The Musée Picasso in Antibes reopened in July after an extensive two-year renovation. Housed in the centuries-old former Château Grimaldi, built on the site of the ancient Greek city of Antipolis, the museum has the old village of Antibes at its front door, and the Mediterranean at its back. It exhibits an impressive collection of Picasso’s paintings, drawings, and ceramics, as well as works of other modern and contemporary artists.
The Musée Picasso in Antibes was the first museum devoted to Picasso’s work alone; the city council of Antibes renamed their Château Grimaldi in Picasso’s honor in 1966. Twenty years earlier, the curator of the Château, Dor de la Souchère, had invited Picasso and his companion, the painter Françoise Gilot, to set up their studio on the second floor of what was then the museum of the history of Antibes. Picasso and Gilot worked in their château studio throughout the autumn of 1946, leaving at the end of November, when the building—sited high above the sea, with single-paned windows offering little protection from the mistral—became too cold to work in. They returned to Paris, but Picasso left 23 paintings behind, a gift to the museum. Those 23 paintings form the nucleus of the collection.
Those 23 paintings marked a change in the destiny of the museum of Antibes. In 1947, a gallery dedicated to Picasso’s works opened, followed by, in 1948, a special exhibition of Picasso’s works; more galleries devoted to Picasso opened in 1949, and two years later, in 1951, museum curator Dor de la Souchère began to collect modern art for the museum. For the following 15 years, the château was divided between rooms showing works of Picasso and modern artists—on the second floor—and rooms containing documents, paintings and material culture documenting the history of Antibes on the other levels. That changed in 1966, when the historical collections were moved out and all of the galleries were redesigned to exhibit Picasso and the modern art collection, and the château’s name was changed to the Musée Picasso.
We spent a recent afternoon exploring the renovated museum. It had rained the day before, and the wind following the rain had blown all night—which meant that the day of our museum visit was gloriously clear. We left our car in the vieux Port parking and bypassed the enormous yachts and old men playing boules, walking instead through the arch in the old city walls and into the narrow streets of the vieux village of Antibes. Up the hill, we followed the signs to the Musée Picasso: past the cafés with their sidewalk tables, past the shops selling everything from lavender sachets to coffee pots to signs to hang in your beach house. We turned left at the Hôtel de Ville—it was a Saturday afternoon, and there was a wedding going on inside; the bedecked wedding car was parked directly in front of a no parking sign—and walked up the—steeper and narrower—street to the place in front of the peach and ochre cathedral of Antibes, the seat of one of the most powerful bishoprics in France for almost a thousand years. There was another wedding, and another illegally parked, decorated wedding car, this time an old Citroen 2CV, just in front.
The Picasso museum was just a little further now. Built as the château of the ruling family, it was, as is the castle in nearly every other French town, next to beside the cathedral: church and state, the two major authorities, next door. In Antibes, the château has pride of place over the cathedral, being a little higher up, at the very top of the hill. We walked through a square, up a cobbled ramp and entered.
All the necessary facilities—tickets, toilets, cloakroom and bookshop—occupy the ground floor of the museum. Passing through the entrance hall, we followed more signs, up two levels to rooms displaying Picasso’s works. During the recent renovations, the former castle guard room which Picasso and Gilot used as their studio in 1946 was turned into a gallery, displaying many of the works that Picasso began and finished in that burst of productivity in the autumn of 1946. They are framed as Picasso directed them to be, in black iron frames, and hung around the white walls of the high-ceilinged room. The windows are small and sparse—what you would expect in a medieval guardroom perched on a sea cliff—and yet the lighting in the room has been designed to give the impression of cool daylight. We walked through the room, soaking in the paintings of fauns and sea urchins, centaurs and fish. Between the paintings, through the windows, we had glimpses of the twin blues of the sea and sky, puncuated by white boats skimming along or delicately bobbing at their moorings.
Down a half flight, we walked through a smaller room dedicated to photographs of Picasso and Gilot, their studio and friends, during that autumn 60 years ago. Picasso is in short trousers and sandals. He glares at the camera, defying it to interrupt his work. Dishes from lunch are stacked nearby on a worktable, where they share space with an array of wine bottles, glass jars of paintbrushes, painters’palettes, and tins of turpentine. Gilot, forty years younger than her companion, is beautiful and glowing and elegantly dressed, looking into the camera with a slightly ironic expression. Friends drop by, and everyone lines up in front of one of the canvases: men in suits, women in print dresses and hats, Gilot with her hair done almost like a schoolgirl, and Picasso in his short trousers.
We began, then, to sense an atmosphere: Antibes in late-summer days, the second year after the occupying army of the war had been driven out by the Allies. The French economy was still reeling—the paintings that Picasso did in those months, he did with the cheapest materials available, using recycled canvas, wood, because that was what there was. But those paintings convey an almost elemental joy: mythical creatures level their gaze out from the canvases, daring the viewer to doubt their reality. Still lifes show platters of seafood, bottles of wine; a marvelously exotic aiguière, or pitcher, shows up again and again. Picasso turned 66 in 1946 and Françoise Gilot was 25. The first of their two children together was born the following year. The war, and the occupation, was over. We sensed a return to life, a guarded optimism. Picasso’s works recalled the ancient Mediterranean past of this castle mount, reaching back to the Greeks and their myths, and placed them side by side with today’s seafood platter and carafe of rosé in one long continuum of sea and light and life.
Downstairs, we walked through galleries devoted to the museum’s collection of other modern artists and stopped for a while in front of Nicolas de Stael’s painting of Antibes’ Fort Carré, all greys and blues, the colors of the coast in a storm. Downstairs, too, we began to feel the presence of the château itself. Out from under Picasso’s domineering gaze, we noticed the vestiges of the medieval castle: intricate carvings in doorframes and a differently shaped hand-cast terracotta tile pattern for the floor of each room. Each time we passed a window, the sea caught our eye and reminded us where we were.
Back on the ground floor, we went through a door in the inner courtyard and found ourselves face to face with the sea itself. The museum’s back terrace is a sculpture garden and an overlook: we looked to the east and took in the Cap d’Antibes, to the west, past the port of Antibes and along to Nice, and south, across the blue of the sea. That afternoon we understood why those paint chips in hardware stores call it Mediterranean blue: the sea after the rain and the wind was a brilliant deep blue. The sky was so clear that the line where it met the sea was sharp. Seagulls called and swooped and played on the breeze, and a wedding procession drove by on the street below us, horns blaring in celebration.
We stood on the terrace for a long time, alternately studying the sculptures and the view, before we wandered out of the museum and back down into the town. The wedding in the cathedral was finished, and guests were milling around checking their watches and getting directions to the reception. Outside the Hôtel de Ville, the guests for another wedding were gathered, waiting for the bride and groom to come out of their civil wedding ceremony. We joined them, just behind the (again illegally parked) vintage Bentley; in a few minutes, the couple—she in full-length beaded white satin, he in tails—and their toddler, dressed for the occasion in a very small suit, emerged to the cheers of the assembled. On the way back to the car, we made one more stop, for ice cream. We chose two kinds—nutella and watermelon (not together)—and sat on a bench with our cones while Antibes went by. It wasn’t quite like having a drink with Picasso, but it wasn’t bad.
If you go:
The villages of Antibes and Juan-les-Pins share a website that provides parking information, maps, restaurants, and several pages on the Picasso Museum: www.antibes-juanlespins.com//fr/culture/musees/picasso. Click the English flag for an excellent translation.
If you want to be able to show off your Picasso knowledge to your friends and dear ones, you can spend a month or two noodling around in the online catalogue raisonnée of Picasso’s life and work that you’ll find at: http://picasso.tamu.edu/picasso/. If you want to show off a little less, google over to http://www.time.com/time/time100/artists/profile/picasso.html, which has a thorough if a little worshipful biography of the artist. Speaking of worshipful, a not-so worshipful perspective on Picasso is Françoise Gilot’s memoir of their time together, Life with Picasso (New York, 1989), which inspired the film duo Merchant Ivory to produce Surviving Picasso (1996). If you’re interested in Gilot but don’t want to read an actual book, check out http://www.francoisegilot.com/, which features many of her artworks and a chronology of her life, pre-, during and post-Picasso (did you know she was married Jonas “polio vaccine” Salk for twenty years?). Finally, John Richardson’s definitive biography of Picasso (A Life of Picasso, New York, 2007) will get you up to 1932—Richardson hasn’t gotten past that himself, but if you read up on that much, I promise everyone will be speechless with awe.
If you’re hungry after your afternoon at the museum, and if all that showing off means that you have to sweeten the deal for your companions, a stop at the Gelateria del Porto (4, rue Aubernon, vieil Antibes, 06.17.17.23.08) will help. Jean Marc makes it all himself. Nutella gelato is a year-round treat; watermelon (pastèque in French) is seasonal.