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.

What did the Gauls ever do for us?


The Gauls left surprisingly few visible marks on the French landscape, despite controlling an area covering most of modern day France (including the village of Forges-Les-Eaux) from the 5th century BC to the arrival of the Romans in 58 to 51 BC.  Rather unsurprisingly, then, until the late 18th century, they were considered to be hairy, illiterate, warlike and pagan forest-dwellers, living off berries and hunting, just waiting from the arrival of the Romans… and proper buildings.

But this grain of beech pollen proves them wrong.

Featured in one of seven hands-on workshops at The Incredible Gauls exhibition at the Cité des Sciences in Paris, which runs until September 2012, it reveals the work of one of archaeology’s unsung heroes: palynologists. Specialists in pollen, palynologists can instantly visualise an ancient landscape simply by looking at pollen under a microscope. They can also compare pollen numbers over the centuries or even millennia (pollen can survive for millions of years in damp ground).

When palynologists look at pollen from Forges-Les-Eaux, they see a dramatic drop in the number of beech trees, and other species of trees, around the time of the Gauls, who were obviously busy felling them to make way for fields and to forge iron tools, which were vital to farmers in the 2nd century BC.

Few tools were more vital than the one actually invented by the Gauls – the scythe. Like the modern combine harvester, it allowed farmers to harvest crops much faster,  leaving them free to do other things, like inventing the wooden barrel. Incredibly, none of the tools on display at this exhibition – hoes, pruning implements, sheers, sickles and ploughs – changed much until the late 18th century. So much for embarrassing ancestors.

what did julius caesar really look like?

The only two known busts of Julius Caesar have gone on display together for the first time in Paris as part of an exhibition of objects found in the Rhône River near the ancient city of Arelate, modern day Arles. For decades the only portrait known to exist of Julius Caesar was a bust found in Tusculum in 1825. Then in the autumn of 2007, Luc Long, director of the Rhône Underwater Archaeology Project, came face to face with the dictator during an archaeological dive. As the bust peered out at him from the murky waters of the Rhône, he recognised it immediately: ‘Mais, c’est César’. Despite initial scepticism – as the Danish historian Flemming Johansen explained during one of the free talks held in the Louvre as part of this exhibition, of the 200 representations of Caesar currently in existence, 90% are modern fakes – comparison with the Tusculum bust, which is kept in the Archaeological Museum in Turin, has left archaeologists in little doubt. Both show him in his fifties, with a  receding hairline, hollow cheeks, a small, slightly drooping mouth and prominent adam’s apple. Founded by Julius Caesar in 46 BC, Arles is located near the mouth of the Rhône River, 30 km from the Mediterranean, and once stood at the centre of a vast maritime and river trading network that stretched from Spain to modern Turkey and beyond.

Arles, Record of the Rhône. Twenty years of underwater excavations. Muséé du Louvre. 9 March to 25 June 2012.


Incongruous! Disrespectful! Kitsch! When Jeff Koons decided to hang a giant red lobster from a ceiling in the Château de Versailles it wasn’t a universal hit. But at least it took the palace to a darker, grittier place. Unlike Livre/Louvre.  Displayed in the Sully Wing of the Louvre until 25 June, this contemporary art installation by writer Jean-Philippe Toussaint is prudishly shielded from the world’s most famous fine arts museum by a series of giant partitions. Not because there’s anything to hide. But because it has very little to do with the Louvre itself. Toussaint tackles the exhibition’s theme – “conveying books without using writing” – with a display of square “cut-outs” of books from famous paintings. Arranged into a sort of mosaic on the wall, it feels like a backdrop to a late-night book show, as does the darkened tunnel lit by the word “book” in neon in several languages. Neither give the brain much of a workout. The exhibition’s central work, a photo portrait of a group of contemporary writers “freely inspired” by Fantin-Latour’s 1864 portrait L’hommage à Delaxcroix featuring Baudelaire and Manet is stiff and awkward. Not to say arrogant. The exhibition does, however, have a “wow factor”: the original manuscripts of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and Dante’s Divine Comedy sitting uneasily side by side.