Chasing Matisse: The Book
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February 11, 2004
One Breast or Two
I know I've written about this before, but one joy of being in France is that we stay semi-out-of-touch with the minutiae of American news and the pervasive celebrity coverage. I mean, last Fall when we were back in the States, we had to ask who the fêted bride starring in the $4 million televised wedding happened to be. I don't remember her name, but everyone in America knew it. I think her notoriety stemmed from reality TV. Geez. Then the new host of Barbara Walters' successful show, "The View," (I've forgotten her name, too) had been a contestant on "Survivor." I didn't think she seemed promising, but I won't be watching anyway. We are now living inside the bubble of Ed TV as well as The Truman Show. Which came first-the idea of reality shows and hence the movies, or was it the other way around? Since we had left, they had apparently taken over the American air waves.
I have found that the constant barrage of information that assaults the majority of the western world-especially Americans who are addicted to instant gratification as well as technology-is mostly hooey and doesn't matter at the end of one day. It's an energy drain on all of us. Not speaking French expertly saves Jim and me some wear and tear from much that is extraneous. On a slightly different scale, an Irish friend and I were chatting about the nature of our lives. We both agreed that in the ex-pat world it is a relief to forego the personal politics of the places we've left-the gossip and the melodramatic intrigues of the jealous, insecure, and bored. When I was younger, we called this lack of confidence or personal integrity "playing games." Since I'm, horrors, middle-aged, that doesn't quite evoke the right image. By this time of your life, you certainly understand the human expense and know better than to deliberately hurt someone. The worst is when you see parents teaching their children to do the same. I'm going to put this simplistically, but was Rousseau right in that man is by nature good but is corrupted by the pressures and competition of society? Think of the misery that has caused. For troublemakers like this, just remember that no matter how much mischief you make, no one can hate you more than you hate yourself. I repeat. The nice thing about not being a regular part of the community is that you're not involved or part of the competitive sphere. Another layer of blather is out of the way.
We have been keeping up with national affairs, and most particularly, the Presidential primaries, though we're usually a day behind on the results. My Irish friend's husband gave us the report of Kerry's trouncing Dean in the first round. We didn't know. We don't have an English speaking television channel, but we pick up the International Herald Tribune two or three times a week and buy The London Daily Telegraph (a romp of a read) on the weekend. Besides plugging into the Internet and watching French or Spanish TV, which is an attempt at matching the verbiage of the newscaster with the pictures on the screen, these are our news sources.
Who could've missed the Janet Jackson/Justin Timberlake Super Bowl debacle. I use the "d" word lightly. Are Americans so threatened by sex and sexuality that we have a national melt-down because of a boob? I would've thought a bunch of guys sitting around watching football, eating chips, and drinking beers were all for seeing hooters. Are the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders popular because of their big cheers? Who are we kidding? Aren't we tired of being Puritans? This is what I ask myself as I watch my country spin around this non-issue.
The cynical part of me first thought it was a publicity stunt for the stars, and maybe it was, but who cares? It's not like America hasn't seen breasts in the lowest of the low cut, dress backs sliced down to the butt, or plainly see-though everything, tight-fitting jeans and the tiniest tanks. Sex and sexuality are sold in most of our advertising. Brittney Spears has made an international career of showing skin with a voice. Who would've thought a little breast was so big? I haven't discussed this with any European friends, but I feel sure of their being non-plussed except by the American freak-out which will fascinate them. (French films with nudity on television are not uncommon. Being uncovered isn't a crime against humanity or a deadly sin. Maybe this is why French men and women have such acceptance of their bodies.) My fellow country-men, lend me your ears: You have too much time on your hands. Janet Jackson's breast isn't part of our big picture.
Now I will slip back to Vence which was splendid-staying in Matisse's house and in his very room. Jim would say it doesn't get any better than that. (In my usual indecisiveness about my favorite anything, I would have to give this question much more thought. There are so many places I've fallen in love with. When I walk in a town or city, I can almost always find its life and heart. This is a pleasure each time.) I had intense dreams in Matisse's room, but they weren't the creative ones I'd wished for. There was too much turmoil coming from Arkansas about my mother's house and things, pressures that didn't need to exist at this point in time. In Matisse's villa of dreams, mine were nightmares, though it didn't alter my joy of simply being there. An energy ran through the house that was exhilarating. We were riding the top of a wave.
There is something inexplicably compelling about visiting an artist's house and studio, where his daily life and work are filtered through his space and furnishings, the colors on the walls and the patterns in the textiles. What size are the rooms, and where are the windows of light? Jim looks for the exact position where particular paintings were shaped and from what point of view. He literally wants to see what caught his eye-to see the silhouettes, lines, and forms that Matisse saw and compare this view with his own. In artists' studios, we live and breathe the taste and style. Art and life are one here. We love to tour famous houses anyway, but this is professional anthropology. What do we feel when we're in this space? What beauty do we find?
We have visited many artists' homes and studios, and Renoir's villa, Les Collettes, was not far away in Cagnes-sur-Mer. Matisse had visited this older maestro at his most sublime property long before our man was living in Villa La Reve. Les Collettes was divine and a real working home. Renoir bought the wonderful old farm with orange and olive groves and terraced vineyards, so it wouldn't be developed and ruined. Madame Renoir planned her grand house with views of the mountains and the Cap d'Antibes and had it built well and then followed with a large formal garden. There was also a kitchen garden for vegetables and flowers planted everywhere that Renoir prodigiously captured on canvas. Matisse was on the way to great success then, but Renoir was not impressed with his work. Would he have told him? Even now Les Collettes is elegant yet relaxed and brimming with the soul of the Renoirs. Madame made a lifestyle worthy of her husband and his art. It is being maintained beautifully.
We drove up the hill to the old village of Cagnes-sur-mer which was completely charming, filled with artists, and a fine place to live. A Grimaldi chateau anchors the winding rues that circle it. One room was devoted to portraits (including this one by Lempicka) of a chanteuse named Susie Soldar. And yes, I mean Grimaldi as in Prince Rainier of Monaco. His family owned chateaus up and down this coast for centuries and centuries. Not bad, as M. Malric of our Hotel St. Germain would say. But Matisse's Chapelle du Rosaire would be open at two o'clock for a tour. There was no time to waste.
I'd told Joelle I'd like to go to church at the chapelle. She wasn't so sure and informed me that the nuns who run the chapel lock the doors once the service begins. You can't leave until it's over. I blithely told her I didn't care. We arrived five minutes late, and the tour had already begun in French, of course. But we turned and looked and nodded our heads following the nodding and oohs and ahs of everyone else as if we understood the words as they did. As if...
The stained glass and tiles were vibrant and whimsical, but the chapel is small. Matisse viewed this installation as the culmination of his life's work. Imagine the weight of his will focused on this idea. But the longer I stood in this very tight space, the more I wanted to run, and I mean screaming out of those locked wooden doors. Acute panic had struck, but I was afraid of the stern nuns who seemed ominous if you stepped out of line or did something wrong. The trouble seemed huge that I would be in, so I stoically kept my mouth shut except for a whisper to Jim. Now I'm not saying anything depraved like the chapel isn't perfectly stunning. It is-as long as a claustrophobic torture chamber is what you're up for.
I have to admit the first image that caught my attention was the Blessed Virgin with Her Child. But Matisse's Mary wasn't run-of-the-mill. Matisse's Mary was naked. That's right. She wore not a stitch. I couldn't recall seeing a single nude Virgin before, but this was the image Matisse chose to portray her in his most important piece of art. What did he see when he created her? What did he see when he gazed on her? The natural innocence of her state or the true importance of what counts in life as demonstrated by how one enters and leaves this world.
Imagine how some people would react if they knew of this Mary stripped to the bone in a public place that thousands of people have visited. The Mother of Jesus with not one unclothed breast but two. If the word got out, imagine the uproar.
posted by Beth on February 11, 2004 | View All Diary Entries
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