by Nadezna SiganporiaMay 08, 2021
It’s a journey of both the body and the soul. A visit to Villa Carmignac isn’t just about the art; your voyage begins the minute you step off the water taxi onto the Mediterranean island of Porquerolles. Located in the French Riviera, this tiny paradise of green fringed by sandy beaches and turquoise waters is home to an incredible and transformative collection of contemporary art.
In 2000, French entrepreneur Édouard Carmignac founded Fondation Carmignac with two main focuses - an art collection of over 350 works, and an annual Photojournalism Award. His son and Director of the foundation, Charles Carmignac, explains, “My father always says that he has been ‘accumulating’ works because he does not necessarily relate to the concept of owning a collection…The artworks bought over the years are more like a cabinet of curiosities of my father’s life: traces of his experiences, thoughts and emotions”.
So, when it came to displaying this collection, Édouard was certain the museum had to be located in a villa on the island of Porquerolles. It was purposely chosen because of its exceptional nature which dances to the rhythm of the changing seasons. Charles explains, “Both a National Park and a touristic destination, the island puts into question mankind and its presence in the world…An island is always an elsewhere. By crossing over to the other side, we move away from the world, in order to better immerse ourselves in it. It makes us feel rooted and uprooted at once. Art does that too”.
From farm to foundation
Once a farmhouse, which appeared in Jean-Luc Godard’s film Pierrot le Fou, it underwent its first transformation into a villa in the 1980s by architect Henri Vidal. “My father was invited to the wedding of one of Vidal’s daughters and fell in love with the estate. He dreamed of turning it into a space dedicated to the arts and bought the villa some years later,” says Charles. When Édouard and Charles looked to transform the villa into a museum, they turned to Atelier Barani for the design, GMAA for the project’s adaptation and extension as well as landscape architect Louis Benech for the gardens.
Transforming the villa into a museum
Since the villa sits in the middle of a National Park, which is a protected site, any additional construction was not allowed on the land. The vast collection needed space to be displayed and enjoyed at leisure. With no alterations permitted to the existing contours of the Provençal villa or the natural landscape, sprawling gallery spaces were built underground. Cocooned in the boundaries of the existing villa and invisible to the eyes except for a few stone walls and terraces, the museum blends into the natural topography.
The renovations essentially consisted of clearing 2,000 square meters of space beneath the surface. These spaces expand and extend in the shape of a cross. The central portion sees a glass ceiling covered with water. At the doorstep, a sculpture of Alycastre, Porquerolles’ legendary dragon, guards the site while the ground floor exhibition spaces open up to the outdoors via a large terrace, establishing a deeper connection with nature.
The play of water and light
Both water and light, and more importantly the interaction of the two, are key architectural features of the museum. Through the ‘aquatic ceiling’ natural light filters into the underground spaces; the refracted light dances off the walls and plays with the senses. The underground spaces are fluid, organised to create niches that flow from one to the other instead of partitioning sections cut off from each other. The light from the ceiling meanders around the galleries, merging the experience or art, architecture and nature.
Outside, Louis Benech created what is fondly termed a ‘non-garden’. “The philosophy behind the gardens is to respect and make known the local biodiversity, thereby present and preserve the work of the Port-Cros National Park,” says Charles. Highlighting the characteristic species of the island, the sculpture gardens are filled with artworks from commissioned projects or artist’s residencies. In the north, immersive artworks such as a mirror maze leads to wells; the works are framed by giant cane folding screens.
The south sculpture garden showcases figurative creations like faces, busts and representations of nature. A sculpture of three innocent children with closed eyes, guards the wooded areas beyond. Endemic plants like Cistuses and Hyères’ lavender trees as well as rare and protected species like the needle-leaved broom and the serapias, one of the most beautiful orchids, were preserved to fill the gardens. Adding to the existing flora, numerous olive trees were replanted over the land and a small vineyard was added in the northern plain. Near the house, exotic trees like jacarandas were added to the existing eucalyptus, mimosa and various citrus trees.
With over 350 artworks, the collection now includes American art from the 1960s to the 1980s, with iconic works by Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and Jean-Michel Basquiat; some contemplative pieces by Gerhard Richter, Willem de Kooning, Martial Raysse, Miquel Barceló and Ed Ruscha; and contemporary art by Zhang Huan, El Anatsui and young artists such as Korakrit Arunanondchai, Theaster Gates. It also features photographs from the Carmignac Photojournalism Award.
Private Museums of the World:
Curated by Pramiti Madhavji, STIR presents Private Museums of the World: an original series that takes you behind the scenes of privately-owned museums, sharing their origin with chats with art collectors, museum directors, curators and architects, who seamlessly come together to create the most unusual and amazing structures to host art collections.