Pablo Picasso’s Storied Time on the Riviera

Pablo Picasso cut a spectacular path through the Riviera. He was brilliant, cruel, and captivating. By the time he died in 1973 at his villa in Mougins, five miles inland from Cannes, Picasso had lived in the French Riviera and Provence for nearly three decades after relocating semi-permanently from Paris, where he moved from his native Spain in 1904.

pablo picasso at his villa in mougins

The Cote d’Azur, with its mimosa blossoms, olive groves and sun-drenched hills, was closer geographically and perhaps spiritually to his mother country, from which he had been in exile after his stance against the fascist dictator Francisco Franco.

Picasso fell under the southern spell of Provence and the French Riviera on his first visit to Avignon in 1912 (his masterpiece Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, painted in 1907, refers to a street with the same name in Barcelona), and he visited frequently during the 1920s and 1930s. In 1945, already in his sixties, with Paris liberated but hardly recovered from the war, he began to voyage there more regularly.

pablo picasso with brigitte bardot at his villa in cannes

Always restless, he passed through Menerbes, where he had bought a home for his former lover Dora Maar, and Golfe-Juan, where he bunked at a friend’s villa. He spent time in Arles, Aix-en-Provence, Cannes, Vallauris, and Antibes, the latter two of which have dedicated Picasso museums, as of course, does Paris.

Musee Picasso in Antibes

The Musee Picasso in Antibes sits ablaze in white-hot sunlight on the edge of the Mediterranean, housed in a 17th-century chateau with ramparts that plunge right into the rocks below. The time he spent there in the autumn of 1946 represents a tiny but pivotal sliver in the artist’s life. As is frequently the case with Picasso, it was buoyed by energy from a new muse and love, the painter Françoise Gilot, whom he had met three years earlier in occupied Paris.

In her 1964 memoir Life with Picasso, Gilot writes of her first visit to what was then known as Chateau Grimaldi in Antibes: “You’re going to swear here that you love me forever,” she recalls him saying, and she duly obeyed, though Gilot would leave him in 1953. But her presence in Antibes was vital to the sense of regeneration as a man and as an artist that Picasso felt during his stay. While there, she learned she was pregnant, and her son, Claude, was born the following May.

chateau grimaldi, now the picasso museum, on the water in antibes

The chateau was at the time a struggling museum of Napoleon-era collectibles, and Picasso had coincidentally tried to buy the building two decades earlier. In 1946, with plenty of empty space to fill, the curator agreed to let Picasso use the second floor as his atelier.

Still as prolific as he had been in his youth, Picasso began painting with astonishing vigor and excitement, on any of the scarce materials available in postwar Antibes: plywood, fiber cement panels, boat paint and Ripolin, which was cheap, and ready-mixed.

When he left the chateau in late November (when its name was officially changed to the Musee Picasso), he donated 23 paintings and 44 drawings from his stay there and later, an extraordinary collection of unique ceramics he made in nearby Vallauris, in which Franoise’ s curvaceous body is often transformed into pots that evoke an ancient heritage.

The museum, filled with the work Picasso made there and soon after, represents an almost perfect time capsule. The Antibes period shows a palpable sense of renewal, marked by a profound visual response to the light, atmosphere and rituals of the Mediterranean setting (sea urchins, fish, fisherman); it’s also bursting with ardor for Françoise, the woman with whom he would share the next years.

It is most masterfully embodied in Joie de Vivre (1946), the largest painting in the collection. “This conveys Picasso’s joy after World War II at being on the shores of the Mediterranean, in the company of Françoise Gilot,” says Marilyn McCully, leading Picasso specialist who has most recently written about his visits to the Cote d’Azur in the 1920s and 1930s. “The mixture of her presence –the dancing nymph in the center– and creatures drawn from mythology who dance around her in the composition clearly demonstrates how Picasso brought personal and ancient associations together in his work.”

A Germaine Richier sculpture outside the picasso musee

Outside on the Museum’s terrace, the lapis watery backdrop makes an ideal setting for the sculptures of Germaine Richier, which evoke both the antiquity associated with the Mediterranean region and the modern that Picasso so boldly represents indoors. Given his unfortunate reputation with women, chronicled so forcefully by Gilot herself, it’s a bit of karmic irony to have these bronzes here, standing tall above the water like sentries. Even more delicious to have them immortalized by Graham Greene, who lived in Antibes for 25 years — the confluence of art, literature and history that is a matter of course on the Cote d’Azur.

“Gusts of rain blew along the ramparts, and the emaciated statues on the terrace of the Chateau Grimaldi dripped with wet,” he writes in the opening lines of Chagrin in Three Parts, “and there was a sound absent during the flat blue days of summer, the continual rustle below the ramparts of the small surf.”

Germaine Richier, born in 1902, came of age in the arts at a time when they were affected, scarred and molded by the devastation of two world wars. She was also of a generation where the artistic talents of women such as Camille Claudel were largely ignored and sculpture still presented itself mostly in figures that were heroic, macho renderings of the permanence of man.

“We are from the same family”, Picasso reportedly told Richier at one of the Salons de Mai in Paris, where the sculptress’s work was shown for the first time in 1947.

The two artists met again in Antibes, at the museum which did not yet bear his name, but in which Picasso’s work in Antibes had been shown to the public since 1947. Richier responded enthusiastically when she was offered to exhibit her sculptures in the summer of 1959 – one of the factors undoubtedly was that the Arles-born artist was happy to be welcomed by the Malaga-born painter.

She died in 1959 while setting up an exhibition at the Musee Picasso; the pieces here are both the largest in scale and biggest grouping of her work. They embody a time where a heroic self-perception of man (and woman) has been marred and questioned by the horrible deeds perpetrated in World War II. They portray Mankind as a reduced vulnerable hybrid shell-here, in front of a deep blue Mediterranean background.

Nothing is more French: existential questioning, violent history, against a beautiful cultivated setting, on the ramparts of a onetime fortress, outside of a former atelier where love, life and creation took hold.

Picasso’s Villa in Cannes: Villa California

Villa La Californie was built in Cannes in 1920. Pablo Picasso bought Villa La Californie in 1955 and lived there with his last wife and muse, Jacqueline Roque until 1961, when they abandoned it because another building was built that blocked his sea view. It was here that the Spanish artist created his masterpiece ‘The Bay of Cannes’.

picasso’s villa california

His granddaughter, Marina Picasso, inherited the house at age 22. Since Ms Picasso inherited the villa, she has renovated it in 1987, renaming it the ‘Pavillon de Flore’. It has since acted as a museum and gallery open to the public. In 2015 she put the house up for sale, stating to the press that it came with less than fond memories of an “indifferent” grandfather.

Marina Picasso’s father was Picasso’s son by his first wife, Olga Khokhlova, a Russian-Ukrainian ballerina. He was humiliated by being forced to work as the artist’s chauffeur. Marina Picasso remembers being taken to the gates of the grand three-story house, La Californie, by her impoverished father, Paulo, to beg for handouts from an indifferent Picasso.

“It’s not a house where I have a lot of good memories,” she said. “I saw very little of my grandfather there. With hindsight, I understand that he may have been captivated by painting and nothing else was more important to him. Except when you’re a child, you don’t experience it like that.” Fifteen years of therapy helped Marina Picasso come to terms with the bitter memories. She vented her anger in a 2001 memoir, “Picasso, My Grandfather.”

The sale “will be a way for me to turn the page on a rather painful story,” she told the newspaper Nice-Matin. She has reportedly received an offer of nearly £110 million for the villa, along with an extensive collection of his works.

Picasso’s Villa in Mougins: Notre-Dame-de-Vie

After Villa La Californie, Pablo Picasso and his wife Jacqueline bought another villa, this time in Mougins, where Picasso lived for 12 years, until his death in 1973 at age 91. During that time, the painter, more closed in on himself, worked tirelessly, turning the house of Notre-Dame-de-Vie into a gigantic artistic workshop.

THE PICASSO VILLA WHERE THE ARTIST SPENT THE LAST 12 YEARS OF HIS LIFE

The long saga of the 15-bedroom property and three-hectare estate started long before the Spanish painter bought it, when for decades it belonged to the Anglo-Irish Guinness brewing family. Benjamin Seymour Guinness first spotted the spectacular Mas de Notre Dame de Vie property in the 1925.

Situated in Mougins – a 15-minute car ride inland of Cannes on the French Riviera – the property was then a “mas” (a traditional farmhouse) but Guinness, a banker and philanthropist descended from the banking arm of the Guinness family, and his artist wife Bridget converted it into a luxurious villa.

The warm-all-year-round climate and the gorgeous light of the surrounding area soon made Mougins a desirable destination for artists both amateur and professional. Illustrious celebrities were frequent visitors, among them Winston Churchill, who liked to paint on the grounds of the sprawling villa. Churchill was a good friend of Benjamin and Bridget and became a regular visitor to their Mougins home, spending many a summer’s day and night sitting in their garden painting.

An artist of a different category altogether, Pablo Picasso, was also a friend of the Guinnesses and, like Churchill, became a regular visitor to their home. So taken was Picasso by Mas de Notre Dame de Vie that he eventually bought the house from Benjamin and Bridget’s son Loel.

The property dates from the 18th century and has extensive views on the massif of Estérel and the Bay of Cannes. It’s composed of various dwellings and during the most recent remodeling was enlarged with a number of sophisticated additions such as new glass windows, a pool house, swimming pool, elevator, air conditioning, spa, garages, house for caretakers and various other annexes until financial difficulties and marital conflicts of the owner stopped the work that was left unfinished.

After the master’s death at this villa in 1973, his widow Jacqueline Roque withheld inheritance and feuded with Picasso’s children. A spiteful woman, Roque also barred the grandchildren that were a result of Picasso’s first marriage, Marina Picasso and her brother Pablito, from the artist’s funeral. Pablito Picasso committed suicide a few days later. Jacqueline lived in the villa until 1986, when she committed suicide (by shooting herself) there.

It was Jacqueline’s daughter from a previous marriage, Catherine Hutin-Blay, who inherited the estate. It stayed abandoned for almost 30 years, and she sold it in 2007 to the Dutch entrepreneur for €12 million. He had fallen in love with the house, pledged €10 million worth of extensive remodeling and renamed it “Cavern of the Minotaur” in honor of Picasso’s obsession with the mythical beast.

The only original space from the Picasso period is the studio in the main house that the legendary artist had created by opening several spaces and which still bears traces of paint but none of his works.

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