Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Musée Gourmand by Caroline Lawrence

Mougins is a pretty village on the Cote d’Azur up in the hills behind Cannes. Until I was invited to do an author event at an international school eight years ago, I’d never heard of it. On that first trip I was received by practically the whole student body (and several teachers) dressed up as ancient Romans in honour of my Roman Mysteries series. A few months ago I got an invitation to return to Mougins School, this time to talk about my Western Mysteries. 

When I mentioned my upcoming trip to librarian Linda Huxley at Rokeby House School, she urged me to visit a new museum called the Musée d'Art Classique de Mougins, or MAC for short. I’d never even heard of it, but she put me in touch with curator Mark Merrony and publicity director Leisa Paoli. Mark was due to fly to England to interview an eminent expert for Minerva, the glossy archaeology magazine he edits, but Leisa kindly agreed to meet me and show me around. 

That is how I found myself looking at a mixture of Greek, Roman and Egyptian artefacts mixed in with paintings and sculptures by modern artists like Picasso, Chagall and Warhol. The common denominator? The Ancient World. 

The museum started with a boy collecting seven Victorian coins. That boy was Englishman Christian Levett. Later, having made a fortune in hedge-fund management, he began to buy more art and antiquities. By his late 30s he had amassed a fabulous collection Classical art, and some choice modern pieces. Instead of keeping these for his own private enjoyment, he decided to create a museum in the town of Mougins where he has a holiday home. 

Mougins is perfect for such a museum as it can boast an eclectic mix of creative former residents like Man Ray, Jean Cocteau, Fernand Léger, Christian Dior, Edith Piaf and Jacques Brel. Pablo Picasso spent the last fourteen years of his life in Mougins. It is accessible by bus and only a half an hour from Nice airport, a two hour flight from London. 

What collector Christian Levett and curator Mark Merrony have done at MAC is put together a startling, humorous and inspiring melange of classical artefacts and modern art. Did you know that Braque painted Persephone? And that Dufy painted Orpheus? There are some real gems to be discovered here, like a charcoal sketch of Caracalla by Matisse and a pencil Hermes by a young Egon Shiele. 

As Leisa Paoli showed me around, she told me that kids love MAC. They like the big illustrated information signs in French and English. They like the arms and armour, the biggest private collection in the world. The like the interactive plasma screens. They like the sarcophagi in the barrel-vaulted Egyptian ‘basement’. Most of all, they like the challenge of spotting the ‘odd one out.’ This game is easy when you have a pop art Lichtenstein among marble altars and reliefs, but harder when you see a helmet that looks like it was used in the film Gladiator only to discover it is a genuine antique. And then you see another helmet that was used in Gladiator and is even signed by Russell Crowe. 

Even the glossy Museum Catalogue is a work of art. Not only does curator Mark Merrony write superbly, but he has nabbed some of the best living experts to talk about specialist areas. John Boardman penned the section on Greek vases. Mike Burns writes about Greek and Italian arms and armour. Dalya Alberge presents us with tasty amuse-bouches about each of the Modern Artists represented in the collection. 

And speaking of amuse-bouches… After visiting the Musée d'Art Classique de Mougins, you can go across the cobbled street to a superb restaurant called L’Amandier. Built on the site of an old olive press, it offers a ‘formule déjeuner’. For under twenty euros (at time of writing) you can have an authentic entrée of the region, a glass of wine and something called a café gourmand. What is a café gourmand? It’s a coffee with a selection of deserts, just enough to amuse your bouche

In a way the museum does the same thing: it amuses your mind with a small but choice selection of modern delights. So go. Enjoy a superb ‘formule classique’ at MAC Mougins.

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