for us; we need a space. New and modern, because we're tired of exhibiting in classical buildings, in all of these hôtels particuliers. Life must go on. And for us – their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren – life goes on in exactly the same way. We simply do not know how else to live. My mother very often said, 'We have to go on, we have to go on.... If we don't go on, we are going back and we will be in the same place again. That's not our style, staying in one place.' And it's true. We have to go on and to have dreams.”

The cicadas are singing so very loudly in the foundation’s garden. The sun shines into the small chapel through Braque's blue-and-white stained glass window with a white dove in the centre, and it lights the figure of Jesus Christ on the cross. There is no one in the chapel, and I am free to just be and to open my emotions to the colours, lights, silence and dreams.

Another small sanctuary (albeit to gastronomy) has been opened in Nice by former star chef Dominique le Stanc. He was once the chef at the legendary Hotel Negresco and helped bring two Michelin stars to the hotel restaurant. But then he decided to forego fame and all that accompanied it in order to open his own place. On the outside it's completely simple, small and unpretentious. And, La Merenda does not even have a telephone, which means that in order to make a reservation, you must go the restaurant yourself that morning or a day in advance. La Merenda also does not take credit cards. The guests sit close to each other, everybody seated at two long tables, and the menu is written on a blackboard. 

The name of the restaurant means “the delicious morsel” in the Niçois dialect. Le Stanc himself works in the open kitchen, his hair pulled back in a ponytail, and it seems like nothing else exists for him in the world outside of his passion. He does not hide the fact that what interests him most is the very essence of gastronomy, namely, simple food made from fresh ingredients obtained from the local market. One of the La Merenda's highlights is the cold ratatouille, which is a favourite of the regular guests. “Less is more” – this now folklorised phrase by the minimalist apologist Mies van der Rohe hardly suits any other place more than this small restaurant. And, if Braque and Picasso were still alive, it's possible that they would also be on the list of La Merenda's regular guests.

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