Sunday, July 19, 2009


Stuttering is the only way to describe what has been going on with this post but I do want to get some memories and links down before too long, so here we go again.

The tiny village of Vauvenargues (there is a 'gallery' in the top bar menu) is 15 Km or so east-nor-east of Aix-en-Provence mid-way along the foot of the northern side of Mont Sainte-Victoire, a craggy east-west limestone spine, studded with pine, just to the east of Aix. The west end of this spine, facing Aix-en-Provence, is a blunt cut-off and the mountain then tapers down to the east. It looks like a residue, a fossil, a pre-historic tail left behind after some giant beast escaped the cleaver.

Anyone driving around Mont Ste-Victoire will drive through Vauvenargues, or at least see the turn off from the winding mountain road, and if, as we did a few years ago, you catch a glimpse of this

you will be tempted to stop, and foolish to not.

The road in is narrow,

and the village is pressed into a hillside facing the north wall of the mountain with the imposing Chateau de Vauvenargues, a 17 C castle, with origins back to Roman times (as does Aix and its baths) at its foot.

Village looks at Chateau; Chateau looks back; Mont Ste-Victoire is.

What we didn't know those years ago was that the Chateau is where Picasso spent a few of his last years with his second wife, Jacqueline Roque. He bought it in 1958, lived there from '59-'61, relatively isolated and free of the developments and crowds of Cannes, but after '61 he only occasionally visited it before his death (1973) in Mougins, north of Cannes. Because the authorities in Mougins refused private burial, Jacqueline brought his body back to Vauvenargues, where an unusually cold snap with frozen ground saw the body lie in a flower filled guard room for six days till the ground thawed and a grave could be dug. Jacqueline suicided 13 years later and they are buried together, under a singular circular mound at the top of the castle entrance staircase, a large grassy earth swelling surrounded by a neat border of ivy and marked simply by the large bronze, La femme au Vase, at its centre.

Picasso boasted he had bought 'Cezanne', an Aix native, and by that he meant he had bought Cezanne's mountain. His studio faced the mountain and caught the southern light and the provencal shimmer, but he didn't ever paint the mountain. Perhaps he felt there was nothing to add to the masters work. He did paint the village of Vauvenargues, a painting that when seen belies Picasso's late period and speaks directly of Cezanne.

The relationship between Cezanne, whom Picasso regarded as the father of the modern movement and cubism, and Picasso is explored this year in Aix-en-Provence to commerorate the 50 yr anniversary of Picasso moving into the region. The Musee Granet has an exhibition highlighting the influence, in content, form and technique. It is dense, and crowded despite regulated numbers (I bought tickets months in advance) and it really needs at least 2 visits as you struggle with the power of what is in front of you, and feel drained just by the looking let alone the understanding.

In conjunction with this, the Chateau, under an arrangement with Jacqueline's daughter Catherine Hutin, has been opened for the first time (and only for 4 months) in the 50 years since Picasso took up residence. Tickets had sold out quickly well in advance and I missed the rush. 40 day tickets are selling each morning and it seemed like something just too hard with late nights, lazy days, and the end of a long trip, and all this sandwiched between concerts like the BPO with Lang Lang, Hayden and Ravel, how could we manage any more and still appreciate anything.

But then, we luckily met two dutchmen at dinner in the square outside the Archbishops Palace, where the tables are crowded as everyone waits for the slow night to arrive so the performance can begin. We were all going to Orfee. The younger is a garden designer of significance, and we went on to meet for dinner the next night, and then again the night after, he without a camera but a sketch book and water-colours and tales and drawings of their visit to the Chateau de Vauvenargues. Even K was now happy with the idea of getting to town at 6am, when the queue started, the cool streets being swept, delivery trucks arriving, and people from all over the world waiting hours in the hope of tickets. We went, we were forth in line, and we went to the castle that afternoon. I gave him my precious copy of David Malouf's Ransom, which after an embarrassing invitation to draw a lyrebird in his book, a few ros├ęs notwithstanding, was the least I could do. He didn't know of Malouf, but was interested to hear he was also a librettist, and in a later conversation he noted the writer to be poet also.

Two groups of 18 an hour go through, fully escorted, one person for commentary, another just watching. No photos. In all of the big cold stone building, the studio supposedly as he had left it, the bedroom a vast space with little more than their bed with the blood red and glaring yellow of the Catalan flag behind it, the bathroom with Picasso's mural of pan in the forest, the dining room with its little wooden table, in all of this the only ghosts were in the guard room, the core of the fortress, the room of last defence which for the occasion was dressed again with huge vases of flowers,  and where Picasso had lain dead for six days.

(Just in case you are wondering, the photos from this trip are mine, all Mine and Mines alone, as the cab driver in New Orleans explained when I asked what M&M Transportation Co stood for. Some are photos of photos - the old Potsdamer Platz pictures are taken from framed photos in the underground of the station there, the interior of the Noh Theatre in Tokyo a photo of a photo in the hotel).

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