When we landed in Nice for a long weekend, a city-wide tribute to Matisse – Un Ete Pour Matisse – was just drawing to a close. Comprising eight (yes, eight!) exhibitions celebrating his work and legacy, we managed in the short time we were there to see just three.
We stumbled upon our first in the Old Town, as we sought out a lunch of street food – socca and pissaladiere – at the highly-recommended Lou Pilha, where simple tables and benches spill out into the alley just round the corner from Rue Droite. That’s where, presenting an unassuming facade to the narrow street, the Palais Lascaris is located. Once inside, the building is an eye-opener: a seventeenth-century aristocratic palace, that is now a musical instrument museum, housing a collection of over 500 instruments.
Before we could even begin to absorb the temporary exhibition, we had to take in the building’s extraordinary architecture: decorated in the Genoese baroque style, the Palais Lascaris retains a monumental staircase adorned with murals, while upstairs there are luxuriously decorated staterooms, dressing rooms and bedrooms.
The summer exhibition – Matisse: The Jazz Years – suited perfectly its location in a palace that now displays a remarkable collection of musical instruments of all periods. The centrepiece of the exhibition was display of prints from Jazz, the book which Matisse produced in the early 1940s. During the war years, whilst living in Nice at the Hotel Regina, he produced the book which marked a key stage in the progress of his creative work using paper cut-outs. With this technique, Matisse had already produced La Danse (1930-1933), commissioned by the Barnes Foundation in the United States, then the stage sets for Rouge et Noir for the Ballets Russes in Monte-Carlo. His friendship with the art publisher Teriade led to the illustrated book on the theme of the circus which became Jazz. Images of the circus, impressions and memories of travel to New York and Tahiti combined with Matisse’s love of music and the rhythms of jazz to inspire the book’s imagery. ‘Jazz is rhythm and meaning’, wrote Matisse.
Matisse’s designs in Jazz share the same accents – of rhythm, of improvisation – as jazz music itself.
I have always loved the exuberance and the love of life that leaps from the images in Jazz. They are one of supreme artistic triumphs of the last fourteen years of his life, a period of extraordinary creativity that Matisse called his ‘second life’. In 1941 Matisse had been diagnosed with cancer and, following surgery, was largely confined to a wheelchair. But, following the operation, he found renewed and unexpected energies and, with his Russian-born assistant Lydia Delectorskaya to help him, he went on to create the paper cutouts that represent the triumphant culmination of Matisse’s career, of his striving to combine his love of form and colour.
The cut out was not an renunciation of painting and sculpture: he called it ‘painting with scissors’. Matisse said, ‘Only what I created after the illness constitutes my real self: free, liberated’. After designing the cut-outs, Matisse added texts in his own handwriting – words that reflected his ideas and inspirations.
Jazz. These images with their lively and violent tones derive from crystallizations of memories of circuses, folk tales, and voyages. I’ve written these pages to mollify the simultaneous effects of my chromatic and rhythmic improvisations; pages forming a kind of ‘sonorous ground’ that supports them, enfolds them, and protects them, in their particularities.
– Matisse, concluding words of the text of Jazz.
Alongside the images from Jazz, the exhibition told the story of how, between the two wars, jazz grew in popularity in France, stimulated by the performances of black artists and musicians such as Josephine Baker and Sidney Bechet, as well as radio programmes and record sales. In 1943, the Hot Club de France jazz association opened a branch in Nice, and it was in Nice in 1948 that the first international jazz festival took place.In the exhibition, the story of jazz in France, from the late 1920s to the end of the 1940s, is told alongside memorabilia that reveal Matisse’s own love of jazz, heard on the radio and on discs in his own sizeable record collection. In addition, there is a display of jazz instruments drawn from the museum’s own collection.One display panel told of a significant conjunction of events:
It is 29 September 1947. An exceptional, historical musical event. At Carnegie Hall, Dizzy Gillespie on trumpet and Charlie Parker on alto saxophone were preparing to go on stage, flanked by John Lewis on piano, Al McKibbon on bass and Joe Harris on double bass. They were young. Quietly brilliant. Over the preceding few years, they had created an upheaval in jazz. Be Bop was the name chosen to designate their revolution. As if sharply cut from the material of sound itself, the sinuous phrases of the alto sax, and those, more geometrical, of the trumpet, arose and engraved themselves in the acetate; improvised yet definitive. It was as though, at that moment, in Paris, it was already 30 September, a day no less historical: Draeger Freres finished the printing of Jazz by Henri Matisse, on behalf of Teriade’s Verve imprint. A wonderful conjunction.
Two days later, at the Musee Matisse, we were to see another painting by Matisse inspired by a musical event – The Sorrows of the King. That painting formed the centrepiece of a special exhibition called Matisse: The Music at Work. The title is a reminder of how often Matisse depicted music – played, enjoyed and danced to – in his work. Here’s a small selection (none of them in these exhibitions).
Later that same afternoon we walked along the Promenade des Anglais to the Musee Massena, located in the Palais Masséna, built between 1899 and 1901 for Victor Masséna, 4th Duke of Rivioli and 5th Prince of Essling, who also lends his name to the main square in Nice. After World War I, Victor’s son sold the residence to the city of Nice in 1919 on condition that the Palace would become a museum dedicated to local history and the gardens be open to the public.
The special exhibition here was entitled Palm trees, palm trees and palmettes. I had to find out what a palmette is: it’s a motif in decorative art designed to resemble the fan-shaped leaves of a palm tree. Palmettes flourish in the decoration of the Massena Palace while palms flourish the gardens outside, so this was considered the obvious location for an exhibition on the theme of palm trees and the extent to which the work of Matisse reflects his love of the landscape, the trees and the leaf forms found around Nice. It was a pleasant surprise to find that the exhibition also included works by other artists inspired by the landscape and the palms of the Cote d’Azur. And the scope of the exhibition didn’t stop there, taking in as well the way in which the palm tree and the palm have been part of the repertoire of iconography of the western world from antiquity to the 20th century, as reflected in the 19th century fascination with the exoticism of the lands of the European colonial empires and the spread of orientalism in European painting through the nineteenth century and into the beginning of the twentieth.
The palm tree has long been the emblem of the Côte d’Azur, the exhibition states at the outset. The colonisation of the landscape of the Cote d Azur followed the evolution of seaside tourism which the British, at the forefront of the development of the holiday resort, called the French Riviera. In the late 19th century, palm trees were planted in Nice and became a symbol of the Cote d’Azur, as shown in the many travel posters on display here that have advertised Nice as a holiday destination, from the Belle Epoque to the present, such as the poster designed by Matisse at the request of the city in 1947 – Nice Travail et Joie. When asked, Matisse suggested his Still Life with Pomegranates, with a plate of fruit, open window and palm tree.
On display, too, is Matisse’s painting of 1919 in which he depicts the palm trees of the Promenade battered by the storm of 2 January 1919: Tempête à Nice.
Alongside it, the curators have displayed Henri Lartigue’s photograph of a similar storm in February 1915.
Other artists responded to the call of the Mediterranean and its light. ln 1882, Renoir was astonished by L’Estaque, where he met Cezanne. ln 1904, Henri Matisse travelled to Saint-Tropez at the invitation of his friend Signac. The visit produced one of his masterpieces; Luxury, Calm and Pleasure (seen below, not in exhibition). Later, in 1917, Matisse discovered Nice and never left.
Other painters – Picasso, Bonnard and Dufy among them – responded to the Mediterranean landscape and integrated the palm tree into their paintings.
Besides displaying these recent paintings depicting palm trees in the Riviera landscape, the exhibition takes a longer view, exploring how the palm tree has been an element in the iconography of exoticism in Western culture since Antiquity – from Homer recounting how Leto gave birth to Apollo while holding on to a palm tree which then became one of the attributes of the god to numerous Biblical episodes that refer to palm trees and palms, including the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt and the entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem, welcomed by a cheering crowd waving palm fronds.
A third resurgence of this exoticism appeared later, as a result of the extension of European empires. In Louis Francois Lejeune’s spectacular panorama, The Battle of Aboukir, 1799 (painted in 1805), the scene is framed by the trees.
The theme was also central to Orientalism, the style in Western painting that was current in the 19th and 20th centuries. While the palm tree was a symptom of the desire for exoticism, the palm was a symbol of Victory, both in sporting challenges and military combat, and a symbol of the triumph of faith over heresy.
Finally, we learn that the palmette, a stylised derivative of the palm tree, has been present in decorative art from Antiquity to the 20th century. During the First French Empire, furniture was decorated with the palmette motif. Later, the manufacturers of wallpaper began to utilise palmettes, too. A century later, in the Art Deco period, the palm tree was once again honoured, both in furniture and textiles. As for the early 21st century, in contemporary works the palm tree represents a nostalgia for a lost world – and, in Adrien Massika’s photographic sequence, A Dying Generation, a commentary, perhaps on environmental destruction. Eight photographic engravings, each one of a dying palm tree, are displayed side by side along one wall of the gallery.
This is the very informative statement by the curator of the exhibition, Jean-Jacques Aillagon, that explains the thinking behind it, and from which I’ve drawn some points for this post:
Whoever takes the time to stroll around Nice is immediately struck by the number and variety of palm trees which adorn the streets, squares and gardens. However, although the family of palm trees, known as Palmaceae, includes some 3,000 species distributed all over the globe, there is only one indigenous example found on the shores of southern France, Chamaerops humilis, so called because of its small stature. It was admired for its decorative properties, yet supplanted at the beginning of the nineteenth century by the acclimatisation of the first tropical species. This phenomenon was to increase throughout the century, to the point where people referred to the Côte d’Azur being colonised by the palm tree.
The fashion for the palm tree was not, however, restricted to Mediterranean France. Even Brittany was to be won over by this fashion. Nevertheless, the fact remains that the palm tree became established, from the end of the nineteenth century, as the true symbol of the Côte d’Azur where it has ever since been considered as a sort of indigenous species. One only needs to look at the abundance of advertisements promoting the Côte d’Azur as a tourist destination, from the Belle Époque to today.
This invasion of the landscape by the palm tree is, moreover, one of the symptoms of the development of seaside tourism. The consecration of the palm tree therefore followed the development of seaside tourism on the Côte d’Azur which the English, pioneers in the matter of holidays, call the French Riviera. The Russians in their turn succumbed to this fondness for holidays. The inauguration of the orthodox church of Saint-Nicolas-Sainte-Alexandra in 1859, illustrates how early the Russians had established a presence in Nice. In their turn, artists responded to the call of the Mediterranean and its light. In 1882, Renoir marvelled at L’Estaque where he met Cézanne. The following year, he took Monet for a study visit to the Riviera. Monet felt that he was discovering ‘a magical country’. The habit was established and the Mediterranean became a sought-after destination for artists. In 1904, Henri Matisse travelled to Saint-Tropez at the invitation of his friend Signac. From this was to come a masterpiece, Luxury, calm and pleasure.
Subsequently, Matisse’s painting was full of azure blue themes. They were structured around three principal elements: the window, opened to the outside, the shutters which were often associated with it, and the palm tree. In the wake of Matisse, other painters, starting with Picasso, Bonnard and Dufy succumb to the influence of the Mediterranean and incorporate into their paintings the now inescapable palm tree.
Despite the relatively recent nature of this enthusiasm for this particular plant, one should remember that the palm tree and the palm have been part of the repertoire of iconography of the western world since Antiquity. The Homeric Hymns recount how Leto gave birth to Apollo on the island of Delos, clinging onto a palm tree which thus became one of the symbols of the god. So, from the depths of Antiquity, the palm tree has contributed to mythological exoticism This early exoticism leads to another, this time biblical, as both the Old and New Testaments are imbued with western culture, and hence its artistic realisations. At the time of the Flight into Egypt, the Holy Family invariably rest beneath a palm tree, while Christ enters Jerusalem acclaimed by a jubilant crowd waving palms. This second exoticism is echoed in a third, the product of the maritime enterprise of European States aiming both to discover unknown lands and to build colonial empires. It can be seen in the illustrations of the Campaign in Egypt, at the very end of the eighteenth century, or, from 1830, those of the Conquest of Algeria. This exoticism was spread by orientalism, a trend in western painting through the nineteenth century and into the beginning of the twentieth.
Just as the palm tree is a symptom of the need for exoticism, the palm fulfils a symbolic function which also crosses through the whole of art history, the symbol of Victory, in sporting contests or military combat, the symbol of the triumph of faith over Apostasy, a symbol of martyrdom, and thus an attribute of martyrs.
Finally, the palmette, a stylised derivative of the palm tree, has been present throughout decorative art from Antiquity to the twentieth century. Under the First French Empire, it was used both extensively and intensively. One only needs to think of furniture, console tables, armchairs, cupboards and side-tables, all bearing the motif of the palmette, whether in gilded bronze or painted wood. The end of the Empire, in 1815, did not shake the hold of either the palmette or the palm tree as decorative motifs. From the Restoration onwards, wallpaper manufacturers began to use them too. A century later, in the Art Deco period, the palm tree was once again honoured, both in furniture and textiles.
The Villa Masséna, as its name suggests, was built by Prince d’Essling, a descendent of Masséna, Marshal of the Empire. In memory of his ancestor and of the era which made his family’s fortune, the prince decorated the reception rooms of his villa in Empire style. As palmettes abound there, this was the obvious choice as the setting of an exhibition themed around palm trees, palms and palmettes which constitute both the smallest and the largest common denominator between Matisse and Nice. You will therefore see the extent to which a powerful theme in the work of Matisse is rooted in the history of art and, at the same time, in that of the landscape of Nice.
Back outside, in the gardens of the Villa Massena, I took some photographs of palm leaves and palm trees – seen here in this slideshow:
As for the third exhibition at the Musee Matisse – that will have to wait for the next post.
- The Art Books of Henri Matisse (Liverpool, March 2012)
- Matisse in Nice: through an open window
- A visit to the Matisse Museum in Nice (April 2008)
- The World of Palms: richly detailed catalogue of an exhibition on palms at the Botanical Museum, Berlin