UK arts writer, Tony Cooper, looks in on the Picasso Museum in Antibes on the French Riviera. It’s an area that was loved by the iconic and controversial 20th-century artist…
I’m a regular visitor to France and I’m off on yet another great adventure to what I class as my adopted country travelling to Antibes on the French Riviera. Dubbed the Côte d’Azur by Dijon-born poet, Stéphen Liégeard, in 1888, it attracted such important artists of the 19th and 20th centuries as Paul Cezanne, Marc Chagall, Jean Cocteau, Henri Matisse, Amedeo Modigliani and Auguste Renoir as well as the iconic and controversial artist, Pablo Picasso.
In fact, one of the reasons I’m here is to follow in Picasso’s footsteps visiting the museum named in his honour in old Antibes. It’s tucked away behind the town’s pretty 19th-century covered market. Originally called Château Grimaldi, the Picasso Museum proved an enlightening experience. But, surprisingly, Picasso only used the château as his studio for just two months in 1946 whilst living in Golfe Juan nearby.
The Picasso Museum Antibes
As its name firmly implies, the château – which has seen poverty and riches alike – was, for centuries, in the possession of the Grimaldi family, the royal family governing the Principality of Monaco. Prince Albert II is now ‘Boss of the Rock’ inheriting the title from his father Prince Rainier III in 2005.
Thankfully, a new lease of life was granted to the château when the city of Antibes took control of it in 1925. Three years later it received state classification as an historic monument. Such was Picasso’s enthusiasm and love for the château he decorated it while creating a host of works, sketches and paintings there in 1946 including ‘Les Clés d’Antibes’ (The Keys of Antibes) which covers an entire wall surface.
The paint and the unusual materials that he used (ripolin enamel paint, fibre-cement and plywood) reflected the austerity of the post-Second World War period. But, above all, highlighted the artist’s surprising resourcefulness as well as his amazing eagerness to try out new materials.
His paintings, though, emulated the joy he felt of living in a country that was once again free from strife and oppression. He left what he had created at the château to the town of Antibes. The collection includes 23 paintings and 44 drawings. Among the drawings, the most representative are ‘Antipolis Suite’, ‘Heads of Fauns’ and ‘Studies for the Female Figure’.
A stunning collection of Picasso artworks
A year after he left the château, the Picasso Room was officially opened. The first exhibition mounted in the West Room turned out to be the first event celebrating the artist’s stay in Antibes. And in Picasso’s Madoura studio in Vallauris – a small medieval town close by to Antibes overlooking the bay of Cannes where Picasso lived for seven years from 1948 to 1955 – the artist worked with ceramics and here completed 77 pieces which can also be seen in the museum.
Such was the special relationship between Picasso and the citizens of Antibes he was proudly bestowed a Citizen of Honour of Antibes at a ceremony at Château Grimaldi in 1957. Yet more praise was showered upon him when the château was renamed in his honour the Picasso Museum in 1966. It was the first gallery in the world solely dedicated to the artist.
In 1990, Picasso’s second wife, Jacqueline Roque (who had been with the artist for two decades) added greatly to the collection. She contributed four paintings, ten drawings, two ceramics and six etchings. And over the period from 1952 to 2001, a host of donations and acquisitions brought to the museum three works-on-paper, 60 etchings and six carpets by Picasso.
Other artists’ work at the Picasso Museum in Antibes
Today, the museum holds approximately 245 works by the artist. But not everything on show is by Picasso. One canvas that readily caught my eye was a large unfinished work by Nicolas de Staël entitled ‘Le Grand Concert’. A French national of Russian descent, he was a painter well known for his use of a thick impasto. His highly-abstract landscape paintings are full of bright and vibrant Provençal colours.
The inspiration behind the work followed a symphony concert he attended at La Salle Pleyel, the legendary concert-hall near l’Arc de triomphe in Paris. Inspired by the music he cancelled the rest of his stay in the French capital and charged back to his studio overlooking the ramparts of the old town of Antibes. Desperate to capture the images while they were still fresh in his mind, he worked feverishly at the vast canvas until further work was made impossible by the failing light.
Sadly, it was to be his last painting. As darkness fell he turned his back on the work. He wrote three letters and burned sketches for all future projects. Then he walked to the window of his studio and jumped to his death into the rue de Revely. At the time he was approaching the peak of his success following major exhibitions in London, Paris and New York.
Another renowned artist who also made his home in Antibes was the German abstract painter, Hans Hartung. His work can also be seen in the Picasso Museum and one can also visit his former home in Antibes. He designed and personally supervised the building of his stark-white villa and lived here with his wife, Anna-Eva Bergman, also an artist, until his death in 1989. The couple left 16,000 paintings, photographs and engravings but you only get to see a fraction of the collection on one visit. However, their work is rotated in a series of exhibitions over the course of a year.
There’s more, too. On the terrace there’s a permanent exhibition of an enviable collection of sculptures by the controversial French sculptress Germaine Richier. Plus there are other works by Bernard Pagès, Anne and Patrick Poirier and the celebrated Spanish Catalan-born artist/sculptor, Joan Miró.
Check out life in Antibes and its close neighbour Juan-les-Pins by visiting www.antibes-juanlespins.com/culture/musee-picasso