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Book Review: 'Chatting with Matisse' gives new insights into the artist's most crucial year

The King's Sadness, by Henri Matisse, 1952
The King's Sadness, by Henri Matisse, 1952

Henri Matisse said if you want to be a painter, the first thing you should do is cut out your tongue. Luckily, he failed to follow his own advice, and so we have this record, interviews made in occupied France in 1941. They show one of the greatest painters of the last century, inside out.

It's “Chatting With Henri Matisse,” a fresh new look at the great painter that gives us new insights into the most crucial year of his life.

Matisse wasn’t a child prodigy. He didn’t get his hands on a box of paints until he was 20. “The moment I had that paint box in my hand," he said, "I thought that this was my life. Like a cow given a sight of grass.”  He’d entered “a kind of paradise.”  He taught himself out of a book called “How to Paint.”  He paid for some drawing lessons.

And that was all it took. His father realized his son would never make it as a law clerk and sent him to Paris, where his teachers included the ultra-formalist Bouguereau and fantasist Gustave Moreau.  In contemporary terms, it was like being taught by Norman Rockwell and Mark Rothko.

And here we get into what is perhaps the most colorful and entertaining part of this book—the Vie Boheme education of Matisse and his friends at the dawn of Post Impressionism, when everyone seemed to be broke and artists soon-to-be-renowned were  selling pictures for the price of a a can of olive oil. And yet, Matisse described these turn of the century days as among the most happy in his life—they were also the days when he was learning to be one of the world’s greatest painters.

A book, first rejected, gets a second life

“Chatting with Henri Matisse” has an interesting history—jotted down by Swiss critic Pierre Courthion during the Axis occupation of France, and after Matisse’s near fatal operation,  it was, after much editing and discussion, rejected by Matisse.  Now, over 70 years later, it emerges in a handsome edition from our friends at the Getty, complete with notes, commentaries and good-looking reproductions.

“What an artist says is so insignificant , compared to what he does,” Matisse said, but due to both his broad intelligence and perhaps his early legal training, few great painters have ever been as articulate in words. Only Picasso equals Matisse in the immense scope of his work, the recurring rounds of self discovery and rediscovery. Each one taking him further –“To come into the possession of my own brain—that was always to goal,” he said.

There have been others who’ve helped Matisse share his inner being in words — the great French writer Louis Aragon, for instance, wrote a towering, self-involved 2-volume so-called “novel” about his own Matisse conversations during the Occupation.  There is the published 1200-letter correspondence with Rouveyere. And there are the literally hundreds of other books about Matisse out there, written by people as various as critic Clement Greenberg and singer Leonard Cohen. Not to mention Matisse  lunch boxes, music boxes and even mouse pads.

But Courthion’s  book of nine interview sessions offer perhaps the simplest, most direct way into the mind of Matisse at this crucial turning point in his life. This was the point that began, at age 70, his second age as a creator—with his wild, world-startling excursions into jazz, paper cutouts,  even stained glass, that kept pouring out of him until his death 14 years later. Even when his beloved daughter was in a Gestapo prison, he couldn’t stop creating. And in the end, he changed the way the whole world sees things.