Saint-Paul de Vence, 06570 France
As monuments to love go, there are few more inspiring or timeless than the Fondation Marguerite et Aimé Maeght. Set among steep, thickly wooded hills and vineyards above the Côte d’Azur, this revered cultural institution is one of the world’s finest private collections of 20th century art, encompassing paintings, drawings, sculptures and installations by an exceptional group of distinguished artists.
During the 1950s, art publishers and dealers Marguerite and Aimé Maeght built a family home on an extensive plot in this peaceful, sun-filled location. After the death from leukaemia of their 12 year-old son Bernard, they turned their backs on their globe-trotting professional lives and sought refuge back in their Provençal-styled house high in the Gardettes hills. They named it Mas Bernard in his memory.
The couple were leading lights in an artistic circle whose members included Marc Chagall (whose specially commissioned painting La Vie is shown below), Alberto Giacometti, Georges Braque, Joan Miró, Fernand Léger and many others. Sharing their grief at the loss of their son, Braque suggested to Aimé a possible route to spiritual renewal and a reason to go on living.
“You need to find something that is bigger than yourself, something that will help you overcome your pain”, he said.
What he had in mind was a home for art, a place where artists could meet, talk, exchange ideas, make work; where they could connect the public with the world of contemporary art. Where better than the heavenly spot which they had already chosen for themselves?
And so, out of friendship, love, grief and creativity came the Fondation Maeght, a unique, landmark building designed by the Catalan architect Josep Lluis Sert in collaboration with Aimé and Sert’s old friend Miró.
When excavations on the site began, they uncovered the ruins of an ancient chapel. It had been dedicated to St. Bernard. The Maeghts saw it as a tribute to their beloved son, a powerful omen, a vindication of the rightness of their decision.
One of Sert’s first tasks was to rebuild and restore the chapel, which now incorporates Romanesque sculptures, Raoul Ubac’s abstract slate Stations of the Cross, a 12th century wooden crucifix donated by the fashion designer Cristóbal Balenciaga and a magnificent stained glass window by Braque, showing a white bird against a rich purple background.
A second window by Ubac depicts The Cross and the Rosary in rich medieval colours, red, blue and brown. The tiny chapel is a silent place, a place for peace and contemplation, a place of artistic collaboration. It stands beside the entrance and exit of the sculpture garden, bidding visitors welcome and farewell.
In these strangely constricting Covid times, a visit to the Fondation is a healing experience. Normally, its multitudes of visitors are encouraged to roam at will through the galleries, the courtyards, the parks and outdoor exhibits. Now – in limited numbers – they are directed in a leisurely fashion along a pre-ordained route, which takes in the great showpieces.
The path into the building leads across the immaculately groomed lawns of the Sculpture Garden, containing a playful tubular fountain by Pol Bury, a wind sculpture by the Greek poet Takis, a mosaic wall by Pierre Tal-Coat, ceramic works by Léger and monumental pieces by Barbara Hepworth, Jean Arp and many other great names from the 20th century.
An important element in the raison d’être of the Fondation is the way in which individual artists’ works integrate into the structure and form of the building itself. One encounters early on the extraordinary Giacometti Courtyard, inhabited by a group of motionless, emaciated figures, which come to life and action as the sun moves around the space. Many decades after my first visit here, the courtyard and its ghostly residents again prompt a shiver of wonder at their unearthly presence.
Alongside in a connecting patio shimmers a shallow pool, whose mosaic base is one of Braque’s final works. Les Poissons incorporates translucent light, luminous colour and elemental forms. It was one of the original pieces incorporated by Sert and the Maeghts into a building conceived to preserve and celebrate nature in the context of modern art and architecture.
Miró was heavily involved in the design of the building and its surrounding site, working alongside his fellow Catalan Sert and contributing a magical, epic series of bronze, concrete, iron and marble sculptures, entitled the Miró Labyrinth. It winds its way along an Ariadne’s thread, a white painted line which meanders a dreamlike path past leering and laughing animal, fish and and reptile figures, climaxing in an immense triumphal arch inspired by the ancient mythologies of Greece and Catalonia.
Opened in 1964 by the distinguished writer and politician André Malraux, the Fondation Maeght has changed little over the years. But it has not stood still. It continues to fulfil its intended role as a living, breathing confluence and crossroads for art and artists.
Fashion, dance, literature, film and music now figure high on its annual schedule of cultural events. In 2018, it was chosen by Nicolas Ghesquière, artistic director at Louis Vuitton, as the venue for the house’s 2019 Cruise Collection, streamed live online and viewed by millions of people the world over.
It is, quite simply, a uniquely special place. I have never forgotten the thrill of my first visit. This latest experience will live me for the rest of my days.
Full information on: http://www.fondation-maeght.com