n o v e m b e r 11, 2012

I wonder if you’ve ever paid attention to framed art reproductions displayed on house walls in central Moscow or have already got accustomed to this “beauty”? I for one have been quite annoyed by them of late. That is, they didn’t look appealing from the outset and rather raised more questions than solved any. The good intention of some very smart and sophisticated official is, of course, as clear as daylight, but the result is just another proof of the well-known saying: “We tried our best, you know the rest”.

You will soon see why I’ve brought the subject up after so many years of THIS THING having been there “to the delight” of Muscovites and visitors, including those from abroad. Apparently, it was precisely for the latter’s sake that reproductions of masterpieces of Western art were put on public view alongside Russian artworks. Meaning we here “aren’t just out of the trees” and “know a thing or two”. With the passage of time some of those masterpieces were skillfully “improved” by local street talent, the expensive frames lost some of their gilt, and “artworks” themselves got covered with a thick layer of Moscow dirt and dust. I do understand that somebody did have to put that part of the municipal budget to use, all the more so since the idea was elevating and, I should say, even enlightening. That’s why the allocations must have been likewise impressive. After all, we’re used to doing things on a grand scale so that every Muscovite could proudly say, “That’s how we do it! Die of envy, you, bourgeois!”

Meanwhile, the “bourgeois” doesn’t care a fig about our pseudo-Russian “pride” and those pictures because they have nothing to do with either our city or the education of residents or tourists or with culture as such. In general, THAT THING has nothing to do with anything. Yet, examples of things done differently – handsomely, informatively and for the people, to say nothing of very different financial costs – are well known.

A few years ago my wife and I visited for the first time the small French village of Haut de Cagnes not far from Nice. We reached that mountain village by a rent car and, looking for a place to park, found ourselves in front of a barrier with a small glass office behind. Apparently used to seeing puzzled foreign tourists, the office attendant came out and asked us to take away the antenna from the top of our car, leaving us even more confused. We were asked to drive through the open glass doors and then leave the car. The attendant pressed some buttons and sent our car into the bowels of the mountain. When we came across a huge number of tourists like us “doing the local sights” in the very narrow and steep village streets later on, we realized the “true scale of the calamity” and the size of that underground or, to be more precise, “under-the-mountain” parking lot. At this point I’d like to say “hi” to the past and present Moscow mayors.

Our first visit produced a very strong impression, but questions remained calling for further exploration and answers. That’s why we had no doubts this year about the need to visit the village again.

 

 

The 12th-century village turned out to be not merely alive, but very well-kept and cozy, with its numerous small hotels, cafes and restaurants. Even the house walls and pavements are very picturesque here. The village got the name of the Montmartre Côte d’Azur due to the artists who loved to come there for work. Côte d’Azur has always attracted leading artists by its beauty, bright light and mild climate. The Cagnes-sur-Mer commune is famous for having hosted Pierre-August Renoir for the last 12 years of his life (from 1907 to 1919), who suffered from arthritis and was visited there by Henri Matisse and other artists. It is also known that Amedeo Modigliani and Jeanne Hébuterne, Léonard Foujita and wife, and Chaim Soutine came here in 1918 from Paris shelled by German artillery. In 1923 Léopold Zborowski sent Chaim Soutine there for plein air studies. Incidentally, works by all of these artists are at the Haut de Cagnes museum. These parts thus have a rich artistic history. The village, which is higher up in the mountains, and Cagnes-sur-Mer form a single commune.

Artists gravitated to Haut de Cagnes not only in the early 20th century. Dozens of artists also worked there subsequently. Upon finding himself there for the first time in the 1930s, the Colombian architect Santiago Medina not merely fell in love with it, but in fact gave it a new lease on life by buying crumbling medieval houses for a song and renovating them with just as old stones. He then sold them as livable housing and proceeded in that manner with the rest of them. The village is now in an ideal shape and is inhabited not by heirs of its earlier residents but mostly by people from Germany, Denmark, Spain, Italy and Norway, as is attested by entrance doorplates and our chats with the locals.

Numerous studies and pictures have been done in Haut de Cagnes, some of them forming part of the world art heritage. The village streets have special stands with reproductions of works, giving the name of the artist, title, date of execution, size and present location of the original. The reproductions are put up directly where the originals were painted. We have trodden every street in search of just another landscape immortalized by the now famous artists. It was breath-taking to stand where 90 years earlier Chaim Soutine stood, working on his piece of art. We had a unique impression of sharing his company and seeing the same street, house and stairway through the prism of his art.

 

 

Going back to the beginning of this entry, feel the difference with which everything is done sensibly and appropriately in the modest 12th-century French village. It’d be silly and not quite agreeable to finish with banal moralizing. What I really dream about is that things are done back home for the majority of the people rather than for the sake of appearances or just for spending budget appropriations. To finish on a happier note, another surprise was in store for us when it took us just a few minutes to get our car back.