“Most painters seek an exterior light in order to see clearly within themselves,” artist Henri Matisse once said.

Nowhere in France, according to Matisse, is the sky bluer than in Collioure, a tiny harbor town nestled between the French Mediterranean and the Pyrenees. Years before gaining recognition as a great modernist artist, Matisse studied the effects of natural light alongside fellow emerging painter, André Derain, in this remote village. The pair spent a summer exploring the “particular harmony” of Collioure’s sunlight — the daily spectacles that play themselves out on the surface of the Mediterranean.

A single provincial train line runs south from Montpellier to Collioure. After arriving from the north on the train, it’s clear why these two co-conspirators chose this as a place for seclusion. Collioure is truly a town on the fringe. After Collioure, the only direction the train can take you is south. Beyond this lies the Pyrenees and, even further, Spanish Catalonia. Today, cut off from the high-speed rail network that connects the rest of France, Collioure is, in every sense of the word, a departure.

Little seems to have changed since Matisse and Derain’s time. In typical Southern European fashion, the pace of life is agreeably unhurried. Walking the narrow, winding streets of Collioure’s medieval core, one sees a soothing mélange of pastel facades lining the walkways. Climbing upward from Notre-Dame-Des-Anges church, the streets wind their way to stone stairways scrawling up a sea-cliff. From this point, you can hear waves crashing against the rocks below — and from a few narrow vantage points you can even watch them.

It is difficult to resist the urge to slow down in Collioure. The cobblestones’ uneven fault lines conspire for your attention. The endless rhythm of the waves creates a hypnotic lull that hangs in the air. Even the bell-clanging that marks the passage of the day wallows in its long reverberations.

It is a place of nuances, embellished only for those with the patience and perspective to discover them. Inspired by a wave of artistic experimentation at the turn of the century, Matisse and Derain came in the summer of 1905, charged with fresh ideas about the fidelity, or “realism,” of their subjects. As the summer ensued, the painters found liberation in Collioure’s solitude from the conventions they sought to escape. Matisse shed his trademark pointillism for long, flat brushstrokes. Opening their perceptions to the sun-drenched scenes of Collioure, both artists abandoned traditional attempts to capture their subjects accurately. Instead, they experimented with color to vividly record mood and tone as they felt it, rather than as it appeared to the naked eye.

The results of their experiments were universally panned upon their return to the stuffy salons of belle-époque Paris. But today, the art from Matisse and Derain’s time in Collioure is considered a revolutionary turn toward the modern, a lasting reminder of the fruits borne from challenging the status quo.

Visiting Collioure brings into focus the significance of what Matisse and Derain achieved here. Artists dating back to Greek and Roman times had doggedly pursued the artistic representation of one single, objective truth. Here, beneath the dazzling sunlight of Collioure, these two men realized that there was more to natural beauty than what the eyes could see. Through our own perception, we imprint something unique. Collioure reminds visitors to treasure that fact. To slow down and consider what’s hiding in plain sight, the vibrancy waiting to burst forth from muted pastel facades. Now, as it was then, Collioure is a place to indulge that subjectivity — and to steep yourself in the results.

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Jared Spears
Jared Spears is an American writer, often-solo traveler and consummate French learner currently residing in Brooklyn who's interests include languages, literature and culture. His writing has appeared on Mental Floss, Jacobin and The Awl, among others.

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