An out-of-this-world haven, accessible only by boat, the Fondation Carmignac on the picturesque Porquerolles island sits on a 37-acre estate where a farm once stood. Upon setting foot on this Mediterranean island between Marseille and Saint-Tropez, you’ll never want to leave. A village looms ahead, but the temptation to follow the sign reading “Fondation d’art contemporain 0,6 km” is too strong. The ascending road on the left takes you up to this contemporary art space, once the setting for Jean-Luc Godard’s 1965 movie Pierrot le Fou.
In the 1980s, French architect Henri Vidal turned this quaint farm into a villa, which he had built on a small artificial hill, overlooking the sea. Shortly after, Édouard Carmignac, one of the world’s top art collectors, fell in love with the estate while attending his daughter’s wedding there and made Vidal an offer on the spot, thinking he’d turn the villa into a cultural venue. It took 30 years for Vidal’s daughter to get back to Carmignac.
Carmignac created his namesake family foundation in 2000 to steward his collection, and in 2009, he added the Carmignac Photojournalism Award to the “production of an investigative photo reportage on human rights violations, geostrategic issues in the world,” according to the foundation’s website. (The 2023 edition focuses on electronic waste in Ghana.)
Carmignac acquired the Domaine de la Courtade vineyard in 2013, and the retrofitting of the Villa, under the aegis of the studios Barani and GMAA, began the following year. Because the site is part of a nature reserve, called Natura 2000, erecting any new buildings on the site was out of the question. To create the 16,500 square feet of art galleries needed to transform the villa into a contemporary art space, they had to dig under the existing building.
“I had finished touring with my band, Moriarty, and was already bombing my father with ideas,” said Charles Carmignac, who joined the venture in 2016. “My first contribution was musical, I wrote with bass player Stephan Zimmerli a score for all the actors of the project, designers, architects, artists—in hopes that it would help them work in harmony.”
Open from April to September, Villa Carmignac is now part of the Port-Cros National Park, a state-owned reserve on a nearby island that was extended to include the larger Porquerolles island in 2012. The villa now officially carries the label “Esprit parc national,” an official designation for France’s protected parks—a sign of how committed the Carmignacs are to protecting the island’s natural environment. To help lower the villa’s carbon emissions, their team no longer flies from Paris to Toulon Hyères Airport when heading to the villa, and all visitors are highly encouraged to do the same.
“As a seasoned swimmer—in the summer he practically lives in water,” Charles said of Édouard. “My father is concerned about preserving the seas, which he has seen changing over the past 20 years. My connection to nature is somewhat more spiritual,” said Charles Carmignac.
Upon entering the villa, you are greeted by around 20 outdoor art installations that dot the “non-garden,” designed by landscape architect Louis Benech and filled with olive trees and other endemic species of flora. Among them are Jaume Plensa’s The Three Alchemists, Wang Keping’s Lolo, and Ugo Rondinone’s Four Seasons.
“My father is drawn to accessible art, which speaks to everyone, including children, whereas I can easily be seduced by works with a conceptual component, such as Benoît Pype’s Millennium Hourglass, which I purchased from Alice Vidal in 2020. We are complementary in that sense.”
Since 2018, the foundation has commissioned several site-specific installations for the “non-garden,” a feat when taking into account the island’s protected status. “We are talking about a protected park, driving through wild flowerbeds was forbidden,” dealer Claire Gastaud said of getting Nils-Udo’s 2018 sculpture La Couvée (The Clutch) onto the grounds. “We had to find another way. We decided to fly the five monumental Carrare marble eggs in a helicopter.”
An imposing skull-like sculpture by Spanish artist Miquel Barceló has been guarding the villa’s entrance since 2018; its title, Alycastre, refers to a mythological creature known for haunting Porquerolles and its inhabitants. Past the gift shop are lockers for visitors’ shoes, as the rest of the trip continues barefoot.
“It was my father’s idea,” Charles explained. “He takes off his shoes every chance he gets. It brings a kind of silence and peace to the galleries. The point was to make people feel more at ease before the art on display, relaxed, almost as if they were at home.”
Ciclotrama 50 (wind), 2018, by Brazilian artist Janaina Mello Landini paves the way to the underground spaces. This site-specific artwork in blue mooring rope blossoms into 4,000 nylon threads with 4,000 nails, graceful branches that lead to Bruce Nauman’s 2005 fountain sculpture depicting an imaginary sea of a hundred suspended fish.
The luminosity of the underground galleries is all the more exceptional, as it draws both from artificial and natural light. The most impressive installation, at the center of this cross-shaped lower level, turns out to be the “aquatic ceiling” which waters down the impact of the Mediterranean sun and covers the white walls below with wavy shadows.
Further along is Ed Ruscha’s billboard-size Sea of Desire, which lent its name to the inaugural exhibition in 2018. The vast painting on metal conveys a feeling of freedom—what better place than these secluded woods on a remote island to unleash our deepest desires? The work is often a backdrop to the foundation’s summer activities, like movie nights on Thursdays and yoga classes on Saturday mornings.
Since its opening five years ago, the Villa Carmignac has commissioned artists and designers to create additional fixtures for the space, including Agents M (interior furniture), Samy Rio (outdoor benches), Benoît Maire (cinema seats for movie night), and Edgar Jayet (an open-air lounge). “The challenge was to intervene as discreetly as possible in this gorgeous garden,” said Jayet, whose six ladder-shaped chairs totally blend into the landscape as a symbol of “frugality.”
More recently, the foundation established a residency and prize of its own for such commissions. The most recent winners are Madeleine Oltra and Angelo de Taisne, who will unveil their project later this year. And, a new residency for writers will soon be launched.
The Villa Carmignac may be closed for the season, but it is far from sleeping. From January 28 to June 25, Les Franciscaines, a former convent that was recently converted into a cultural center in Deauville, Normandy, will present “Esprit Pop es-tu là ?” (Pop Spirit Are You There?), an exhibition drawing in part from the foundation’s collection.
Next spring patients at the Sainte-Anne Hospital will receive a trunk filled with art. This “suitcase-museum” is a portable extension of the show “La mer imaginaire” (The Imaginary Sea), which took place in 2021. Inside are photographs of that display and a white sheet on which to project a film by Jean Painlevé.
When the Villa Carmignac reopens on April 29, it will do so with an exhibition by French art historian Jean-Marie Gallais, the curator of the Pinault Collection. The show is conceived as “an island within the island,” with around 80 works by artists like Peter Doig, Ali Cherri, Agnieszka Kurant, and Harold Ancart. The artworks are all united by the notion that creativity is an apt method to explore our most interior thoughts and inner worlds. Gallais named the upcoming display after Charles Carmignac’s initial score for the island: “L’île intérieure” (The Inner Island), bringing the concept full circle.