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Le Grand Atelier du Midi: Exhibition in Marseille presents over 200 masterpieces
A guard stands by a painting by Henri-Charles Manguin on June 10, 2013 prior to the opening to the public of the exhibition "Grand Atelier du Midi" (The Big Midi studio) at the Palais Longchamps in Marseille. The exhibition opened on June 13 and lasts until October 13. AFP PHOTO / BORIS HORVAT.

MARSEILLE.- The exhibition Le Grand Atelier du Midi is a crucial part of Marseilles-Provence 2013, European Capital of Culture and undeniably one of the flagship events in the 2013 cultural program. Designed as a diptych–showing at the Palais Longchamp in Marseilles and the Musée Granet in Aix-en-Provence–it presents over 200 masterpieces painted between 1880 and 1950-1960. Starting from two tutelary figures of the modern movement, Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Cézanne, it seeks to show how the South of France, in a broad sense, going from the north of Spain to the Italian Riviera, with a few sallies into North Africa, was an extraordinary laboratory for experimenting with modern ideas in painting.

The traditional debate over the respective merits of form and colour enlivens the various parts of the exhibition, showing how these habitual opposites were closely intertwined in a complementary relationship summed up in Cézanne’s famous statement: “When colour is at its richest, form takes on its fullest expression.” Many 20th century artists referred either to Van Gogh in their use of colour as a means of self-expression, or to Cézanne in their use of form to achieve a “harmony parallel to nature.”

“From Cézanne to Matisse”
“From Cézanne to Matisse,” the subtitle of the exhibition in the Musée Granet in Aix, focuses on form, tirelessly pursued by Cézanne, dubbed the “father of modern art”. Form underwent major developments in the 20th century, with the Cubists Braque and Picasso, but also with Matisse.

Starting with Renoir and Signac’s first sojourns in the South of France, and in particular their discovery of an obscure fishing village called Saint Tropez, the exhibition tells the story of this solar tropism which made the South of France a crossroads for ideas and a land of exchanges, nurturing the modern movement. L’Estaque received Renoir and Cézanne, while Matisse painted at Nice, and Picasso set up studios in Antibes, Cannes, Mougins, so the South of France concentrated experiments with light, colour, and form and the motifs used in painting were explored from all angles.

This part of the country was a favourite haunt for Picabia, Masson and, to a certain extent, Picasso. Their paintings also brought out a tragic, funereal dimension in the landscape. Although the South of France is paradise regained, the dreamed-of other world already tinged with exoticism (didn’t Gaugain say that Cézanne was an “oriental”?), it is sometimes sombre and sometimes sunny.

Trying to come to terms with the southern sunlight, which sharply delineated forms and arranged them in a harmonious equilibrium, the artists experimented with new abstract, lyrical or geometrical approaches, sublimated by light in the work of Nicolas de Staël.

“From De Van Gogh to Bonnard”
“From Van Gogh to Bonnard” is the subtitle of the part of the diptych to be held at the Palais Longchamp in Marseilles. Its starting point is Van Gogh’s work in Arles in the late 1880s. The very title of the exhibition–“Grand Atelier du Midi”–was coined by the Dutch painter, who dreamed of an artists’ community working under this flamboyant light and colour.

So with Renoir living Cagnes, Matisse staying regularly at Collioure, and Cézanne in Aix, the South of France became a fertile seedbed for imaginative work and a great open-air studio.

In the ideal framework of a felicitous pastoral and the gracious lifestyle so typical of the South, women languishing on the terrace during the siesta become Picasso’s bathers at the seaside, intoxicated with the joy of living. This fascination for light and colour nurtured Monet’s impressionism on the French or Italian Riviera, the post impressionism of Signac and Cross and even Matisse’s Fauvism, and the work of artists like Braque, Derain and Dufy.

The South of France is also redolent of ancient Greece, inhabited by the gods; it is Antiquity revisited and an imaginary world, a hedonistic dream that artists pursued, far from the cities and the industrial world, in search of a golden age, a world infused with Matisse’s “luxury, calm and voluptuousness”, echoing Baudelaire, or radiant with Bonnard’s dazzling landscapes and figures at Le Cannet.

The Palais Longchamp, a masterpiece of Second Empire architecture in Marseilles, has been superbly restored. The Musée des Beaux-Arts installed in its left wing has been completely renovated and its newly decorated galleries have been restored to their original harmony.

The startling idea of dividing the exhibition between two venues has given the curators an opportunity to deal with a great variety of aspects that have left their stamp on the history of art and on this land. A land that inspired many real or imaginary representations and sparked fertile experiments in art and iconography. As Van Gogh wrote: “The whole future of art is to be found in the South of France.”

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June 16, 2013

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