Bourgeois in Avignon, Matisse in Nice and BHL curating at Fondation Maeght

Female Popes, Matisse and a curating philosopher - The Summer of art in Southern France

Louise Bourgeois' famous "Maman" in the exhibition "Les Papesses" in the Papal Palace of Avignon

The South of France attracts visitors not only with its wonderful beaches and the prospect of relaxing holidays, the region between Marseille and Nice boasts a rich cultural scene as well. As this year's European Capital of Culture, Marseille is the centre of attention with many new museums such as the MuCEM. Not to be outdone, the established museums of the region such as the Collection Lambert, the Fondation Maeght or the MAMAC, outdo each other with exciting exhibitions. Artsation author Dr. Evelyn Schels went on a little stroll and reports her highlights.

Who are the “female popes” in the Papal Palace of Avignon? The artists Camille Claudel, Louise Bourgeois, Berlinde de Bruyckère and Kiki Smith, “popes” of modern art in the very impressive exhibition “Les Papesses”, presented by the Collection Ivan Lambert. The works by the artists reflect the female body, sexuality, birth, transience as well as clichés and taboos of femininity and create a dialogue with the young Joanna who, dressed as a man, was voted pope in the 9th century. When she gave birth to a child during a procession, she was discovered to be a woman, stoned to death or dragged to death by a horse – there are many stories about the charismatic pope. The works by the popes of art made from material such as bronze, wood, wax, fabric, paper and aluminium are intelligently presented in the enormous walls of the Papal Palace and the the rooms of the Collection Lambert.

One of the female popes: Kiki Smith, Blue Moon III, 2011

Louise Bourgeois (1911-2010), a belatedly recognized pioneer, dominates the Grande Chapelle of the Papal Palace with her giant spider made from bronze, which for the artist is a symbol of protective femininity. One of her central works, the installation “Cell (Arch of Hysteria)” depicts the tensely bent body of a man next to an old disk saw. It is a metaphor for hysteria, which was long viewed as an exclusively female ailment, between ecstasy and pain. Bourgeois' drawings and watercolours disfigure and fragment the body and tell about birth and death.

In contrast, the sculptures of Camille Claudel (1864-1943), mistress of sculptor Rodin, are of moving pathos. She suffered in a psychiatric clinic for her talent and love affair for 30 years until her death. Doubly marginalised, as an artist and mistress, she created delicate, longing female bodies from bronze. “L’Age mûr” and “Clotho”, an aged woman clasped by threads, described the transience of the human body, the fugacity of existence.

The American Kiki Smith (*1954) creates an individual, fantastic mythology with references to the bible in her works. In 2012 she created tapestries that are reminiscent of medieval illustrations of the book of Genesis with depictions of Adam and Even, cats and birds, moons and stars. Her naked bronze woman, sitting on a stake with widely spread arms, is a reference to the church's witch hunts.

Berlinde de Bruyckère (*1964), an artist from Belgium, deforms the body and turns the inside to the outside. Her sculptures made from wood, wax and reddish colour are anatomical shapes of the imagination. They look like exposed bones covered in sinews and bits of flesh. Disfigured and full of pain, her human figures covered in wax seem to melt away.

The Czech artist Jana Sterbak (*1955) also plays with transience in her photographs in which women pose like mannequins covered in scraps of meat. “Les Papesses” - a exhibition as daring as it is amazing! (until the 11th of November)

Exceptional curator Bernard-Henry Lévy presenting a work by Anselm Kiefer, made especially for the exhibition. photo: AFP

"Vanitas or the Allegory of Death and Life" by flemish painter Philippe de Champaigne (1671) at the Fondation Maeght

The Fondation Maeght from Saint-Paul-de-Vence treads on precarious ground with the star philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy – it is his first time working as a curator. Lévy calls his attempt to explore the question of reconciliation between fine art and philosophy with 130 art works “The adventures of truth”. Seven sequences lead him to the realisation that images are more powerful than words. Lévy calls the introduction “The fatality of shadows”: two female gypsum figures by Giulio Paolini are placed next to a still life by Morandi and the painting “The jump” by Pierre Tal Coat – a reference to the fugacity, even the vanishing of images. The “Crucification” by Bronzino impressively and associatively engages in a dialogue with works byJackson Pollock and Jean-Michel Basquiat. “Saint Veronica” byPierre and Gilles hangs besides a Flemish “Victoria” from the 15thcentury, for her part flanked by Picabia's “Mélibée” and Warhol's“Studies of Jackie”. A new work, created by Anselm Kiefer specifically for the exhibition, is “Alkahest”. It consists of a pair of scales and explores the question of “Non-being” together with Abramovic's sculpture “The communicator” and Ellsworth Kelly's “Red, Yellow, Blue”. The works evoke Nietzsche and his philosophy on the essence of things and truth. It is a sometimes convincing interaction, the philosophic superstructure of which is yet to be mastered. The overloaded exhibition (until the 11th of November) creates surprising connections, its arbitrariness makes it vulnerable however.

With the motto “Un été pour Matisse", Nice wholly dedicates itself to the painter and sculptor this summer. Eight exhibitions in several museums of the city present more than 700 works. Matisse loved the town in Southern France very much and created most of his works here. The Musée d’Art Moderne et d’Art Contemporain (MAMAC) covers solid ground with the  central exhibition “Bonjour, Monsieur Matisse”. The exhibition shows modern artists such as Roy Lichtenstein, Larry Rivers, Tom Wesselmann, Niki de Saint Phalle, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Andy Warhol and many more, that directly referenced the master in their works (until the 24th of November). A dance of artists around the icon Matisse!

Inspired by Matisse: Laurence Aegerter (Marseille, 1972) (Matisse, game of boules), 2010