Friday, 3 January 2020

Matisse, Cinema and the French Riviera, by Carol Drinkwater

Sorry about the glare on the pictures' glass. I took these myself today while the sun was shining and I couldn't find an angle that blotted it out. The above are two of my many favourites of Henri Matisse's work. The first is from his Cut Outs and the second is a Still Life painting. Both are inspired by the colours, light and vegetation here on the Côte d'Azur.

I am fortunate to live in such a special corner of the world.

Back when the French Riviera was little more than olive groves and a series of fishing villages bobbing at the edge of the Mediterranean, some of Europe's leading artists were settling here or finding the means to sojourn here for months on end, to take advantage of our extraordinary light.

                                           View of country fields, outside Nice, Henri Matisse

Here, below, is a photograph of the 17th-century Genoese villa now reinvented as the Matisse Museum, which is in Cimiez, a once-upon-a-time bourgeois neighbourhood of Nice, inland up behind the coastal strip of the city. It houses a permanent Matisse exhibition as well as offering a range of other exhibitions throughout the year.
Henri Matisse lived in Cimiez at the Regina building from 1938 onwards. (He first arrived in Nice in 1917). He is buried with his wife in the cemetery of Monastère Notre Dame de Cimiez.  So, it is fitting that this grand property in Cimiez is dedicated to his work and life as an artist.

(A little aside here: The Regina building was constructed for Queen Victoria who adored the French Riviera and wintered in Nice between 1897 and 1899). In its heyday the Regina was considered one of the most glamorous buildings along this coast. Matisse lived in on the third floor.

Nice, as the capital of the French Riviera, has also been known as the Hollywood of France. Not only because it offers sunshine and palm trees but because it has been the location where several French cinema masterpieces were produced.

Entrance to La Victorine Studios.

In 1919, to compete with Paris as a major European filmmaking hub and to compete with Hollywood, a city also set on the coast and blessed with a sublime climate, the Victorine studios were conceived. These studios and the city of Nice have played an important role in French filmmaking. Since its inception, more than eight hundred films have been shot out of La Victorine. Amongst the stars who have worked here can be counted Jeanne Moreau, Brigitte Bardot, Grace Kelly, Cary Grant,  David Niven, Michael Caine, Catherine Deneuve and Lauren Bacall, to name but a few. David Lean died at the Victorine during pre-production of his last and never-completed film, Nostromo.

During WWII, when France was partially occupied by the Germans, this area, because it was in the Free Zone, became even more attractive to filmmakers. Many of the artists who could not work freely under the scrutiny of the Nazis fled to the south. Here, they were at liberty to make films. After WWII, since 1946 when Cannes held its inaugural world-renowned film festival, this region has attracted many of the greatest names in world cinema.

Poster for the first Cannes Film festival

(I even auditioned myself for a film shot here. Day for Night or La Nuit Americaine directed by François Truffaut, meeting the great man in London.)

Les Enfants du Paradis, signed by Michel Carné, To Catch a Thief, directed by Alfred Hitchock, were both shot here during the studio's golden age.

From 1975 to 1983, while Nice was under the governance of the notoriously corrupt mayor, Jean Médicine, the studios began to fall into decline, or rather its reputation became muddied with stories of local corruption, Mafia interference, neglect. Mid-eighties, the studios were sold to actor Michael Douglas and his brother, Joel, who came away from the experience with little to show on their production belt. From thereon, the studios knew several proprietors but little glory. The place was used as the base for high-budget commercials shot here but not much was made that could be considered quality cinema. In 2017, rather than continue to watch this decline, the city of Nice bought the studios, returned to it its original name of 'Victorine' and this year celebrates its first centenary with an eye, we hope, to better times ahead.

It is not surprising, given a century and more of filmmakers and artists congregating along this coastline, that the work of one influenced the other. Famously, there have been exhibitions - an excellent one I went to at the Tate Modern in London charting the influences of Picasso and Matisse on one another's work. They lived a few kilometres from one another, were friends and friendly rivals.

We have this drawing above our bed. Picasso, 1952. 

I had at first mistaken it for a Matisse.

                                                 Henri Matisse

There have been many articles and books written, also exhibitions, such as the Matisse Picasso I saw at the Tate Modern in 2002, all concentrating on the influence the artists of the Côte d'Azur have had on one another. Or the influence this famous light we are bathed in down here on a daily basis even now in mid-winter, has had on so many of their works. However, I think the influence the septième art, the seventh art, cinema, has had on the French Riviera artists is a new angle.

La Nouvelle Vague of French cinema which included directors such as Truffaut, Rohmer, Godard, Jaques Demy, Agnes Varda (who died this year) cited Henri Matisse as one of the important influences of their work.

Matisse was an avid cinema-goer. Now, the city of Nice in a fascinating exhibition looks at how film images have influenced Henri Matisse and his work.

The exhibition, CINÉMATISSE, runs at the Musée Matisse until 5th January 2020.

Happy New Year to all our wonderful History Girls and Happy New Year to all our readers.

Poster for the exhibition at the Massena Museum in Nice.

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