Music and colour may appear to have nothing in common, but they follow parallel paths.  Seven notes, with slight modifications, suffice to write any score.  Why is it not the same for the visual arts?
– Matisse

Our recent short break in Nice coincided with the final days of a city-wide tribute to Matisse – Un Ete Pour Matisse – that consisted of eight exhibitions celebrating his work and legacy presented in museums across the city.  I wrote in my last post about two of the three shows we managed to see; this post is about the third – Matisse: The Music at Work at the Matisse Museum (which was also celebrating its 50th anniversary).

Music is a theme that runs through Matisse’s entire career; the artist  once said:  ‘Of course, music and colour have nothing in common but they follow parallel routes’. In this temporary exhibition, the Matisse Museum has brought together a selection of pieces from the Museum’s own collection, and from elsewhere, that demonstrate the the role that music played in Matisse’s art.

Musee Matisse

The exhibition opens with a flourish – a special presentation of The Sorrows of the King, on loan from the Pompidou Centre in Paris – before culminating with a stunning new donation – the ceramic version of the exceptionally beautiful La Piscine, a late masterpiece from 1952 initially composed, like The Sorrows of the King and other works from the remarkably creative last years of Matisse’s life, in cut-out gouached paper.

Henri Matisse - La Tristesse du roi, 1952
Le Tristesse du Roi (The Sorrows of the King), 1952

I’ve heard there was a secret chord
That David played, and it pleased the Lord

The Sorrows of the King represents the future King David charming and calming King Saul with his music and song.  David, unusually, plays a lute.  On the right, a dancer recalls Salome dancing for Herod.  Matisse introduces rhythm to the composition with the soaring leaves and scalloped arabesque that envelops the dancer. leaves soar and flow around David to Saul.

Art is the expression of a human soul.  It finds its means where it may: music, sculpture, painting.  It’s a personal matter of aptitude and natural gifts.
~ Matisse

The exhibition traces the relationship between music, design and colour in Matisse’s work.  Music was an essential element of everyday life for Matisse: he played the violin, listened to jazz and other music on the radio and on his large record collection.  His children each played an instrument, and he often paints them playing or being taught in a music lesson. His paintings often depict violins, tambourines and guitars.In the 1920s, many of his paintings portrayed his model Henrietta seated at the piano.

Woman at the Piano
Little Pianist, Blue Dress, Red Background, 1924

One section of the exhibition is entitled ‘Music, drawing and the precision of gesture’.  For Matisse, the musician’s actions were related to those of the engraver or draughtsman: ‘The gouge, like the violinist’s bow, is directly connected to the engraver’s sensibility,’ said Matisse.  We can sense his meaning in the fine linocuts displayed here: La Siesta and Nude with Bracelet.

La Siesta, 1938
La Siesta, 1938
Nude with Bracelet, 1940
Nude with Bracelet, 1940

Dance, with its links to music, also provided the inspiration for several works. The 1947 book Jazz – plates from which are on display here – demonstrated the musicality of the Matisse’s line and colour in their variations and harmonies. Here, too, is a remarkable drawing from 1949, Studies of Dancers, in which, with just a few quickly drawn lines, Matisse evokes the movements of its subjects.

I particularly like dance; it’s because I saw more in dance: expressive movements, rhythmic movements, music that I like.

Faune charmant la Nymphe Endormie 1935
Faune charmant la Nymphe Endormie, 1935

In this room we also had a rare opportunity to see La Musique, the 1907 painting now in the MoMa collection.

Matisse, Music (Sketch)
La Musique, 1907

Another section, entitled The intimacy of music, further explores the intimate relationship between Matisse and music. The curators note that Matisse played the violin – not just for personal taste, but also for an unexpected reason.  They quote his wife Amelie:

At Nice in 1918 … he began to study the violin very seriously, and one day I asked him why.  Henri told me quite simply … ‘It’s a fact that I’m afraid I shall lose my sight, and not be able to paint any more.  So I thought of something.  A blind man must give up painting, but not music’.

It was at that time that Matisse painted Interior with a Violin Case, now in MoMa in New York, and displayed here as part of this exhibition. I love this painting for its evocation of morning in his room on the Promenade, the shafts of sunlight falling through the balustrade onto the tiled floor, the blue of sea and sky beyond.

Interior with a Violin Case, 1919
Interior with a Violin Case, 1919

The next section – Representation of the musical universe in the painter’s work – illustrates the full extent of Matisse’s musical environment by presenting some of his finest work. It’s here that we see Little Pianist, Blue Dress, Red Background, from 1924 (seen earlier in this post) which depicts his model, Henrietta, playing the piano. Here, too, is The Music Lesson, painted in 1917 and portraying Matisse’s eldest daughter Marguerite seated at the piano with her brother Pierre.

The Music Lesson, 1917
The Music Lesson, 1917

The Music Lesson is the first in a sequence of brilliant paintings, all loaned from other galleries: The Music Lesson itself from the Barnes Foundation, Pianiste et joueurs d’échecs (Pianist and Chess Players) from the National Gallery, Washington, Violinist and Young Girl from Baltimore and Woman with Mandolin from the Orangerie, Paris. Music and drawing; the precision of the movement. Music and dance.

Pianiste et joueurs d’échecs 1924
Pianiste et joueurs d’échecs, 1924
Violinist and Young Girl, 1921
Violinist and Young Girl, 1921
Woman with Mandolin, 1921
Woman with Mandolin, 1921

There’s a musical instrument in the lower left corner of the Cubist-inspired Still Life after Jan Davidsz de Heem, on loan from MoMa.  In 1914, at the outset of World War I, Matisse’s home in the Parisian suburb of Issy-les-Moulineaux was requisitioned by the French military. When he was permitted to return the next year, he came across a painting he had made as a student. It was a copy of a still life by the seventeenth-century Dutch painter Jan Davidsz de Heem. It inspired Matisse to make a new version, based on what he called ‘the methods of modern construction’. Influenced by the Cubists, Matisse laid out the painting as a tightly organized grid.

Still Life after Jan Davidsz de Heem (La Desserte), 1915
Still Life after Jan Davidsz de Heem (La Desserte), 1915

In the section Line and Melody, Matisse is quoted as saying, ‘The lines must play in harmony and in counterpoint, like in music’.  There’s a lute again in the richly coloured The Lute (Tapestry) from 1946:

The Lute (Tapestry), 1946
The Lute (Tapestry), 1946

While the simple, yet beautiful brush and ink Tree, from 1951, demonstrates line and melody in every leaf.  ‘I drew the leaves as I advanced along the branches: by a simplified drawing’.

Tree, 1951
Tree, 1951

Then we encounter a section devoted to the exotic musics of Oceania and Polynesia, as represented by four of the stunning large-scale compositions in cut-out gouached paper that Matisse created in his post-war burst of creativity. Oceanie, la Mer and Oceanie, le Ciel, with Polynesie, le Ciel and Polynesie, la Mer are souvenirs of Matisse’s sojourn in Tahiti in the 1930s.  The sea and the sky, birds, fish, jellyfish, are all mingled in a world neither sea nor sky, but both simultaneously.  The compositions evoke his memory of the pleasure in swimming in the lagoon, with its shimmering light and merging of sea and sky:

I bathed in the lagoon.  I swam around the colours of the corals, set off by the piquant black tones of the holothurians.  I plunged my head into the transparent water in the absinthe depths of the lagoon, my eyes wide open and then I jerked my head up out of the water and gazed at the shining totality.

[Holothurians are sea cucumbers: no, I didn’t, either.]

These works began as cut-out paper shapes which Matisse’s assistant pinned to the walls of his studio. A virtual invalid since 1941, Matisse worked from his bed where he cut out the silhouettes of fish, birds, jellyfish and coral, the life of sea and sky.  These were then arranged from dado to cornice on two adjacent walls.  The challenge was to translate this flimsy maquette into more durable form. In the case of Oceania, the Sky and Oceania, the Sea this was in the form of screenprints on linen.  A London-based textile designer worked to Matisse’s exacting standards: linen was dyed to match the colour of the apartment walls – an off-white fashionable in the 1920s and 1930s, which had become, with the patina of time, a light beige. The shapes were printed using opaque white ink. The Polynesia compositions were executed in tapestry.

Matisse described his vibrant paper cut-outs as ‘exercises in drawing with scissors’. From this point on, Matisse worked on the materialisation of a pictorial and graphic space which ‘does not depend on its various proportions, but on a spiritual light which it reflects’.

Click on the following images for a larger view:

Océanie, le ciel (Oceania, the sky), 1946
Océanie, le ciel (Oceania, the sky), 1946
Océanie, le mer (Oceania, the sea), 1946
Océanie, le mer (Oceania, the sea), 1946
Polynesie, le Ciel, 1946
Polynesie, le Ciel, 1946
Polynesie, la Mer
Polynesie, la Mer, 1946
 Window at Tahiti was painted in Nice, during 1935-6, another memory-work of a time when Matisse experienced space and vegetation as ‘paradisiac songs’.
Window at Tahiti, 1936
Window at Tahiti, 1936
Like other artists of his generation, he was interested in ‘exotic’ musics that he listened to on the radio or on his phonograph to increase his imagination. He was interested in musics from America, listening to negro spirituals and swing.  Amelie wrote in 1929: ‘He plays all kinds of jazz, the most suggestive tangos; right now he dances the ‘Poule de Luxe’ tango.’
Jazz - The Knife Thrower, 1947
Jazz – The Knife Thrower, 1947
A section of the exhibition is, not surprisingly, devoted to Jazz, the work inspired both by the circus, and by music and dance.  ‘Jazz is rhythm and meaning’, stated Matisse, and the title of this work refers to ‘the variety of lively colours employed, the rhythm of the writing, the diversity of the themes (the circus, storytelling, memories of Tahiti) that form a harmonious whole’.
It’s not enough to place the colours, however beautiful, one beside the other; the colours must also react on one another, otherwise you have cacophony.
Jazz - The Lagoon 2
Jazz – The Lagoon 2

There’s an interesting addendum to this section of the exhibition.  Paper cut-out elements not used by Matisse in his works are exhibited in a graphic art display cabinet designed by Jean Matisse, the painter’s son for the Museum’s opening in 1963.  Long in storage, it has now been restored to display over 400 cut-out shapes donated by member’s of the artist’s family in 2012.

You might call a halt here, and still be sated with beauty of colour, line and form. But there is more.  The next section presents the 0rchestration of the Chapel at Vence. The Chapel of the Rosary is a small chapel built for Dominican nuns in Vence. It was designed and decorated by Matisse between 1949 and 1951 and Matisse himself regarded the Chapel as his masterpiece.

Our visit to the chapel was the highlight of our last trip to Nice in 2008.  You don’t have to be religious to appreciate the extraordinary beauty of the three sets of stained glass windows that employ just three colours: an intense yellow for the sun, an intense green for vegetation and cactus forms, and a vivid blue for the Mediterranean Sea, the Riviera sky and the Madonna. The forms are abstract, colour from the windows floods the interior of the chapel, which is otherwise all white.  It is a life-affirming masterpiece that, in the words of this exhibition, expresses ‘The sound of colour. Rhythm of colour. Music and colour as sources of harmony’.

Chapel Vence
The Chapel of the Rosary, Vence

The exhibition curators suggest that the whole of the work enters into a relationship with the spirit of music, ‘the visual equivalent of a large open book where the white pages carry the signs explaining the music composed by the stained glass windows.’  Matisse’s vision was that the unity between the ‘sound’ of the blue, yellow and green colours should not be interrupted by a musical instrument – only the unaccompanied human voice would provide the musical and harmonious intensity he desired.

What we see in this exhibition are studies in stained glass for the windows of the chapel at Vence: yellow palms against blue and green backgrounds.  There are studies, too, for the vestments and ceramic panels that Matisse also designed, and studies, drawings and maquettes that illustrate the various stages in the creation of this work, which Matisse described as ‘the outcome of my entire active life’..

From the sacred to the profane: we find ourselves next in front of the the work which the curators describe as possessing ‘the exuberance of the dance’.  We renew our acquaintance with Creole Dancer, always on display here, and, as a reproduction, in our own home.

The Creole Dancer, 1950
Creole Dancer, 1950

This leads into a section devoted to new interpretations on the theme of dance which Matisse produced in the last few years of his life.  ‘I love dance.  Dance is an extraordinary thing: life and rhythm’.

Blue Nude, 1952
Blue Nude, 1952

The Blue Nudes, a couple of which are displayed here, were executed in 1952. They represent female nudes either seated or standing, and are among the final works that Matisse created.  In this late period he increasingly simplified his art as the cut-out technique moved him towards abstraction, cutting shapes from pre-painted sheets of paper, before assembling them on a pure white background.  This is seen even more clearly in La Vague (The Wave) from the same year.

La Vague, 1952
La Vague, 1952

Another example of the abstraction of this period, this time employing a greater range of colours is Les Abeilles (The Bees), first created in gouache paper cutouts in1948, then reworked and extended in 1952. It’s an astonishing work, and must seem even more so to the children of the H. Matisse primary school, in the artist’s birthplace of Le Cateau-Cambrésis, where a stained glass window incorporating the design was installed in 1954.

The Bees, 1948
Les Abeilles (The Bees), 1948

Matisse may have been confined to his bed in his final years, but his compositions became ever larger and more ambitious. The exhibition concludes with two magisterial works of sublime beauty, that simply take your breath away. Fleurs et Fruits is 13 feet high and 28 feet long, a mass of foliage, fruit and shimmering colour. This huge work was created two years before the death or the artist, and reflects the new direction that he was taking through its scale and creation of endless space:

As if I had my whole life before me – at least a whole other life ~ in some paradise where I would create frescoes.

Fleurs et Fruits, 1952-53
Fleurs et Fruits, 1952-53

The exhibition culminates in the monumental ceramic, La Piscine, the result of the 1952 composition in cut-out gouached paper that is preserved at the MoMA in New York, which Matisse designed as a source of mental freshness and which opened his art to a new dimension, ‘moving from a surface to a space, like his work for the Chapel at Vence’.

This ceramic version of La Piscine, made from enamelled lava stone, is a new donation to the Museum.  To create the cut-out original, Matisse had his model and carer Lydia place around the walls of his studio a band of white paper 70 centimetres wide at a height determined by Matisse.  He worked on the design day and night for many weeks, placing and moving shapes of swimmers’ bodies in blue gouached paper.  The placing of the figures was intuitive and spontaneous.

La Piscine
La Piscine, 1954

As always, Matisse sought harmony of environment and spirit ‘art as a sort of cerebral pain-killer, a pleasant certainty which gives peace and tranquillity.’  La Piscine was conceived in the same spirit as the chapel at Vence – not simply as an assembly of shapes and colours on a flat surface, but as an environment, an individual universe in which shapes and thoughts unfold’.

La Piscine 2
La Piscine, 1954
La Piscine 3
La Piscine, 1954

See also

Musee Matisse 2


6 thoughts on “A summer of Matisse: the colour of music

  1. Hi Gerry, this is wonderful! I am wondering where you got that Matisse’s quote of music and art at the very beginning?

    1. Hi Yiran Thanks for reading. I’m pretty sure I got the quote from the display material at the exhibition I discuss in the post. Sorry I can’t pin it down further.

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