Museum of Classical Art at Mougins

Musée D’Art Classique à Mougins

Three ‘bus rides and a gruelling trek up the hill to the vieux village – I went to see this museum, worth every centime and bit of energy.  It was opened in April, 2011, and has been made possible by the British entrepreneur and art collector Christian Levett.  I submit that this is what bankers need to be doing with their millions instead of the other nefarious things we have heard of recently.

The museum aims at highlighting the classical influences on artists from Rubens in the 17th-century to the contemporary British sculptor Gormley who has cast two male figures standing at the entrance.  The work is called Reflection and recalls the myth of Narcissus.

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Museum entrance, with Gormley’s “Reflection”

By the reception desk there is an immense hollow steel cast of the head of Michelangelo’s David, but it has been sabred into sections.  This was done by Arman in the late-90s. I heard with disappointment (again) that no photographs were allowed.

The museum, a tasteful interior of glass, chrome and marble, is housed in a traditional building and is not spacious.  Most of the busts are Roman and between the 1st- and 3rd-centuries c.e.  They crowd together, but each is a marvel.  The subtle detail achieved at that time makes one realise again, as one writer put it, that art does not improve; only its media change.  Beyond this era of Greek and Roman sculpture, art has seldom achieved the same level again.  Of these busts one is of Nero, done in 59 c.e. at the time he was alive – a young, flabby face.

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Hermes and Ariadne, st century, c.e.

Another is a janiform bust with a severe Hermes on the one side and a gentle, expressive Ariadne on the other.

Everywhere are the works of modernist and contemporary artists, powerfully juxtaposed with the classical – Chagall, Picasso, Léger, Calder, Klein, Lichtenstein, Warhol, Dali, the list goes on.

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Picasso’s Profile of Jacqueline, 1956

One Roman bust, a sneering, hard-faced emperor from the 2nd-century was copied by Henri Matisse when he was a student – the bust is next to the 19th-century drawing of it.  Yves Klein produced a neon purple Venus de Milo which kind of screams at you.  Raoul Dufy’s painting Orpheus charming the animals (1939) is playful, frieze-like.  Chagall’s Bacchanalia (1964) is a series of falling and climbing figures, raucous in a way that contrasts with the solemnity of his spiritual works.  Warhol’s Venus rising (1960s) is a lurid copy of Botticelli’s Venus.

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Mariani’s Transformation (1998) and Rodin’s figure “The Gates of Hell”

Carlo Maria Mariani’s Transformation (1998) in its way sums up the purpose of the museum.  The work is a painting of a bust with its nose broken, something which happens more often than not to statues from antiquity.  But below the broken nose emerges a nose that is real and the lower half of the face is naturalistic – a strange, surreal double image, but one that says it all:  from the art of the past we have built modern and contemporary art;  we are inspired by you; you are our soul, even as we struggle with our primary-coloured despair and stumbling spirits.

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Four Pyramids and the Sun by Calder (1973)

The Egyptian floor has, as with the other floors, a simple explanation of the exhibits:  this culture, it says, has exercised the most fascination for people past and present.  There are two sarcophagi, more than 3000 years old, that are striking – one was for a temple chantress and is decorated extensively and beautifully with autumn-coloured hieroglyphs.  The face above the folded arms is a purity of sad serenity.

The top floor is given to Greek and Roman helmets, breastplates, spears and swords, the most extensive collection I’ve seen.  And there are objects of rare beauty, lovingly wrought, for the purpose of great destruction, getting power and keeping it.  I saw the words of Heraclitus (505 – 475 b.c.e War is the mother of everything.  I don’t understand this, not in a place like this, one of great creativity.

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Greek helmet, 5th-century b.c.e.

I had a less ambivalent reaction to the words of Tite-Live (27 b.c.e. – 40 c.e.) –   Mourir pour son pays est, je l’admets, une chose glorieuse.  Had this Roman writer, a contemporary of Christ, read Wilfred Owen’s poem which describes a man dying from a mustard gas attack in WW1, he would not so blithely have believed the Old Lie: To die for one’s country, I admit, is a glorious thing.  

I trekked down the hill from the vieux village in cicada heat, got lost, eventually found the ‘bus stop and disappeared in the traffic moving in the direction of Cannes.

Will van der Walt ©

Vendredi   13 Juillet 2012

www.willwilltravel.wordpress.com

Images Sources:

Images from MACM booklet are used with permission

Photo graphs of Gormley’s Reflection by Will 

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