There is a place in which art and architecture are perfectly integrated, in aesthetic style and function, creating a sensation that is both calming and exciting at the same time. The Fondation Maeght in Saint-Paul-de-Vence (Southern France, near Nice) is my all-time favourite museum.
It must have been incredible to live in the midst of the art world of the late 50s and early 60s – and have money to be an integral part of it. Patrons Margherite and Aimé Maeght hired the Catalan architect Josep Lluis Sert to create a modern building that stands out from the wooded landscape of the area. It was opened as a museum in 1964. Still essentially in the form it had then, part of the space is dedicated to contemporary art exhibitions while the rest houses the permanent collection.
The architect worked closely with the artists whose works would become integral parts of the structure and its gardens: Mirò, Chagall and others. Both the works and the building are, I think, best described with the adjective whimsical. There is a hapiness and lightness throughout that is perfectly balanced with the serenity of the place.
I have been to this museum twice, in December 2000 with my parents, and in August 2008 because I wanted to share it with Tommaso, my husband. In the summer there are unquestionably more tourists, and this museum is hardly ‘undiscovered’, welcoming 200,000 visitors per year. Despite the crowds, which can be somewhat beaten if you get an early start, it’s best to visit in the spring or summer when you can best enjoy the sculpture gardens. The museum itself is not large, but has various nooks and crannies, sections here and there, and corners of the garden and private chapel that make you feel like an explorer as you make your way around.
Fountains and water are present both inside and out, and in fact thanks to large, frameless windows, in some points you feel like you’re about to step into the fountain. Chagall’s mosaics in this courtyard fountain shimmer under water, while you can sit on a bench in front of the window in zen-like contemplation of the scene.
Art on the walls is hung using a various techniques, sometimes using the full height of the space, other times tiled, or again in some areas arranged in a tight line at eye-height.
Paintings and landscape don’t compete, but rather are in harmony, as frames towards the outside are as important as what’s hung in frames on the wall.
On a larger scale, there are paralells also between the overall shape of the building, with two distinct upwards-curving roof elements, and some of the large sculptures by Mirò outside that seem equally happy. I adore Mirò in this phase.
There is a positivism here that represents the 60s, a moment of creativity and potential that we need to remember and reappropriate right now in this period of crisis. Go now to the Fondation Maeght, and be happy.
Beyond the museum: Saint-Paul
The Fondation is just outside the town of Saint-Paul. If you park along the road before going uphill to the museum, you can also easily walk into the historical center of the town, which offers 2 or 3 little well-preserved stone streets and charming doors and plants to photograph. Stores are mostly souvenir joints. We found a cute café on a side street that we feared would be too touristy, but that made a good big salad (me) and steak frites (tommaso) for a not terrible price.
The area of Nice and Saint-Paul make a lovely 3 day weekend trip from Florence: the drive is only about 4.5 hours and it’s quite scenic too! If you’re coming from the UK, there are some really good low cost flights to Nice from London with BMI.
Nice has a city beach that can be enjoyed for free, and a great pedestrian shopping area with all the best French brands and department stores. It is also strong on modern and contemporary art, and is home to an excellent contemporary art museum, the MAMAC.
623, chemin des Gardettes
Tickets 14 euros per adult.