Musee CantiniIf you're in central Marseille and love 20th century art, the elegant Cantini Museum is a perfect spot to spend a pleasurable hour or two. logoClick here to book a hotel in Marseille

This beautiful hôtel particulier was created in 1694 for a marine trading company. It had various owners before being acquired by the industrialist and art-lover Jules Cantini, who bequeathed to to the city. It became an art gallery in 1936.

A sweeping mosaic-tiled forecourt and high-ceilinged hallway usher you into a spacious house which provides a supremely peaceful backdrop to a discerning permanent collection.

NewsThe Musée Cantini has been closed for some months for improvements. But it has now re-opened with a superb show of work on loan from the Burrell Collection in Glasgow, itself closed for refurbishment. Glasgow's loss is Marseille's gain!

Marseille and Glasgow are twin towns: industrial port cities which prospered in the 19th century. During these years Sir William Burrell (1861-1958), a Scottish shipping merchant and art lover, built his fortune along with an impressive art collection, which he later donated to Glasgow.

degas la repetitionBurrell’s interests were wide-ranging. The 9000-odd works he bought included Islamic textiles and Chinese art, tapestries and stained glass.

However the current show focusses on French art, mainly from the second half of the 19th century. Some 50 highlights have come to the Cantini – the first time they have left the UK.

Burrell owned no fewer than 23 works by Degas and four of them are in Marseille. The exhibition's poster image, La Répétition, pictured, is a brilliantly off-centre composition of dancers in their studio.

The four works by Édouard Manet are all exceptional too: a still life of a juicy ham and vivid sketches of a café scene and of a dashing Spanish male dancer.

manet roses champagne glassAnother exquisite, luminous little painting depicts two perfect roses in a champagne glass, pictured. Though very ill at the end of his life, Manet was still able with a few masterly brushstrokes to capture the beauty in small things.

Honoré Daumier is well represented: watch out for his Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, with the crusading knight a slender, distant silhouette galloping bravely into the sunset.

While Paul Cézanne – an iconic figure in Provence – features in the show’s title, there is, in fact, only one work by him here: Le Château de Médan, painted near Paris in around 1880 while he was visiting his friend Émile Zola.

Some of the works by less famous names are fascinating. Eugène Boudin paints the Empress Eugénie as a tiny figure swirling along the windy seafront at Trouville, while Lucius Simon has a curious, monumental portrait of three rather scary women in black Breton costume.

Just so that Marseille doesn’t get too much of an inferiority complex, the Cantini is also showing works from the same period borrowed from the city’s own Musée des Beaux Arts. To be honest, these are rather less interesting, though there are some terrific little bronze caricature figurines by Daumier.

Audioguides are available and the signage in the exhibition itself is in English as well as French. The Cantini also has a very full supporting programme of guided tours, lectures, workshops for children and adults, films and even themed food tastings! Until 23 September.

The Cantini's own permanent collection is often cleared to make space for these major temporary exhibitions. It includes photographs of old Marseille by leading practitioners of the medium such as Man Ray and László Moholy-Nagy, as well as a strong line-up of post-Impressionism, Fauvism, Cubism and Surrealism, with fine pieces by Ernst, Léger, Picasso, Rothko, Miró, Le Corbusier and Kandinsky.

Oskar Kokoschka, Le Port de MarzseilleA number depict local landmarks such as the Old Port as seen by Alfred Marquet or Oskar Kokoschka, pictured. There are a number of views of L'Estaque by Raoul Dufy, pine trees near Cassis by André Derain and the Vallon des Auffes by Alfred Lombard.

Some art historians claim that, after Venice, Marseille is the most often portrayed city in Europe.

The surrealist section has a particular Marseille connection: in 1940 and early 1941, many surrealists passed through the city on their way into exile from the German Occupation. The famous Jeu de Marseille, a version of tarot, was invented by them here.

The Cantini museum also has a significant collection of work by the post-war group of Japanese artists called Gutai.

Since the opening of Marseille's Musée d'Art Contemporain [mac] / Museum of Modern Art in 1995, the Cantini has been notionally dedicated to the first part of the 20th century. But the time period covered by the two galleries overlaps to some extent and the Musée Cantini owns a number of sculptures and other pieces from the 1970s and 1980s.

Other recent temporary shows here have included a celebration of the fine glasswork of Le Cirva, an international glass research centre based in Marseille, and Le Rêve (The Dream). This was a mysterious and fascinating journey through dreams, fantasies, nightmares, hallucinations and awakenings - rude or otherwise. Click here to read our full review.

In 2015 the museum also mounted an excellent retrospective dedicated to the Haitian-born Hervé Télémaque: click here to read our full review. Pictured: Fonds d'actualité no.1 by Télémaque.

herve telemaque fonds dactualiteThe Musée Cantini has celebrated the French surrealist André Masson. Other tributes have included a retrospective of the Romanian surrealist Jacques Hérold.

There have also been shows devoted to Georg Baselitz, one of Germany's most celebrated artists, the Chilean surrealist Roberto Matta and the Marseille-born and -bred sculptor César Baldaccini.

Part of the Nouveau Réalisme (New Realism) movement, along with Arman, Yves Klein and others, César is celebrated for his sculptures made of scrap metal, in particular compressed cars.

Among his creations: the trophy for the César Awards (France's equivalent of the Oscars) which are, in fact, even named after him. His giant thumb (Le Pouce) sits permanently on the roundabout on the avenue de Hambourg near the [mac] in the south of Marseille (another of his thumbs can be seen at La Défense in Paris).

Another exhibition at the Musée Cantini was titled Le rêveur éveillé (The Waking Dreamer) and was dedicated to yet another surrealist, Belgium's Paul Delvaux (1897-1994), a near contemporary of René Magritte. It was his first major show in France.

There's an excellent book and gift shop, and a play area for children to create their own art. The museum has a lift / elevator to its upper floor and vehicle access for disabled visitors by prior arrangement.

To round off your visit in style, visit the pâtisserie of Sylvain Depuichaffray (turn left as you leave the museum and walk a couple of blocks) for some other fine art-works. This time, though, they are edible ones.

Where: The Musée Cantini, 19 rue Grignan, 13006 Marseille. Tel: (+33) 4 91 54 77 75. Website for the Musée Cantini.


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