24 June 2009


city as museum as landscape

Matt Williams
I came to Collioure, a small French city on the Mediterranean coast, during a walking trip that took me across the French Pyrenees. Starting from the Atlantic Ocean, my travelling partner and I traversed various sections of the Grand Randonée 10 trail until we reached the sea, just north of the Spanish border. Over the course of the journey I discovered the ‘noble art of walking’ as Thoreau declared it.1 Walking provides a fine-scale experience, revealing the details that would go unnoticed by travellers in cars, buses or trains. These details become central to the walker’s experience. The minute vernacular – door-knobs, house interiors, tiny gardens – is discovered when you enter a town by way of a trail or side-street and not the main road. Walking then became the central mode of travel as my partner and I made decisions as to how and where to spend our time. For two months we moved from place to place primarily on foot and camped in hidden fields, mountainsides or tucked away campgrounds. Thus we arrived in Banyuls sur Mer, the end of our pre-determined travelling plan, and decided to continue walking up the Mediterranean coast. After a day we came to Collioure.
The landscape in this area of France is a hot, dry shade of brown, with white, clay-roofed stucco buildings, dissected by green lines of vineyards. Tall, globe-shaped pine trees bubble over the rolling foothills of the Pyrenees that gently fall into the sea. Cascading pink roses, blue shutters, yellow doors and an ever-changing and endless sky radiate from the brown and white landscape. As I discovered Collioure and its vibrant palette I could see how, after spending time here in the early twentieth century, Henri Matisse and Andre Derain founded the style of painting that became known as Fauvism.2
In Collioure, Matisse and Derain were struck foremost by the quality of the light. ‘Above all, the light. A blonde light, a golden hue that suppresses the shadows’, Derain wrote.3 This light, paired with the brilliantly coloured landscape, encouraged Matisse and Derain in their use of bright, vivid colours in flat tracts, the characteristics of Fauvism. Derain, particularly, found the culture in Collioure a magnificent subject for recording.
The city forms a natural port and is divided in two sections along the coast by a large royal chateau. Jutting into the opening to the sea is a promontory on which sits the picturesque Notre-Dame-des-Anges, a lighthouse converted to a church. Away from the sea, narrow streets are lined with irregularly shaped and brilliantly painted buildings that break to form quiet public spaces. In Derain’s time, the beach was crowded with small, multi-coloured fishing boats and their Catalan captains returning with their daily catch. Today, a few of these boats remain, mainly for historical and tourism purposes, and annually, during July, many boats gather in celebration of Catalan fishing culture. At this time, the sea becomes dotted with white sails and the shore clustered with bright boats and characters.
The legacy of Derain’s and Matisse’s artistic achievements made in Collioure is vivified throughout the city by the placing of reproductions of their work at locations depicted in the paintings. Twenty works are displayed, forming la Chemaine de Fauvisme. This path can be followed, but more often the works are simply encountered casually throughout the city, a way to view the work in a manner not offered by the Centre Pompidou, Musee d’Orsay, or any other museum. This interface, between the painting, viewer and landscape, allows the viewer to make connections between the place and the painting. It allows one to consider how a landscape could be abstracted, what assumptions were made by the painter, what details were glorified or suppressed and to speculate what the painter was trying to express about that landscape in time and space.
Landscapes themselves are cultural creations. They are a phenomenon where human and natural systems coalesce and do not exist until they are interpreted as something beyond their mere physical composition. Landscape painting thus reflects a personal, and by extension, social understanding of our environment through the composition of various elements, real and imaginative, that exist in the world or in our minds.
Collioure is not a static French village clinging to its heritage as tourist promotion. Its arts community continues to thrive, with numerous galleries of recognised artists. The countryside thrives with vineyards producing the regional aperitif Banyuls and its hand-cured anchovies are a French delicacy. It has an everyday life similar to most rural French villages, though its Mediterranean climate and culture provide good reason for a large influx of visitors during the summer. As a gallery, Collioure provides the unique experience of viewing the Matisse and Derain paintings, but it also provides viewers the ability to frame their own paintings and develop their own interpretations of the landscape. At various locations throughout the city empty frames are positioned to provide both prominent and everyday views of the city. These frames allow viewers to stop, dwell upon a scene and develop their own interpretation and abstraction of the landscape.
Collioure, as a city as a museum as a landscape, creates opportunities for greater understanding of landscape and culture by communicating and exhibiting its heritage in situ. Perhaps visitors sharing this experience will begin to develop a greater appreciation for their own daily surroundings. Perhaps they will begin to see their surroundings as worthy of a work of art and the city as a shifting cultural institution that ‘exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment’.4

1 Thoreau, Henry David. Walking. San Franciso: Harper Collins, 1994 2 Freeman, Judi. Fauves. New South Wales: The Art Gallery of New South Wales, 1995
3 Derain quoted in Freeman, 1995.
4 What a museum does, as defined by the International Council of Museums.

Williams, Matt. 'Collioure' On Site review, no. 20 Winter 2008
©Matt Williams and On Site review

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