A family affair

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 43, Summer 2015

Page 40

A family affair

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 43, Summer 2015

Page 40

Joan Miró (Spanish, 1893-1983) Sans titre (Painted circa 1972 - 1973)

A family affair

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 43, Summer 2015

Page 40

Pablo Picasso (Spanish, 1881-1973) Verre, paquet de tabac, carte à jouer (Painted in 1919)

A family affair

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 43, Summer 2015

Page 40

Fernand Léger (French, 1881-1955) La margelle du puits (Painted in 1949)

A family affair

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 43, Summer 2015

Page 40

Aimé Maeght invented the contemporary gallery. His grand-daughter, Yoyo, describes to Lucinda Bredin the surreal experience of growing up surrounded by great artists

To give you a taste of Yoyo Maeght's internecine memoir about her family, let's take a deep breath and start at the very beginning. Her book opens with a description of how she was abandoned as a baby on Boulevard St Germain, the epicenter of Parisian bohocracy, and found, minutes from death, wrapped only in pages of France-Soir newspaper by a young couple, Adrien Maeght and his wife, Paulette.

Until she was 11, Yoyo couldn't believe her luck. To her mind, she had been swept up from the gutter into the most extraordinary ménage. Aimé Maeght, (pronounced Magh), her grandfather, had charmed his way from a very humble background to become the dealer – and confidant – of some of the most famous artists in history: Pierre Bonnard, Fernand Léger, Georges Braque, Joan Miró and Alberto Giacometti, among them. Consequently, Yoyo's childhood was filled with gallery openings at which Alexander Calder waltzed with Nina Kandinksy and where Miró would draw birds all over the napkins. On Thursdays, Octave the chauffeur would take her and her two elder sisters, Isabelle and Florence, to see Braque, where they would spend the day watching doves fly around the house. Although Yoyo says that "every day" her parents made her feel that she wasn't part of the family, she emphasizes how happy her childhood was. "I always said, 'Thank you, life. How lucky I am, someone else could have found me.'"

We are sitting in the bar at the Monaco Hotel in Venice. The biennale has been raging all week and Yoyo, a handsome woman with an enviable abundance of blonde hair, has been following a packed, colour-coded schedule. But when she relates the discovery that shocked her to the core, she looks as amazed as she must have felt all those years ago. In 1970, while Yoyo was staying with her grandmother, she chanced upon an entry in a diary that made her realize she wasn't adopted after all: Adrien and Paulette were her real parents.

"I remembering running to the phone and calling my mother to ask, 'Why, why did you say this?' My mother said, it was because I was so ugly – 'like a rat' – that it was easier to pretend I was a foundling."

Now, the story begs a number of questions – not least as to why the entire family colluded in the fiction. Yoyo simply says that "they all thought it was funny. A joke. You have to remember that everyone was a surrealist, and they had strange minds. They lived their lives as if it was a movie." Indeed they did, partly because the story itself had such a cinematic sense of drama.

At the center of it all was Aimé Maeght, her grandfather, who was born in 1906, near Lille. When he was a boy, he was evacuated by the Red Cross to Nîmes in Provence, which could not have been more of a contrast to "his sad northern landscape", as Yoyo puts it. Aimé was intelligent, charming – and not one to let an opportunity slip by. He began his career as a typographer and printer and after a chance meeting with Pierre Bonnard, he helped the elderly artist – who was 40 years his senior – to produce a lithograph. The pair became inseparable friends – and, as more artists were drawn towards the light of the south of France, and, subsequently, fleeing from the occupied zone in World War II, Bonnard was invaluable at introducing the young man to writers and painters, including Henri Matisse. In 1945, Bonnard encouraged Maeght to open a gallery in Paris – with paintings by Matisse as the inaugural show. By the time, Yoyo was born in 1959, the Maeght family were art world royalty.

It is fair to say, that Aimé Maeght was the first modern art dealer and the person who created the template for the contemporary gallery. As Yoyo says, "He didn't see exhibitions as vehicles to sell the artist's work – more to promote their career. For every exhibition he published a catalog – not with a list of works and the prices – but with essays and poems by famous writers such as André Malraux and Jacques Prévert. It was to create a cultural context for the artist. Now everyone does this – but in 1946, Aimé Maeght was the first. Some of his other innovations we take for granted as well; for instance, he cast bronzes for Giacometti's show. Since the 19th century, galleries merely showed a plaster cast and clients would order an edition based on that. Aimé, however, broke the mold by investing in making the bronzes before the show. He said that was the only way to truly understand the work."

However, Aimé's most abiding personal legacy was his Fondation Maeght at St Paul de Vence, which has one of the largest collections of 20th century art in Europe. But when it opened in 1964, not even the quality of the work was the most arresting aspect of it. The building, designed by Catalan architect, Lluis Sert, features 'rooms' created by Miró, Chagall, Giacometti, Braque and Léger. As Yoyo says, "It is commonplace now for a collector to create his own museum, but again, my grandfather was the first to make a purpose-built gallery for 20th century art. It was the first in France – and 13 years before the Pompidou Center – and it had a library, studios, spaces for contemporary and historical exhibitions, there was dance ... It provided a whole world for art."

What were Yoyo's memories of being surrounded by some of the world's most famous artists? "Sometimes I would long to come from a bourgeois home like my friends. We were up late at openings, were taken off to the south of France by my father, who had no regard for school – none of us ever completed our baccalaureate. Once I was asked where I had been and I said, I'd been painting with Picasso. I was branded a pathological liar." Miró, who lived with the family for four months, was like her favorite uncle. "It was if he was training me from the age of five to be a curator. He explained his work to me – why the colors on his sculptures would never be like a tree. He would say, 'My work is to do something stronger and better than nature. Can you imagine how difficult that is?' There is a wonderful film of him laying out his new prints on the grass outside and telling me that his works 'had to resist nature'. He gave these aperçus as if they were special presents. Which they were. I was the curator of his last exhibition – and all along he was training me."

The cloud on the horizon was the family dynamic. Aimé and his son, Adrien, were not soulmates – Adrien never went to the gallery openings and indeed, Yoyo claims that she and her siblings were used as bargaining-chips by her father. According to the book, there's a lot on the charge sheet – and alas, the poison has spilled over into the next generation.

Four years ago, Yoyo left her position at the Fondation Maeght to concentrate on making editions of architects' drawings. And, no surprises here, it was the result of a seismic family rift. Her elder sister Isabelle is now in charge. Yoyo claims she is merely "sad", but clearly there's something lost in translation. "Ouf, it is complicated," she says with a Gallic shrug of her shoulders. "It's not a question of money, it is a question of power. Isabelle wants the power. But art is my life. I spend my life in art. She wants to have that because her name is Maeght. I have that because my name is Maeght and because I spend years and years at the Fondation." Did she write the book to inflame her sister? "It is not a livre thérapeutique," she says a touch unconvincingly. "I wanted to close a chapter and for people to understand the spirit of my grandfather." I'm guessing that she feels that spirit is not pulsing through the current Fondation? For a moment I think she's going to cry. "They have no comprehension about who Aimé Maeght was," is all she is able to say.

Being told for all those years that she was not a member of the family has had long-term consequences. "Isabelle believes that I am not of the family. And I told my father if I wasn't his daughter, I wouldn't mind ... But if it turned out that I wasn't the grand-daughter of Aimé Maeght, I would be very upset."

Lucinda Bredin is Editor of Bonhams Magazine.

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