Fabrizia Caracciolo journeys through the Golden Age of the Côte d'Azur, exploring the French Riviera and Provencal villages where Europe's great artists gathered and created - and examining the legacies they've left behind.
BY FABRIZIA CARACCIOLO | SEPTEMBER 2023
Villages full of history, Provence © Camilla Frances
The South of France and its well-known Riviera have always been sources of fascination, attracting intellectuals, artists and royals alike. Russian princesses in exile, English queens, decadent writers and beautiful actresses all arrived on these golden shores to indulge in the Roaring Twenties. The region could have become the setting of an epic novel, like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night.
After all, in the 1950s, the Côte d'Azur still consisted of locals and a handful of fantastic houses. Society revolved around a few grand establishments where houseguests gathered every weekend, or for a week, when the homeowners hosted parties. This was the beating heart of the place.
Beyond this more frivolous side of the French Riviera, however, painters of all schools and styles gathered, attracted by its translucent light and poetic vistas. It was during the post-war period that the Côte d'Azur really experienced its artistic ‘Golden Age’. The intense luminosity and flamboyance of its colors, combined with its Mediterranean dolce vita, tinged with sunshine and lulled by the song of cicadas, attracted artists including Jean Cocteau, Henri Matisse, Chagall, and Pablo Picasso, who each made the region their home. They left behind a prosperous legacy of masterpieces, museums, and beautiful residences, and also became a source of mutual inspiration and creativity, collaborating with local craftsmen and learning their techniques.
Aside from the more traditional museums - Matisse and Chagall in Nice, Picasso in Cannes, Braque in Biot - the Maeght Foundation represents an unclassifiable place. Created by one of the greatest couple of collectors of the 20th century, Marguerite and Aimé Maeght, the Foundation itself is a work of art. Artists have associated their work with its architecture by creating pieces intimately linked to the building and garden: mosaics by Chagall, sculptures by Giacometti, a labyrinth by Miró, a mobile by Calder.
Similarly, the famous Auberge de La Colombe d’Or in Saint Paul de Vence preserves the memory of its prestigious guests, including Picasso, Cocteau, Léger, Braque, and Calder. The inn displays some of the most astonishing masterpieces in its lively and colorful dining rooms, lobbies, and swimming pool.
Established in 1920 under the name "Chez Robinson," La Colombe d’Or started life as a lively café-bar with an open-air terrace. As it grew in popularity, its owners and founders, an art-loving couple named Paul and Baptistine Roux, extended the property and reopened as a traditional inn with three guest rooms. Its welcoming, convivial atmosphere, along with the couple’s deep interest in the arts and the inexorable pull of the Côte d'Azur, attracted numerous artists. Soon, the walls were covered with murals and paintings, often in lieu of board or meals. The Roux family continue to run and preserve La Colombe d’Or, a living museum in Provence.
Details, La Colombe d'Or © Fabrizia Carracciolo
It was in Vallauris that Picasso, after settling in the small town in 1947, engaged in an intense production of ceramics. Located between Cannes and Antibes, Vallauris had for centuries been renowned for its masterful potters. The thousands of original works that emerged until 1954 from Picasso’s Madoura studio bear witness to the skills of the prolific artist who enjoyed modeling, incising, and painting clay.
Dishes, pitchers, and other vases were populated with Picasso’s emblematic themes, such as fauns, strange animals, and bullfighting scenes. The Spanish master’s great friend, Robert Picault, with whom he collaborated, also created another innovative technique, which would prove a great success: his signature geometric motifs.
Similarly, a real revolution occurred at the Ateliers Hugo in Aix-en-Provence when Picasso visited the goldsmith workshop in 1955. The artist wanted to create silver dishes from his ceramic models made in Vallauris. Transcribing ceramics into metal was not easy: the whole challenge lay in faithfully reproducing the embossed and enamelled drawings. The chiseled repousse technique was used, which required many tests before reaching a satisfactory conclusion, but the results were wonderful.
Picasso guarded this series carefully, and the collaboration soon attracted other artists: Jean Cocteau, Max Ernst, André Derain, and Alexander Calder. They all decided to work with Hugo. At that time, the workshop's activity focused on jewellery interpreted as wearable sculpture, creating unique pieces exclusively for the artists. The atelier continued its collaboration with new artists, including Robert Matta and Jean Arp.
Picasso's silver dishes in Vallauris © Fabrizia Caracciolo
François then negotiated with Picasso to adapt his silver dishes into gold medals, thanks to Picasso's wife, Jacqueline, who wanted to wear them. François had a bright idea: to buy back the publishing and reproduction rights. From then on, only the workshop could manufacture and sell the works, identifying itself with its artists.
Today, Nicolas, François' grandson, still runs the atelier, maintaining its traditional craftsmanship while also implementing collaborations with the most talented contemporary artists, such as Josh Sperling and Ugo Rondinone (“Sorry we are Closed” Gallery). The current exhibition at the Vallauris Museum, "Picasso-Ateliers Hugo: Les hommes d'Or," retraces the dialogue between ceramics and goldsmith-ing. It is the first major exhibition about the entire collaboration between the Spanish master and the French goldsmith, celebrating the 50th anniversary of Picasso's death and the 90th anniversary of the beginning of François Hugo's career as a goldsmith.
The region and its history continues to inspire businesses and creatives across the world. From her secluded 18th-century home on the moors above Yorkshire, Daisy Little, an art historian and creative director, curates an online gallery, A Hare in the Forest, specialising in mid-20th century art and decorative objects.
Her collection usually includes a selection with a connection to the Cote d’Azur, such as original lithographs by leading 20th-century artists who lived and worked there, including Jean Cocteau, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, and the architect, Charles-Edouard Jeanneret ('Le Corbusier'). “I have always been drawn to the rich colours and vistas of the Cote d'Azur,” says Little.
Lithograph © A Hare in the Forest
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Fabrizia Caracciolo is a writer and art consultant, based in Milan and Paris, and a regular contributor to Cabana | Follow Fabrizia on Instagram: @fabulousfabri
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