Miles Kington: When artists went wild in the sunny south

Under their breaths, the locals said: 'Oh, la la. There goes the neighbourhood'
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The Independent Online

I have just come back from a week spent in the south-west of France, at a little fishing port called Collioure. Well, it was a little fishing port once, until about 100 years ago, when it began to undergo what the English might call the St Ives process. That is to say, a group of great painters arrive at a small seaside town and marvel at the light and the colours and the cheapness of the lodgings, and move in, followed shortly by the collapse of the local fishing industry. Then the lesser artists move in, followed later by the tourists, by which time the great artists are long gone.

I have just come back from a week spent in the south-west of France, at a little fishing port called Collioure. Well, it was a little fishing port once, until about 100 years ago, when it began to undergo what the English might call the St Ives process. That is to say, a group of great painters arrive at a small seaside town and marvel at the light and the colours and the cheapness of the lodgings, and move in, followed shortly by the collapse of the local fishing industry. Then the lesser artists move in, followed later by the tourists, by which time the great artists are long gone.

In the case of Collioure, it was Monsieur Henri Matisse who arrived to do some painting, along with his friend André Derain, followed later by Raoul Dufy, and Maurice Vlaminck, and all the gang. What gang ? Well, later the very same year they became known as the Fauves. Like all the best names for schools of painting (Impressionism, Cubism, etc) this began as an insult. "Fauve" means "wild animal", and their bold use of colour, which dictated even the design, may have seemed quite reasonable as they painted away in the strong summer light of Collioure, but when the results were exhibited that autumn in Paris, in the "Salon d'Automne", the yellows and reds and oranges that leapt off the canvas were too much for the poor Parisian critics, who fainted in droves, labelled them "wild beasts" and wished they would all go away.

Some of this I got from a book called Collioure 1905 - Matisse Fauve by Jean-Pierre Barou, a slip of a paperback which is currently available in all good bookshops in Collioure (of which there is actually only one and it isn't that good). For a brief season, the book is sporting a new wrapper in dark green proclaiming "16 May 1905 - Matisse arrives in Collioure!". My wife and I therefore came to Collioure 100 years and two weeks after the arrival of Matisse (and his wife), which means I have yet again been just too late for a centenary.

Still, I got the impression that I had not missed anything vital. There were no signs of a massive clear-up after a party on 16 May. There were no Matisse cocktails in the local bars. There were some nice reproductions of Matisse paintings round the town, exhibited on, as near as possible, the spot where the original was painted, but the locals were handling the centenary very sensibly, I thought, by being quite calm and ignoring it. In any case, the day after we arrived it was the day of the great Euro Referendum. (Which also seemed to pass by without much comment.)

But then I expect the locals took the arrivals of the Matisse gang equally calmly a century ago. They may have said under their breaths: "Oh, la la, here come the artists - there goes the neighbourhood," or even: "Actually, I think I may give up fishing this year and open an artist's materials supply shop while there is a demand for these big strong colours ..." but on the whole it was the presence of anchovies that continued to dominate the town.

They certainly did not get carried away by the Fauve movement. Barou has discovered an enlightening interview dating from 1989 in which a local writer talked to a an old man called Mathieu Muxart who, in the same summer of 1905, had been a young lad working at the Hôtel de la Gare, the very place where the painter Derain came to stay.

"I was sent to get Derain's luggage from the station,"said Muxart. "There was a whole cartload of stuff, suitcases, boxes, and so on, and a parasol bigger than an umbrella. He stayed two months in the hotel. We became friends. He was very nice to me - always called me 'vous' ..."

Muxart even remembered Derain painting a sign for the hotel.

"It was all great splashes of different colours, like fireworks going off, with Hôtel de la Gare written across it. When the lady who owned the hotel saw it, she flew into a great rage and chucked it out. But I retrieved it and hid it in the hotel yard, on top of the rabbit hutches we kept there. I didn't want Monsieur André having his feelings hurt, seeing it thrown out in the ditch. ..."

Ah, if only all art criticism was so gently handled.

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