So said artist Henri Matisse in a letter to a friend in 1941. The 71-year-old Matisse wrote this after having just survived intestinal surgery to treat his cancer (escaping death by “the hair of an angora cat” in the process) and while living in a France deeply entrenched in the terrors of the Second World War. Matisse lived through some of the most traumatic moments of the 20th century, and yet created art that was simple, vibrant, and necessarily joyful. To me, his art is proof that artists can respond to tragedy not with macabre works (that often are seen as justifications for their “tortured,” questionable actions) but with a breakthrough into sunlight.
Matisse was, of course, the leading face of Fauvism, an art movement made up of unapologetically whimsical artists that delighted (and continue to delight) the world with their brilliant strokes of colored impasto, bright paints laid thickly on canvas. The Fauves—wild beasts—were unrestrained in their radiant depictions of dreamlike landscapes; with their brushes, they could create a world of revelry and absolute harmony in color and form. For a younger Matisse, quiet and owlish in dressing and demeanor, Fauvism was a means by which he could express himself with clarity. His jewel hues offered a glimpse into his inner spirit: fantasies of dancing nudes and purple poplar trees. With oil and brush, Matisse could let loose, creating anything his heart desired.
Then the Great War came, and Matisse was utterly devastated. Suddenly, his world was one of artillery and gunfire. What role did the lush verdancy and utopian ideals of Fauvism have beyond petty distraction from the serious and somber? Matisse’s striking colors, to him, quickly faded into garishness and kitsch. What he really wanted was to trade his paintbrush for a bayonet, eager to enlist for the French cause. Yet this too was thwarted—with a failing heart, there was no chance for this paunchy, middle-aged man to fight on the front lines.
Left with little choice, Matisse returned to painting, spurred on by a friend who had told him, “What you can do is continue to paint well.” Matisse, by then well-established as an artistic savant, wielded his paintbrush as a form of nationalistic resistance. Through art, French culture and society could assert themselves against those who were trying to annihilate them. This philosophy would stay with Matisse for the rest of his life, though the form and style of his resistance would dramatically change in the years to come.
Still, the art Matisse produced during this period lacked luster; it is unsurprising that most of us today barely register that Matisse painted something other than his Fauvist splendors. While they demonstrate immense technical skill, the paintings don’t feel characteristically his. Gone were the dynamic swathes, the strokes of beauty and elegance, the rich palette. The Great War reduced France to a skeleton of itself, and Matisse reflected that in his work, paring back his bold colors to drab greys and greens, applying paint to canvas with restraint and caution.
Perhaps part of this austerity was out of respect. France was struggling, and most of the works from this period were sold by Matisse to raise funds for French prisoners of war. In fact, Matisse refused to exhibit his works in highfalutin circles while his compatriots were out in battle. More personally, however, Matisse’s paintings may reflect his own anxiety during those years about his sons Jean and Pierre, who had enlisted in the army. What is certain is this: Matisse’s efforts during this war, while meaningful, had not yet fully reached their potential as emblems and artifacts of resistance.
Fast forward thirty years. Matisse is in the twilight of his life, struggling to beat back the tyranny of late-stage duodenal cancer. France is on the cusp of military occupation by the Nazis, and overall, things aren’t looking so good for the bespectacled, greying Matisse. Following an operation that left him too weak to leave his bed, Matisse’s existence became increasingly limited and complicated, his physical suffering overtaking all aspects of his life.
His solution? To throw himself even more intently into his work with courage, freshness, and zeal. Matisse had not expected to survive his brutal surgery, and the fact that he did seemed to inspire a second life in him. He began to work with a fervor and intensity befitting a man half his age, relying on help to work from the confines of his bed. No longer able to paint or sculpt, Matisse would go on undaunted, making breakthroughs in a medium completely foreign to him: paper-cut collage.
This was what Matisse evocatively called “painting with scissors,” maneuvering the blade this way and that to create organic shapes and forms he would then arrange into a collage or mural. Snip! Goodbye to years of chronic pain, at least in that brief moment. Snip! Goodbye to oppression under the Vichy regime, albeit in the tiny way that Matisse was able to assert himself. In his room, scissors and paper were truly mightier than the sword, and after more than a decade of quietude and pain, Matisse was reborn.
What’s more, in these lively compositions, color returned to Matisse’s works. Gone were the days where war turned Matisse away from bold expression; World War II would push Matisse to explore bolder combinations of color than he had ever used before. In the months before his operation, Matisse dipped his toes back into vibrancy, creating a lithograph, La Blouse Roumaine, that sparked this era of his resistance art.
La Blouse Roumaine (1940) was a defiant shout of French nationalism, with the blue, white, and red of the tricolor flag embedded within the work. The innocence of the girl and the effervescent, dynamic patterns on her blouse became a symbol of hope for the French against the brutish cruelty of Nazi occupation. She was so impactful on the wartime psyche of France that she would appear frequently in post-war depictions of the occupation; film directors Jean-Luc Godard and Éric Rohmer were two among many who used the work on the sets of their movies.
So set off Matisse’s desire to contribute, in any way he could, to the war effort. Even more than in World War I, he was in no position to fight, but he decided to stay in France anyway, telling his son, “It seemed to me as if I would be deserting. If everyone who has any value leaves France, what remains of France?”
Matisse watched closely as other members of his family did the fighting for him, his art in this period serving as a direct response to and a celebration of their actions. His children were intimately involved in the French Resistance. His son Pierre (who was living abroad as an art dealer) played a key role in helping countless Jewish and anti-Nazi French artists escape occupied France to the United States. Meanwhile, Amélie, his wife, was jailed for half a year upon being discovered as a typist for the French Underground. Marguerite, his daughter, was a leader of the resistance.
Of the Matisses, Marguerite was the bravest. After being captured and tortured by the Gestapo, she was put on a train to a concentration camp in Germany where she would soon meet certain death when she miraculously escaped from the clutches of the Germans. By providence divine, her train was halted as Allied forces rained bombs on Germany; Marguerite took her chance and ran for the woods, surviving there, hidden, until the closing days of the war. Matisse was understandably consumed with worry for his only daughter, but in a brave show of audacity (though he had nothing on Marguerite) would create what many consider his magnum opus in a counter to the tumult he felt.
One of the most famous collages from Matisse’s book, Jazz (compiled in 1947)
And so we have Jazz, a collection of collages and cut-outs ostensibly about theatre and circustry, but what many critics now see as a critique of German aggression and political theatre. The crisp, jagged lines of the paper cut echo the ominous approach of the Nazi army, the bloodied, beheaded figure a stark visualization of the worst that could happen to his daughter. And yet it is Matisse’s use of color that speaks volumes about his obstinate assertion of himself in his art; the primary colors brilliantly lively in transforming a dark, morbid depiction of war into the dynamic, vibrantly musical piece evocative of vitality. Matisse would continue to use cut-outs as a medium of resistance throughout Nazi occupation, publishing his pieces in the French propaganda magazine Verve (meaning vitality or zeal), declaring, “I, too, have my nerve.”
“I believe my work is to provide calm. Because I myself am in need of peace.”
Often, the myth of the tortured artist is used to excuse an artist’s fucked-up actions and subject matter—it seems as if we have decided that celebrated artists get a free pass for doing bad things just by virtue of their artistic skill and tragic pasts (just think about Picasso’s misogyny, or Roald Dahl’s and Edgar Degas’s antisemitism). It is refreshing to see an artist like Matisse, who suffered so much, but whose choice each time was to choose to fight against each struggle, using joy as a bright confrontation against the dull and dreadful.
Joy was the means by which Matisse learned to persist, finding beauty and meaning in paper and potatoes alike. In the face of cruel calamity, Matisse was revitalized through his art, an enchanting constant that set him free into a world of serenity, peace, and harmony. Long life to joy indeed.