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The allure of Cote d’Azur

The infusions into literature and art of the light and reflections on the blue waters are too many to relate.

An image in sepia from a long ago trip to Antibes refuses to go away. I am standing on the narrow road that runs along the steep sea-face of the old town, the Mediterranean at its feet. It is dusk and the blue waters are gathering the darkness in; mystery gradually replaces open-faced pleasantness. The last white boats have come in, the beach is deserted, the early stars take up their sentinel posts.

Captivating artists

But just below me, in a cove protected by rocks, two swimmers, a man and a woman, refuse to give up the day. They continue to swim until I can barely distinguish them against the water and then finally, they too begin to walk reluctantly away, their white towels two ghostly patches in the deep twilight. That image haunts me every time I want to write about Antibes; I can write of nothing else. But now it is finally down on paper and I can turn towards the town behind me, an ancient Greek city, a Roman harbour, a haven for the creative on the fabled Cote d’Azur.

Wrote an excited 23-year old Sylvia Plath in 1955: “The Cote d’Azur. A new country, a new year: spiked with a green explosion of palms, cacti sprouting vegetable octopuses with spiky tentacles, and the red sun rising like the eye of God out of a screaming blue sea.” She was not the first writer or artist to be captivated by the Cote. W.B. Yeats, Katherine Mansfield, D.H. Lawrence, Somerset Maugham, Sartre, Chagall, Monet, Matisse, Renoir... the list of those who worked and lived in the small towns around the French Riviera stretches on. Here they found peace or inspiration, solitude or company; some lived quietly, others more famously.

Maugham’s Moorish villa became one the most famous literary salons of the twenties and thirties. Gerald and Sara Murphy were lavish hosts to numerous American writers. They became the models for Dick and Nicole Diver in Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night. The Hotel du Cap on the southern part of Antibes, famous for not accepting credit cards, became his Hotel des Etrangers... the infusions into literature and art of the light and reflections on the blue waters are too many to relate.

Today let me stay only with the three who lived and worked in Antibes, a stone’s throw from the rocky sea face.

The 12th century Chateau Grimaldi, with the old cannon over which the same evening I have watched careless children clamber, was loaned as a studio to Picasso in 1946. In four months he produced 80 ceramics, 44 drawings, 24 paintings, 32 lithographs and several other works.

Picasso museum

In gratitude, he donated all these works to the Chateau that became the first Picasso museum in the world. His lover during those years was a young art student Francoise Gilot, who was to turn out to be the unique one among Picasso’s women in that she actually left him, complaining about his infidelities and abusive behaviour. When she sought to legitimise her children years later, a vengeful Picasso encouraged her to file for divorce from her husband and meanwhile secretly married another lover, Jacqueline Roque.

In the old part of Antibes, with its quaint market and narrow streets and a long stone staircase on which a couple held each other close as I walked past, is a modest apartment block named Residence des Fleurs. Here, in an apartment from where he could see “the emaciated statues on the terrace of Chateau Grimaldi...” lived Graham Greene for a quarter of a century and produced seven novels, lunching often at Chez Felix on the old port because “Felix saves any wine I leave in the bottle for my next visit”.

On reaching Antibes, Greene had revived an old relationship with a married French woman Yvonne Cloetta, a relationship that was to endure till his death. Cloetta was at his graveside along with Vivien, his wife of 63 years. It was in defence of Cloetta’s daughter who was having marital problems that Greene wrote his famous tract “J’ Accuse” attempting to disclose links between the higher ups in the civil administration of Nice with organised crime. The tract brought only unwanted attention; Greene soon fell ill and died in Vevey, Switzerland.

Born in tsarist Russia in 1914, Nicolas de Stael grew up in Europe and travelled early to the south and to Morocco, picking up the seeds of the inspiration that was to turn him into one of the most amazing experimental painters of the century. In Marrakech, he met Jeannine Guillou, another young painter who soon left her husband and joined de Stael with her son.

War-time hardship followed but success was not long in coming. In the early fifties, de Stael was internationally famous, his work marked by his mastery over colour and space and his trademark square blocks of thick primary and secondary pigments.

Troubled soul

But his was a troubled soul. “All my life,” he wrote, “I had a need to think painting, to paint in order to liberate myself from all the impressions, all the feelings, and all the anxieties of which the only solution I know is painting.” A second marriage, hectic work, much travel… it all took its toll.

Finally he locked himself up in his new studio in Antibes, a studio whose windows looked onto the blue Gulf and the ancient ramparts. In March 1955, something broke and he flung himself from his terrace to the ramparts below, aged only 41, not far from where I watched the departing silhouettes of the two swimmers.

Such a small town, with such long shadows.


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