Matisse in Nice – the palm trees
By ADRIAN TAHOURDIN
Nice: city of the carnival of flowers and grand seafront hotels, home to Russian émigrés and escapees from the English winter; fertile ground for the far-right Front National (as are Toulon and Marseille, further down the coast), and host for the athletic Jeux de la Francophonie, being staged later this month.
France’s most recent Nobel laureate for literature, J. M. G. Le Clézio, was born in the city in 1940; it provides the setting for his remarkable first novel Le Procès-Verbal (The Interrogation, 1963), as well as for the opening section of the very fine (and as yet untranslated) semi-autobiographical Révolutions (2003), a novel that I don’t sense has yet received its proper due.
Meanwhile, to mark the fiftieth anniversary of Nice’s Musée Matisse, the city has staged eight (eight!) exhibitions relating to the artist's work, under the banner “Un été pour Matisse”. The mammoth project (over 700 works) was put together by Jean-Jacques Aillagon, a former minister for culture. Le Monde’s art critic Philippe Dagen (his review, on July 23rd, was headed “Nice rend justice à Matisse” – it seems the temptation to play with the two names is a common one) had reservations about the concept, citing cases where city authorities had merely tried to cash in on an artist’s name, but he was won over by the quality and variety of the displays.
Henri Matisse, who was from the North, moved to Nice in 1917 (he was born in 1869) and spent most of the rest of his life there until his death in 1954 – he decamped to nearby Vence for part of the war to escape the threat of aerial bombardment of the city. In common with so many painters he was attracted by the light – “Quand j’ai compris que chaque matin je reverrais cette lumière, je ne pouvais croire à mon bonheur!” he wrote to a friend.
The fruits of the happy marriage between artist and environment are amply on display in the beautiful Musée Matisse in Cimiez at the top of the town; to mark the anniversary, the artist’s family have bequeathed to the museum a vast ceramic frieze (2.3 x 7.9 metres) entitled “La Piscine”. In the nearby Archaeological Museum, the watery theme is explored in the exhibition “À propos de piscines”, which imaginatively combines works from the museum’s collections (the museum is sited next to some Roman thermal remains) with modern pieces: videos, including an eerie seven-minute “Reflecting Pool” by Bill Viola (1977–9) which was so disconcerting I had to watch it twice. Also on display was David Hockney’s slightly creepy “Portrait of an artist (Pool with Two Figures)” and an accompanying video.
Most revealing (to me) was Matisse’s debt to the Symbolist and mystic Gustave Moreau, eloquently demonstrated in “Gustave Moreau, maître de Matisse” at the Musée des Beaux-Arts. Matisse spent five years from his arrival in Paris in Moreau’s studio, and learnt much: “Avec Moreau on avait la liberté de forger ses moyens d’expression suivant son propre tempérament” ; he later wrote "Un seul professeur compte pour moi. C’est Gustave Moreau”. Another artist, Henri Evenepoel spoke of Moreau’s “talent, generosity . . . amiability, superior mind . . . " .
Moreau didn’t travel. “According to Marie-Cécile Forest, writing in the accompanying catalogue, he “wasn’t strictly speaking an orientalist painter. He doesn’t depict an anecdotal Orient but rather an imagined one discovered via exhibitions, books". A generous selection of loans from the Musée Gustave Moreau in Paris reminds viewers of his strange, fevered imagination. The poet, Resistance member and museum director Jean Cassou spoke of "un mystère Gustave Moreau”. For my part, I couldn’t help thinking that the delicate charcoal sketch of a Persian poet (1890) is altogether finer than the oil painting that followed it. (The exhibition also acquainted viewers with the work of the Niçois Symbolist artist Gustav-Adolf Mossa, whose "Fœtus" is the one of the most unpleasant and disturbing paintings I’ve ever set eyes on.)
The palm tree has long been the “emblem of the Côte d’Azur”, according to Aillagon’s fascinating catalogue essay, which illuminates “Palmiers, palmes et palmettes” at the sumptuous Musée Masséna behind the Promenade des Anglais: rather than trunks, palm trees have stalks or stipes that are usually of the same diameter from top to bottom and don’t ramify. The tree, of a wide variety of species, is ubiquitous (see below)
. . . think of the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.
This brilliantly conceived exhibition looks at the use of the tree in art, from biblical scenes to historical ones: Louis Francois Lejeune’s spectacular panorama of “The Battle of Aboukir” (1805) is framed by the trees. Bonnard, Dufy and Picasso all made good use of them, as of course did Matisse, whose “Tempête à Nice” (1919–20)
was clearly inspired by Jacques-Henri Lartigue’s photograph of a storm in Nice in February 1915.
The local paper Nice-Matin has hailed the eight exhibitions as a triumph, citing visitor numbers of 176,000 and counting. They’re on until September 23. I managed to catch four of them, but would gladly have taken in “Matisse: Les années Jazz”, “Femmes, Muses et Modèles”, “Matisse à L’Affiche” (advertising posters) and “Bonjour Monsieur Matisse”, which looks at his influence on other artists, American artists in particular. Instead I’ll make do with the superb exhibition catalogues, which include reproductions of two works by Sophie Matisse (born in Boston in 1965). She looks to have inherited something of her great-grandfather’s genius with colour.