Cultural Travel on Picasso’s Track from Antibes to Avignon

SOUTHERN FRANCE is always Picasso country, what actrack travellers is the  beach at Antibes with the Musée Picasso in the background.This season is an especially good time to follow Picasso’s trail on the Riviera and in Provence. Two major exhibitions explore pivotal themes in his long and varied career, and the French tourist office is suggesting a 10-stop self-guided Picasso tour from Antibes, the location of the enchanting Musée Picasso, to Avignon, which Picasso first visited in 1912 with his fellow painter Georges Braque.

More than 150 paintings, sculptures, drawings and ceramic pieces are on display. The exhibition celebrates the museum’s recent renovation and sheds new light on the work of Picasso’s Antibes period, which is characterized by an almost palpable sense of joy owing to the presence of a new love in his life — Françoise Gilot, who was 40 years younger than he — as well as the end of World War II.

In the summer of 1946, Picasso and Gilot were staying in a nearby villa. The Château Grimaldi was a provincial antiquities museum to which its enterprising curator, Romuald Dor de la Souchère, had hopes of adding a collection of modern painting. During a chance meeting on the beach one day, he approached Picasso about donating a painting, and though Picasso at first demurred, in the end this conversation led to Antibes getting a museum full of Picassos.

Both the artist and the museum curator acknowledged that had they set out to create a Picasso museum, it may never have happened. In the end, the sheer quantity and scale of the works determined that some sort of legacy would remain at the chateau. The current exhibit reunites those large works, which Picasso could not take with him when the cold drove him from the drafty chateau in November, with smaller ones that he did carry away (and that are now returning for the first time). Included among them are many drawings never before exhibited that provide a window into Picasso’s artistic process, which Bernardo Laniado-Romero, former director of the Picasso museum in Malaga, Spain, describes as “the laboratory” of his ideas. “If you want to understand the meanings of his paintings, you need to look at the drawings he was creating at the same time,” Laniado-Romero said in an interview.

Several drawings on view trace Picasso’s evolution of the theme of the “femme-fleur” — images of a woman (again, Françoise Gilot) transformed into a flower — that seem almost childlike representations of fertility. Indeed, in the fall of 1946, she was already pregnant with the first of their two children, but as she recounted in her 1964 memoir “Life with Picasso,” their day-to-day existence was not all flowers and joie de vivre. She eventually left him in 1953 — the only one of his lovers to do so.

Not far from the museum, Picasso often sketched at the beach at La Garoupe, a cove on the Cap d’Antibes. Today, beyond the usual swimming and sunbathing, the beach offers travelers a lovely promenade winding along the sea. In the old town of Antibes, there are lots of charming cafes, restaurants and crêperies to try out, and a bustling morning produce and flower market changes in the afternoon to a place where artisans sell handicrafts.

Vallauris has its own Musée Picasso, in the chateau on the main square where the bronze cast of the sculpture “Man With Sheep” has stood since Picasso donated it to the town in 1949. The museum exhibits some of his ceramics, and from June 27 through Oct. 12 will also explore Picasso’s links to the modernist poet and author Blaise Cendrars. Its biggest draw, however, is the War and Peace memorial, which Picasso painted from 1952 to 1957 to decorate the building’s small Romanesque chapel. Considered his last work of overtly political art, it juxtaposes menacing images of war and idyllic scenes of shepherds and rural life.

From the Granet, visitors can arrange — during the exhibition — to tour the Château de Vauvenargues, where Picasso and Jacqueline are buried in the garden. Jacqueline’s daughter, Catherine Hutin, is opening the house to the public for the first time as a complement to the museum exhibit. The tour includes the principal rooms of the chateau — including Picasso’s large second-floor studio, dominated by a grand Baroque fireplace surmounted with carved figures and the heraldic crest of a previous owner. Miraculously, this bit of pomposity manages to blend into the otherwise stripped-down and whitewashed room. Easels stand in the corners, and jars of oil paints and brushes are stacked neatly on several tables, as if the artist might return at any moment.

From the windows there are views of Mont Sainte-Victoire rising above the neighboring pine forests — much as Cézanne might have painted it. Also on the second floor is the master bedroom, with its quirky orange-and-gold-striped headboard fashioned from a Catalan flag. The master bath is adorned with a mural depicting a pastoral scene with a faun that Picasso painted in the spring of 1959. According to Ms. Hutin, it was in this room that family meetings often took place with Picasso in the tub, like a 20th-century Sun King at his levée.

Though the chateau has an elaborately decorated 19th-century chapel on the ground floor, the funerals for both Picasso and Roque were held in the more informal and rustic Guards Hall. Its large open fireplace remains full of plants and flowers and is dotted with a few of the artist’s sculptures in a sort of discreet but ongoing tribute.

Visitors will see a seven-minute video montage of family movies showing life in the chateau with the comings and goings of Picasso’s family and friends. The artist even hams it up a bit for the camera in this never-before-shown footage.

From Aix, the other Provençal towns featured on the Picasso itinerary are within easy distance. Worth a visit are Arles, with its bullring and colorful atmosphere that reminded Picasso of his native Spain, and Avignon. Though his pivotal masterpiece “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” was actually painted in Paris five years before Picasso ever visited the town, it was here in this former city of popes that the high priest of 20th-century art began his enduring love affair with the south of France.

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