Sunday, October 10, 2010

Two Museums in Cimiez, Nice

Cimiéz is a hilly, affluent suburb of Nice, in the south of France. It is the site of the ruins of an ancient Roman settlement. There are two museums located here that are on an art-lover's must-visit list: the Matisse Museum up the hill in a Genoese villa, and the Chagall museum in a Perret-designed building (similar to the concrete modern style of Frank Lloyd Wright) located some way below the hill.
The best way to get to these museums from the Nice train station is by taxi, but if one is willing to wait, one can reach them by local bus.

To get to these important museums, I boarded the train in Cannes for Nice early in the morning. The train was delayed by a few minutes, but I started early enough to allow for plenty of time to get back to the M/V Royal Princess should there be another delay in the train back to Cannes.

Thirty minutes later, I was in Nice Centre-Ville (Town Center). Distances between major towns in France are not that great.
Since it was still early morning, I decided to take a stroll down to the seaside. The cafés were full of people having their morning espressos. I walked through the Parque Albert into the famous Promenade des Anglais, the seaside boulevard lined by extravagant, turn of the century palaces and villas. There were not that many people yet, but come midday there would be a lot of tourists here, as well as bathers and sun-worshippers spread out on the pebbly beach.
I imagined Nice as small and quaint. Instead, I found it to be a big city with big-city qualities and big-city problems. Beneath the crust of Belle Époque villas lay thousands of years of history – Greek, Ligurian, Roman, Italian, and French - that formed the basis of a high level of culture and urbanity.
 Nice could give Los Angeles or New York a run for their money for the amount of graffiti on its embankments and walls in the suburbs and around the train terminals. In fact all over the Côte d'Azur, if one took the train, one got an eyeful of ugly graffiti scrawled in abandon over entire sides and walls of buildings, railings and fences. One saw little of these graffiti if one took a bus from Cannes to Nice. By bus the well-appointed fronts of villas, hotels or apartment buildings paraded by in a dizzying display of French affluence. Roofs and buildings sported neutral colors of beige, white,ochre and the occasional dash of pink. But the train rolled behind these buildings and from this vantage point the anarchic scrawl of graffiti artists in France Sud confronted the visitor with the reality that there is a different side to this paradise, and it 'ain't pretty. At least Los Angeles tries to clean up its graffiti with murals, buckets of paint, and law enforcement. Here they crawl on paintable surfaces like parodies of Picasso.
From the Nice train station, I caught the bus to Cimiez. I walked, first, through Roman ruins then into a park full of gnarled, ancient olive trees. At the edge of this park, overlooking yet more parkland was the Genoese villa that housed the Matisse museum. The pathways in this park bore signs naming them after American jazz musicians: avenue Louis Armstrong, avenue Miles Davis and so on. This villa used to be owned by Italian nobility back in the days when Nice belonged to the Savoys of Genoa. Its entire façade was painted rose-ochre with trompe l'oeil (false) windows. A striking building in a lovely setting.
Entrance to the museum was free. The museum inside housed many of Matisse's personal belongings, sketches, paintings, sculptures and maquettes of larger compositions. It came as a surprise to me to learn that Matisse painted in a severely academic fashion early in his career. If he had continued in this endeavor, he would have been just another unremarkable painter in the tourist trade. But he found his own style, to the benefit of the art world.
One thing I took away from visiting this museum was the conviction that Matisse was a master of drawing, or, as they like to say in the art world, "the line". He was the master of the sure stroke whether it was in describing a nude or scissoring out a paper flower.
Backtracking down the hill, again via bus, I visited Chagall's museum. This museum was devoted solely to biblical subjects. Illuminating as the Matisse Museum was, I was floored by the luminous paintings of Marc Chagall.
The building itself was the complete stylistic opposite of the Matisse Museum. It belonged squarely to the Wright and Corbusier style of undressed concrete. Designed by August Perret, the architect-planner of the city of Le Havre, it's sensibility was functional and pragmatic. Expansive windows brought the outdoors inside and provided great natural lighting for the works of art. As for the paintings themselves, what else can I say that hasn't been said about these colorful, voluptuous works: Abraham and Isaac, Paradise, The three angels, etc. Only an actual viewing of these paintings can give one a sense of the coloristic grandeur of these masterpieces. Add to that the fact that these were practically wall sized paintings. Merci, Marc Chagall!
The museum had a chapel, or at least a solemn space that was used for lectures, services, and even concerts, this, by the presence of a grand piano in the center of the room. What made this room magnificent were its stained glass windows whose deep, penetrating, gorgeous blues in all permutations and variations made you feel you were suddenly transported to heaven. Chagall made similar stained glass windows that can be seen at the UN in New York City. This blue is so distinctive as to be designated "Chagall blue".
I left Cimiez the same way I arrived, by bus back to the train station of Nice, then on to Cannes.   It was a day to remember and cherish. Filled with a lingering delight at seeing Matisse and Chagall's masterworks, I was glad I made the extra effort to go visit these relatively out-of-the-way museums. And I was eternally grateful for the chance that working as a musician on a cruise ship had given me to visit this incredibly rich side of the art world.

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