NICE — Henri Matisse’s attachment to Nice is well known. He spent the majority of his time here from 1917 onward, renting villas, sojourning in hotels on the coast and in the lofty heights of the Cimiez neighborhood. Although he left for Venice during the occupation for fear of bombing, he returned in 1949 and died there in 1954. There are several reasons for this attachment to the town. The most frequently cited is the quality of the Mediterranean light, in which “everything becomes clear, crystalline, pure, lucid,” he said.

Leaving Paris was also an escape from an artistic hub that didn’t interest him and was barely interested in him either, at least between the two world wars. And it also gave him some distance from his family. It was in Nice that the classic image of Matisse was formed, thanks to the photography of Henri Cartier-Bresson: aged, with a white beard, a thoughtful look in his eyes, working in his studio in the Hotel Regina amid nude models and green plants. 

New and instructive elements

For the past 50 years a museum has commemorated him, a place where his heirs regularly update the collections. Their most recent donation is the ceramic La Piscine, made from a composition of paper cutouts that are seen, in snapshots from the 1950s, hung on the walls of his studio. The monumental mural of three colors — ochre, white and blue — now occupies a room in the Matisse Museum. Its debut, coinciding with the museum’s 50th anniversary, marks the release of a series of eight exhibitions, A Summer for Matisse, showing until Sept. 23. The curator of the series is Jean-Jacques Aillagon, former minister of culture.

Nice's Musée Matisse - Photo: takato marui

This kind of local commemoration sparks mistrust. We have seen too many cities seize on an artist or movement purely to attract tourism and advertising. Cézanne in Aix-en-Provence, for example. But not only do the Nice exhibitions avoid this trap, they even provide new and informative contexts for Matisse’s work. For an artist as famous as Matisse, this is no easy task.

This quality is particularly notable in the Musée des beaux-arts Jules-Chéret, where the relationship between Matisse and his teacher at l’Ecole des beaux-arts, Gustave Moreau, is explored, and at the Palais Lascaris, where viewers can see creations from Jazz, the book of prints Matisse published in 1947. 

Matisse frequented Moreau's studio from 1892 to 1897 receiving technical teaching, but mostly history lessons, as Moreau was an erudite scholar of the ancient arts of Europe, the Orient and Asia. This encyclopaedic knowledge is seen in Matisse’s mythological scenes, populated by gods, goddesses and monsters. But this is almost eclipsed by relatively unknown works by Moreau in which he purifies nudes, keeping only their outlines. All the rest disappears, as Moreau erases or draws over in white everything he judges to be superfluous, keeping only a few curves and an oval for the face. He adopted this style in the 1890s, as Matisse did in the 1930s.

Moreau also had the habit of drawing on color without allowing black or dark blue to touch the other colors. It is a style akin to printing, or a sort of tattoo, which is sometimes observed in Matisse’s work. Should we conclude that he was Moreau’s disciple in a far more thorough way, and for much longer, than previously thought? Or should we instead believe in a “blind” similarity? The question is sufficient in itself to justify the exhibition. The splendor of Moreau’s drawings and the little known greyish nudes of Matisse are also reason enough.

The Bay of Nice, by Henri Matisse - Photo: Succession H. Matisse

Diverse yet coherent iconography 

For Jazz, the questions are mostly of a biographical nature: What was Matisse listening to? Was he aware of the arrival of the great American jazz musicians in Nice after the war? The inquiries stray into the realm of creation: Why did the artist title the book Jazz and not the original name Cirque? Can a similarity be drawn between the rapid and definitive movement of scissors to create cutouts and the playing of the sax or the drums, also fast and definitive actions? It is just as pertinent to consider Matisse from a musical perspective given that he played the violin and, frequently, painted and drew violinists, pianists and dancers. The Music in Action exhibition therefore brings in numerous works, including paintings on loan from New York, Washington and Baltimore, and portraits from other museums in Nice.

“Palmiers, palmes et palmettes” from the Musée Masséna furthers the art of alliance. The palm tree is the tree of Nice, that of the Promenade des Anglais. The palm leaf is a motif that Matisse often drew and painted. But the palm tree was imported to Nice in the 19th century and was in no way a native symbol, although this didn’t stop him from using it. As for the palm leaf, this could be that of the Roman emperors, Christian martyrs, neoclassical ornaments or military medals. Therefore assembled in this exhibition are furniture, posters, reliquaries, candlesticks and pictures from the Napolean campaign in Egypt and the conquest of Algeria. It’s a diverse and yet coherent iconography. And among them are Matisse, Dufy, a Picasso and a Bonnard, all of which we consider in a new way because of the context. It would be wrong not to take this unexpected approach seriously, which shows that a landscape is never just a landscape, but also a collection of almost invisible signs and references.

Far from being deferential, the majority treat Matisse not as a master but as a partner — a dangerous partner to whom it is audacious to compare oneself. The confrontation is tough for some, but for those who use it to their advantage, such as Lichtenstien, Bioulès or Baldassari, in very different styles, the visit to Nice is a journey that ends well.