Why, since you have thrilled me like a flower,
should I not be excited by your skin?
Come let me grow a little younger by the hour
and plant you on my bed. There is no sin
in loving you, for while I’m growing old
I need your warmth and beauty. Will you share
your breasts and secret parts with me and fold
your body with my heart that I lay bare?
Inspired by an article by Alan Riding on Matisse in the NYT, May 21,2005
With No Time for Twilight, Matisse Filled Old Age With Vibrant Colors
PARIS, May 18 - Henri Matisse had good reason to feel morose in early 1941. France was under German occupation; his wife, Amélie, had left him; and he was suffering from cancer. Before undergoing a risky operation in Lyon, he wrote an anxious letter to his son, Pierre, insisting, 'I love my family, truly, dearly and profoundly.' He left another letter, to be delivered in the event of his death, making peace with Amélie.
But when the surgery was successful, Matisse quickly bounced back, declaring that he had won 'a second life' and, at 71, led his art in remarkable new directions. He had a beautiful Russian-born assistant, Lydia Delectorskaya, to keep him company. And while ill health later returned to slow him down, he remained optimistic until his death in Nice on Nov.3,1954, just a few weeks short of his 85th birthday.
'I haven't much to complain about, ' he wrote to his old friend André Rouveyre on Sept.19 of that year. 'When I find something is not going well, I look in some satisfying corner and I find I have no reason to complain.' And he added: 'We have good friends - can one ask for more? I am still working a bit and I observe that its quality has not fallen, thanks to good discipline. But one must remain modest.' The 13 fruitful years that he unexpectedly gained after his cancer operation are the focus of 'Matisse: A Second Life, ' an invigorating new exhibition at the Musée de Luxembourg here through July 17. It shows him drawing incessantly, painting sporadically, rediscovering the medium of paper cutouts and preparing what he would consider his masterpiece, the paintings and stained-glass windows of the Chapel of the Rosary in Vence, near Nice. It also offers fresh evidence of how aged creators can remain energized by their art. Titian and Monet were also painting in their 80's, Picasso and Chagall even into their 90's. Verdi composed 'Falstaff' when he was 80; Richard Strauss wrote his 'Four Last Songs' at 84. John Huston was 80 when he directed his last movie, 'The Dead.' And many writers keep going: Saul Bellow, who died last month at 89, published his last novel only five years ago.
Still, this is the first time that Matisse's late years have been examined in France. The show's Danish curator, Hanne Finsen, writes in the catalog that she has long been fascinated by how, once great artists reach an advanced age, they often forget commercial considerations and display 'extraordinary freedom.' This autumnal flowering is what she explores in 'Matisse: A Second Life, ' which travels to the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark this summer. She is helped enormously by Matisse's own words, presented here through his intense correspondence with Rouveyre, a bohemian artist and novelist whom he first met at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris in 1892 and who became an intimate friend after 1941. Matisse's letters to Rouveyre, which number more than 1,200 and were donated to the Royal Library in Denmark, serve as a first-person running commentary on his work, health and state of mind.
His letters and their envelopes are themselves small works of art: the letters often include drawings and poems, while most envelopes are decorated with flowers, stars and baroque handwriting. There is also humor. The fact that Rouveyre lived for some of the time at a boarding house called 'La Joie de Vivre' encouraged Matisse to play word games with the address. On one envelope, he simply wrote: 'Monseiur Rouveyre, Somewhere in France.'
Rouveyre himself is present in the show through several sketched portraits, as well as a Cartier-Bresson photograph of him sitting for Matisse. But Rouveyre also serves as the artist's sounding board: after Matisse sent him 21 pen-and-ink drawings of trees, an accompanying letter explained the experiment. 'I am told that Chinese teachers taught their students that when you want to draw a tree, feel as if you were climbing it when you start at the bottom, ' he wrote.
Matisse's art evidently helped him keep the war at bay, not least in 1944, when Amélie was arrested, and his daughter, Marguerite, was sent to a concentration camp for Resistance activities. While both survived, Matisse had no word of their whereabouts for months on end. Nonetheless, he found solace in the bright colors that had always distinguished his painting. And along with some still lifes, he painted and sketched sensual nudes and couples.In response to remarks that he was too old to be engaged in erotic art, he wrote to Rouveyre, 'Why, if my feeling of freshness, of beauty, of youth remains the same as it was 30 years ago in front of flowers, a fine sky or an elegant tree, why should it be different with a young girl? '
Among his first adventures with paper cutouts was a cheerful book called 'Jazz, ' which Matisse prepared during the war but which was only published in 1947. The lively multicolor forms, both abstract and figurative, seem to echo the voice of a man stubbornly refusing to be cowed by the times. But he was also enchanted by the technique. 'The walls of my bedroom are covered with cutouts, ' he wrote to Rouveyre in 1948. 'I still don't know what I'll do with them.'
Soon afterward, though, it was by using cutouts that he designed the stained-glass windows for the Chapel of the Rosary, a project he took on as a gesture to a young woman who had nursed him in Lyon in 1941 and later became a Dominican nun. The small modern building on the grounds of the Dominican nuns' residence in Vence took almost four years to complete. It was, Matisse said, the production of 'an entire life of work.'
Two of the three windows show large yellow and blue leaves against a green background, but the window behind the altar - the study for it is on loan here from the Vatican Museums - is more ambitious: it represents 'The Tree of Life, ' with flowering cactuses and blue leaves scattered across a green curtain hanging over a yellow window. Still more testing for this octogenarian artist were the chapel's paintings: three large figures, including 'Virgin and Child, ' as well as 14 Stations of the Cross painted on white ceramic tiles. Studies for these works, which are included in this exhibition, illustrate how Matisse began with detailed drawings and gradually reduced them to a handful of black brush strokes. The chapel exhausted Matisse, who by then was unable to stand for long periods and had to attach his paint brush to a long pole. But in his home, sitting on his bed or in a wheelchair, he continued to make gouache cutouts. After Rouveyre teased him for embracing religion, Matisse urged his friend to look at his cutout of a naked woman, 'Zulma, ' at the May Salon in Paris in 1950: 'You will see the awakening of the converted, ' was his retort. The final cutout in this exhibition, 'La Gerbe, ' multicolored leaves that resemble a spray of flowers, was completed a few months before his death, but it explodes with life. The artist who almost reinvented color in painting had by now found freedom in the simplicity of decoration. 'I have the mastery of it, ' he told Rouveyre in a letter. 'I am sure of it.'