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France's modern art island, by Tristan Rutherford

The Times, 9 June 2018

The Fondation Carmignac gallery is Robinson Crusoe meets the Kool Aid acid test. Each visitor to the new art space, sited underground on a paradise island between Marseille and St Tropez, must down a shot upon entry. This blend of locally foraged botanicals opens the pathways of the mind. Visitors are then required to take off their shoes, in order to better commune with the Warhol and Rothko canvases within. The final descent is into a billion dollar gallery that could double as the world’s chicest nuclear bunker. Oh, and there’s an adjoining 15-hectare sculpture park created by the landscape gardener who did for Christian Loboutin and Yves Saint Laurent.

On the wild isle of Porquerolles such moneyed influence is nothing new. A century ago, Belgian goldmine owner François Fournier purchased this five-square-mile island from the French government as a wedding present for his wife Sylvia. Yep, she must have been ‘the one’. Fournier curated a maritime arcadia with all-organic vineyards and 37 miles of hiking trails that survive today. On 2 June 2018, the Fondation Carmignac opened one of the world’s finest collections of 20th century American art, which dovetails perfectly with these au naturel surrounds.

The foundation’s 39-year-old director, Charles Carmignac, guides me around. It’s like a Bond villain has invited you to see his private art collection. In a cavernous subterranean gallery we pause at Andy Warhol’s Mao Tse-Tung. I ask Charles, who pairs the striking looks and accented English of a 007 nemesis, how much the trippy screen print cost. “My father (Parisian collector and fund manager Édouard Carmignac) amassed the collection decades ago when prices were much lower,” he explains, although a similar Warhol painting recently sold in Hong Kong for $11m. The gallery’s sensory deprivation – there are no outside sounds or shards of afternoon sun – heightens focus on the canvas. “To maintain the aura we will allow no more than 50 guests into the foundation at a time,” explains Charles.

Our barefoot trail continues to One Hundred Fish Fountain by Bruce Nauman. Oh my days. It’s a house-sized installation of 97 bronze fish suspended in mid-air with wires. Water spouts from artwork’s 1,000 holes to soak visitors with the humid din of a priceless waterfall. Adjoining curations are evocative and clever. One salon pairs Roy Lichtenstein’s Collage for Nude with Red Shirt alongside images of powerful women by Massimo Berruti, a winner of the Carmignac Photojournalism Award, which the foundation sponsors. The entire scene is illuminated by an aquatic roof that rests above a glass ceiling, casting a surreal lightshow on the exhibits far below.

To understand the need for such an avant-garde gallery, Charles and I ascend into the surrounding sculpture park. “The entire island is a protected land and marine park,” he explains. As the Fondation Carmignac couldn’t disturb a single brick above ground, they had to dig a space the size of two Olympic pools below. As the vast gardens contain primary vegetation, including Serapias orchids found only on Porquerolles, Charles had to be careful where he dropped his sculptures – some of which were lowered by chopper. We wander into a fragrant forest to find dinosaur-sized eggs by the artist Nils Udo. It’s like a T-Rex just laid half a dozen then sauntered off; Jurassic Park with added art. To refresh yourself after the arty onslaught, Carmignac encourages guests to swim in the Med a few minutes away. I think I need it.

I stroll along sandy paths to Plage Notre-Dame through evening sunshine. It’s a Caribbean scene – a curving banana of sand lapped by topaz shallows. Like the Fondation Carmignac, the beach is also empty. When the last ferry returns to mainland France at 7pm (earlier outside of summer) the island reverts to its 19th-century self. Moreover, you can count the Porquerolles’ hotels on one hand, so overnighters are few. I dive in and swim out. Having a beach all to yourself in France in summer is unnervingly Edenic. I’m tempted inland.

Like a rainforest curated by L’Occitane, the island’s interior is a twilight fug of mastic, orange blossom and arbutus strawberry trees. Flowering succulents shut their blooms for the night while I watch. Calls from owls and nightjars (there are 250 local avian species to add to 2,000 species of flora) siren through a darkening sky. To reinforce the untamed atmosphere, a plumed pheasant trots alongside me. As the island was barely inhabited before it became a National Park, its animals have never been hunted and remain entirely unafraid. The island is so abundant that if Ray Mears was shipwrecked here he wouldn’t just survive, he’d grow morbidly obese.

I skirt around the Fondation Carmignac perimeter near the Tyrannosaurus eggs, and on towards my hotel. If a brontosaurus lumbered out of the undergrowth right now I wouldn’t be surprised. The island’s only streetlights surround the main place, where four gendarmes patrol the most unlikely crime centre in France. Nice work if you can get it, lads.

I’m up at dawn to beat any tourists arriving on the 9am passenger ferry. Cars are banned on Porquerolles so visitors must hire a bike (£14 for a Specialized or Cannondale) for an island tour. Tandems are available for couples who really want to put their relationship to the test. I bomb through vineyards now part of the Fondation Carmignac estate (expect tasting classes of Domaine La Courtade wines at the gallery later this summer). Crique de la Galerie is another watery Elysium that satisfies every Thesaurus synonym of blue from sapphire to ultramarine. There’s not a soul in sight so I dispense with swims, as if it’s my own private bath. Views pan across protected seas to sister island Port-Cros, where even bikes are banned lest they interfere with nesting peregrine falcons and Mediterranean tree frogs. And to Ile du Levant, home of Europe’s first naturist colony, where nut brown residents bask on rocks like seals, or by the pool at all-nude hotels.

The south side of the island is wantonly feral. Sea cliffs surround tiny bays – think rock pools for grown-ups, where colonies of grouper ignore snorkelers brave enough to paddle this far. As the coast faces Tunisia no trace of the 20th century is visible, although a 15-minute stroll inland would bring visitors face-to-face with Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring. The juxtaposition is Porquerolles in a nutshell. A wild island that hides its charm to share among the lucky few.

Read more French travel features from The Times by Kathryn and Tristan

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