- The Washington Times - Friday, December 30, 2005

AIX-EN -PROVENCE, France — “We call her ‘the sleeping beauty,’” said the representative ofthelocal tourist bureau. She is indeed a beauty: Aix-en-Provence, the lovely town that the Industrial Revolution forgot. Her 17th- and 18th-century charm remains sleepily and happily intact.

We came to sample her pleasures in anticipation of the Year of Paul Cezanne, which begins tomorrow in observance of the centenary of the death of the great painter in Aix, where he was born, worked and died.

Provence is ready to celebrate throughout 2006. The piece de resistance will be a major exhibition of Cezanne’s work, which will open June 9 in Aix’s newly renovated Musee Granet.

The exhibition, “Cezanne in Provence,” is co-sponsored by the National Gallery of Art, so for 100 days, Jan. 29 through May 7, Washingtonians first can enjoy about 120 of Cezanne’s portraits, still lifes, landscapes and watercolors; delight in the colors, light and shadow of the artist’s creativity; and ponder his unique vision, which served as the cornerstone of modern art.

This is the first exhibition to explore the artist’s complex emotional ties to his birthplace through landscapes, portraits of friends and family and the series of paintings known as “the Bathers.”

Visitors are not here in Aix for long before they understand and relish Cezanne’s inspiration. Provence is a land of sunshine and warm, golden stone towns; of villages perched precariously on hilltops; of olive groves and fields of lavender; of garlic-scented food and hearty wines. The cold mistral blows through from the north, and occasionally the warm sirocco from the Sahara crosses the Mediterranean from the south. Exquisite.

Paul Cezanne was born in Aix on Jan. 19, 1839. His father, Louis-Auguste, who was not married to Paul’s mother at the time of the future painter’s birth, presided over a hat shop on the Cours Mirabeau, Aix’s finest street. Louis-Auguste later became a successful banker and purchased one of the town’s elegant mansions.

Cezanne was a mediocre student, not very motivated to become a lawyer, as his father wished. He was interested only in painting, and he studied in the art school in Aix. He followed his friend and classmate Emile Zola to Paris. Zola’s father had come to Aix to build a dam not far away.

In Paris, Cezanne studied the works of old masters such as Veronese, Tintoretto and Rubens. Influenced by Camille Pisarro, one of his contemporaries, Cezanne learned to use a lighter range of colors and to paint outdoors. He had little success in Paris and returned to Provence.

Despite intermittent trips to Paris, the artist lived and worked most of his life in Provence — at Jas de Bouffan, his father’s country house; in Estaque, a seaside village near Marseille; in Gardanne, a town nine miles from Aix, which has dedicated a pathway dotted with reproductions of his paintings to his memory; at the Chateau Noir estate, where he rented two rooms to store his paints and canvases while he worked in the surrounding hills; in Bibemus, where the stone used to build Aix was quarried and Cezanne rented a cottage to paint and exhibit his work; in Le Tholonet, the starting point for visiting the dam built by Zola and the Roman aqueduct behind the castle of Tholonet; and in Aix itself.

All of these sites are part of tours organized by the Aix Tourism Office for travelers interested in the Route de Cezanne.

Aix is an enchanting provincial town; it was the medieval capital of Provence. The Musee Granet, originally a priory belonging to the Knights of Malta who owned part of the town, and then the art school where Cezanne learned his craft, is being renovated. It will be a magnificent space to show Cezanne’s paintings when they go on exhibit in June.

The director of the museum refused to show any of Cezanne’s works, and it was not until a new director took over in 1925 that Cezanne’s work finally got its day. Aix will be the only venue of the Cezanne exhibit in France in the summer — June 9 through Sept. 17.

Founded by the Romans about 120 B.C. and named Aquae Sextiae (the Waters of Sextius), Aix flourished thanks to its strategic position halfway between Italy and Spain. The Roman-built ramparts around the town were pulled down in the 17th century, when mansions were built along the Cours Mirabeau, the central, grand tree-lined avenue of the town.

Thanks to the golden-yellow stone used for many of its buildings, Aix has retained its glowing aspect. The stone comes from the quarry of Bibemus, a favorite Cezanne spot. Aix was and continues to be a university town, the original university having been founded by Louis II of Anjou in 1409. The university is one of the most distinguished in France and second only to Paris in the fields of French literature, history and linguistics. Of Aix’s 140,000 inhabitants, 40,000 are students.

During the 16th century, the town was home to the noblesse d’epee, or the nobility of the sword, titled but poor. In the 17th century, a new kind of nobility arose, the noblesse de robes, or nobility of robes — magistrates and burghers. They built a new quarter of elegant mansions with gardens and stables. Some of the houses still have waiting stones above the entrance door — large rectangular stones waiting to be decorated.

Aix has always been a city of water and is famed for its pretty fountains, which lend freshness to the summer heat: At the western end of the Cours Mirabeau is the Fontaine de la Rotonde, a cast-iron fountain built in 1860; the little square near the Musee Granet is named for the four dolphins gracing the 17th-century fountain in its center.

The north side of the Cours Mirabeau is lined with restaurants, cafes and shops, including the house where Cezanne’s father sold his hats. The Cafe des Deux Garcons, where Cezanne and his friends met, still stands. On the south side are the grand 18th-century mansions, including one that was inhabited by the Duchess of Montpensier, niece of Louis XIII, called La Grande Mademoiselle. Today the mansions house banks and insurance companies rather than nobles.

St. Savior Cathedral, built on the site of a Roman temple to Apollo, towers over the old town. The cathedral’s cloister is an oasis of peace and beauty with columns carved to represent earth and heaven. The Tapestry Museum, which will have a special Cezanne exhibit in the summer, is housed in the former bishop’s palace.

The oldest part of Aix is in the narrow curving streets interspersed with little squares and running down from the cathedral. The 18th-century corn exchange with its allegoric pediment representing the two elements of farming prosperity in Provence — the Rhone and the Durance rivers — stands on the square in front of the 17th-century Town Hall where Aix’s flower market is held thrice weekly.

Cezanne painted a watercolor of the fountain in the square, his only painting of the town. Nearby is the 16th-century clock tower, built on Roman foundations, which spans the street.

The 17th-century Hotel de Chateaurenard stands on one of the old streets. The colorful markets and many shops of the old town, however, are the real thing. It’s difficult not to succumb to the temptation of Aix’s special sweet, the calisson, a diamond-shaped cookie made of sweet almonds and sometimes perfumed with lemon or orange essence.

Just outside the town is the Fondation Vasarely, a striking building of black and white hexagons designed by Victor Vasarely in the 1970s.

The museum houses Mr. Vasarely’s work and serves as an interdisciplinary laboratory for research in art, urbanism, computer research, chemistry and industrial design.

The rich burghers of Aix bought country estates, called “bastides.” These originally were fortified farms. After Cezanne’s father became a banker, he bought Jas de Bouffan, Provencal for “sheepfold,” in 1859 from a client who could not pay a debt.

The property consisted of about 37 acres, including the main house, a wide avenue of horse chestnut trees leading from the terrace of the house to a walled park, vineyards, meadows and an ornamental pool.

Cezanne lived and painted in Jas de Bouffan for almost 40 years. He used his family as models and sometimes painted directly on the plaster walls of the house. All of these wall paintings have been removed, but reproductions adorn the places where the originals were painted. Cezanne always returned to the haven of Jas de Bouffan from his sojourns in Paris and elsewhere and painted several of his most famous works there.

The villa retains its romantic look, but only from the outside. The park and pool are wild and showing lack of care; the meadow and farmland are gone. The interior of the house is in ruin. All that is left are echoes of the families who once lived there. Its sole remaining charm is the small maid’s room on the top floor with a plaster Leda and the swan, where the 18th-century master of the house would entertain himself with the maid of his choice.

The city, which owns the property, plans to have the ground floor restored by summer and will offer guided tours to visitors.

After the sale of Jas de Bouffan in 1899, Cezanne bought land with wheat fields and olive groves on a hill overlooking the city in a district named Les Lauves.

At Les Lauves, he designed his house and studio. The olive trees surrounding the house threw reflections on the gray walls. Cezanne painted his final masterpieces there until his death in 1906.

The studio is open to the public. It’s a moving experience to see the master’s hats and coats on a peg in the corner, his brushes and paints, discarded canvases and objects — crockery, vases, glasses, small sculpture and Oriental rug familiar to the viewer from his work in still life. The surrounding land has been built up, but the studio and the tiled kitchen next to it are filled with ghosts.

Jas de Bouffan and Les Lauves are part of the tour the city’s tourism office will organize this summer, as is La Marguerite, a hill from which Cezanne had a clear view of his beloved Mount St. Victoire. The view is protected so that even though the hill is now part of a villa section, the hilltop is dedicated to Cezanne, and we can see almost exactly what the painter saw. The trees have grown taller, and there are more houses, but the red roofs in the valley, which appear in the paintings, are still there. So, in all its splendor, is the mountain.

St. Victoire was Cezanne’s passion. He painted it often, from different vantage points, at different times of the day, so that the mountain ultimately became an art object of its own. As a young man, he explored the mountain on foot. It’s a splendid mountain of white limestone, its color changing with the angle of the sun.

In homage to the painter and his connection with the mountain, two exceptional events are scheduled there July 3 and 5. The site of these events is on open ground belonging to the village of St. Antonin, about seven miles from Aix. From this spot there is a magnificent view of the mountain, only about a half-mile away.

On July 3, the Ballet Preljocaj will dance Diaghilev’s ballet “Les Noces” (the Wedding), music by Stravinsky, commemorating the first major exhibition in France of Russian paintings, organized by Diaghilev in Paris in 1906, the year of Cezanne’s death. The July 5 event will be a concert by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra under Sir Simon Rattle performing Mahler’s 5th Symphony.

Estague, Gardanne, Le Tholonet and the Bibemus quarry all will be on the tour organized by the Aix Tourism Office for the celebration. On the way, you can see the large house purchased by Picasso, the chateau of Vauvenargues, on the northern slope of Mount St. Victoire, where Picasso is buried. When he purchased the chateau, Picasso said to his dealer, “I’ve just bought the Saint-Victoire by Cezanne.”

“Which one?” asked the dealer.

Replied Picasso: “The original.”

Quite aside from the pilgrimage honoring Cezanne, charming villages are within easy reach of Aix for day excursions. Cassis is half an hour away by car.

A small port, Cassis was a favorite in Roman times. Now it’s known for the seafood restaurants scattered around the port and as a center for excursions by boat into the narrow. fjordlike calanques that cut sharply into the coastline between Cassis and Marseille to the west. On sunny afternoons, locals gather under the plane trees to play petanque, the local version of boules.

Marseille is about a 40-minute drive from Aix. France’s second-largest city is a lively town with a lovely old port, several good museums and a beautiful 17th-century hospice, La Vieille Charite. The Chateau d’If, made famous by Alexandre Dumas in the “Count of Monte Cristo” and his man in the iron mask, is just offshore in the Bay of Marseille.

It’s a 15-minute train ride by the fast TGV from Aix to Avignon with its 12th-century bridge and the magnificent Palace of the Popes. From Avignon, it’s just a few miles farther to Les Baux de Provence, a dramatic site for an ancient fortress and pretty village high in the bauxite Alpilles (the little Alps).

Not far away is St. Remy de Provence, one of the region’s most enchanting villages. St. Remy has a Museum of Perfumes, dedicated to the transformation of local plants and flowers into herbal remedies. Vincent van Gogh was hospitalized in a clinic in St. Remy after he cut off his ear.

The 12th-century cloister of the Clinique St. Paul, just outside the town, can be visited. Another fascinating site is Glanum, a Roman ruin with a magnificent triumphal arch. Nostradamus, the 16th-century astrologer, was born in St. Remy’s old quarter, and the ancestors of the Marquis de Sade had a home in the town, the Hotel de Sade.

Arles, known for its intact Roman arena, one of the best-preserved Roman remains in Provence, is another major attraction in the region. Van Gogh spent 15 months in Arles, and although the yellow house that inspired the painting is gone, the institution where van Gogh lived is in the center of town.

Arles has a lovely Romanesque church, St. Trophine, with a 12th-century portal of the Last Judgment. It’s also a good place to buy tablecloths, napkins and other items of Provencal fabrics.

Avignon and Aix have well-known summer music, dance, theater and art festivals. Each town and village has a market day when the bounty of Provence is on display, and there are lots of flea markets throughout the region where a careful buyer can unearth treasures to take home.

The region is rich in Gallo-Roman ruins, Romanesque churches and medieval villages perched on hilltops. In 2006, Paul Cezanne is the star of Provence, but the region has much to offer beyond the great painter’s haunts, making it a summer of Cezanne delight.

• • •

Air France and United Air Lines operate daily nonstop flights from Washington Dulles International Airport to Paris. From Charles de Gaulle Airport, there are direct TGV trains to Aix-en-Provence — about 21/2 hours from Paris to Aix. There’s regular bus service in Aix for the 15- to 20-minute ride from the TGV station to the center of town. Train tickets can be obtained in advance through RailEurope, 888/382-7245 or visit www.raileurope.com .

We stayed in Hotel Cezanne, a charming, low-key hotel close to the center of town. The building is old-fashioned, but management is renovating the rooms and bathrooms with attractive furniture and excellent beds. Each room is different. The staff is particularly pleasant and helpful. Hotel Cezanne, 40 avenue Victor Hugo; 33-442-26-00-51.

For information on the Year of Cezanne in Aix, contact Aix-en-Provence Tourist Center, 2 Place du General de Gaulle, 13100 Aix-en-Provence, France; phone 33-491-56-47-00 or 33-442-16-10-91; French Government Tourist Office, 444 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10022; 212/745-0967; or visit www.aixenprovencetourism.com www or [email protected]

Provence Week in Washington

Washington’s observance of the centenary of Paul Cezanne’s death includes more than the “Cezanne in Provence” exhibition, running Jan. 29 through May 7 at the National Gallery of Art.

Events for Provence Week — Jan. 30 through Feb. 3 — have been organized by the Chamber of Commerce of Marseille Provence in France.

In addition, on Jan 24, the National Gallery’s Garden Cafe will become Cafe Provencal, with the menu reflecting the foods of Cezanne’s native region.

Chefs Francis Robin of Le Mas du Soleil in Salon-de-Provence and Rene Berges of the Relais Ste. Victoire in Aix-en-Provence, along with the chefs of Restaurant Associates, have created an a la carte menu and a buffet of dishes inspired by the Provencal cuisine.

The chefs also will do a cooking demonstration and provide samples of regional dishes and wines for visitors to the National Gallery from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Jan. 24 in Cafe Provencal in the museum’s West Building, Sixth Street and Constitution Avenue Northwest.

City restaurants are getting into the Cezanne picture by offering Provencal menus. Chefs from Provence will assist in some of the kitchens. Participating restaurants include: Belga Cafe, 202/544-0100; Bistrot Lepic, 202/333-0111; Cafe 15, 202/737-8800; Citronelle, 202/625-2150; Gerard’s Place, 202/737-4445; La Chaumiere, 202/338-1784; La Ferme, 301-986-5255; Marcel’s, 202/296-1166; Petits Plats, 202/518-0018.

For “A Night in Provence” — 6 to 9 p.m. Jan. 30 — La Maison Francaise and the French American Cultural Foundation are bringing chefs, wines and spirits of the region and traditional crafts and retailers to the Embassy of France, 4101 Reservoir Road NW (202/944-6901). Tickets, $65, will be available at www.la-maison-francaise.org in early January.

Other programs include “Posters of Provence and the Provencal Way of Life” at the Reservoir Road address beginning Jan. 31 and a piano recital by Bernard Chamayou in a program of French music around the theme of Cezanne at 7 p.m. Feb. 2 in the Rosslyn Spectrum theater, 1611 N. Kent St., Arlington; 202/234-7911. Tickets, $15 and $12, are available at www.francedc.org.

The National Gallery is closed tomorrow, but regular hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday.

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide