Back in Nice again, we headed up to Cimiez to wander in the tranquil gardens of the monastery and, of course, revisit the Matisse Museum. First, though, there was something I wanted to see that I had overlooked on previous visits: the artist’s last resting place.
To find it, you must first weave a way through the metropolis of mausoleums and tombs, obelisks and statuary of the main cemetery – through streets lined with the houses of the dead, many from important families of Nice of the past centuries. But turn a few corners and descend some steps at the rear of the cemetery and you come to a small meadow. There, beneath an old olive tree and surrounded by spring flowers, is the plain, light grey stone tomb that contains the artist’s remains.
It’s a quiet and peaceful place, no sound other than the song of birds, dear to the heart of Matisse. He faces east, towards the rising sun and the mountains (though what he would have made of the scene in the valley below, with its motorway, railway line, industrial units and suburban sprawl, I can only imagine). He’s buried with Amelie, his wife of 41 years, from whom he separated in 1939, after Amelie had issued an ultimatum: ‘It’s me or her’. ‘Her’ was Lydia Delectorskyaya, the extraordinarily intelligent Russian who had become his model, secretary and studio manager. It’s unlikely that theirs was ever a sexual relationship, but Matisse considered her ‘indispensable’ to his work.
No place of burial that I have seen is so simple and so moving. Matisse often walked in the park at Cimiez ,with its Roman ruins, when he lived here after the dangers of World War 2 were past – first in the Hotel Regina and finally in the stately 17th century villa which is now the Matisse Museum. Now he lies in this spot which, throughout the day, catches the Mediterranean sunlight that inspired and infused his art.
After, we popped in to have another look at the Matisse collection in the Museum. It turned out to be a free entry day marking one of France’s many public holdays – Victory in Europe Day which celebrates the end of hostilities in Europe in World War II. We soon noticed several gaps in the display – works such as Creole Dancer have travelled to London for the once-in-a-lifetime exhibition of the cut-outs which opens soon at Tate Modern.
Two monumental cut-out works from his amazing final years remain in place, though. There is the ceramic version of La Piscine, the room-sized mural that Matisse had installed as a frieze in his dining room in the Regina. We first saw this last September, soon after it had been donated to the Museum. Created when Matisse was wheelchair-bound, it joyfully evokes the pleasure of swimming that he had felt in earlier years. ‘I will make myself my own pool,’ he is reported to have said, surrounding himself with this bevy of blue swimmers energetically diving and powering through a band of white.
La Piscine, 1954
The other massive cut-out work, on show in the basement of the new wing of the Museum, is the vast, tapestry-like Fleurs et Fruits. Matisse knew he was on to something as he created these monumental works, more like later installation art, remarking to his friend, the poet and ceramicist Andre Verdet, in 1952: ‘One day easel painting will no longer exist because of changing customs. There will be mural painting.’
Fleurs et Fruits, 1952-53
In the Museum bookshop, Rita bought me a copy of Alastair Sooke’s Henri Matisse: A Second Life, his recently-published study of the amazing surge of creativity that marked in the last decade of the artist’s life, a valedictory flourish that belied his physical condition – too weak to paint, often too frail to even get out of bed. I read it during the flight back home.
It is, I think, one of the best books about art that I have ever read: impassioned, bursting with fresh insights, and written with clarity, free from art world jargon or obfuscation. At only just over a hundred pages, it’s a short book, sporting the classic 1930s Penguin design, and is very much in the imprint’s venerable tradition of popularizing serious subjects in concise and readable form.
Alistair Sooke’s argument is set out in the first chapter, ‘Resurrection’, which opens:
One January morning in 1941, only a fortnight or so after his seventy-first birthday, the bearded and bespectacled French artist Henri Matisse was lying in a hospital bed preparing to die.
Diagnosed with duodenal cancer, that January Matisse underwent an emergency operation. He knew he might not make it, later observing that the operation was ‘the biggest journey I’ve ever made; I was ready to die’. But, dubbed a fauve, a wild beast, in his youth, Matisse refused to give up, and Sooke tells how a fierce determination to carry on gripped the artist:
In those little moments of calm, between two pangs, I imagined the inside of a tomb: a little space completely enclosed, with no doors. And I told myself, “No, I prefer still being around even if it does mean suffering!”
The operation saved his life, but left him too weak to stand to paint, compelled to use a wheelchair and often too frail to even get out of bed. ‘If only I can do some good work again I shall be happy’, he wrote to his son. Sooke writes:
Matisse had asked his doctors for a respite of three years ‘in order to bring my work to a conclusion’. In the end, his resurrection lasted much longer.
More than a decade, in fact. In that time Matisse invented a ground-breaking and effortless new way of making art: the cut-out. For Sooke, this final decade was ‘more prodigious than any other period of his magnificent career’:
In his last years, in defiance of his deteriorating physical condition, Matisse developed a thrilling new method of making art using scissors and painted sheets of paper that allowed him to work with brilliant colours even when he was bedbound. It would become one of the most radical and unprecedented inventions of any artist of the 20th century. In an astonishing burst of creativity, he produced huundreds of new works in his seemingly effortless late style that came to be known as his ‘paper cut-outs’.
Sooke gives us an engrossing account of these last years and their miraculous creations – from Jazz to the Chapel of the Rosary at Vence, from Oceania to the Blue Nudes and Creole Dancer. At the same time, Sooke sets these late masterworks in the context of Matisse’s entire career, and offers revelatory insights into the nature of Matisse’s art.
For example, discussing the Chapel of the Rosary at Vence, he notes that the project – a commitment that took four years of intensive labour and which involved designing not only the stained glass windows and the three large ceramic murals of the chapel’s interior, but also the exterior spire, the wavy blue and white pattern on the roof, the bronze crucifix and candlesticks on the altar, the tabernacle, the wooden confessional door, and the priest’s chasubles, as well as the pond in the garden outside – required immense effort. Yet:
The finished effect was effortless. This, I believe, is the essence of Matisse.
The Chapel of the Rosary at Vence
Matisse regarded the chapel as his masterpiece, yet he was an atheist. We visited the chapel in 2008 and, like Alastair Sooke, I too was moved to tears by its simplicity, the shimmering light and vibrant colours that pour through the stained glass windows, and the sense of both calm and delight that suffuses the space. You don’t need to have religious faith to feel this. Sooke quotes Nicholas Serota, director of the Tate, as saying:
Anyone walking into that space who doesn’t feel great emotion is incapable of feeling. It has to be one of the great works made anywhere at at any time. Sistine Ceiling, Vence Chapel: I wouldn’t want to choose between the two.
Sooke’s book was written to coincide with the exhibition Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs at Tate Modern. I’ve booked my ticket for August, and I can’t wait.