Archive for March, 2013

St. Paul de Vence – a globalised AND localised artistic community

March 7, 2013

Nestled in the foothills of the Alps-Maritime, some fifteen minutes by car from the French Riviera, lies the ancient walled village of St Paul de Vence.

Located on a rocky promontory, the former Roman garrison site dates back 2,000 years and is spread over two acres – comprising a chapel, cemetery, chateau, homes and galleries. Narrow cobbled laneways lead tourists to sculptures, museums and art and craft stores. And overlooking the distant Mediterranean the hills and valleys around St Paul are covered with olive groves, flowers and vines just as they were centuries ago.

Artists began frequenting St Paul in the 1920s attracted by the village’s brown stone, colourful rolling hills and rich intense light. The trailblazers were Paul Signac, Raoul Dufy and Chaim Soutine. They were later followed by Picasso, Fernand Leger, Marc Chagall and Henri Matisse who was based at Vence a few kilometres away. Through the twentieth century actors, writers and artists made St Paul into a bubbling cultural centre. The 1950s and 60s were the village’s golden age when film making put it on the international stage as world famous directors and actors were attracted by the Victorine film studio and the proximity to Cannes Film Festival.

Today there are some 25 galleries displaying art works ranging from modern through contemporary, fringe and naïve across all forms including traditional painting, sculpture, textiles, jewellery and plastics along with four museums.

What attracted me to visit St Paul was a suggestion that this artistic enclave owes its success to government funding, that it seeded the establishment of this thriving art community. So I set out to investigate.

Talking to several shop owners who had been there for decades, all looked at me aghast at the suggestion of government money. Non, non, non! They originally came because St Paul offered the scenery and light, they stayed because their work became popular – there were no handouts then and there are no handouts now! “We pay commercial rents for our shops and get no government help’ was the common view.

Today there are only a handful of local painters, and they haven’t achieved the recognition of their predecessors. The art is now sourced from all over Europe. As one shop owner said, art is a specialised business, we operate in a particular segment and we have to cater to an international market which is constantly changing and evolving, we cannot just keep stocking what was popular last year or the year before, we have to stay abreast of changing tastes, we have to know our market intimately and continually adjust to it. There can be no loyalty to any local artist, not if we want to survive.

Contributed by Peter Kittler (Canberra), a consultant to the Cockatoo Network – peterkittler@hotmail.com