The man who got into a clay fight with Picasso: part I

When Picasso was searching for a home for himself and his new wife, Jacqueline Roque, in the Spring of 1955, the artist settled on a secluded villa high in the hills above Cannes. An exotic Moorish-style residence walled by a dense tropical park, La Californie enjoyed commanding views over the Bay of Cannes. Until his departure in 1961, Picasso filled every room with thousands of new works, from Mediterranean landscapes to experimental metal sculptures. Frédéric Ballester, founder of the Malmaison Art Centre in Cannes and curator of its summer exhibition, Les Chemins du Sud, was a regular visitor. In the first instalment of a two-part interview, I talk to him about his memories of Picasso, why he moved to Cannes and its influence on his work.

What’s your first memory of Picasso?

I was six years old. My parents, good friends of Picasso, called on him at his ceramics studio in Vallauris. I remember the pottery drying in the sun, the smell of clay, the smoke hanging over the town, and an old man rolling up little balls of clay and throwing them at me. It all ended in a clay fight!

Why did he move to Cannes?

When Picasso left his first wife, François Gilot, in 1953, I think Jacqueline pushed him to leave Vallauris. He wanted a big house but he didn’t want to go too far away. La Californie was perfect.

How did Cannes influence his work?

When he arrived at La Californie, he was brimming with new ideas and you can particularly see the influence of Matisse in his work. It marked a break with Antibes and a return to painting, landscapes and Mediterranean themes. When you look at a painting like La Baie de Cannes, you sense a sort of bulimia. He deconstructs the town and turns it towards us because he wants to fit everything into the picture.

Although he was in his 80s when he lived in Cannes, there’s a sense of renewal about his work. He’d left one woman and moved in with another. It was a new adventure. Jacqueline was a breath of fresh air. She was going to protect him at the end of his life. She gave him energy. She used to tell me how much she loved this powerful man who remained strong right to the end, and whose death would leave a fatal void in her life…

This interview appeared in Vertu Select magazine in August 2012.

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