In the fertile south, many great artists blossomed, writes Michael Gebicki.
WHILE there are plenty of reasons that might take you to the south of France, the chances are that art is not one of them. Yet some of the greatest artists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries found their inspiration in the sunflower fields, the starry nights, the stony landscapes and the fishing villages of Provence and the Cote d'Azur. The region still holds potent memories of these artists in its galleries, landscapes and in the studios where they worked, offering fresh visions to the traveller in search of the miraculous.
Fondation Maeght, Saint-Paul-de-Vence
Set in a pine grove just outside the luscious village of Saint-Paul-de-Vence, the Fondation Maeght pays homage to some of the greats of 20th-century art. The collection was assembled by Aime and Marguerite Maeght, art collectors and dealers who represented most of the famous names in their collection. The building's Catalan architect, Josep Lluis Sert, engineered a collaboration between art and architecture, and the attraction is as much in the gallery's exterior as in what hangs on its walls. Alberto Giacometti set his stalky, perilously elongated figures in the courtyard, Joan Miro created the stained-glass windows and a surreal labyrinth in the garden, Georges Braque added a pond with a fish mosaic, and Marc Chagall did yet more mosaics. Works by Fernand Leger, Alexander Calder and Henri Matisse complete the galaxy of artistic superstars. Arrive early to beat the crowds.
623 Chemin des Gardettes, Saint-Paul-de-Vence, €14 ($17), fondation-maeght.com.
Musee Picasso, Antibes
Within the stern walls of the Grimaldi Castle overlooking the waterfront of this French Riviera hot spot, this museum captures a blossoming moment in the creative life of Pablo Picasso. In 1946, Picasso left Paris for the south of France and spent several months working in what was once the guards' hall of the castle. His materials were what could be found locally during the period of postwar austerity - asbestos cement instead of canvas, boat paint procured from the quayside and household paintbrushes. When he left, he donated 23 paintings and 44 drawings, which became the nucleus of the museum's collection. This was a time of artistic invigoration for Picasso, encapsulated in the emblematic painting La Joie de Vivre. Images of Francoise Gilot, his lover and muse, can be seen in nearly every work. Several years later the museum was bolstered by the addition of many of Picasso's ceramics, and further still by donations from Jacqueline Picasso in 1991. When you exit the museum, directly opposite is a gallery where you can pick up a ceramic plate, a bowl or a jug created by Pablo himself, at a starting price of about €10,000.
Place Mariejol, Antibes, €6, antibes-juanlespins.com.
Le Musee de l'Annonciade, Saint-Tropez
In 1892, the painter Paul Signac sailed into the tiny fishing harbour at Saint-Tropez and set off an artistic stampede to the town that continues to this day. Inside what was once a late-mediaeval chapel on Saint-Tropez's waterfront, the Musee de l'Annonciade is a small gem of a gallery that celebrates some of the best of the early 20th-century artists, a period when they were experimenting with the light and the hothouse colours of the south of France. Along with Signac, Braque, Pierre Bonnard and Matisse are just some of the celebrated names inside, and several of the paintings will be familiar to devotees of the fauvist or pointillist style. Every summer the museum hosts exhibitions by talented locals as well as names from the international scene.
Place Grammont, Vieux Port, Saint-Tropez, €5, saint-tropez.fr.
Musee Matisse, Nice
Beginning with a gift from Henri Matisse in 1953 and followed by bequests from his family after the artist's death the following year, this 17th-century villa houses one of the largest collections of Matisse's work. Matisse, by the way, acknowledged as one of his influences the Australian painter John Peter Russell. Here you can chart the evolution of the artist, from the first constricted paintings of the 1890s, to his later works in scorching primary colours, to the playful simplicity of the cutout collages he called "painting with scissors". Matisse's nudes, which caused shock when they were first shown to an American audience, look tame a century later.
164 Avenue des Arenes de Cimiez, Nice, free, musee-matisse-nice.org.
Atelier Cezanne, Aix-en-Provence
Just outside the city of Aix-en-Provence, this modest, double-storey house was Paul Cezanne's last studio. Here, the artist who laid the foundations for 20th-century art painted every day for the last four years of his life. It was here, by the light of a big window on the northern wall, that he painted his last studies of Mont Sainte-Victoire, a subject that burned in his imagination, and the last of his "Bathers" works. After his death in 1906, the house was purchased by a fervent admirer, who lived on the lower storey, leaving Cezanne's studio untouched, until it was finally handed over to the city of Aix-en-Provence. None of Cezanne's paintings are displayed. What you see is the crucible, and the pottery, vases, bottles and a plaster cupid that he used in his final still-lifes.
9 Avenue Paul Cezanne, Aix-en-Provence, €5.50, atelier-cezanne.com.
Rosaire Chapel, Vence
In 1941, Matisse was in Nice convalescing from cancer surgery, cared for by a young nurse, Monique Bourgeois. A couple of years later she entered the Dominican convent at nearby Vence as a novice and asked Matisse to help design a chapel. At the age of 77, Matisse spent the next four years working on the Rosaire Chapel, designing everything from the architecture to the wall murals, the stained-glass windows, the stone altar, the candelabra and even the vestments worn by the priest. Matisse called the chapel his masterwork, "the achievement of an entire life's work". If you visit on a sunny day, with the light shining through the stained-glass windows of the Tree of Life, you might agree.
466 Avenue Henri Matisse, Vence, €3.50, vence.fr.
Musee National Marc Chagall, Nice
Marc Chagall's dreamlike, richly allegorical work drew a lifetime of inspiration from village life in his native Belarus. In the 1960s and '70s, the artist and his wife donated a vast collection representing much of his most important work to the French state, which built this squat bunker in Nice to house the collection. The highlight of this huge assembly of 400-plus oils, pastels, sketches and ceramics is Chagall's depiction of biblical themes, illustrating episodes from the books of the Old Testament.
Avenue du Docteur Menard, Cimiez, Nice, €7.50, musee-chagall.fr.
Saint-Paul de Mausole, Saint-Remy de Provence
Located south of Avignon, among pine forests and bleached limestone hills that rise above a checkerboard of olive groves, vineyards and cypress trees, this Romanesque monastery is intimately connected with Vincent van Gogh. It was here that the artist spent a year towards the end of his life, after he quarrelled with Paul Gauguin in Arles and lopped off part of his left ear. Just as it was in van Gogh's day, Saint-Paul de Mausole remains a psychiatric institution but visitors are welcome, and the monastery and its surroundings are richly evocative of the 143 paintings that he produced during his time here. Among them was the magical The Starry Night and Irises, once bought by Alan Bond for $53.9 million and later sold to the J. Paul Getty Museum for an undisclosed price.
Route des Baux, Saint-Remy de Provence, €4, cloitresaintpaul-valetudo.com.
Singapore Airlines has flights from Sydney to Nice and Marseille. singaporeair.com, 13 10 11.
Gorgeous and refined, Le Mas de Pierre sits in photogenic countryside at the foot of the hill below Saint-Paul-de-Vence. Rooms are prettily decorated in the French country style and the hotel has an exceptional restaurant. From €205 ($255) a night for two. +33 493 590 010, lemasdepierre.com.
Set in a converted monastery, Le Clos des Freres Gris is a small and delightful family-operated hotel that never fails to charm, surrounded by peaceful grounds close to Aix-en-Provence. From €125 a night for two, including breakfast. +33 442 241 337, freres.gris.free.fr.
Served with a generous dose of star quality, La Ferme d'Augustin is a glamorous but calm base from which to sample the earthly pleasures of the French Riviera. The hotel lies close to Tahiti Beach on Pampelonne Bay, within easy reach of Saint-Tropez. From €190 a night for two. +33 494 559 700, fermeaugustin.com.