During the war years, Matisse lived first in his apartment in Nice and later in a rented villa in the ancient hilltown of Vence, recovering slowly from the abdominal operation of March, 1941, that left him a semi-invalid for the rest of his life. Formally separated from his wife, and with his daughter and two sons scattered by the war, he was cared for by Lydia Delectorskaya, a blonde Russian woman who had been his model since the early 1930′s.
Matisse’s art evidently helped him keep the war at bay, not least in 1944, when Amélie was arrested, and his daughter, Marguerite, was sent to a concentration camp for Resistance activities. While both survived, Matisse had no word of their whereabouts for months on end. Nonetheless, he found solace in the bright colors that had always distinguished his painting. And along with some still lifes, he painted and sketched sensual nudes and couples.
Indeed, much has been made of Matisse’s “delicate” position during the war due to the Resistance activities of close members of his family. The arrest of his wife and daughter, about which he learned two days after the event, was greeted by him as “the greatest shock of my life,” he told the painter Charles Camoin in a letter of May 5, 1944. “It is very delicate, right now, it is very compromising,” he added. Compromising as it was for Matisse to get involved in the fate of these family members, Matisse did activate himself on their behalf. He asked Camoin to intervene with friends in Paris. The playwright Sacha Guitry acknowledges in his memoirs being contacted. Madame Matisse was imprisoned but not deported, and survived the war. So did Marguerite, though she was tortured by the Gestapo, and escaped from a train headed for a concentration camp. It is more than likely that Matisse’s intervention was of some help, at least to Amélie. But Madame Matisse and her daughter lived apart from the master in concrete and spiritual ways. And, it was not infrequent during those years for family members to hold divergent political ideas.
In response to remarks that he was too old to be engaged in erotic art, he wrote to Rouveyre, “Why, if my feeling of freshness, of beauty, of youth remains the same as it was 30 years ago in front of flowers, a fine sky or an elegant tree, why should it be different with a young girl?”
Among his first adventures with paper cutouts was a cheerful book called “Jazz,” which Matisse prepared during the war but which was only published in 1947. The lively multicolor forms, both abstract and figurative, seem to echo the voice of a man stubbornly refusing to be cowed by the times. But he was also enchanted by the technique. “The walls of my bedroom are covered with cutouts,” he wrote to Rouveyre in 1948. “I still don’t know what I’ll do with them.”
Soon afterward, though, it was by using cutouts that he designed the stained-glass windows for the Chapel of the Rosary, a project he took on as a gesture to a young woman who had nursed him in Lyon in 1941 and later became a Dominican nun. The small modern building on the grounds of the Dominican nuns’ residence in Vence took almost four years to complete. It was, Matisse said, the production of “an entire life of work.”
Two of the three windows show large yellow and blue leaves against a green background, but the window behind the altar – the study for it is on loan here from the Vatican Museums – is more ambitious: it represents “The Tree of Life,” with flowering cactuses and blue leaves scattered across a green curtain hanging over a yellow window. ( Alan Riding )
How much Matisse partook of this officially sanctioned revival of the Fauve movement is a question posed in my book, Artists under Vichy, published by Princeton University Press in 1992. My answer — or rather my very questioning — has displeased Hilary Spurling, the author of Matisse the Master, the second volume of her much-praised biography. According to Spurling, I intimated that Matisse’s attitude during the Occupation years meant psychological collusion or passive collaboration with the “Fascist authorities.” “Psychological collusion,” “passive collaboration” — these words are not mine. As for the “Fascist authorities,” implied in this collusion or collaboration, although there was communication and much “collaboration” between the pro-fascist government of Pétain run out of the French town of Vichy and the Nazi occupiers who ruled from Berlin, they were quite separate entities and it was possible for a French person to be anti-Nazi and pro-Vichy.
There is no question that Matisse managed to steer clear of the Nazis by living in the South of France, mostly in Nice, a city in the non-occupied zone of France run by Vichy — until all of France was occupied following the Allies’ landings in North Africa. Unlike his former comrades Vlaminck and Derain, he did not prostitute himself by going on a trip to Nazi Germany in the company of SS officers, and did not ooh and aah at the sight of National Socialist art the way they did. He did not attend the parties given at the German embassy in Paris. While this forbearance suggests that he did not collaborate with the Nazis, it does not say anything about his views of the regime of Vichy.
Through his art and through his words, Matisse did accompany the Fauve revival — albeit from a distance. Considering the serious operation the artist underwent in early 1941, and the fragile state of his health thereafter, his active participation in the art life of France at that time is that much more surprising.( Michelle C. Cone)
The question I did not fully resolve in 1992 was whether the great master was unaware of being appropriated by Vichy, or supremely indifferent to the context in which his work was shown. What I noticed and wrote about in my second book on the Vichy years, their antecedents and their sequel (French Modernisms, Cambridge University Press, 2001), is that Matisse had already displayed his indifference to context by allowing work from his studio (Branch of Lilac, 1914) to be on view in Berlin in 1937 at an exhibition of modern French art co-organized by the Nazi and French governments. Only artists born on French soil — and their birthplace was clearly indicated in the catalogue — were considered French enough to represent French art in this repugnant German context. Fauve painting was present, but not the work of the foreigner Picasso nor the work of the Jews Chagall and Soutine, among the so-called foreigners who had made France their patrie.
This rarely discussed exhibition of modern French art in Nazi Berlin, held the same year as the show of degenerate art in Munich, was positively reviewed in the art press of Nazi Germany at that time, and succeeded in stirring confusion in the minds of those who assumed that all vanguard French art was anathema to Hitler and his cultural henchmen. Hitler visited the exhibition, and apparently acquired a small sculpture by Aristide Maillol. I have no information on any other purchase of French art by Hitler, or by Goering, an aficionado of modern French art.
…Not only were the ex- and old Fauves going to triumph at the Salons, in the galleries and elsewhere during Vichy, but they could, like Vlaminck, publish anti-Picasso diatribes in the French press (Comoedia, 6 June, 1942). They could also rise in anger when someone dared to say positive things about Picasso. Thus, Camoin tells Matisse in August 1941, after reporting on a talk in which a “Jewish” lecturer had called Picasso the greatest French painter of our time, because he has done the French the honor of coming to France to work: “I left before the end. . . . It is another proof of the hold of the Jews in our era, out of which the judeo métèque [central European] style has emerged for which Picasso is the inspiration.”
In August 1944 came the Liberation of Paris, and the first Autumn Salon to be held in the newly freed city. This time Picasso is given a room of his own that he fills with examples of his wartime production. It is a triumphant return for Picasso, marred, however, by disturbances that have remained unattributed. On Nov. 16, 1944, Matisse wrote a letter to Camoin: “Have you seen the Picasso room? It is much talked about. There were demonstrations in the street against it. What success! If there is applause, whistle.”( Cone)