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The Villa Noailles: A Modernist Camelot

Published on , by Andrew Ayers

Like many a high-society marriage in those faraway days, the union contracted in 1923 between Charles de Noailles and Marie-Laure Bischoffsheim, had little to do with love. Yet this couple would go on to become trailblazing patrons of Modernist avant-garde art and architecture.

Clos Saint-Bernard called the Villa Noailles.© Olivier Amsellem The Villa Noailles: A Modernist Camelot

Clos Saint-Bernard called the Villa Noailles.
© Olivier Amsellem

While the 31-year-old viscount offered all the prestige of a noble lineage stretching back to 1225, his 20-year-old bride, despite counting among her maternal ancestors the Marquis de Sade, was coveted for the immense fortune she had inherited as the only daughter of a Jewish banker of German descent. So far so conventional. What no one had imagined, however, was that the newlyweds would use their wealth and position to champion the Modernist avant-garde, and through their patronage become sensational celebrities in their own right, eccentric incarnations of the Zeitgeist. And, like countless patrons before them, one of the ways they did this was by building an extraordinary house, the Clos Saint-Bernard, today known as the Villa Noailles, which sits near the summit of a hill in Hyères, a small town on France’s Mediterranean coast. By far the best introduction to the villa is the 1929 silent film Les Mystères du château du Dé ( The Mysteries of the Chateau of Dice ), which was commissioned by the Noailles from the Surrealist artist Man Ray. It opens with a throw of the dice—the dé of the title, since the villa’s cubic volumes reminded Man Ray of a line from Stéphane Mallarmé: “A throw of the dice will never abolish chance"—whose result sees two mysterious figures setting off at dawn on a motor journey from Paris to the south of France. The modernity of the scenario is immediately established by the choice of locomotion, for not only is the burgeoning automobile age celebrated in the cross-country…
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