10 April 2011

Henri Matisse in Vichy France

by Marc Masurovsky

As in the case of Pablo Picasso and many other eminent artists plying their creative streak in France, Henri Matisse chose to remain rather than leave his native country in the face of the German onslaught of spring 1940 against Western Europe.

Let's engage in a perfunctory review of Matisse's journey in wartime France:

October 1939: Matisse goes to Paris after a stay near Rambouillet. While in Paris, he places for safekeeping all of his works of art and those of other artists which he owns, in a vault at the Banque de France. His son, Pierre, has already left for the United States, while his other son, Jacques, is in the French Army. His grandson, Claude, is in a boarding school near Vichy. His daughter, Marguerite, is with his wife in the town of Beauzelle. Apparently, Mr. and Mrs. Matisse have not been living together since March 1939.

Mid-October 1939: Henri Matisse heads back to Nice where he has an apartment at the Hotel Regina from which he works. While Henri goes to Nice, his wife and daughter return to Paris to an apartment on rue de Miromesnil.

November 1939: Henri Matisse renews a contract with the dealer, Paul Rosenberg, who is one of his most regular buyers.

January 1940: Pierre Matisse, now settled in New York, announces to a variety of family friends that his parents are splitting up.

May 1940: While the German armies are running roughshod over French troops in eastern France and heading towards Paris, Henri Matisse returns to the beleaguered capital, dodging refugee traffic, in order to finalize his legal separation from his wife.

June 1940: Matisse and everyone else who can manage it hightails it out of Paris and heads south-southwest. He ends up in late June 1940 at Ciboure near Saint-Jean-de-Luz in the Basque country. He remains in that part of the world, not too far from where German troops are stationed, but far enough, until he finds a train to take him back to Nice in August.

August 1940: Matisse reaches Carcassonne then Marseilles. In Marseilles, he draws a series of portraits of his grandson, Claude Duthuit. On August 29, Matisse finally makes it back to the Hotel Regina in Nice, shortly after Picasso returns to his studio in Paris on the rue des Grands Augustins.

Fall 1940: Varian Fry, of the Emergency Rescue Committee, funded in part by Alfred Barr, the director of the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York, tries in vain to convince Matisse to escape to the United States. Matisse refuses. Matisse is Fry's idol.

Winter 1940-1941: Matisse is plagued by intestinal problems and has difficulty working.

January 1941: A cancerous growth is removed from Matisse's abdomen.

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to him, while he is holed up in Nice, dozens of his paintings and works on paper are being forcibly removed from Jewish collections and brought to the Jeu de Paume or recycled on the local art market. His works fetch upwards of 300,000 Francs in Paris auctions which is a significant amount for those rationed days.

August 1941: Matisse is among many "French" artists who exhibit their works on paper at the "Salon du Dessin" in Paris, one of the first major artistic events in the German-occupied capital that excludes Jews from its walls. That same month, Matisse allows Varian Fry to take a series of photographic portraits of him at the Hotel Regina in Nice. How surreal!

November 1941: Matisse has an exhibit at the Galerie Louis Carré in Paris.

January-February 1942: Matisse grants several interviews to the Vichy government's official radio station.

Matisse spends the rest of the year in Nice, convalescing from additional gastro-intestinal troubles but continuing to work as best as he can for one of his dealers, Martin Fabiani, who makes a fortune collaborating with the Germans during the war. Ironically, Fabiani sells on the side stolen paintings by leading artists such as .... Henri Matisse, which the Germans have exchanged with him against more classical works.

January 1943: Vichy's leading cultural rag, Comoedia, publishes an interview with Henri Matisse, predicated on his creation of 50 drawings illustrating Pierre Ronsard's poems. The article by Marguerite Bouvier is an ode to Matisse, who is now 72 years old.

June 1943: Finally, Matisse is forced to flee Nice and seeks refuge in Vence, due to a constant threat of aerial bombardments.

September-October 1943: Matisse and Braque are prominently displayed at the Salon de l'Automne, an annual fixture of the French (read Paris) art scene. Strangely, while their works are shown to everyone's delight including that of the German occupier, the ERR is busy figuring what to do with Matisse and Braque works under their jurisdiction not too far away at the Jeu de Paume.

Spring 1944: the estranged Mrs. Matisse and her daughter are arrested for engaging in acts of resistance against the Vichy government and the German occupation. Mrs. Matisse gets six months of prison while her daughter is jailed until the Liberation.