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“I feel that my whole life has been leading up to working here,” said Charles Carmignac as we sat in the shade of the tall pines in the garden of the Fondation Carmignac, where he is director. Among the trees were nestled sculptures including Jeppe Hein’s Path of Emotions, a dazzling labyrinth of vertical reflective panels, and Tom Friedman’s oversized steel sculpture of a urinating man, wittily labeled Untitled.
It was hard to reconcile these impressive works with their surroundings on the four-mile-long Mediterranean island of Porquerolles, just off the Côte d’Azur. Yet despite its secluded location, this new contemporary art institution has been sending ripples around the art world since it opened last year, drawing more than 70,000 visitors so far.
Getting to the Fondation is half the experience. Porquerolles, one of three small islands known as the Îles d’Or, is a 15-minute ferry ride from Hyères, a town halfway between Marseille and Cannes. Cars are banned on the island, so visitors walk from the dock, past the white-sand beach of La Cortade, following wooden signs for the Fondation.
Carmignac, a youthful 40-year-old Parisian with tousled hair, met me at the entrance. As we strolled the 37-acre grounds, he explained the importance of the museum’s setting. “Leaving the continent behind is part of the process,” he said. “Away from the day-to-day environment, you become more alert and receptive. Your mindset has a chance to shift.”
The museum is the brainchild of Carmignac’s father, Édouard, a lifelong art lover and founder of Carmignac Risk Managers, one of France’s biggest investment firms. He’d always dreamed of sharing his collection with the public, though it took several decades for him to find the right spot.
The land the Fondation is carved into was once a farm, famously appearing in the Jean-Luc Godard movie Pierrot Le Fou. It was later converted into a villa by the French architect Henri Vidal. In 1989, Édouard Carmignac came to Porquerolles to attend the wedding of Vidal’s daughter to the actor Jean Rochefort. Carmignac instantly fell for the property, and told Vidal to call him if he ever wanted to sell.
That call came in 2013; it took five more years to transform the villa into a world-class museum.
Most of Porquerolles is a national park, which means building anything new on the island is almost impossible. So the Carmignacs burrowed down. Most of the gallery is subterranean, illuminated by huge light wells in the ceiling. To promote a more contemplative experience, only 50 visitors are allowed inside every 30 minutes; advance booking is advised.
At my appointed time, Charles Carmignac led me up the sloped entrance, past a bronze sculpture of a mythical sea creature by Miquel Barceló and into the museum’s cloakroom, where visitors are invited to take off their shoes––primarily to keep sand and dust outside but also to minimize noise.
As I padded down the stairs into the basement, I had no idea I was about to enter a 21,000-square-foot gallery––let alone one of the most thoughtfully designed exhibition spaces in Europe. The first room we entered was dominated by a Bruce Nauman installation; in the room next door, Andy Warhol portraits of Mao and Lenin hung side by side. This is no provincial art collection, clearly.
The Fondation is open from April through November and will put on a new exhibition each year. I visited during the inaugural show, “Sea of Desire,” which consisted of 70 works from the Carmignac family collection and seven on loan, including a vast Lichtenstein, Beach Scene with Star Fish.
The exhibition mixed up pieces by lesser-known artists with works by heavy hitters such as Ed Ruscha, Cindy Sherman, Gerhard Richter, and Jean-Michel Basquiat (including a portrait of Édouard Carmignac himself, painted from a sketch made at a party). The Carmignacs are avid collectors of Chinese art (works by both Zhang Huan and Li Tianbing are on show) and are passionate about documentary photography: The Fondation’s Photojournalism Award was launched in 2009, and several winning images were on display.
Over lunch washed down with a cool glass of the Fondation’s own rosé in the museum café, Charles Carmignac talked about plans for a program of evening walks through the sculpture garden set against a live sound “experience.” “It will be,” he explained, “a cosmic fusion with the nightlife of the island.” By the time we had ordered our coffee and a baba au rhum to share, I had already decided to come back next summer to see it.