Culture

The Camargo Foundation, a Refuge on the French Riviera

Created in 1971 by American filmmaker and philanthropist Jerome Hill at his home in Cassis, France, this foundation welcomes artists and researchers from across the world.
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The Camargo Foundation’s Théâtre de la Mer, inspired by that of Delphi in Greece. © Viviana Peretti

In the short film Cassis, directed by Jerome Hill in 1950, the filmmaker, painter, and composer featured himself at his home, surrounded by his artist friends. Jiki painted a portrait of Jeannine in the garage; June sang and played guitar overlooking the sea; and ethnologist Maud Oakes photographed the port of Cassis and the spectacular Cap Canaille, which stands above the Mediterranean. At the top of the property under the burning sun, workers assembled the round stones that form the stage of the Théâtre de la Mer, an ancient amphitheater decorated with a seven-pointed Provençal star at its center.

The history of the Camargo Foundation began in the early 1930s when Jerome Hill, the grandson of a railroad tycoon from Minnesota, arrived in France to study art. His professors advised him to travel south to paint in the great outdoors. In Cassis, the homosexual artist found a calm setting in which to create and be completely himself. In 1939, he bought a small cabin originally used as an artillery battery by Napoleon’s army and transformed it into a workshop. Over time, the property expanded with the purchase of Pierrefroide, a villa that once belonged to the English painter Madge Oliver. This was then joined by an abandoned hotel located across the street, which is now home to the foundation’s library and offices. Built between the late 1940s and the 1950s using locally sourced materials, the buildings are far from ostentatious and respect the surrounding nature and topography.

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Jerome Hill and Brigitte Bardot at La Batterie, his Cassis house, 1959. © Peter Beard

Anyone visiting the main house and the 12 residents’ simple apartments will have a good idea of what life was like at Camargo during its founder’s lifetime. According to Julie Chéno, the foundation’s director since 2017, the origin of the name is unclear. It might be a reference to Mademoiselle de Camargo, a late-19th-century choreographer who shortened dresses to make dancers’ leaps more visible, or perhaps an homage to the Camargue region and Provençal culture.

A Hub of Creativity

The 1950s and 1960s were a period of frenzied activity. Jerome Hill was close with the experimental scene in New York, and invited Lithuanian-born filmmaker Jonas Mekas to spend the month of July in Cassis in 1966. While there, Mekas directed three movies: Cassis, a time-lapse view of the port filmed over 24 hours; Mysteries and Smaller Pieces, a recording of a play performed by the Living Theater; and Notes for Jerome, a portrait of his host. One year later, Jerome Hill decided to transform the property into a residency program for writers, artists, and scientists. He chose Russell Young, a longstanding friend met during World War II, to be the site’s director.

The foundation was launched in 1971 as a creative space designed to encourage dialogue and interdisciplinarity. “At the start, the residents were American researchers studying French art and culture through the lens of Provence,” says Julie Chénot. “There is a strong connection to time and the landscape; you can be simultaneously alone while living on the site with the other residents.” After Jerome Hill died in 1972, Russell Young continued the venture. In 1973, he invited the residents and their guests, along with the people from the village, to a performance of Racine’s Andromaque by Silvia Montfort and Alain Cuny at the Théâtre de la Mer.

Over time and through the work of different directors, the foundation’s role has slightly changed. “It opened up to social sciences in connection with the Mediterranean, and to thinkers,” says Julie Chénot. “Since the 2000s, the foundation has also become more international. It has focused on Francophone countries, particularly via the National Overseas Archives in Aix-en-Provence, and has put down deeper roots in the region. It no longer made sense for the site to work exclusively with Americans, even though they still make up around 40% of the residents.”

A Foundation for the 21st Century

After several years of trial and error and renovating the buildings, the Camargo Foundation, which celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2021, is more active than ever. This is largely down to the enthusiastic team, the attentive board of directors, which includes American writer and historian Alice Kaplan, and partnerships with institutions such as the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris, the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations in Marseille, and the Villa Albertine, overseen by the cultural services at the French embassy in the United States, which is currently hosting French photographer and artist Nicolas Floc’h.

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The Chinese Terrace, named for its Asian-inspired pergola, overlooks the port of Cassis and the Mediterranean. © Viviana Peretti

International artists and researchers can apply for several residency programs, including the Fellowship Program, which has welcomed more than 1,000 people since 1971, and the Cultural Diaspora, designed in 2018 by African-American playwright Carlyle Brown and Nigerian-American stage director Chuck Mike. Last May, they were both at the Camargo Foundation with nine playwrights with vastly diverse backgrounds hailing from places such as Somalia, Brazil, and Zimbabwe. “The Cultural Diaspora was born of our interest in African culture and how it has been transferred to America and other Atlantic countries,” says Carlyle Brown. “We wanted to explore the connections between these playwrights, whose work is produced within dominated cultures. By opening the foundation to authors from the diaspora, we discovered that they shared a social, political, and economic history, even though they were not tied to this concept of African-Atlantic culture. Through the program, we can write without self-censoring, without the filter of white, Western culture that has influenced our narratives.”

Having returned to the United States after spending years in Lagos, Nigeria, Chuck Mike is delighted: “We are all as one, despite our differences. And that can be seen here, overlooking the Mediterranean. This sea is the original ancestor, and this place helps us in such a powerful way. We draw inspiration from the architecture, the landscape, and the surrounding beauty. We can write, create, be!” Exactly what Jerome Hill would have wanted, as his dream continues to grow.

 

Article published in the September 2022 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.

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