Bathed in the sea, filled with sunshine, overlooked by the Pyrenees Orientales, the French Catalan Country undoubtedly surprises the visitor – Meanderings through France n° 122
By Annick Dournes & Frederic de Poligny
Pyrénées Orientales’ inhabitants make me jealous. This French department set at the foot of the Pyrenees on the western most part of the French Mediterranean coast is a land of plenty. On this small territory they enjoy skiing in winter, water sports all year round, beautiful and varied landscapes and great food. It comes as no surprise that famous artists such as Picasso, Signac, Matisse, Dali, Maillol… found there an endless source of inspiration.
This summer two exceptional exhibitions dedicated to Dali and Picasso will give you two more good reasons to visit the Pyrénées Orientales. Get ready to feel jealous too!
Before being the capital of the Pyrénées Oriental, Perpignan once was the capital of the Kingdom of Majorca and now is a harmonious blend of Catalan and French cultures. Walking through its pedestrian city centre and the adjacent streets you will soon find out that Perpignan is a juxtaposition of styles and eras. The city hall is a good example: originally built in the 13th century it has a medieval stern façade and typical Spanish painted ceilings but it also has a spectacular Hispano-Moorish-style wedding hall added in the 16th century.
It also shelters ”La Méditerranée” a masterpiece by Aristide Maillol, a prominent sculptor of the 20thC. Close by the “Castillet” is the former main door of Perpignan’s ramparts and its iconic building. It was later used as a prison, then as barracks and now is a museum where after climbing up its 142 stairs you will get to the top floor terrace and have a great view over the city.
Along the Wilson Boulevard several Art Deco and Art Nouveau buildings were constructed at the turn of the 20thC, such as the amazing Cinema Castillet, the oldest French movie theatre still operating. It was built in 1911 by Joan Font a Spanish visionary businessman. If its architecture was heavily criticized at that time, it’s now one of the most beloved buildings in town and has been entirely restored for its 100th birthday in 2011 by its founder’s grandson.
Jean Bardou was a baker in Perpignan in the 1830’s but didn’t become notorious for the quality of his bread or croissants! To diversify his business he created cigarette paper sold in small booklets on the bakery’s counter. In 1849 he applied for a patent and soon dozens of people worked in his factory in Perpignan city centre. Using his initials JB with a diamond-shaped logo in between, the JOB brand was created. In the beginning of the 20th century famous Art Nouveau artists, Alphonse Mucha, Jane Atché, Jean Gervais among many others designed advertising posters for JOB. They were very successful and still are sought after by collectors.
Jean Bardou’s son, Pierre, was even more successful than his father had been before him and was able to built a vast mansion-house next to the factory. Pierre’s daughter and her husband Jules Pams, made it even grander in a gaudy nouveau-riche sort of way. The house now is a museum and we can still see the impressive onyx and stucco staircase, the huge frescoes painted by Jean Gervais, the wonderful Art Nouveau decors and the restful patio.
There are many other mansion-houses in Perpignan dating back to the Middle Ages, Renaissance and 18th century. Most of them still are private houses but it is sometimes possible to open their doors and discover their beautiful inner courtyards.
Two of them, the Mailly Hotel and the Lazerme Hotel, have been brought together and turned into an art museum, the Rigaud museum. From 1953 till 1955 Pablo Picasso spent the summer with his friends Jacques and Paule Lazerme in their Perpignan house and a temporary exhibition provides insights into his private life and work in the very same place where he lived.
At that time his relationship with Françoise Gilot had come to an end and he was slowly recovering from this stormy break-up – when she left him he told her: “Other men will have the same faults as I do, but none of them will have my skills!”-. The Lazerme invited many friends to cheer him up: Jean Cocteau, Michel Leiris, Henry Kahnweiller… Photos, films, letters, drawings and paintings tell us about these precious moments spent with his friends, children, even Françoise and his new muse, Jacqueline Roque. They show us the private and sensitive Picasso beyond the artist who sacrificed everything to his art. Exhibition until 5 Nov 2017.
A 30 min drive South of Perpignan will take you to Céret a charming Catalan town close to the Spanish border. At the Céret Museum of Modern Art an extensive Dali exhibition will last until October 1st 2017. It might look surprising that such a small town has an internationally renowned museum but it logically results from the many visits paid by 20th century artists such as Picasso, Braque, Gris, Soutine, Chagall, Herbin, Matisse, Miro, Tapiès… They all were inspired in their own way by this beautiful area and its unique light.
Beyond the usual clichés about Salvador Dali depicting an eccentric, extrovert or even megalomaniac artist, this exhibition judiciously called “Eureka! Dali”, introduces us to Dali’s interpretation of science. His wide-ranging curiosity seems to be endless, from astrophysics to relativity theory, from psychoanalysis to genetics, from holography to catastrophe theory or even antigravity theory… he intended to translate his scientific knowledge into art through his famous “paranoiac-critical method”. Through the years he met many scientists such as Sigmund Freud in 1938, Francis Crick winner of the 1962 Nobel prize for the discovery of the structure of DNA, Dennis Gabor winner of the Nobel prize for his discovery of holography, René Thom originator of catastrophe theory or Marcel Pagès who lived in Céret and proposed antigravity theory.
The exhibition gives new perspectives on the different phases of Dali’s work. His famous Melting Watches are his personal interpretation of the relativity theory. “Gala watching the Mediterranean Sea” if a perfect example of his double images playing with the visual perception: if you stand close to the painting you can see Gala’s back, but if you look at it from afar or with a camera you can see the portrait of Abraham Lincoln. Here Dali wants to show us the dual nature of things. This exhibition also shows Dali’s visions of Lautreamont’s Maldoror and Poems, of Millet’s painting “The Angelus” or of stereoscopic paintings… It’s a truly original approach to the works of this singular artist. http://www.musee-ceret.com/mam/index.php
While in Perpignan the best place to stay at undoubtedly is the “Villa Duflot”, a 4-star hotel and a heaven of peace on the outskirts of town. Elegantly furnished in Art Deco style the lobby and large rooms are both comfortable and quiet, only the singing of a bird can disturb you. The swimming pool is like no other. Its unique metal coating gives it an iridescent colour-changing effect, almost fascinating. All summer long on Thursday nights a wine maker will come to the Villa Duflot for special wine tasting with live music and tasty plates cooked by the hotel chef. Can you picture yourself sipping a glass of wine, relaxing by the side of the pool with the song of the cicadas?
After working in renowned Parisian restaurants such as “Pré Catelan” with stared chef Frederic Anton, or with the king of desserts Philippe Conticini, François Celestin travelled to Pyrénées Orientales, fell in love with this beautiful region and knew at once he had to work there. His menus are simple and sophisticated, inventive and tasty and of course made with high quality local produce. After tasting his “warm white asparagus, soft boiled egg and curcuma cream”, or his “whole grilled sea bream, lemon, thyme and eggplant cooked with parsley and garlic” or his “Intense Red” a delicious dessert made with orange tomato and strawberry smoothie and sorbet, you will just want more… And then maybe, you won’t feel that jealous anymore!
All info at: www.tourisme-pyreneesorientales.com
Text ©Annick Dournes
Photos ©Frederic de Poligny