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

Picasso moved to Cannes with his new partner, Jacqueline, in 1955. After six happy years, he suddenly left the city in 1961. In this second instalment of my interview with Frédéric Ballester, the director of the Malmaison art centre in Cannes, who met the artist as a child, I explore Picasso’s sudden decision to abandon the city and why Jacqueline decided to return after his death.

Picasso was very happy in Cannes. Why did he leave?

There was a building boom and by the late 1950s his house – La Californie – was surrounded by a forest of cranes. He applied to build a roof terrace, but the town refused him permission. That made him really angry! He’d also started experimenting with sheet metal. His studio at Notre-Dame-de-Vie in Mougins was better equipped for that type of work.

What became of La Californie after Picasso left?

Picasso rarely sold his homes. He used them to store his collections. That was especially true of La Californie. When he had to vacate his house in Paris, he sent most of the contents to Cannes. It was packed with priceless works by Miro, Rousseau, dozens of Primitivists, and hundreds of his own paintings and sculptures. It’s hard to believe now, but there was no security. Not even an alarm! When you walked past, you could see no one was home. Where the sculpture park had once been, the grass was waist-high. It’s hard to tell how many works were stolen from the house. Some came to light just recently. In the early 1960s, someone wrote to Picasso and told him they’d seen smoke in his garden. When he checked, he found a man squatting in his chicken coop. He hadn’t even noticed!

When Picasso died in 1973, Jacqueline often returned to Cannes. How did she cope with his death?

From the time I set up La Malmaison in 1982 to her death in 1986, I spent many hours with Jacqueline. Picasso’s death knocked her sideways. It left a huge void in her life. I think that’s why she took her own life. She was surrounded by vultures who were only interested in one thing: Picasso’s works. I regret not going more often. I used to visit and wonder if I was bothering her. When I did, she talked about Picasso all the time. Cannes was filled with happy memories: she just couldn’t let go.

This article first appeared in the September issue of Vertu Select magazine.

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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.