This modern art museum is located northwest of St Paul in a pine wood on a hill, the Colline des Gardettes. Its full name is the Aimé and Marguerite Maeght Foundation and is a unique example in Europe of a private foundation.
In 1953, deeply distressed following the death from leukemia of Bernard, their youngest son, Marguerite and Aimé Maeght undertook a trip to the United States on the advice of the artist Fernand Léger. During their stay, in 1955, they visited various American foundations, including the Barnes, Phillips and Guggenheim Foundations. Slowly the idea of their creating a Foundation themselves began to take shape.
At Harvard, Aimé Maeght met the Catalan architect, Josep Lluis Serp, who had worked with Le Corbusier. In 1955, Sert built Joan Miró’s studio in Palma de Majorca and Aimé Maeght was much impressed by the beauty of the site and functional aspects of the building. Together Josep Lluis Serp and Aimé Maeght outlined the first plans for an “ideal gallery” to be built on a unique site on the French Riviera, high above the Mediterranean Sea, near the snowy peaks of the southern Alps.
The starting point for the project was a small, ruined chapel dedicated to Saint Bernard, which they discovered on the Gardettes land, very close to their own property. The couple decided to rebuild it to enable its integration into the overall architecture of the Foundation.
Even before the idea came to Aimé Maeght of creating a Foundation, St Paul was already a chosen spot for artists. They felt much at home in Mas Bernard, built on Marguerite and Aimé Maeght’s property, as well as at La Colombe d’Or, the inn owned by Titine and Paul Roux. After the death of Marguerite Maeght on 31st July 1977, Adrien Maeght, who had inherited the land and the buildings, transformed the long-term lease into a donation. Aimé Maeght died on the 5th September, 1981.
The first shovelful of earth was turned on 5th September 1960. At the outset, the construction work was to be carried out in three stages, staggered over ten years. The phases followed on one after the other without interruption for just under four years. Their aim was not to construct a traditional museum but to build a perfect gallery where works of art could be exhibited in an even, limpid, neutral and natural light. After various models, Sert found the perfect shape that, whatever the position of the sun at different times of day or in the different seasons, light rays reflected off the ground and walls onto the paintings at an angle of forty-five degrees without ever dazzling the eyes of the spectator.
In fact, this is quite noticeable. We’ve now visited the Foundation on several occasions and each time the weather was different and cast a different “feeling” inside. The sunnier the day, the better the light inside - and the more impressive the paintings became. It is almost as if the the Foundation building doubles in size - thus giving an incredible sense of space and volume to both the paintings and sculptures.
Sert chose stone, extracted from the hillside. Brick was used between the stone and the concrete of the walls, a decision which brought the local Clausonnes brickyard back into business. Three hundred thousand pink-sand coloured bricks were hand-shaped and fired in a wood-fired kiln in the local tradition. They were modelled on those of the Villa Hadrinana at Tivoli, near Rome.
On the 28th July 1964, Florence, Isabelle and Yoyo (Marguerite and Aimé Maeght’s grand-daughters) handed a red cushion bearing the keys to the Maeght Foundation to André Malraux, then Minister for Cultural Affairs.
And thus was born the first museum of modern art to be built in France since 1936 when the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris had been opened.
Once through the gates of the Foundation, pine trees stretch out on either side of the path leading to the building’s entrance hall. Manicured green lawns sprawl up to the foot of the garden wall, which is covered by a Pierre Tal-Coat mosaic.
Created in 1964, its size is enormous: 44 metres long and 2.20 metres high. It blends so well into the landscape that it is almost invisible, due to the use of earth-coloured tessera. To be honest, we didn’t notice it until our second visit as we were distracted by other sculptures positioned on the lawn. Tal-Coat’s work is inspired by Prehistory and is marked with flint veins, fault lines, witches’ circles. Our distraction was caused by several impressive sculptures (on temporary display and which change according to the chosen current exhibition) located in the front of the garden wall and in the middle of the lawn.
The museum itself consists of two buildings divided by a court of Giacometti bronze sculptures of people. The collection of modern art is exhibited in rotation in specially designed rooms. There is a lovely garden in which stands the Labyrinth with sculptures and ceramics by Miró and in the chapel of St. Bernard are stained-glass windows by Ubac and Braque.
The Foundation also has a fine bookshop stocked with an excellent range of art books, posters and lithographs as well as postcards and a variety of other souvenirs. More than 250,000 visitors come each year to the Maeght Foundation, which has put on over 100 mono-graphic or thematic exhibitions since its opening.
Its library houses more than 40,000 books on modern and contemporary art. The main parking area is next to the Foundation, nonetheless there are several further down the hill if that one is full. Lastly we must mention their small but very pleasant cafeteria, just opposite the garden. Prices are sensible and with furniture designed by Diego Giacometti it’s the perfect place to end your tour of the Foundation.
06570 St Paul de Vence
Tel: 04 93 32 81 63
Fax: 04 93 32 53 22
Open all year round 1st October - 30th June from 10h00 to 12h30 and from 14h30 until 18h00
1st July - 30 September 10h00 until 19h00 nonstop
Photographs: €2.5 (payment permits you to take photos both inside the Foundation and around the garden)