I’d been on the Riviera five days before I really understood why so many major artists went to live and work there in the 20th century, a roll call that includes Renoir, Picasso, Matisse, Chagall, Léger and Cocteau, all of them leading lights of modern art.
You can tour the Riviera by following the “Painters’ Route” in a beautifully achieved project of the Riviera-Cote d’Azur Tourist Board. When you do so, leaving behind the new Cote d’Azur with its phalanxes of holiday apartment blocks and arriving in huddled old towns and villages, some in the hills, some by the sea, illuminated with that special Mediterranean light, the coast’s attraction for artists is obvious.
I arrived at Antibes, an ancient port founded by the Greeks and fortified in the Middle Ages. In the 1940s, the Spanish artist Pablo Picasso was invited to set up a studio inside the fortress, Chateau Grimaldi. For almost three decades, Picasso was a Riviera resident. When he left it, he bequeathed many of his works which now form an art museum, along with works by other outstanding Modernists. The combination of the modern art works, the old fortress and the views from the windows of a sparkling Mediterranean Sea far below makes a terrific experience.
In nearby Vallauris, the Spanish master learnt to make ceramics, and if you’ve never taken to Picasso’s paintings, you should feel differently when you discover his wonderfully inventive and vivid chinaware, which only a heart of stone could disdain. Inside the local castle, he covered the interior of an empty chapel with a monumental anti-war work called War and Peace.
Finally he settled in Mougins, a hilltop village a few kilometres inland, where he lived out his days. A fascinating warren of narrow alleys and steep stairways, today’s Mougins is an artists’ and artisans’ colony, riddled with tiny studios and galleries. Built in tight concentric rings around a hilltop church, the crusty-walled village is like an immense mature cheese nibbled into by creative spirits.
Text and photos by Keith Mundy
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