By Alexis Steinman

Sunlight filtered through a glass-bottomed pool on the ceiling casts meditative waves across blue walls, tempting me to grab my friend’s hand and wade into the installation – perhaps because we’re barefoot. A no-shoes rule is one of the conceits of Villa Carmignac, giving visitors “a reconnection with the ground, a physical sensation that allows [them] to shake up habits and ways of perceiving the world,” says director Charles Carmignac.

The Fondation Carmignac’s home, opened last year on the island of Porquerolles, a 15-minute foot-ferry ride away from Hyères on the Provence coast, embodies a recent wave of art experiences that has vaulted the land of Cézanne into contemporary cool. Designed by big-name architects such as Frank Gehry and Jean Nouvel, these cutting-edge, immersive spots showcase works that rival those of iconic Parisian institutions.

contemporary art Provence
The Frank O. Gehry music pavilion at Château La Coste. (Clara Tuma)

These spaces, scattered throughout the region, embrace the Provençal climate too. Positioned alongside a vineyard, on a rooftop, and even, in the case of Villa Carmignac, on a tiny, car-free island in the Mediterranean, they approach art with a regional slant.

Like its emblematic wines, Provence’s art centers are terroir-driven. Travelers get the lay of the land, sea, and sky as they take in works by established and up-and-coming art-world stars. In each space, art is paired with a chef-driven restaurant, a festival, or outdoor performances, savored under the sun that has seduced painters for centuries. The light here captivated Picasso and van Gogh, the latter of whom, after fleeing dreary northern winters, enthused, “The whole future of art is to be found in the South of France.” His words ring as true as ever across Provence at these four art spaces.

contemporary art Provence
Michael Stipe’s Foxes. (Clara Tuma)

Château La Coste, Le Puy-Sainte-Réparade
Two striking aluminum chais (wine storage spaces) designed by Jean Nouvel, architect of the Louvre Abu Dhabi, hint that Château La Coste is more than your average vignoble. In fact, these structures were the seeds that sprouted this venture by Irish billionaire Patrick McKillen, just west of Aix-en-Provence. The sprawling estate showcases 30 works by the grands crus of contemporary art, peppered around the property alongside grenache vines and olive trees. Nearly every piece is site specific, created in locations that spoke to the artists. Visitors can amble through the forest where Michael Stipe’s bronze Foxes roam, cross a narrow wooden bridge to Tracey Emin’s Self-Portrait: Cat Inside a Barrel, or duck through a stone doorway to find Andy Goldsworthy’s Oak Room. This art promenade takes about two hours, but guests can name-drop all afternoon or evening while viewing an exhibit in the Renzo Piano gallery, sitting down to a wood-fired meal at the Francis Mallmann restaurant, or listening to a concert at the Frank Gehry-designed outdoor pavilion. At the on-site, 28-suite Villa La Coste, the collection includes a Fernand Léger tapestry and a Damien Hirst painting.

Salon Rose art
At Villa Noailles, the Salon Rose. (Clara Tuma)

Villa Noailles, Hyères
The 1920s Villa Noailles still stands out on its hillside perch in Hyères, its white cubist concrete a stark contrast to the red-tiled rooftops below. Here, in one of France’s first modernist homes, aristocrats Charles and Marie-Laure de Noailles supported avant-garde artists, allowing Jean Cocteau to film and Alberto Giacometti to sculpt. Since 1995, Jean-Pierre Blanc has maintained the couple’s personalized art-patronage style. With a fashion and photography festival and his Design Parade, a competition for up-and-coming designers, the Villa Noailles director has returned the heritage home to its heyday. Throughout the year, visitors can tour this paragon of modernity gratis, taking in the soothing Salon Rose, capped with a Louis Barillet stained-glass ceiling, and strolling through Blanc’s favorite room, the Chambre des Fleurs, decorated with a De Stijl fresco and designed specifically for flower arranging. The on-site boutique gets a full makeover by a different designer each year; for 2019, Pierre Yovanovitch has saturated its walls in color.

Washing Machine Fried Egg
Villa Carmignac’s Washing Machine Fried Egg, by Sarah Lucas.

Villa Carmignac, Île de Porquerolles
Visitors reach the Villa Carmignac, the Fondation Carmignac’s newly minted art space, via ferry, followed by a short stroll along a eucalyptus-scented nature trail that’s part of a national park. On this journey, “you retreat from the world to see it better,” says Charles Carmignac. Secluded on the idyllic Île de Porquerolles, this Provençal stone villa houses the impressive art collection of Carmignac’s father, Édouard. A limit of 50 visitors each half hour and the aforementioned barefoot rule make for a memorable communion with works by the likes of Roy Lichtenstein and Ed Ruscha. Indoors, natural light bathes expansive rooms, streaming in from a ceiling that is a glass-bottomed pool. Outside, site-specific sculptures dot the property. On the heels of the villa’s inaugural-season splash last year, the 2019 lineup includes a new exhibit, La Source, plus full-moon garden and beach walks by NYC’s Soundwalk Collective.

contemporary art Provence
Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation.

Unité d’Habitation/MAMO, Marseille
Resembling a concrete ocean liner, Marseille’s Unité d’Habitation offers a singular voyage into Le Corbusier’s utopian vision of urban living. Since 1952, this UNESCO World Heritage-designated mixed-use building (with residential housing as well as arts spaces and more) has functioned as a “vertical village” nicknamed Cité Radieuse. Tour a midcentury-modern apartment, savor artistic dishes at Le Ventre de l’Architecte restaurant, and soak up views from the roof. The rooftop’s exterior space and its dome-shaped former gym house the dynamic Marseille Modulor (aka MAMO) museum. Marseille-born designer Ora Ïto captains the space, giving a different artist creative carte blanche to transform it each summer. This year, American artist Alex Israel is beaming the Bat Signal in the sky, inspired by Marseille’s Gotham-like gritty side.

Villa Noailles views
Views from Villa Noailles.

Where to Stay in Provence

  • Napoléon III (then emperor of France and the nephew of Bonaparte) inaugurated the InterContinental Marseille – Hotel Dieu’s eighteenth-century building in 1855, but the site has history as far back as 1188. The 179-room landmark on Panier Hill still exudes an imperial polish and commands impressive city views, but with some cushy twenty-first-century concessions: Michelin-starred dining, cocktails on the terrace, and a Clarins spa. Virtuoso travelers receive an upgrade at time of booking (if available), a welcome amenity, breakfast daily, one cocktail per person at Capian Bar, complimentary spa access, and a $55 dining credit at Les Fenêtres restaurant.
  • Fresh air and light suffuse the cool but classic, 28-suite Villa La Coste, midway between Aix-en-Provence and the Luberon on the Château La Coste estate. Guests have access to the château’s expansive arts and music programming – and myriad winetastings. Virtuoso travelers receive breakfast daily and one lunch or dinner for two at Le Restaurant.
  • Villa Gallici serves up the Provençal fantasy with seven-plus acres of gardens, a pool surrounded by greenery, and 22 rooms and suites decked out in toile, brocade, and velvet a short walk from Aix-en- Provence’s center. The eighteenth-century residence also houses a spa and, of course, a wine cellar. Virtuoso travelers receive drinks on arrival, breakfast daily, and one afternoon tea for two.

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