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The painter of the future will be such a colourist as has never been,” Van Gogh predicted. That painter would operate in l’atelier du midi – the imagined laboratory of artistic experimentation that Van Gogh tried so unsuccessfully to launch, with visits from Gauguin and Signac, in Arles in the 1880s. Despite its failure, Van Gogh was sure that “the whole future of modern art is to be found in the south”.
This proved true. In 1905 in Collioure, a fishing village south of Marseille, Van Gogh’s heir, Matisse, achieved his goal of liberating colour from representational constraint, leading to a new painterly expressiveness that would ultimately take Matisse to the borders of abstraction. A few miles north, another lonely experiment – Cézanne’s transformation of the landscape around his native Aix-en-Provence, including Mont St Victoire, the chestnut tree park the Jas de Bouffan and the dark Bibémus quarry, into “the cylinder, the sphere and the cone” – paved the way for cubism.
These are modernism’s canonical stories but they have never been more comprehensively amplified, nor more ideally sited, than in the double show of some 200 works, Le Grand Atelier du Midi, taking place this summer at Marseille’s splendidly refurbished, fantastically elaborate Second Empire Palais de Longchamp, and at Aix’s Musée Granet. The Marseille exhibition, opening with Van Gogh’s scorched wheat fields and interior of his Yellow House, is more glamorous, and deals broadly with colour. At Aix a more sober account, inaugurated by Cézanne’s “La Montagne Saint-Victoire” and “Maison sous les arbres”, concentrates on form – so sharply delineated in the southern sunlight that the effects provoked artists to explore new abstracting or chromatic approaches.
Derain, raised in Paris, was typical of the many northern painters whom the Midi astonished into incoherence. “This place, its people with bronzed faces, skin colours of chrome yellow, orange, deeply tanned; blue-black beards ... boats, white sails, multicoloured barques,” he stuttered to Vlaminck on arriving at Collioure. “But it’s the light, a pale gilded light, that suppresses shadows. The work to be done is fearful. Everything I’ve done up to now strikes me as stupid.”
For an instant in 1905, in the strident red “Le Port de Collioure” and the pink/mauve cliffs of “Paysage au bord de la mer”, Derain’s colourist daring outstripped even Matisse’s. The Fauve breakthrough is superbly chronicled. The swarming dots and stabs of divisionism, radiant in Paul Signac’s “Femmes au puits”, softly glowing, granular like a mosaic, in Henri-Edmond Cross’s “Le retour du pêcheur” and “La barque bleue”, are given weight as the 1890s bridge from impressionism (Signac was Matisse’s first buyer). The individual characters of the Fauve accomplices are detailed: Othon Friesz’s swirling arabesques; Albert Marquet’s cooler tonality and calligraphic flatness, which would develop into cityscapes saturated with damp atmosphere, such as “Port de Marseille sous la pluie” and “La Place du gouvernement à Alger”; Braque’s shift from Fauve to cubist.
Also arriving from northern France, Braque symbolically went for a different port: L’Estaque not Collioure. “There is something about the light that makes the sky of the Midi look higher, much higher than it does in the north,” he noted: in “Paysage de Provence, L’Estaque” and “Le Viaduc à L’Estaque” the horizon seems free-floating, landscape becomes malleable as Braque isolates features – mountain peaks, trees, rooftops, railway arches – into geometric elements, recalling Cézanne and heralding cubism’s rhythmic series of planes.
Spanning 70 years, Le Grand Atelier celebrates not only the pioneering moments of 1905-1914 but also the aftermath as classic modernism was assimilated, internalised, by many different temperaments. Between the wars, the surrealists made the Mediterranean a playground or stage set – Dalí’s sun-baked landscape “Moment de Transition”, Man Ray’s nonsense film about two travellers following the roll of dice, “Les Mystères du château de Dé”. By contrast the meditative Bonnard folds together form and colour, wrapping elusive figures in chromatic veils (“Paysage du Midi et deux enfants”, “L’été”) as foreground foliage, distant hills and sea slip in and out of focus in a sunny haze, until in “Baigneurs à la fin du jour” (1945) figures evaporate poignantly into abstract blobs in the twilight.
Houses, trees, the earth itself, seem to churn and spin in Chaim Soutine’s vehement, surging “Paysage de Cagnes” and “Rue de Cagnes-sur-Mer” – the legacy of Van Gogh’s anguished dynamism crossed with Cézanne’s compression of forms. Soutine is dark; decades on, in the 1950s, another Russian painter of tragic sensibility, Nicolas de Staël, glares white-hot in “Agrigente” and “Les Mâts”, where, against sombre grounds, landscape is sublimated into abstract blocks, squares, tubes, glowing with inner luminosity – as if the spiritual intensity of Malevich had opened to Mediterranean light.
Everywhere the quality of light, within the paintings and outside, illuminates the creative process. Matisse famously said that “in order to paint my pictures, I need to remain for several days in the same state of mind, and I do not find this in any atmosphere but that of the Côte d’Azur”. The billionaire’s swamp of overbuilding that is now the French Riviera may not resemble Matisse’s Midi but the bright, serene light is unchanged – still pouring through the shutters of a hotel room, as Matisse remembered, to make everything appear “fake, absurd, amazing, delicious”, as in the languid artifice of the outer/inner spaces in his 1920s paintings “Le Divan”, “Intérieur à Nice, la sieste” and Montreal’s marvellously considered “Femme assise, le dos tourné vers la fenêtre ouverte”. It informs equally the startling pink nude within a landscape “Nu assis/Nu rose” (1909), the staccato blue paper-cut bather who imitates her pose in “Baigneuse dans les roseaux” (1952) and, more surprisingly, the shimmering abstract, “Porte-fenêtre à Collioure” (1914) – a black rectangle fringed by vertical grey and blue bands, so austerely simplified that it was never shown in Matisse’s lifetime.
Organised by Marseille-Provence 2013, this year’s European cultural capital, Le Grand Atelier belongs to a group of events – the loudest is Marseille’s new €191m Musée des Civilisations de l’Europe et de la Méditerranée (Mucem) – declaring France’s pivotal position, and cultural identity, within the wider Mediterranean region. In a 21st century when accounts of modernism fracture and globalise (Tate’s current shows of Lebanese Saloua Raouda Choucair and Sudanese Ibrahim el-Salahi are characteristic), it reasserts the grand narrative of French art in the early 20th century and argues against historical homogenisation. The result, reassembling outstanding works in the milieu where they were created, in dialogue with one another and their environment, is a perfect summer show: unique, varied, optimistic, balancing pleasure and gravitas.
‘Le Grand Atelier du Midi: de Van Gogh à Bonnard’, Palais Longchamp, Marseille; ‘De Cézanne à Matisse’, Musée Granet, Aix-en-Provence, to October 13, www.mp2013.fr