Fifty, yes that’s fifty, years ago in Provence I marveled at the clear air, soft light, pebbled beaches, northern Mistral, very violent with 65 mph gusts this October, open air markets with chickpea Socca, flowers, honeysuckle, poppies, hyacinth, lavender, Romanesque eglises, the ominpresent Roman remains and those lovely Beaux Arts buildings. Not much has changed today save the sheer numbers of Millennials in jeans and sweatshirts, no French stylishness here, meandering around the spacious plazas festooned with awkwardly unintelligible contemporary “art”.
In the 1960s on the Cote d’Azur a vague anticipation of glamor was in the air, but, alas, the south of France had already lost its panache, its chic, the Riviera set long gone, not a ghost of an impoverished aristocrat or Gerald and Sara Murphy but rather the playground of actress Brigitte Bardot. Since the 18th century the English had swarmed to Nice reaching an apex with Queen Victoria’s residence in an enormous summer palace, now the Regina hotel, and the descendants of aristocratic pre-revolutionary Russians who still live in the neighborhood of the ornate Orthodox cathedral built in 1865. A soupcon of raffish louchness persists, Maugham’s “sunny place for shady people”, in the 1,600 slip Marina in Antibes festooned with gigantic brand new yachts.
Antibes, dans ma memoire, the distant pink and blue Alps, the golden ramparts plunging directly into the cobalt Med, and half a century ago the rickety dark charm of the Old Town (built up today) . I vowed to live there someday, smoking Gauloises, drinking rouge, and writing on a balcony overlooking the sea, a la Lawrence Durrell whose Alexandria Quartet offered a fetching alternative, never taken, to Academia.
Though the petit pension on the Cap where we spent our frugal vacs, Les Coquelicots, had vanished the Grimaldi Castle, now officially the Musee Picasso, still housed the jolly yellow La Joie de Vivre which I recalled as far larger. Today the collection has expanded with photographs and ancillary exhibits, high entry fees, head sets, gift shops and a quartet of gendarmes with AK 47s with fingers resting on the triggers. They are a force a presence all over the Cote presumably since the July 14, 2016 terrorist massacre in Nice.
Provence had been part of a research journey for my thesis on the paintings of Roger Fry who loved its solid limestone rocks and farmhouses amidst the vertical cypress and horizontal plains. Deeply inspired by Cezanne whose paintings he first brought to England in 1912 naming them Post-Impressionist, he copied the master’s techniques, rather ruefully.
On this excursion I stepped through the very doorway of Cezanne’s atelier outside of Aix which I painted five years ago. Inside the high ceilinged room with walls painted neutral gray by Cezanne himself, foliage now obscuring the view of Mount St.Victoire, but the very wine bottles and statuettes he painted were miraculously intact.
#6 Cezanne’s atelier
Back then we zoomed through the Dordogne, far too drizzly like our home in England, to visit Marie Mauron in nearby St. Remy. The widow of Charles Mauron, Fry’s best friend, an eccentric literary critic now with a grand boulevard named for him, she was too busy to reminisce about all the Bloomsbury visitors, the industry in full swing and the BBC filming a documentary at the mas. This October the town square was in the throes of a wedding celebration with four tubas with the gaiety and sprezzatura of nearby Italy.
In Arles, after pizza au feu de bois (no longer allowed) and sleeping in the VW beetle on the Roman forum, we had a Perrier menthe at the Van Gogh cafe still there today unchanged and where I repeated the order. Van Gogh has become a potent marketing tool in the tourist industry and seemingly every sight he ever saw for a painting is noted. Jack and I stood on the exact spot on the Rhone where he painted Starry Night then visited the mental home where he exiled himself for a year, St.Paul de Mausole. His miniscule stone bedroom looked out on a gorgeous lavendar and almond orchard and down the road were two magnificent ornate columns of 5th century BC city of Glanum which he curiously never painted.
In 1967 we raced up the rocky bauxite mountain in the heart of the Alpilles to the fortified 12th century castle at Les Baux, sitting on the stones all day in the hot sun looking south over the plain where even the Romans dare not traverse it was so remotely forbidding. #11 Les BauxThe tiny village is still preserved intact by the vigilant French which added to the mix the Carrieres de Lumiere galleries dug into the limestone rock for immersive exhibits which this October was projecting the images of Bosch’s hell and Breughel’s sinners on the walls to the music of Carmina Burana and Led Zeppelin.
Though the Greeks were in Les Baux earlier in recorded history, the Romans are the overwhelming presence here and all over Provence which has to have a psychic impact on the Provencals, the weight of the past, the looming thereness especially of the first century AD, a tangible memento mori. The most overwhelming monument is the gigantic three tier Pont du Gard the highest Roman aqueduct in the world which carried water to Nimes from Uzes, now a UNESCO site.
And the artists the artists all the artists knew what they were doing when they chose St.Paul de Vence the intoxicating mountain town where midwestern-born F.Scott and Hemingway drank pastis and Simone and Yves lived and where Matisse recovered from cancer surgery. He gave the Dominican nuns who succored him and who still live here a thank you gift, the Chapelle du Rosaire’s stained glass windows and priest’s chasubles, which the Vatican tried unsuccessfully to buy. A Matisse museum in nearby Cimiez the hilly region north of Nice is adjacent to Roman baths and arena, housing the works of his cut out years, which hover somewhere between graphic design and art. The Chagall Museum in Cimiez down the hill contains his large iconographically rich biblical paintings but I found them muddy and formless, however precious in the details.