February 20, 1988
The train route to Marseilles is like a grand tour through the French Riviera. The beaches and hotels of Cannes, St. Raphael, St. Tropez, Bandol, and Cassis (a favorite), await the tourists.
In the train compartment sits a French grandmother, dressed in black, who doesn’t acknowledge my presence and a young black man who says hello. He’s from Racine, Wisconsin, a journalism major going to school at the University of Montpellier. This might be the last conversation with an American for a few months. As the train pulled into the Gare St. Charles in Marseilles, I give him my New Yorker to read—a scathing article on the French literary scene.
2:00 PM, a nice warm day but a hint of a chill is underlying, mentally I note, I’ve brought the wrong clothes.
Reflections from the sea bathe Marseilles in resplendent light. The sand colored buildings glitter casting long dark shadows in response to the intensity. The streets become an extreme contrast of bright sunlight and cool shade. Aware, the Marseilles walk in the warm sun during the Mistral (a chilling, howling wind from the north) and the shadows during the Siroc (a hot wind from Africa).
Having a constant rendez-vous with the French border towns, the sea has a strong ambience permeating the roots of daily life and influencing the cultural attitude. Recent museum exhibitions in Marseilles emanate the sea and its light.
Sublime Indigo, an investigation of the mysterious deep pigment displayed dyes, fabrics, and books of mythological legends that have been woven around the symbolic color.
Le Corbusier and the Mediterranean was an extensive exhibition of his architecture along the sea coast. Le Corbusier designed and built a large apartment building in Marseilles, a building housing a city within its structure for 1,500 occupants. Part of the building is now a hotel.
Both of these exhibits were shown at the Vieille Charite, a 17th-century building. Four stories of Roman style arches stretch around a court yard, a chapel with an elliptical cupola sits in the middle. “The big pink egg” describes the inside of the chapel as slivers of light dart through the windows. Now a museum, it had been used for the homeless, the orphaned, and as quarantine for people dying from The Peste (Plague). The Vieille Charite was designed by Pierre Puget, a great artist of the time who wanted to rebuild Marseilles.
Tonight there is a choice: to hear the Marseilles Opera or a Moroccan percussion concert. The intrigue of the Moroccan music wins.
Anticipation excites the audience at La Maison de L’Etranger. A Moroccan man walks to the middle of the stage dressed in a blue French worker’s uniform, a hard hat, and work boots. Slowly he takes off the uniform revealing a small red hat, a long white robe, and yellow pointed-toe slippers. A French worker on the outside but still a Moroccan on the inside. The audience (half Moroccan) wildly applauds as 20 musicians, all men, join him. Dressed alike they carry terracotta drums. Their ages range from 17 to 70. The concert begins with strong, loud, and fast rhythmic drumming breaking onto intermittent patterns of clapping; Moroccans in the audience join in. The sounds feel spiritually improvised but in fact have a strongly composed structure. The songs are long, the emotion contagious. More subtle music begins slowly, repetition shifting ever so slightly, not unlike the most contemporary sounds building to a climatic crescendo. Older Berber men dance, concealing shoulder bags underneath their robes, emphasizing every gyrating movement. The music becomes more lucid. A veil of aphrodisia fills the room.
Washed daily, the streets and sidewalks smell clean in the night air. This ritual dates from the 1700s with the outbreak of the plague. Thirty thousand people died in three months, one-third of the population. Posted around the city was a recipe made with vinegar for a wash to protect against the disease. Long tongs were used to hand a person a letter to avoid any bodily contact. Displayed in Marseilles’s museums are large dramatic paintings from this time of tormented people dying in the streets.
Incessant streams of fresh water swiftly race down the curbs of the hilly landscape. Sounds of the water have a comforting effect, transforming the city into a large fountain.
A Mistral has swept into the city. The strong, cold wind haunts Marseilles. Walk with the sun, but there is no escaping. Exhilarating and scary, the Mistral can make you laugh out loud, even scream. It cannot be ignored; even staying inside one just listens to it howling, trying to get in. Maybe here, on the edge of the continent, one could stop the world.
Françoise Guichon, who is graciously sharing her home with me, is the director of CIRVA (International Center for Research of Glass), which develops original projects of artists, designers, architects, and inventors. Françoise has a passion for interesting ideas. Unknown as well as highly accomplished people in their fields have attended her salon. She is sought after because of a genuine love for art and intense curiosity that is never-ending as she pursues unheard of technology to complete a project. An erudite with beautiful golden eyes completes the picture.
Françoise tells me to listen in the streets for someone whistling a bird-like sound brought to Marseilles by the Occidentals.
A big spring exhibit at the Museum Vieille Charite (Renzo Piano, Arne Jacobson, a ’50s glass collection, Thomas Kovachevich, and Holger Trulzsch) was to open in a week when the Mayor decided to change the date upon discovering he would not be in town. When such things happen here one just says, “It’s Marseilles.” Being a Southerner, I can relate.
A rare damp evening. The sea and sky glared at each other all day.
Osman, an artist who has lived in Paris for ten years, is working at the CIRVA for a few days. Osman is Turkish; he has just completed a contemplative work titled L’Oeuf d’Épreuve (The Trial Egg) made of 40 pieces of blown glass with black cores in the centers. Françoise describes the work “like eyes hung on the shoulders of children in Turkey to protect them from the evil eyes.”
Osman tells a story. A young boy asks the wise man, “What do you do with the old moons?” He replies, “We cut them up and use them for stars.”
For the specialty of Marseilles and the best bouillabaisse in this world we have dinner at Fon Fon, a restaurant tucked away in a little harbor.
The weather has cleared as we walk home . . . There’s a full moon.
An afternoon with an artist, Marie Ducate, whose studio is on the same street as the CIRVA, where she has revised the technique of Vianne, a method of carving into glass. She has painted many large canvases with life-size figures of herself and a male friend posing as Adam and Eve in a seductive paradise. She has transferred these intimate Garden Of Eden epics onto glass plates, vases, and figurines.
March 13 Judith Bartolani is a sculptor. Though she has always worked independently, now she is engaged in a collaboration with two artists, Claude Caillol and Patrick Saytour. After discussing an idea, one of the three makes an object; then the other two make a version of the work. The three objects can either be shown together or in separate spaces. Each of the works represents all of them. I enjoyed spending time with her.
Françoise is visiting her parents in Chambéry, near Switzerland, home of the famous French Beufort cheese.
On a previous visit, a trip was made with Françoise to her family’s summer home in the middle of the Côtes du Rhône Valley. As far as one can see, in the valleys, up the hills, every inch of territory is covered with grape vines. We ate the wonderful food of Provence and saturated ourselves in wine. At night, the heavens were filled with stars; we sat in the vineyard watching them sail across the sky.
Françoise’s father, a handsome and distinguished man, is the mayor of a town in Savoie. He’s also in the wine business, and has his private label. During the war, he spent seven years as a prisoner in a military camp in Germany. He was only released when the Americans opened the gates. Monsieur Guichon met his wife immediately upon his return—after disembarking at the train Station in Chambéry where she was waiting for her cousin.
The art circuit trickles down to Marseilles from Paris. Each province has an autonomy that is supported by the other. A five hour drive to see an exhibition is nothing to the European. Many artists live in Marseilles because of the availability of large spaces in old factory buildings, many of them with views of the sea, and reasonable rents . . . and the abundance of light.
Didier Tisseyre, an artist, lives on the top floor of a building in the old town. Abstract images made of paper fill the floor of the room. I recognize the imagery from sculptures he has made in thick green glass at CIRVA.
The opening at the Museum Vieille Charite was a big event for the city. Pastis flowed at a dinner hosted by the Mayor at a stately mansion filled with French Renaissance furniture and paintings. A beautiful setting high on the edge of the sea.