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When sunshine made art, by Tristan Rutherford

Camper & Nicholsons SEA+I Magazine, October 2019

The Cote d’Azur has a curious microclimate. The ski slopes of the Alpes-Maritimes serve to trap clouds from northern Europe. Which in turn allows southern sunshine to orbit from Menton to St Tropez for 300 days per year. The region is unencumbered by noisy industry or raging rivers, leaving it bereft of pollution or mistral winds. The final piece of the jigsaw is the sea, which is tinted electric blue by a wondrous mix of minerality. It reflects a glorious light over markets, islets, sailboats, sunbathers and seaside chateaux. It’s as if the universe conspired to create the perfect backdrop for artistic greats to paint.  


Claude Monet came first. In 1884 he set up his easel in Monaco. Liana vines and lemon trees caused him to call the Principality "the most beautiful spot on the entire Riviera." His savvy itinerary included Cap Martin. Here searing sun shone on jump-right-in seas, allowing Monet to create an impression that valued movement and colour over artistic representation. His brushes stroked other superyacht hotspots, like Plage de la Salis on the Cap d’Antibes. Today the beach’s Restaurant Keller shuttles in sailors by RIB for evening soirées of Salade de Homard and Domaines Ott rosé. 


Other artists followed the impressionism trail. Paul Signac sailed his yacht Olympia into an untouched seaside village little changed today. Its name was barely known back then: St Tropez. On canvas Signac captured fishing boats moored stern-to in the Vieux Port, alongside matelots, boulistes and harbourside cafés. A century ago life was radiant, placid and gloriously inexpensive. Pierre Bonnard made three trips to Signac’s St Tropez mansion but settled on a villa in Cannes.


That same luminosity that attracts today’s sailors struck these artists like a ray of sunshine. In the words of Henri Matisse, who visited both Signac and Bonnard before settling on Nice’s Cours Saleya: “When I understood that I would see this light every morning I couldn’t believe my good fortune.” 


Hitherto this artistic legacy has been bound within fascinating, if fusty, public museums, including St Tropez’s Musée de l'Annonciade, Cannes’ Musée Bonnard and Nice’s Musée Matisse. This year a range of one-of-a-kind galleries reveal art in sublime locations synonymous with South of France sass. 


The story of Villa Santo Sospir on Cap Ferrat starts with a house guest who refused to leave. One evening in 1950, Jean Cocteau was invited for dinner by French socialite Francine Weisweiller, an early patron of both Yves Saint-Laurent and Cristóbal Balenciaga. Cocteau ended up staying 11 years. During that time the artist tattooed the villa’s walls with sexually charged dreamscapes. A sleeping angel with generous décolletage points the way to the bedrooms. One of them contains a vast fresco of Greek demigod Pan, a lover of both men and women, and an early homosexual symbol. Muscular wall-sized images of Narcissus and Echo cavort in the romantic freedoms for which the French Riviera was known. 


While living in the Cap Ferrat villa, Cocteau would sail his artsy colleagues over from Villefranche. Each one painted and decorated the Villa Santo Sospir until it resembled a living museum. Pablo Picasso and Raoul Dufy added mosaics and doodles. Pastis-fuelled art discussions with Marlene Dietrich and Jean Marais turned the property into a salon. Actress Greta Garbo motored over from her home on Cap d’Ail - and was so overwhelmed she didn’t utter a single word over dinner. 


As Francine Weisweiller’s health declined, the Villa Santo Sospir was preserved in situ. The antique bottles of Guignolet and Crème de menthe in the cocktail cabinet remain half-drunk. Weisweiller’s former nurse, Eric Marteau, now welcomes respectful aesthetes to a 360° private art experience. Visitors too timid to call Marteau can book through the Grand Hotel de Cap Ferrat, a short walk away. The establishment’s Michelin-starred chef will prepare dinner in the Villa Santo Sospir’s living room, where Picasso and Cocteau once discussed the artistic legacies of Monet and Matisse. In return Marteau is welcomed as an old friend to the Grand Hotel’s Club Dauphin sea lounge. (Here bon vivant Ian Fleming once reclined beside the French Riviera’s first swimming pool. Those celebrating may order Château d'Yquem. Although selecting a year will be tricky, as the hotel stocks every vintage since the 1880s.) 


Fans of 007 will recognise another new art experience on the National Park island of Porquerolles near St Tropez. As park rules forbid the building of a museum, the Fondation Carmignac was constructed completely underground like a Bond villain’s lair. It took workers a decade to unearth a gallery space the size of two Olympic swimming pools. The result is a chic nuclear bunker adorned with what Wallpaper called “an effervescent mix of 60 contemporary artworks, sculptures and installations”. Think a portrait of Mao Tse-tung by Andy Warhol, plus a portrait of fondation founder Édouard Carmignac by Jean-Michel Basquiat. Lighting issues were solved by installing an aquatic ceiling - essentially a gigantic glass-bottomed lake - over the subterranean exhibits below. 


Like so many attractions on the Cote d’Azur, the Fondation Carmignac is playful, guarded, esoteric and hush-hush. To retain the top secret feel, only a handful of island visitors may tour the galleries at one time. All must reserve ahead. On entry viewers are invited to drink a shot of island-foraged botanicals to open the cranial pathways - an experience you won’t find at the Paris Louvre. 


A far larger sculpture park sits just outside. Here visitors are encouraged to swim in the Mediterranean, then pad barefoot through wild orchids to discover mammoth art statements by Jaume Plensa and Nils Udo. It’s breathtakingly unique. But when the fondation closes for the day, and the last public ferry returns to the mainland at 7pm, the island reverts to its feral self. Porquerolles’ 200 residents sleep to the sound of nightjars and turtle doves, a soundtrack offered to sailors lucky enough to be anchored offshore. 


One would need a speedboat to sail through the Camargue wetlands to the South of France’s final new art outpost. LUMA, in the city of Arles, is an art foundation sited in former SNCF locomotive shop. This cavernous industrial space has been reborn as a multi-disciplinary gallery showcasing photography, short films, 20th-century art retrospectives, architecture shows and theatre. 


In 2020 the former rail sheds will be crowned by a 56m tower by Frank Gehry, the architect behind Bilbao's Guggenheim Museum. Gehry’s jaggedy aluminium edifice will mirror Arles’ craggy mountain surrounds. Vincent van Gogh painted the same scenic backdrop in 1888, before lopping of his ear following a fight with fellow Arles resident Paul Gauguin. But that’s a story for another day. 

Click here for more yachting stories from the South of France 

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