Henri Matisse – A New Life

By Kirsten Degel

This autumn’s Henri Matisse exhibition at Louisiana promises to be an extraordinary Scandinavian event. The curator of the exhibition is renowned Matisse expert Hanne Finsen, former director of the Ordrupgaard Museum. The exhibition, entitled *Henri Matisse: A New Life*, presents the late works with which Matisse struck out on his own path towards abstract art.

The exhibition covers the period that Matisse – Picasso’s greatest rival – called his *seconde vie* or second life – the period spanning his recovery from serious operations in 1941 until his death in the autumn of 1954. These 13 years were a great boon to Matisse; he felt that the operation granted him back his life, and despite the poor health and advanced age of the artist, these final years were characterised by enormous vitality and productivity. The Louisiana exhibition deals with this 13 year period and also narrates the story of a friendship hugely influential to Matisse’s art through a wide range of works on loan from many international museums and private collections from Tokyo to Los Angeles.


Matisse and Rouveyre

During this period Matisse was engaged in a unique correspondence with the French satirical artist and author, André Rouveyre (1879-1962). The letters offer a unique glimpse of the artist’s creative process and his thoughts about his life and work. The collection of 1200 letters was for years stored in virtual obscurity at the Royal Library in Copenhagen until former museum director and Matisse expert Hanne Finsen unearthed them in connection with research for the large Matisse exhibition held at Statens Museum for Kunst in 1970.

In 2001, after many years of hard work, Hanne Finsen published the complete Matisse/Rouveyre correspondence in Paris. It had been her long-held wish to mount an exhibition that combined some of this correspondence with the actual Matisse works dealt with in the letters, and the dream has now come to fruition. The exhibition is currently at the Musée du Luxembourg in Paris and will be at Louisiana this autumn. In addition to a selection of the letters between the two artists, the exhibition presents a large number of the works by Matisse mentioned in the correspondence: paintings, illustrated books, drawings, tapestries, sketches from the Vence chapel project and a selection of the coloured paper cuts that represent the true revolution in Matisse’s oeuvre.

Matisse and Rouveyre met while studying at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris at the end of the 1890s, but their lives quickly became very different and their paths would diverge in the years to follow. It was only after a chance meeting during the time following Matisse’s 1941 operations that their close friendship was rekindled. Despite the glaring differences between then, Rouveyre would come to follow Matisse’s artistic development at close quarters and with great interest. Matisse considered Rouveyre a fellow artist capable of discussing professional questions; an equal who could understand his ideas and follow his train of thought. Though they lived only a few hundred meters from one another in Vence, their ‘conversation’ took place mainly through letters so that Matisse could maintain the necessary quiet he needed in order to work. This unique correspondence is characterized by complete intimacy as well as irresistible humour and warmth, and it tells the story of the daily lives of both men and their art. Rouveyre was also at times the honoured recipient of letters that illustrate Matisse’s need to clarify his ideas and efforts, and these letters also offer insight into Matisse’s work.


The birth of an artist

Sometimes convalescence can have a revitalizing effect that results in fundamental changes to a person’s life. This is how Matisse’s artistic career began, after having spent time in hospital in 1890 recovering from an attack of appendicitis. His mother had given him a paint set with which to pass the time, and the effect was electrifying. Finally Matisse knew what he wanted to do with his life. He had recently completed a law degree and had been working apathetically in various law offices. He decided to seek acceptance at a local art academy, and despite his father’s vehement opinions to the contrary Matisse succeeded in going to Paris and gaining admission to the studio of Symbolist artist Gustave Moreau at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts.

50 years later in 1941, Matisse was seriously ill with duodenal cancer and would have two major operations. Surprised to find that he had survived them, Matisse felt that he had been granted another life. Having faced death, Matisse experienced an artistic rebirth and was to enjoy a number of years charged with tremendous creative energy. His output remained undiminished despite the fact that his physical strength was now restricted and he was often confined to bed or a wheelchair for long periods of time. Matisse continued to draw as confidently as ever. He worked from his bed, fastening the charcoal onto long bamboo poles so he could draw on paper affixed to the walls and ceiling.

Matisse also began to work with paper cuts. A world populated with these colourful works sprang up in his Vence and Nice studios and surrounded the bed in which he spent so much of his time.

“I have created a little garden around me in which to stroll. There are leaves, fruits and a bird. Limited and tranquil movement.”

Paper cuts

The motifs reflected in these works of art document the joyous memories of the natural paradise Matisse had experienced during his trip to Tahiti in 1930. Stacks of paper were first painted with gouache by Matisse’s assistant so that the artist always had a steady supply of ‘palettes’ from which to fashion his paper cuts. Matisse would develop his compositions from these coloured pieces of paper; adding, subtracting and moving the figures about until his assistant could secure them to a white or coloured background in accordance with Matisse’s precise instructions.

“Cutting directly into colour reminds me of a sculptor’s carving into stone,” the artist explained.

The continuous and rhythmic movement of the scissors as they cut through the paper provided Matisse with a physical sensation quite unlike that associated with painting.

The finished paper cuts had a weightless, incorporeal character that completely evades any illusion of width and depth. Matisse mastered the new technique with supreme skill and originality and the paper cuts are among some of the most vibrant works ever created by an older artist. In this medium Matisse used colour with a freedom and confidence that he could never attain on the canvas; he was also the possessor of 60 years of knowledge about how to navigate between the so-called real world and the world he could manipulate on the wall. This synthesis of observation, stage management, and artistic autonomy brought Matisse to the very limits of abstraction, though he would rarely transcend them.

What began as a type of occupational therapy and improvisation later grew to become an independent body of work that culminated in *La Chapelle du Rosaire* in Vence, which Matisse would decorate in minute detail. This monumental and original work of art was created from 1949-51 as a gesture of gratitude to the Dominican nuns of Vence who had cared for the artist during his illness. Matisse’s aim was to create a harmony of the language and musicality of lines and colours, and the chapel offered Matisse the opportunity to both contrast and unite these two elements in one work through the confluence of stained glass windows in pure, strong colours, through which light poured into the chapel; and the ceramic murals opposite, whose simple yet monumental line compositions are executed with broad black brush strokes against pristine white tiles. Although Matisse was not a religious man, the chapel at Vence is one of the most stirring religious edifices ever built in the twentieth century.

Matisse is one of the greatest and most influential figures of modern art. He was a painter of joyousness whose art was based on his belief that a painting should primarily serve as a treat for the eyes and a tribute to beauty. Matisse’s work represents a kind of utopia where knowledge is united with wisdom and intuition is paired with flawless craftsmanship. He had made his artistic goals clear early in his career in an article published in 1908:

“What I dream of is an art of equilibrium, purity and tranquillity; an art that is devoid of upsetting or troubling subject matter. An art which might be for every mental worker, whether a businessman or writer, like an appeasing influence, like a mental pacifier, something like a good armchair in which to rest from physical fatigue.”

And it is perhaps in this statement that we may find the lasting importance of Matisse’s art.