There's trouble in Paradise
The Fondation Maeght houses an incredible art collection in the South of France, and it's a must-see for Irish visitors to these parts. But the Maeght family continue to tear one another apart in a Dallas-style battle over their inheritance, threatening the very existence of the foundation
They inherited a priceless art collection, a colossal fortune and the legacy of a world famous gallery. Yet the ancestors of Aimé Maeght, art merchant and friend of Bonnard, Matisse and Chagall and the founder of the Fondation Maeght in the South of France, where Irish artists Louis Le Brocquy and Anne Madden flourished in the 1960s, are tearing each other apart, leaving the gallery in serious jeopardy. Money issues, secrets and hurts are woven deep into the fabric of this family, which may never recover from the slings and arrows its members have thrown at one another over the years.
Nestled in the foothills of the Alps between Cannes and Nice, amid tall Cypress trees and cobbled medieval streets, lies the village of St Paul de Vence. A haven for artists and the very wealthy, the town is tiny and quiet, with a fountain at its heart. Shuttered windows painted lavender blue open onto the streets below, just like a scene from a Marcel Pagnol novel. In the late afternoon, residents play boules and sip Pastis in cafés, watching the day go by, a million miles in spirit from the Gatsbyesque bustle of Cannes, a short drive away. The town is high on the list of Irish visitors to the Cote d'Azur, who often stop, at the Matisse Chapel in nearby Vence, or at Grasse, famous for its perfumes.
There are several such medieval towns in the South of France. St Paul de Vence stands out not only for its charm, but for its very popular art centre, the Fondation Maeght (pronounced "Mag"), which houses work by many important 20th-century artists including Pierre Bonnard, Georges Braque, Alexander Calder, Marc Chagall, Alberto Giacometti, Fernand Léger, Joan Miró and many more. The unusual building was carefully designed by Catalan architect Josep Lluís Sert in the early 1960s. It blends seamlessly into gardens and allows visitors to simultaneously enjoy both the art and the surrounding nature. But its founders, Aimé and Marguerite Maeght, would surely turn in their graves if they realised the pain caused by their legacy.
While family conflicts have been gnawing away at the Maeghts for decades, the dispute came to a head almost five years ago. In September 2010, their granddaughter, Yoyo Maeght, was settling in for a relaxing evening at her villa at St Paul de Vence, after a day's work at the Fondation Maeght. As she was chatting casually on the telephone to a friend, five policemen arrived at her house, explaining that there had been a theft at the Fondation. Not of a priceless work of art by as she first assumed, but of a computer, which contained on its hard drive confidential information about a share of the family inheritance estimated at €100 million, as well as references about thousands of pieces of art owned by the family. Yoyo was horrified to learn that she was the number one suspect. "But seriously, how could I possibly have carried out a computer in my little Chanel bag?" she protests still today.
The policemen searched her house, her cars and the garden, with no success. Then they brought her to the local police station. To her horror she was made open her mouth so an investigator could slide in a long white stick and take a DNA sample. "It was unbelievable, I thought my head would explode," she said of the evening. She eventually learned that it was her own sister, Isabelle, behind the police complaint - it was Isabelle's computer that was stolen and she believed that Yoyo was behind it. The computer was not found and the thief never identified, but this surreal episode destroyed the last shreds of a relationship between the sisters, who now only communicate via lawyers' letters.
Last year, Yoyo, who is a magistrate, published a book The Maeght Saga detailing the low blows the family members have dealt each other over the past twenty years, leading to huge media attention in France. Headlines such as "It's Dallas at the Maeghts" became commonplace as the world focused on the family's dirty laundry rather than on its art collection. Yoyo wrote that her father Adrien is a "gallery owner with no passion, not exactly a very hard worker" who is "only guided by his immediate pleasure." Her sister Isabelle is painted as an "authoritative" woman, driven by "jealousy and greed." Not surprisingly, neither her father or sister were thrilled about it. "I could have sued her because seven pages infringe my private life and honour and four pages in the case of Isabelle," Adrien said. However, neither of them decided to pursue a lawsuit. "It would only be giving her publicity" Adrien is quoted as saying in the French edition of Vanity Fair.
As for Isabelle, she says "I don't know where she gets this story about jealousy. I was so proud of her." She claims to have lost 14 kilos in weight since the beginning of the affair. "14 kilos? That's how much I've put on because of her!" Yoyo has retorted. Their brother Jules, who is the youngest of Adrien's four children (there is another sister, Florence) who is known as the funniest of the clan and perhaps the most flippant about the family's dramas, moved to San Francisco two years ago to launch his own gallery and to escape the family's "legal diarrhoea", says that money is not the reason behind their conflict. "Seriously! Look at us all. We need a psychologist for each of us."
This dynastic drama is a long way from the Maeghts' rather humble beginnings. In the early 1930s, the young Aimé Maeght and his wife Marguerite, opened a shop called Arte in Cannes. Aimé was a lithographer by trade, whom artist Pierre Bonnard approached to make some prints for him. But during the war years the business nearly went under. To get by, Marguerite Maeght sold radios, furniture and bric-a-brac. Then one day she got the opportunity of her life, as her granddaughter, Isabelle, has recalled:
"There was a Bonnard in the printmaking studio that my grandfather had been asked to reproduce, so she hung that [in the shop]. One day an elegant man asked how much it was. As she didn't know if Bonnard wanted to sell it, she quoted an enormous price. The man agreed. She ran to Bonnard and told him that she had made a great mistake, but he said, 'That's a very good price. If you want more paintings, take them, and here's a percentage for you."
According to Maeght family legend, Marguerite - whom Aimé nicknamed "the ant who makes things happen", on account of her small stature and strong energy - appeared at Bonnard's studio the next day with a wheelbarrow. He was charmed by her audacious approach and persuaded the Maeghts to take themselves seriously as art dealers. It's been said that Bonnard, who was childless, regarded Aimé and Marguerite Maeght as surrogate son and daughter. In 1943 when the war was getting more difficult on the coast, Aimé, Marguerite and their children Adrien (then 13) and Bernard who was only one year old, moved back up to the hills, to Vence. There they met Henri Matisse, a friend of Bonnard's, who would become a key contact. After the war ended in 1945, Bonnard encouraged Aimé to open his gallery in Paris, and even travelled there with him to find suitable premises.
They opened their gallery on the rue de Téhéran in the chic 8th arrondissement with a very successful exhibition by Matisse. The early months were difficult, but from 1947, success was in store for the gallery, thanks to a Braque exhibition and the second international exhibition of surrealism, organised by André Breton, which attracted over 150,000 guests in a few months. The following year, Joan Miró had an exhibition and in those years, the gallery became a mecca for artists such as Braque, Picasso and Chagall, writers including Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre, as well as the couturiers of the time such as Dior and Hermès. Aimé Maeght had made it in the big smoke.
When his son Adrien, who is now 85, recalls those glory days, he speaks of a father "with crazy ideas" and "an intelligent mother, gifted with fierce humour." Aged only 16, he joined his father at the gallery. But tragedy hit the family hard. In the early 1950s, his little brother Bernard fell sick with leukaemia. "For months I brought him to the Curie Institute… He had his radiation treatment, then we would go home and I would work in the afternoon." Then in 1953, Bernard passed away. "My parents were in the sitting room. Bernard died in my arms," Adrien recalled The family were destroyed by Bernard's death. A couple of years afterwards, after he had met Paule his wife and they had their first daughter Isabelle, Adrien discovered that his father was having an affair with a woman he had loved in secret for several years and that he (Adrien) had a half-sister, Sylvie. He gave his father an ultimatum: to tell his mother the truth or he would do it himself. Aimé told her everything but the damage had been done and Adrien left his father's gallery. (He would eventually start up his own on the rue du Bac in Paris the following year).
With the death of her child, her husband's affairs and now her son and husband on bad terms, Marguerite's world fell apart and Aimé wanted to quit the art world for good. But Georges Braque persuaded them to launch a huge project to get over their grief stemming from Bernard's death. The couple threw themselves into the creation of the foundation at Saint Paul de Vence. "We will create a unique space for art that will last through time and memory," wrote Aimé to Joan Miró at the time. They filled the gardens with pieces from Miró and Calder, and the terrace with sculptures from Giacometti. The foundation was inaugurated to much fanfare in the art world in 1964 by minister of culture André Malraux.
Again the family experienced success and the foundation became a hub for artists. In fact it changed the lives of Irish artists Louis Le Brocquy and his wife Anne Madden who until then lived a relatively reclusive life in the nearby village of Carros where they had moved in 1958. Via the foundation, they met and formed friendships with fellow artists, writers, poets and musicians and both Le Brocquy and Madden held a number of exhibitions there over the years, showcasing their work on an international scale. Jean-Louis Prat, the director of the Fondation Maeght was a good friend of Madden and Le Brocquy and encouraging of their work. The Fondation Maeght still offers some of Le Brocquy's limited edition lithographs for sale, such as "Visage à Bouche Ouverte", "Citron", "La Main" and "Tete Reconstituée".
After thirteen years of success and prosperity, sadness was to rear its head again. In 1977, Marguerite died from a pulmonary embolism, a condition in which blood clots enter the lungs and block arteries. With her death began the family curse of problematic wills, which have plagued the family ever since.
Aimé discovered after his wife's death that she wanted to leave her entire inheritance to her cherished son Adrien and nothing to him. He was furious and the lawyers' letters began. A court-appointed administrator was brought in and after negotiations, father and son eventually signed an agreement for the sharing of the will in 1980. But Aimé passed away the following year and the distribution of his estate was even more complex than his wife's. Over the course of a year, Adrien's daughter Isabelle and her aunt Sylvie (whom Aimé had officially recognised as his daughter in 1973) began the work of inventorying all the works of art in Aimé's possession. There were more than 3,000. According to the law of the time, Adrien would in theory receive three quarters of these and his half-sister Sylvie would get the rest. But he discovered that shortly before his death, his father had in fact left his gallery under a lease-management agreement to four of his partners at the gallery, who sold off several of his pieces. He also left the shares of the gallery to five people: three of his partners, Sylvie and Jules, his grandson. He left nothing at all for Adrien.
Adrien was devasted by what he perceived as betrayal by his father. He had long felt that his father didn't love him very much; resenting his preference for car racing over art exhibitions, but now the reality hit him with full force. He and Sylvie each brought in Paris's top lawyers in order to find a means of arbitration and after seven long years of negotiations, they managed to find an agreement that would settle the conflicts between the family members. At the time, Adrien swore that he would never again go through such a bitter battle.
But the tension was starting to build between Adrien's daughters Yoyo and Isabelle. Isabelle, who directs the Paris gallery, is also president of the foundation, while Yoyo was given the company Editions Maeght, which deals with lithographs and prints. Yoyo felt that she didn't have as much responsibility as her sister and noticed that under her sister's leadership, the foundation was stagnating and had low visitor levels. She claimed at the time that she wanted to inject new life into the Maeght brand. She hired an expensive advertising/PR consultant and administrator for the foundation, the latter claiming that the foundation was run "like a corner grocery store" with massive financial problems, with Adrien writing big cheques every now and then to cover debts. Isabelle resented what she perceived to be Yoyo's meddling in how the foundation was run and relations between the sisters deteriorated.
Nonetheless, the foundation organised a successful exhibition of Giacometti in 2010 which boosted morale for a while - there were several articles in the press and on the opening night Adrien's four children gathered around him. But the boost from the exhibition was short-lived and the family soon turned its focus back to the thorn in its side: the problem of wills raised its head yet again.
Adrien, who underwent a triple bypass in the summer of 2010, decided to split his estate between his children. He gave 60% of his pieces of art to the four children and almost all his real estate, with the remaining part to be managed by Isabelle and himself until Adrien worked out how it should be shared. But Yoyo was unhappy with the figures and wanted to know why she had not received her part of the sales of paintings since 2005. She wanted to proceed with the sharing of the entire estate, so that she could get her part immediately. Yoyo sent several letters via her lawyers but Isabelle asked the gallery's accountants not to give Yoyo any information, and this time their conflict lead Isabelle to accuse her sister of stealing her laptop. Florence tried to organise family meetings but Yoyo taped them and when Isabelle realised this, verbally attacked her sister. Amid a constant barrage of insults, the family feud continued. Isabelle, who had the majority vote on the board of the foundation, fired Yoyo from her position as CEO of Editions Maeght and from the board of the gallery. Yoyo had by then been totally wiped out of the Maeght family's business.
In 2011, Adrien tried to bring some peace to his angry children. He began splitting up his estate and divided up over 2,000 pieces of art in four lots. He kept 300 for himself (including the three most expensive, the three Portraits of Marguerite Maeght by Giacometti, valued at €1.2m each). Again, Yoyo felt that the division was unfair and that the value of the pieces needed to be calculated at 2011 levels rather than 2005. When this was done, it was decided that Adrien had to give each child approximately 32 million euros, but her share of the art was only worth 15. As their lawyer comments, "it's very difficult to share paintings. As the Maeghts are very suspicious, there's always one of them who thinks they are getting ripped off."
Only Jules and Isabelle accepted what they were given, with Florence and Yoyo calling for justice via their lawyers. The courts in 2013 eventually ruled that Yoyo was wrong, but Adrien later admitted that the lots were uneven and is said to be studying ways of making the distribution fairer, through the sale of his real estate, estimated at 25 million in 2005 but worth much more today.
Through all this family psychodrama worthy of a bad soap opera, the Foundation has been struggling to make ends meet and in particular, cover its annual budget for operating costs of 3 million euros. In recent years, there were worries that the French government might have to step in or that the family would have to sell some of its pieces to keep it going.
But for now, it seems that the tempest is calming. The number of visitors, the main source of revenue for the foundation, is up. The foundation's director, Olivier Kaeppelin, hired in 2011 from the Palais de Tokyo (a museum dedicated to modern and contemporary art) has been trying to reinvigorate the centre. He organised a successful exhibition by French philosopher Bernard Henri-Levy last year and this summer the foundation will host another by painter Gerard Garouste. The board of administration has at last some reason to be optimistic and is in a far happier place than only a few years ago.
Meanwhile, Adrien is looking to sell the immense Calder sculpture in the gardens of the Foundation, for $20m. The cash would help the family enlarge the basements of the building, and hopefully avoid future conflicts with his children. The family still don't see la vie en rose, but at least the art lives on in magnificent surroundings, for now at least.
Sunday Indo Living