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Château hanté ? My Night at La Napoule

My train pulled into Mandelieu-la-Napoule, a sleepy and picturesque town on the French Riviera near Cannes. I lugged my bags, heavily laden with tools and photography equipment, off the train and shuffled through an underpass to the main street. Emerging to the light once again, I found myself standing before Château de la Napoule, a honey-hued castle of the fourteenth-century, which had been lovingly restored by American artist couple Henry and Marie Clews. Fifteen years had passed, but I was finally revisiting the site of my 2002 artist’s residency at La Napoule Art Foundation.

My acquaintance with La Napoule actually predates the residency. Italian art theorist and collector Enrico Pedrini once drove me to the castle to view a contemporary art installation by Alfredo Romano in one of its interior rooms. I was intrigued by Romano’s Arte Povera-inspired intervention, but it was the château itself that captured my imagination. Mediterranean surf caresses the barbicans of this castle, and Enrico once remarked how rare it is to find a château au pied de l’eau. Its soaring battlements appear to rise directly out of the sea.

Château de la Napoule. Photo D.R.

Sculptor and Wall Street scion Henry Clews bought the castle in 1918 for use as his home and studio. During my visit, I was guided through Henry Clews’ atelier in the castle, which has been preserved since the time of his passing in 1937. A gifted figurative sculptor, Clews filled the studio with portraits, allegorical figures, and grotesque monsters. Plaster studies of human hands and feet adorn one wall, comingled with an equine head, and classically inspired bas-reliefs. Plaster maquettes line shelving together with finished works in bronze, marble, and wood. Clews also drew upon his imagination to sculpt creatures that combine human, bird-like, and animal forms. Some of these monsters became caryatids in the restored interior or capital elements on columns of a portico near the garden of the château.

A photograph of Henry Clews rests on his worktable at Château de la Napoule. Photo D.R.

While Henry modeled clay in the studio, his wife Marie Elsie Clews designed a park. Marie nurtured existing Cedar and Eucalyptus trees on the castle grounds and set to work designing a constellation of remarkable gardens. The main garden is inspired by the jardin à la Française and commands a gravel grand alley flanked by topiary hedges. Bubbling stone fountains and wells, replete with frogs, attract songbirds. Both Henry and Marie saw parallels in their work to the chivalric quest of Don Quixote and the Garden de la Mancha, beneath the Tower of La Mancha, features terraces planted with Cypress trees, shrubs, and rosemary. This garden overlooks the inscrutable turquoise Bay of Cannes. After Henry’s passing, it was Marie Clews who endowed La Napoule Art Foundation, which provides artist’s residencies at the château through an annual, international competition.

Marie Elsie Clews’ jardin à la Française at Château de la Napoule. Photo D.R.

I returned to New York City but applied for the residency one year later and was accepted. My wife Francine Hunter McGivern and I lived in Tribeca, close to the World Trade Center and, in the wake of 9.11, this opportunity was a godsend. In the face of so much tragic loss, suffering, and grief, I found myself creatively hindered. Before departing for France, I packed twelve cast-aluminum vessel sculptures that were made years before and resolved to experiment with concave, synchronistic spaces of art making. Once arrived at La Napoule, I began to carry these vessels with me in a rucksack along the Côte d’Azur and photograph them in suggestive environments, which effectively changed their meaning as signifiers.

My friend Enrico Pedrini would also come visit me at La Napoule from Cagnes sur Mer, where he had acquired the uppermost floor of a medieval tower. Enrico loved the Côte d’Azur and shared his passion for France and its expression of modern and contemporary art in this storied place. Together we visited the studios of artists Ben Vautier and Bernar Venet on the French Riviera, along with artists of La Station art collective and curators at the Musée d’art moderne et d’art contemporain in Nice. The Fondation Maeght in Saint-Paul de Vence and Espace de l’Art Concret in Mouans Sartoux were also favored destinations. During this time, Enrico also introduced me to Christian Depardieu, a prominent gallerist of Nice, with whom I have exhibited in six personal exhibitions.

After the residency, I lost touch with La Napoule until last year, when I attended an alumni event in New York City. On this occasion I met Tonya Quinn, the foundation’s sanguine and intelligent newly appointed executive director. OCULUS, a kinetic sculpture of mine, was in Aachen, Germany, and I suggested exhibiting it in the garden at Château de la Napoule. Tonya readily agreed and Christian Depardieu suggested concomitant exhibitions between his gallery in Nice and La Napoule. German curator Wolfgang Becker, former founding director of the Ludwig Forum for International Art, graciously agreed to store the work in Aachen. His wife Sonja Benzner, who directs the Ludwig Forum Library, stored the crate among her books. On it was a label that read, “This box contains a secret.” All the stars aligned.

This brought me back to Mandelieu-la-Napoule and I proceeded along the Avenue Henry Clews, following castle walls, and rang the foundation’s bell. Alex Vrousos, the château’s elegant, silver-coiffed director, answered the door. With an eye toward facilitating my installation, Alexis had invited me to spend the night at the castle. As a resident, I had lived next door to the château in a Belle Époque manor that is also owned by the foundation. He showed me to my room, which offers a beautiful view of the Mediterranean. Alexis gave me the key and admonished me to go straight to my room at night because other spaces in the castle are protected by an alarm.

I unpacked my bag of tools and set out for the garden to work with gardener Philippe Lefebvre and handyman Jean Luc Waze to mount and wire the sculpture on an ancient arbor. The motor, transformer, and rheostat worked harmoniously and, by day’s end, the sculpture was spinning in dialogue with the vines and flowers, fanning a heady perfume of honeysuckle. I thanked my collaborators and dined on sea bream and polenta in in Mandelieu. Then I took a long walk to Frejus and back through fields of wildflowers and mimosa. I retired to my room in the castle where a beautiful sunset was unfolding. A sailboat glided slowly across the crimson-illuminated bay.

My kinetic OCULUS sculpture at Château de la Napoule. Photo D.R.

Reclining on my bed, I opened a book and began to read. Though darkness had enveloped the water, I left my window open, gazing up occasionally at the large, de-silvering mirror at the foot of my bed. Before I proceed, let me state that I’ve never been particularly interested in the occult or believed in ghosts. Indeed, they were the last things on my mind, as I savored the beauty and culture of Mandelieu. But then something truly unusual happened. I heard a clear, distinct knocking on my door. Instinctive fear ran through my body.

“Qui va là?” I questioned.

No one answered. Only a nocturnal chorus of frogs was singing in the garden, indifferent to my plight. I plucked up my courage and peered down the spiral stone staircase leading to my room. Still no one was there. My heart was racing as I fumbled for the keys that Alexis had given me. I found them and locked the door from the inside. If indeed this was a supernatural encounter, I’m not certain what good it would have done me. Nonetheless, I wasn’t thinking rationally at the time. Pulling the covers close, I eventually fell asleep.

In the morning I asked Alexis if there had been other guests in the castle and he confirmed that I had been alone. I told him the story but Alexis seemed unimpressed. I also told the story to the Christelle Burlot, a Nice-Matin reporter, who was very attentive. She told me that, “…everyone says the castle is haunted.” After the reception for OCULUS, I had dinner with Francine, Christian, and his wife Nathalie in Mandelieu. Francine heard the story some days before but I repeated it over the dinner table. Francine said that a trustee of the foundation had described a similar experience which she had at the castle as a young woman. She hadn’t been smoking cannabis or inebriated in any way.

My window at Château de la Napoule. Photo D.R.

Then Christian told me that Marie Clews had an interest in the occult and took part in séances at the castle. Furthermore, Château de la Napoule stands on a seafront site that was first occupied by ancient Romans more than 2,000 years ago. I later learned that my room in the castle also faces Ile Marguerite, on which the Man in the Iron Mask was once imprisoned. So who was this ghost? Across millennia it could be any number of spirits. Returning to Christian’s car after dinner, I noticed the castle caretaker’s apartment which is cantilevered off the facade of the château facing the main road. Though his apartment is hundreds of feet away from my castle room and unconnected in any way, I suggested that the caretaker might have knocked. Nathalie asked me, “Do you really believe that?”

Perhaps the ghost was asserting its presence and impressing that I was only a guest and part of a long continuum of castle occupants. Perhaps fatigue was only playing tricks on my jet-lagged mind. Regardless, one could think of no better nexus of supernatural energy than Château de la Napoule. Over time, so many creative people have lived and worked within its walls that some magic residue surely remains.

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