Tue, Aug 02, 2011 - Page 16 News List

An unlikely landmark

Both modern and contemporary art thrive in Mougins, France, a town once favored by celebrities including Picasso and Elizabeth Taylor

By Rowan Moore  /  The Observer, London

This pool was added to the property of a 16th century olive oil mill in Mougins, France, by the late film director David Lean.

Photo: Bloomberg

Where artists go, money follows.

It is an ancient law of real estate that any quarter deemed bohemian is a step away from becoming intensely desirable and valuable. And so it is with Mougins, where the likes of Picabia, Cocteau, Man Ray and Leger used to visit. Picasso came here in 1936, and to the fury of his hotel’s owner painted on the walls of his room. He was instructed to cover over his work, but he returned, and by then not exactly skint himself, spent the last 12 years of his life in Mougins. He died there in 1973. Now this little hill town, of pre-Roman origins, with its simple, compact old buildings, wound tightly into defensive circuits of curving streets, finds itself suffused with wealth.

A few kilometers inland from Cannes, it offers more cultured pleasures than that sometimes tawdry place, while still gathering some of its stardust. Mougins has been popular with Winston Churchill, Elizabeth Taylor and Catherine Deneuve, to name but a few. It is famous for its restaurants, and has an annual festival of gastronomy. It is packed with art galleries, not all at the same high level as its restaurants, showing variants on almost every imaginable genre, from picturesque landscapes to teeth-grating conceptual installations.

On the town’s edge the five-star Le Mas Candille hotel spreads over green slopes toward an exceptional view. As liberal with space as the ancient buildings are thrifty, with a sophisticated restaurant, it is designed to serve the pleasures of a certain kind of international moneyed class.

Mougins is part of a landscape that attracted J.G. Ballard, where hardy peasant buildings, a fabulous climate, gorgeous light, beautiful scenery and modern leisure make a rich-poor, new-old, hybrid that is neither town nor country. Glossy four-by-fours hurtle round tiny lanes made for carts. Old agricultural buildings are remade as refined retail outlets. The forms of hard productive work coexist with hedonism. Now the union of money and art has bred a new, intriguing institution, the Mougins Museum of Classical Art.

This is the creation of Christian Levett, a 41-year-old investment manager whose company Clive Capital once lost US$400 million in a week, yet seemed to shrug off the loss as if it were a coin dropped in the gutter. Levett has said, as a simple statement of fact, that he was “financially very successful at a young age” and by his early 30s “had established several homes.” He is also an avid collector ever since, aged seven, he discovered an interest in coins. His greatest passion is now classical antiquities, which developed after he discovered, to his surprise, that it is still possible to buy them.

Levett also has a strong connection with Mougins, where he owns two of the finest and most famous restaurants, La Place des Mougins and L’Amandier. Both have recently been revamped under the direction of the chef Denis Fetisson, previously at the Michelin two-star Le Cheval Blanc in Courchevel. Of the two, L’Amandier, a white-walled former almond mill with terraces commanding the view towards the perfume-making town of Grasse, is the more informal.

“It is a blessing for Mougins that he has fallen in love with it,” says a young local, adding that “he might own the whole village one day.” The result of this double passion, for antiquities and for the town, is the museum. Here the collection is now on show, the result of about seven years of collecting. The last three years were in collaboration with Mark Merrony, the director of the museum. Merrony is an archaeologist who became editor of the art and archaeology magazine Minerva, which Levett now owns. Merrony remains editor-in-chief of the magazine, but most of his energies have recently gone into the museum.

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