Working on Côte d’Azur Was Very Best Revenge

What the French call the Côte d’Azur and everyone else calls

the French Riviera-on the southeast coast of the Mediterranean Sea-is now

almost as famous for its modern art as it is for its glamorous attractions as a

luxurious tourist colony. If only for the beautiful and abundant work created

there by Matisse and Bonnard, the Riviera would command attention as one of the

significant sites of 20th-century modernist art. Yet the list of well-known

painters, sculptors, photographers, architects and designers who have been

attracted to the felicities of the Riviera is, of course, a long and

distinguished one. In an attempt to trace its history, Kenneth E. Silver,

professor of art history at New York University, has now organized an

exhibition called Côte d’Azur: Art,

Modernity and the Myth of the French Riviera at the AXA Gallery here in New

York.

Mr. Silver has also written a new book on the subject- Making Paradise: Art, Modernity and the Myth

of the French Riviera (M.I.T. Press, $29.95)-which serves as the catalog of

the exhibition (though the book, in both its text and illustrations, reaches

well beyond the show itself). In this well-written study, in which aesthetic

analysis, social history and sociological theory are joined to give us a very

large view of art and life on the Riviera, we are also invited to entertain

some broad claims for the Riviera as an art-historical subject. Certainly the

suggestion that, in the magnitude of its achievements and influence, the

Riviera may be comparable to such urban art centers as Paris, Berlin and New

York is not one that can be expected to command universal assent.

My own view is that this is asking much too much of a

historical phenomenon that is more appealing for its period charm than its

intellectual depth. It would, in any case, require a much larger and more

comprehensive exhibition than the present one to support such a broad claim.

But differences of opinion about the thesis of the Côte d’Azur exhibition do nothing to diminish the pleasures and

revelations of the show itself, which includes works by Picasso, Braque, Derain

and Dufy as well as Matisse and Bonnard among the European artists, and William

Glackens, Hans Hofmann, Gerald Murphy and Ellsworth Kelly among the Americans.

There is no shortage of surprises, either. Among them are a 1919

postcard from Picasso to Jean Cocteau containing a little drawing that bears a

remarkable resemblance to the work of Matisse (or maybe Dufy), and a lovely,

curiously sedate painting by George Grosz, a 1927 landscape marking this révolté artist’s withdrawal from the

turmoil of Dada politics. A less agreeable surprise, perhaps, is a large canvas

by Eric Fischl called Close Up

(1982), which might easily be mistaken for a view of Miami’s South Beach, where

the sand is likely to be scorching, the sun blinding and the dramatis personae

in the advanced stages of narcissistic torpor.

It is not on the basis of such minor work, however, but on

the most accomplished works of the masters that Mr. Silver stakes his claim for

the Riviera’s artistic importance. Of these works by the masters, the most

compelling are the Bonnards, two of the Matisses-the Study for “Luxe, Calme et Volupté” (1904) and Antibes, View from Inside an Automobile (1925)-Derain’s Landscape at Cassis (1907) and Braque’s Landscape at La Ciotat (1907). The two

items by Léger, small watercolor portraits of Gerald and Sara Murphy from the

1920′s, are delightful trifles. (Léger, by the way, seems to have hated the

Riviera.) Picasso’s Three Bathers

(1920) looms large in this show of mostly minor works, but is itself minor

compared to his large-scale compositions on the same theme.

In a show of mostly minor works, a major effort by a minor

master like Gerald Murphy-his Cocktail

(1927)-looks stupendous. For latecomers to their story, let it be said that Gerald

and Sara Murphy were wealthy American expatriates whose home in Antibes, called

Villa America, became one of the celebrated centers of art life on the Côte

d’Azur in the 1920′s. Their friends included Picasso, Léger, Stravinsky, Cole

Porter and, most notoriously, F. Scott Fitzgerald, who was often deeply drunk

and attempted to give an account of the Murphys’ lives in his novel Tender Is the Night . A more reliable

account is Calvin Tompkins’ short biography of the Murphys called Living Well Is the Best Revenge (Viking

Press, 1962).

Between 1922 and 1930, Murphy painted 10 pictures, all in a

severely Cubist, proto-Pop style, and then gave it up. “He once told a friend,”

writes Mr. Tompkins at the close of his book, “that he had never been entirely

happy until he began painting, and that he was never really happy again after

he stopped.” His was surely one of the strangest careers in the history of

either American painting or painting on the Côte d’Azur-a cautionary tale of an

ill-fated attempt to make a life of money, style and pleasure into something

akin to a work of art. This was a mistake that workaholic talents like Picasso,

Matisse and Bonnard never made, whether on the Côte d’Azur or anywhere else.

Gerald Murphy did have one thing in common, however, with

masters like Picasso and Matisse. Working on the Côte d’Azur, he, like them,

was living off the intellectual capital he had acquired in Paris. So, too, were

most of the artists represented in the

Côte d’Azur exhibition. This is finally why Mr. Silver’s thesis remains

unpersuasive. For in the cultural and intellectual history of modern art, the

Côte d’Azur remained a Parisian colony. The Riviera was never the capital of

anything but pleasure.

Still, in everything but its overweight title, Côte d’Azur: Art, Modernity and the Myth of

the French Riviera is a delight, and it remains on view at AXA Gallery, 787

Seventh Avenue at 51st Street (in the lobby of the Equitable Tower), through

July 14.