Picasso Chez Cézanne

Picasso Chez Cézanne

“I bought the Sainte-Victoire,” Picasso announced to his art dealer and friend, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, in September 1958, referring to Cézanne’s famed Provençal mountain. “Which one?” asked Kahnweiler, knowing there were scores of paintings of the Montagne Sainte-Victoire, from every angle, by the French artist, who was born and lived most of his life in nearby Aix-en-Provence. “The original,” Picasso replied. And he wasn’t kidding.

Having discovered that the 17th-century Château de Vauvenargues was for sale, Picasso arrived one morning at the gates of the red-shuttered stone castle, hidden away on a winding road on the mountain’s northern flank, about 15 miles northeast of Aix. But the empty castle’s caretaker, under strict instructions not to allow anyone on the property without the local real estate agent, turned away the 77-year-old artist. Disgruntled, Picasso dined at a nearby bistrot, chatted with the restaurant owner, who made a phone call, the real estate agent came running, and a deal was made. Along with the empty castle, Picasso bought a huge chunk of the surrounding hillside-nearly 2,500 acres of pine-covered scrub and red rock. He had indeed bought part of the Montagne Sainte-Victoire.

This year marks the 50-year anniversary of Picasso’s self-imposed exile in the Vauvenargues castle, where he lived with his second wife, Jacqueline Roque, from 1959 to 1961-in relative isolation, so that he could devote himself entirely to painting. The couple had been living in the Villa La Californie in the residential heights of Cannes since 1955, but the construction of high-rise apartments was ruining his sea view; there was also the nuisance of lurking tourists with binoculars hoping to catch a glimpse of the great master. The sleepy village of Vauvenargues-which even today has fewer than 700 residents-seemed the ideal retreat.

To commemorate Picasso’s arrival in Cézanne country, the Granet Museum in Aix-en-Provence has organized a major Picasso Cézanne exhibit, with some 100 paintings, drawings, watercolors, engravings and sculptures by the two artists as they evolved throughout their lifetimes. In conjunction with the show, which highlights many of Picasso’s later works from the Vauvenargues period, the added excitement is a privileged peek at the artist’s austere mountainside domain, now privately owned by Catherine Hutin, Jacqueline Picasso’s daughter by a previous marriage. For the first time, the Château de Vauvenargues is opening its doors to small groups of visitors-only 18 people per group, plus the official guide-for a 60-minute tour. The château visits will end with the exhibit, on September 27, so this is a now-or-never opportunity to see it. Advance tickets online are sold out, so the only chance to get one is at the ticket office in Aix, for same-day visits.

To fully appreciate how Vauvenargues served as Picasso’s inspirational refuge, it’s best to begin by seeing the exhibit at the Musée Granet. The show is divided into three principal themes, beginning with Cézanne’s visionary influence on modern art in general (“He was the father of us all,” affirmed Matisse), and in particular, a look at how the Aixois painter’s geometrical patchwork landscapes of rust, ochre and green served as a catalyst for Picasso’s Cubist experimentation.

Cézanne’s harmonious compositions of nature-based on the cone, the sphere and the cylinder-had a great impact on Picasso, who, as early as 1907, declared to photographer Pierre Brassaï: “Cézanne! He was my one and only master! Of course I have looked at his paintings… I have spent years studying them.”

For Cézanne, the break with tradition involved tilted planes and the relationship between objects. “The dish of apples on the bunched-up tablecloth doesn’t have the same perspective as the sugar bowl next to it,” explains Bruno Ely, head curator of the Musée Granet. “For Picasso, the break with tradition would be the fragmentation of one object, shattered into multiple points of view.”

Cézanne (1839-1906) was 42 years older than Picasso (1881-1973), and the two artists never met face to face, although they shared the same Parisian art dealer, Ambroise Vollard. Picasso, who also had a sharp eye as a collector, owned four Cézanne oil paintings and one watercolor, three of which are in the exhibition. And, in another token of his admiration for the older artist, Picasso also owned an original letter, written by Cézanne to his son Paul, which he kept in a drawer by his bedside.

The highlight of the exhibit is the second section, documenting Picasso’s lifelong mirroring of Cézanne, with their works hung side by side: still-lifes of fruit, harlequins, card players, pipe smokers, and a series of mythological bathers. One particular shared motif is the way in which Picasso portrayed his successive muses-Fernande Olivier, Françoise Gilot and Jacqueline-seated in a red armchair, just as Cézanne had painted his wife Hortense in the mid-1880s.

The third section focuses on Picasso’s stay at Vauvenargues. Many of his portraits of Jacqueline date from that intensely productive period, characterized by his darkened palette of ochre, somber greens, reds, and blacks.

The wild, isolated terrain around Vauvenargues may have reminded Picasso of the Catalan landscapes of his youth-forever left behind, since he had vowed never to return to Spain as long as General Francisco Franco was in power. “When Picasso told his art dealer friend, Kahnweiler that he’d bought an empty castle,” recounts Bruno Ely, “Kahnweiler asked him if he didn’t find the atmosphere a bit sad.”

“But you forget that I’m Spanish and I love sadness,” Picasso told him. “But isn’t it too big?” Kahnweiler suggested. “Don’t worry,” Picasso said, “I’ll fill it.” Once he moved in however, Picasso did little to decorate the spartan interior, devoting himself almost entirely to painting.

Today the château remains much as it was then, and the guided visit brings visitors immediately into the artist’s private world. There’s a mythological pipe-playing faun painted on the bathroom wall above the tub, and personal objects strewn about, from a pile of 1950s Le Figaro newspapers to the mandolin he bought while waiting for a bullfight in Arles and subsequently painted into his still lifes. His simple bedroom is adorned only with a red-and-yellow-striped headboard-inspired by the Catalan flag, and also the colors of the city of Aix-and a blood-red-and-black rug he designed himself.

His atelier, a vast room with ornate 17th-century stucco moldings and enormous bay windows facing west, has been meticulously preserved: easels, pots of Ripolin house paint, a long table that served as a palette, splattered terra cotta tiled floors, and two painted chairs-all in yellows, somber greens, reds and blacks. It looks as if the artist had simply gone off for a stroll.

The Vauvenargues visit ends with Picasso’s tomb in front of the castle, overlooking the verdant countryside-a grassy mound marked by the bronze sculpture of La Dame à L’Offrande (The Offering), chosen by Jacqueline. The sculpture had been exhibited at the 1937 Paris World’s Fair outside the Spanish Pavilion where Guernica made history as Picasso’s powerful outcry against the bombing of that small Basque city during the Spanish Civil War.

When Picasso left Vauvenargues in 1961, he moved to his last home, a big Provençal house at Notre-Dame-de-Vie, just outside of the village of Mougins north of Cannes. He died there on April 8, 1973, at age 91. Jacqueline, who committed suicide in 1986, is buried alongside him. Despite the 43-year age gap, Jacqueline and Picasso were together for the last 20 years of his life, and for 17 of those years she was the only woman he painted.

And her devotion to him was legendary. Anyone lucky enough to visit Vauvenargues on the eighth day of the month will find the oldest room in the castle, the medieval guardroom (also called the Chapelle Ardente), laden with flowers, and therein lies a tale. Since Picasso left no instructions about where he should be buried, it was initially thought that it would be in Mougins. But the town officials would not authorize the completely private burial Jacqueline wanted. So she brought Picasso’s coffin to be buried in Vauvenargues. But a freak snowstorm froze the ground and made the digging of a grave impossible. For six days and nights, Jacqueline watched over the coffin in the guardroom, until the snow melted and the grave was dug. Ever since, on the eighth of every month, for the past 36 years, the guardroom has been filled with flowers, first by Jacqueline, and then by Catherine after her mother’s death.

Just outside the guardroom is a vast terrace with a mesmerizing view of Cézanne’s mountain. Significantly, during his entire life, Picasso never once attempted to paint the Montagne Sainte-Victoire. Perhaps an ultimate tribute to the Aixois master.

Picasso Cézanne Musée Granet, Place Saint Jean de Malte, Aix-en-Provence. Reservations, [email protected] 10 Through Sept 27 website

Château de Vauvenargues Tickets can be purchased on the day of the visit at 36 rue Cardinal, Aix-en-Provence. €7.50


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