Clockwise from top left:
Joan Miro, The Birth of Day III, 1964; Joan Miro, Joy of a Little Girl in Front of the Sun, 1960; Alexander Calder, Sumac V, 1953; Henri Matisse, Portrait of Marguerite Maeght, 1944; Alberto Giacometti, Walking Man, 1960; Georges Braque, Hesperus--Theogony, 1939. 
All photos courtesy of the Royal Academy of Arts, © Galerie Maeght.

Miró, Calder, Giacometti and Braque: 
Aimé Maeght and his Artists 

At the Royal Academy 

by Anna Leung

This exhibition is not strictly speaking devoted to the four artists in its title. Rather, it is a tribute to the founders of Galerie Maeght, established in post-war Paris, and Fondation Maeght, a radical rethinking of the museum experience established in the south of France in 1964. Miró’s, Calder’s, Giacometti’s and Braque’s collaboration in the conception and realisation of this museum was highly significant. For despite their ultimate dependence on the museum and art gallery for a guaranteed afterlife, twentieth century artists of the avant garde persuasion tended to see the museum as a sarcophagus of art in which the individual art object, having become part of institutional arrangements and practices, inevitably loses it soul.

Collaborating with the Catalan architect Josep Lluis Sert on Fondation Maeght, Marguerite and Aimé Maeght (pronounced Mag) effectively created a blueprint for a totally new sort of museum. This was to be not just a space to house works of art but a foundation, a cultural centre to provide artists with studio space, creating a living working community which in Maeght’s words would create “… a kind of avant garde battalion to include poets, architects, musicians, sculptors, printmakers, an international group of young artists to facilitate the realisation of style in my own time.” Central to its pioneering spirit was this integration of all the arts but also the idea of integrating the surrounding landscape and the gardens into the overall design of the museum buildings. Thus Giacometti’s attenuated figures are site specific as are Miró’s fantastical sculptures that inhabit his labyrinth.

One of the Foundation’s most enduring contributions to contemporary museum and gallery experience was the inclusion of a café as an essential part of the gallery. If you consider the central role played by the café in Parisian intellectual and artistic circles as a meeting place both creative and convivial, this makes perfect sense. All of this might never have taken place had it not been for the long, often circuitous but serendipitous route that happened to involve many of those who now make up a pantheon of artists associated with the South of France and the Mediterranean. What precipitated this development, though, was the tragic loss in 1953 of the Maeght’s eleven year-old son, Bernard, to leukaemia. 

Aimé Maeght (1906-1981), a war orphan, had originally trained as a lithographer in Nimes in 1925. He opened a shop called Arte in Cannes with his recently married wife Marguerite, selling among other things radios, which were in short supply in the unoccupied part of Vichy France, modern furniture, and art objects in a specifically modernist domestic setting. Attached to the shop was a lithographic workshop from which Aimé Maeght published a literary and arts magazine called Pierre à Feu. This combined interest in poetry and printing was to expand into the periodical Derrière le Miroire that was produced in tandem with each of the Foundation’s exhibitions. 

Maeght had dabbled in the art market since 1936. It is a sad fact of this era that since many of the noted Parisian dealers had been Jewish, there was less competition and more opportunities for the taking in the art world of Nazi-occupied France. Maeght, aware of the difficulties that both Matisse and Bonnard were experiencing, especially Bonnard whose wife Marthe had recently died, had helped both artists through out the war years and was repaid in canvases which were displayed in the shop window. Marguerite, it seems, was particularly talented at extracting a good price for such work, and gradually both artists came to support and be supported by the Maeghts. When Liberation eventually came, these artists persuaded Aimé and Marguerite to purchase a Parisian dealership in the prestigious Rue Teheran, which opened with a show of Matisse drawings. It continued to host avant garde exhibitions, none more so than the 1947 Surrealist Show when the gallery was transformed into a Surrealist labyrinth. It was this exhibition that brought Miró and Calder into Maeght’s stable of artists, while the choice of Clayeux as managing director brought Leger, Calder and Giacometti on board. Moreover Maeght was the first European dealer to show the Abstract Expressionists and to host Cagean experimental and multi-media happenings. 

It was Braque who suggested to the grieving parents that they take on a challenging project such as establishing a cultural centre close by their own property just outside of St Paul de Vence in the South of France. Leger then suggested a trip to the States to study the Barnes Collection in Philadelphia, where Matisse’s vast mural of The Dance greeted the visitor, while it was through Miró that they chose as their architect Sert, who had designed Miró’s studio in Barcelona, but was best known for his Spanish Pavilion in the Paris International Fair in 1937 where Picasso’s Guernica was first exhibited. The Maeght Foundation thus combined regionalism, high culture, and the international art market. A light filled shrine to modernism, it boasted a Braque pool, a Miró labyrinth, and a Giacometti courtyard. 

The exhibition at the Royal Academy is heart-warming, some have even said magical. It may not be able to actually reproduce the light of the Riviera but it nevertheless conveys a sense of delight and playfulness tempered with a philosophical understanding of the share of darkness that lies at the core of things. Thus, it’s appropriate that Bonnard’s canvas Summer (1917), with its joy-filled evocation of the light and warmth of the south of France, welcomes the viewer in the first room, which functions as an introduction to the birth of the idea of the Foundation with drawings of Mme Maeght by Matisse, and that the second room is filled with Miró’s and Calder’s visual delights. The third room represents heartache and a grave understanding of our transience on this earth; here, Braque and Giacometti, in their different ways, extend their understanding of traditional figurative genres, the human figure and still life, with a lyricism etched with metaphysical darkness but also with an almost implacable authority.

What surprises is the closeness of Miró and Calder. Pictorially they seem to share a common syntax and emotionally a childlike delight in their ability to hold fantasy and reality together. Miró (1893-1983) was Catalan and despite the allure of Paris with its Surrealist connections, he always kept alive his ties to his native farming heritage, which fill his work with a poetic sense of nature and with eccentric forms. His abstract emblems and hieroglyphic script recall primitive and archaic cultures and mythic tales that skirt the absurd as well as the mysterious and dangerous. But as is also true for Calder, it is our dwelling place in the constellations, the stars and the moon, the cosmic panoply against which our lives are lived, both historical and personal, that is the measure of his world. Calder (1898-1976) came from an artistic family living on the outskirts of Philadelphia. While travelling as a common seaman, he became a stargazer and cosmic imagery was to figure in many of his wire sculptures, or stabiles, and in the kinetic sculptures he called mobiles. His invention of the mobile was radical, incorporating into sculpture the element of real time and of real space. By the end of the 1930’s he had begun to be influenced by Surrealism, adapting to his own work Miró’s biomorphic imagery but always with a foothold in the real world. Both of these artists take pleasure in the childlike and the comic. Calder’s vision is both playful and graceful, impelled by a basic curiosity about the structure of the universe. But having lived through the terrible years of the war in Spain under the Franco’s dictatorship, Miró’s vision is far blacker. 

Perhaps somewhat glibly, we tend to associate the French moderns with this sense of play and delight in formal harmonies. But underlying this natural exuberance and sense of the celebratory was a far deeper existential vein that is expressed in both Braque’s and Giacometti’s art works. In their later periods, both artists returned to a sort of figuration working from life, either directly or from memory, Braque in still life and landscape and Giacometti in classical figure studies, both nude and clothed. In the late 1920s and into the 30s, Giacometti had experimented with Surrealism. His Spoon Woman comes from this earlier period. By the early 30s, he began to find reality more conducive to art making than fantasy; paradoxically, fantasy was too predictable whereas attempting to distinguish what you know from what you see came to represent a life long challenge. For Giacometti there never was a final solution, admitting that it was “impossible ever really to finish anything.” Like Cézanne, he placed his emphasis on the act of seeing, on his search for what it is to represent reality in art. His sculpture Man Walking or his drawings of his closest friends and family tentatively trace an area of acute uncertainty, always seeking but never quite finding the boundary between the solid object and space. It was this quest that made him continually make and remake his sculptures and drawings, so that they always exist in the present. By erasing and effacing a day’s work only to begin again the following day, he created etiolated figures that embody both vulnerability and inner strength. They possess an archaic look, as if they had only recently been disinterred, and carry a freight of space and silence within them. This space and silence can also be found in Braque, especially in his late paintings. 

It was Braque, not Picasso, who made the first successful venture into the experimental territory that was to become Cubism and which subsequently gave rise to collage, papiers collés, and montage, techniques that have made such an impact on all areas of the visual arts, film as well as painting. Indeed, it was Braque’s Landscape at L’Estaque that provoked the critic Louis Vauxcelles at the Salon of the Independents of 1909 to talk about “little cubes.” What we see on the walls of the Royal Academy is a gradual dilution of Cubist strategies into a vision that is intent on recovering a quieter intimacy lodged in the uniqueness of the object in space. An echo of Cubism persists, but overlain with free arabesques and a strong rhythmic movement. This is especially true of the three large images taken from Hesiod’s Theogony (the creation of the world), with its intricate transparent designs traced on to plaster board, in which Braque takes as great a pleasure in the Greek lettering as he did in musical notations in his early cubist period. 

In his later Studio series, Cubist devices such as multiple views, overlapping planes and superimposed forms lead to a limited degree of abstraction. But the overall effect of light and space, which is highly poetic, verges on the narrative of a picture within a picture. These sombre late works are Braque’s most philosophical in that they attempt to capture a sense of the transience of things and, for all their realism, are edged with a metaphysical disquiet. For the motif of the bird in flight which was to become one of the artist’s most significant emblems represents not only movement in space but also suspension, silence, grace, and, significantly, freedom despite enclosure. This carries through into Braque’s decorative works, including his illustrations and lithographic prints. Finally, in his late landscapes painted in the years before his death. Braque looks back to van Gogh and breaks free from the studio to rediscover pure painting, capturing in thick impasto the enduring expanse of land, and sky that represent the horizon of all our strivings.

Braque was the best loved of the Maeght Foundation artists, and the first interior space in the building overlooking his pool was dedicated to him. The Foundation was, after all, his own brainchild and, having suffered from a head wound in World War 1 and needing for health reasons to escape from the winters in the north, he spent much time with the Maeght family and came to be regarded by the children as an honorary grandfather. 

It is the opportunity to gain access to what has been called “the backstage of artistic creativity” that makes this exhibition so entrancing. And in the final analysis, it is this sense of a very special family helping to generate and sustain the creativity that gives rise to the work of art as well as the individual works of art on display that make this exhibition so life-enhancing.

This exhibition runs from 4 October 2008 - 2 January 2009 at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, UK

Anna Leung is a London-based artist and educator now semi-retired from teaching at Birkbeck College but taking occasional informal groups to current art exhibitions. 

Text © Anna Leung, 2008.