Book review: Chatting with Henri Matisse, by Pierre Courthion

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 November, 2013, 3:50pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 November, 2013, 3:50pm

Chatting with Henri Matisse
by Pierre Courthion
Paul Getty-Tate Modern Books
4 stars

Desmond O'Grady

This series of interviews with Henri Matisse was given in 1941 when he was recovering from surgery. But then the French artist had second thoughts and refused to allow their publication. Kept in the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles, they have only now been published.

They give valuable insight into a major artist who was not only a painter but a sculptor, set designer and maker of memorable cut-paper collages. There was no artistic tradition in his prosperous, provincial family: they wanted him to be a lawyer. Matisse did not start painting until he was a young man and did not make any significant sales until he was almost 40 - a late starter but a strong finisher.

The interviews, conducted by Swiss art critic Pierre Courthion, evoke Parisian art schools at the beginning of the last century: we see Matisse sharpening his skills, going from one teacher to another, sketching passing cyclists to capture a sense of movement.

The interviews, which took place over nine days in restaurants and at Matisse's home, also provide vivid glimpses of the man - the freckles on the back of his hand, his insomnia, his travel to places such as Morocco and Tahiti, his revulsion from the smell of magnolias, his skill as a violinist, his rowing which won him a medal as the most assiduous in the Nice Rowing Club, and his habit of blowing clay pellets at people from behind shutters as relief from long hours of painting.

This provides a clue to Matisse the disciplined man who always sought control - and it was this desire for control, I suspect, which made him refuse permission for publication after publisher Albert Skira and critic Courthion had spent time and effort on the book.

Perhaps Matisse felt he had given away too much - although some potentially embarrassing passages had been cut, including those in which he showed contempt for childish American collectors. The interviews show Matisse single-mindedly looked after his own interests, but in his art he gave free rein to his imagination which unleashed the energy of the colours.

The compact book contains both the French original and an English translation, an introduction by professor of art history Serge Guilbaut, plus essays on Matisse.

A lot is left out: for instance there is no mention of the Nazi occupation of much of France, during which they stole works of art. This month in a Munich apartment 1,500 paintings were discovered: a German art dealer had left them to his son. Among them is Matisse's portrait of a woman taken from Parisian art dealer Paul Rosenberg's house near Bordeaux. The Nazis arrived there about the time Matisse was giving his interviews, but Rosenberg was already in New York.

In recent years TV and radio journalist Anne Sinclair, Rosenberg's granddaughter and ex-wife of former International Monetary Fund head Dominique Strauss-Kahn, had searched for the painting.

Now it has been found as fresh as the interviews, and perhaps even more welcome.