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Matisse in dark times


As the Pompidou Centre in Paris closes its doors again on the major anniversary exhibition dedicated to one of France’s most-loved artists, Matisse, comme un roman, it may be some small solace in these times of unprecedented museum closures to remember that Matisse laid down some of the work that would mark twentieth-century art most lastingly during the long, dark months of the Nazi Occupation and the Vichy administration of France. This coincidence and the word ‘confinement’, which is the French idiom for ‘lockdown’, were right at the forefront of the conversation between Louise Rogers Lalaurie and Anna-Louise Milne for a ULIP Live event on Tuesday 27 October (replay here).

This event was programmed to mark the opening of the Pompidou exhibition and the recent publication of Louise Rogers Lalaurie’s major study of Matisse’s books, most of which were conceived during the war from the seclusion of his studio in the south of France, though some were finally published in the years following the Liberation. This is the case for Jazz, perhaps Matisse’s best-known book, published in 1947 but, as Louise documents so thoroughly and elegantly in Matisse: The Books, prepared and nourished by the work he carried out through the war on his visual settings of poems by Ronsard, Charles d’Orleans and Baudelaire, all of which reveal intimations of the formal revolution that gave rise to Matisse’s great last phase of paper cuts.

Louise also discusses the significance of Louis Aragon’s connections with Matisse during these ‘années noires’ or dark years when Aragon was living in semi-clandestinity as a leading figure in the French literary Resistance while also publishing in legally tolerated reviews, such as Poésie, published in Villeneuve in the ‘zone sud’ and Fontaine, published from Algiers. Having gone with his partner Elsa Triolet to visit Matisse in Cimiez near Nice in December 1941, Aragon began a long series of texts, notes and prefaces that would be published thirty years later under the title now referenced in the title of the Pompidou exhibition, Henri Matisse, roman. Drawing also on this fantastic collection of observations and conjectures - elaborated often in dialogue with Matisse himself, while Aragon sat for him as a model - as well as the countless works that Aragon was able to see on the walls of Matisse's studios and subsequently, Matisse: The Books echoes the subtle ways in which the artist’s engagement with texts, his choice and ordering of poems, the long-evolved but beautifully sharp and fresh lines of his prints and drawings, and the very conceit of the livre d'artiste as a book that can be held, opened, read and contemplated, contribute to the act of resistance that their creation constituted. 

We have no firm sense of when it will once again be possible to walk amongst the works that the Pompidou have gathered to mark 150 years since Matisse’s birth, but we can in the meantime turn to his books and there is no better way to grasp the wealth and complexity of their combined production than to seek out Matisse: The Books for a long winter night.