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Modern Art on the Côte d'Azur, with Mary Lynn Riley

posted on 15/06/20



I’m going to be leading Modern Art on the Cote Azur in October 2021. This trip is a pilgrimage in the footsteps of the many pioneers of modern art – Picasso, Matisse, Chagall, Braque, Léger, Bonnard – the list goes on and on.

All of these artists passed through the south at one time or another, and this passage was crucial for their art. There are many reasons for this, but the thing that strikes you first when you come here is the light and the colour, and this discovery [of the light and the colour] was essential for modernism, because in the 20th century, for the first time, colour becomes an important expressive element in and of itself.

You might say that the impressionists were the first to really exploit bright pure colour, and you would be right. But the impressionists were always concerned with the portrayal of the real world. In fact they pushed visual observation to an extreme limit, but when someone like Miró, Derain or Léger puts a colour on canvas it has nothing to do with the observed real world and everything to do with the artists’ inner reality.

Now there are many places on earth that have dazzling colours, but we have to face it, modernism began in France, specifically in Paris, and with the advent of the new rail roads it was very simple for the artists to come down here, and they did. Most of the artists, with the exception of Cézanne, Picasso and Juan Gris were from the north, so this discovery of the intense light and colour itself was a life and art altering revelation for them. Matisse said, “When I realised I could have the same light every day you cannot imagine my happiness.”. Bonnard described the colours of the south as the thousand-and-one nights.

So the artists began using colour, not to describe objects, but much in the same way that a musician uses chords, harmonies and dissonances to create an inner mood or state of mind. And in fact for some of these artists like Dufy, Chagall and Matisse, music played an important part of their lives. Léger said that for him, painting was like a musical composition.

Here in the south we are surrounded by colour. You have the ochres of the façades and the bright colours of the vegetable provençal markets, you have the green vegetation, and above all you have the endless and intense blue of the sky. You can understand why Signac and the post-impressionists who settled in St Tropez could no longer be content exploring colour in a scientific way, but they had to push it much farther and become more expressive and open the way to fauvism. Fauvism was a movement that could have only been born here in the south. We see that whole passage unfold before our eyes when we visit the Musée de l’Annonciade in St Tropez, which was the first museum in the world to be really devoted to modern art.

You will understand Matisse’s blue nude cut-outs and Yves Klein’s blue monochromes. You will understand the riotous colours of Chagall’s biblical message when you see the flower markets at Nice. You will in understand why Josep Lluís Sert felt obliged to integrate the vegetation and the sky into the design for the Foundation Maeght, and you will also understand, when you visit the Grimaldi fortress in Antibes where Picasso worked in 1946, why he said that the light was so blinding that he didn’t see any colour at all.

And for me one of the most moving experiences on the trip is the visit to the Matisse chapel in Vence, where you have the sunlight coming through these blue, green and yellow stained glass windows and it’s transformed into this sort of magical lavender light. It creates a kind of experience that I can only describe as being in the midst of Bach’s music.

There’s one final image I’d like to leave you with, and this is a small painting by Pierre Bonnard. It was done in the winter of 1943. Bonnard had just lost his wife – she had recently died – the war was raging and there was no end in sight, and Bonnard was having a hard time getting hold of things. In the midst of all of this he paints this very small landscape of Le Cannet, and you see the barren grapevines and fields, and on one side there’s this tiny barren tree that’s painted a bright turquoise blue, as if to say in the midst of all this darkness there is always hope. And in this period when we all look forward to brighter days, I’d like to share that with you.

I hope that you will all be well, I hope that we will all travel again soon, and I hope you’ll join me for the tour Modern Art on the Cote d’Azur, so that I can show you this beautiful country and share these wonderful works of art with you.


By Mary Lynn Riley
MRT lecturer


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