Heirs to one of the great names of the 20th-century art world, the current members of the Maeght family want to remain faithful to their roots, they say, and to the credo of the dynasty’s founder Aimé Maeght—art dealer, collector and friend of Bonnard, Matisse, Miró and Braque: “We must do everything in our power to help artists.”
The Maeght family originated in Hazebrouck, near Lille, in northern France. Today the renowned name (pronounced Mahg) is shared by art galleries in Paris and Barcelona, publishing houses for books and graphic works, a formidable private art collection, and—perhaps most famous of all—the Maeght Foundation in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, a splendid private museum in the backcountry hills above Nice.
Young printer-lithographer Aimé Maeght transformed his “boutique atelier” in Cannes into an art gallery in 1936. Ten years later he opened a new gallery on the rue de Téhéran in Paris, a now-legendary space that was quickly adopted by the post-WWII avant-garde. Maeght exhibited the Surrealists, and other artists as diverse as Chagall, Calder, Tàpies and Kandinsky. His pragmatic wife Marguerite—the young couple married in 1928—was his lifelong accomplice in realizing his dreams.
In 1956 their 26-year-old son Adrien opened a second Paris gallery on the rue du Bac, on the Left Bank, where the public would soon discover Riopelle, Chillida, Gasiorowski and others. Marguerite died in 1977 and Aimé in 1981. Adrien, now the octogenarian family patriarch, still presides over the foundation but is no longer involved in the day-to-day operations of what he calls “the little family consortium”. His children, Isabelle, Florence, Françoise (known as Yoyo) and Jules are shareholders of the publishing house and the Galerie Maeght in the rue du Bac. (The original rue de Téhéran gallery now belongs to former Maeght gallery associate Daniel Lelong).
Yoyo’s recent resignation from the foundation’s board of directors has stirred up a lot of comment. Pushing for “a more profitable strategy”, Yoyo publicly reproached her father and her sister Isabelle for “resting on their laurels”—a situation that the family has an absolute horror of discussing.
With the arrival last summer of new director Olivier Kaeppelin, a fresh breeze is blowing through the Maeght Foundation, as if to prove Yoyo wrong. Kaeppelin, who formerly reorganized Paris’s Palais de Tokyo contemporary art center, says he intends to “present every year an exhibit that represents a collector’s lifelong passion. We’re also planning a major yearly retrospective of an important artist, incorporating the riches in our collection. And of course we’ll show contemporary artists who are inventing and experimenting.”
The foundation’s spring exhibit, Arcadia in Celle (March 31–June 10), will bring to Saint-Paul, straight from Tuscany, treasures accumulated by the wealthy textile dealer and art collector Giuliano Gori. The Fattoria di Celle (Celle Farm) and its 17th-century villa, in a vast park near Florence, houses the Italian art patron’s dazzling collection, including some 80 works of site-specific art by artists including Robert Morris, Magdalena Abakanowicz and Alberto Burri, who were given carte blanche to develop their projects.
The 63-year-old Kaeppelin remembers enchanting times on the Côte d’Azur: “The foundation played an important role in my training. Not only the beauty of the magical place, and the exhibits that made up an anthology of art, but also the concerts and the ballets. I’ll never forget the summer of 1970, dedicated to the US and to free jazz musicians like the incredible saxophone player Albert Ayler.”
Creating a legacy
Marguerite and Aimé Maeght inaugurated the private museum, the first in France of its kind, on July 28, 1964. At the opening, Ella Fitzgerald and Yves Montand sang, and André Malraux, then Minister of Culture, gave a memorable speech: “Here you have tried something that has never been attempted before, to create a universe in which modern art can find its own place…the result belongs to posterity.” All the beau monde and the most important people in the art world were there. It was an extraordinary event.
And yet the foundation was born in mourning. In 1953, the Maeghts’ youngest son Bernard died of leukemia at the age of 11. Georges Braque suggested to the devastated parents that they “create something that would live after them”. The couple traveled to the US to visit the Barnes, Phillips and Guggenheim foundations and came up with an idea: to open, on a pine-forested hill near the village of Saint-Paul-de-Vence, a place where art and nature would meet, a place for creation. “If you do that,” Fernand Léger told Aimé, “I would even paint the rocks.”
One of Maeght’s most important artists and faithful friends, Joan Miró, had earlier commissioned Catalan architect Josep Lluis Sert to build a studio on the island of Mallorca. Aimé fell in love with it, so he asked Sert to design the buildings for his foundation—a complex of brick, glass, cement and stone around open patios and fountains, where the noonday sun floods the exhibit rooms.
Like a Mediterranean village, the foundation has its own small chapel, dedicated to Saint Bernard, that was in ruins in the woods when the project began. Marguerite considered it a sign. The Maeghts restored it, and Braque and Raoul Ubac designed stained-glass windows for the chapel. Braque designed a mosaic for a patio goldfish pond. The Giacometti brothers, Alberto and Diego, designed benches, lamps, door handles and outdoor lights for the buildings. Pierre Tal-Coat turned an outside wall into an homage to cave paintings. Alexander Calder’s immense stabile, Les Renforts, rose in front of the entrance. And Miró created a whole series of sculptures to populate the terraces and fountains of the extraordinary “Labyrinth” in the hilltop gardens. (Later, one afternoon in the summer of 1966, Duke Ellington improvised his Blues for Joan Miró there.) Construction, entirely financed by the Maeghts, took four years, and artists and workmen picnicked together more than once on the site.
Once it was open, major exhibitions came one after the other—Calder in 1969; André Malraux, the Imaginary Museum, bringing together tribal art and the masters of the Renaissance, in 1973; a Giacometti retrospective in 1978—the foundation is the only museum that has both versions of his most celebrated work, Walking Man I and Walking Man II.
Two hundred thousand people a year visit this serene spot, lulled by the song of the cicadas. The collection, with some 130,000 artworks, offers an exceptional panorama of 20th-century art. Its books and manuscripts are the joy of researchers. “Besides the Miró sculptures, the foundation also owns most of his etchings and engravings as well as one of the most important collections of works by Alberto Giacometti,” says Isabelle Maeght. As for the 100 acquisitions made by the Friends of the Foundation, a group created by her grandmother Marguerite in 1966, she adds, “it is a collection within the collection”.
On the foundation’s board of directors, Isabelle guided the modernization and expansion project carried out by Italian architect Silvio d’Ascia in 2010. “We are delighted with his project, which we hope will be inaugurated in time for our 50th anniversary in 2014. The grounds around the museum are off-limits to construction, so everything we needed—a conference room, space for concerts, dressing rooms, two floors for storage—Ascia built underground. He doubled the original surface area without touching the existing structures. In fact, our first exhibit on architecture, scheduled for 2014, will be an homage to Sert, the original architect.”
Funds still needed to complete construction: €6,000,000. “It’s indispensable these days to have spaces that can be used for private events,” adds Isabelle Maeght. “We’re proud of being autonomous. But costs for insurance and transportation have soared.”
As is the case with all museums, revenue from entrance fees and catalogs is not enough. The Maeghts create turnkey exhibits and send their successful exhibitions on tour, as they’ve done with the recent Chillida retrospective that will travel to the Pablo Picasso Museum in Münster in August. The foundation also receives tax-deductible donations from wealthy supporters. The foundation does buy artworks, but can also carefully pick and choose among works that artists are eager to donate, in order to be part of the prestigious Maeght collection.
Isabelle Maeght fondly remembers an enchanted childhood: “Georges Braque, who was the witness at my parent’s wedding, fascinated me. He was like a third grandfather. I loved his elegant appearance, his white hair. Almost every Thursday we would have an afternoon snack together at his home near the Parc Montsouris. I was the only one he allowed to go into his studio, and to play the piano that had belonged to Erik Satie. We also visited him in Varengeville, Normandy, and took long walks together on the beach.”
“Miró? He spent two months of every year in Paris and a month and a half at Saint-Paul, where he worked in the etching and ceramics studios. We gathered pebbles together, and he taught me how to carve a design on an agave leaf.”
Poet and playwright Jacques Prévert made some collages for the Paris gallery, says Isabelle. “He often went to [the publishing house] Gallimard, which was very close to us. He would descend on us, rolling his big eyes, growling, ‘I am the Ogre! If you don’t eat your soup, I will eat you!’ Several of his collages are signed ‘The Ogre’ ”.
Originally published in the April 2012 issue of France Today