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Light and glory

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Marie-Thérèse Pulvenis de Seligny’s new book about Matisse’s final surge of creativity before his death – his work at La Chapelle de la Rosaire – takes Brad Yendle back to his first visit

In Saint-Paul-de-Vence there’s a lot to see: Josep Lluís Sert’s beautiful Fondation Maeght, the elusive restaurant La Colombe d’Or … but then there’s the small 15m x 6m Dominican chapel that Henri Matisse designed between 1947 and 1951 in nearby Vence. My art teacher at school first alerted me to the project when I was 17 — and for some reason I didn’t actually visit it until I was a greying 37. When outside the door to the chapel, I hesitated, worrying that this day might not be the best to finally visit and that the overcast skies might match my rating. You never get a second chance to see something for the first time. How foolish of me to doubt the master.

The story of the chapel’s creation is a marvellous tale, well recounted in a new 224-page book by Marie-Thérèse Pulvenis de Seligny, who has been curator at the Musée Matisse down the road in Nice since 1997. Matisse’s involvement was born out of an early doodle of a stained glass window for a future convent shown to him by Monique Bourgeois, a former agency night nurse who then posed for him, who then became a nun.

He saw the Chapelle de la Rosaire as the ‘culmination of his life’s work’

Matisse, a lapsed Catholic – was fond of the now-named Sister Jacques-Marie and commented ‘that although she is a Dominican nun, she is still a marvellous person’. Born in northern France not far from the Belgian border, Matisse had lived through two German invasions, but had never been commissioned by the French government to decorate anything large-scale and it rankled with him. A majority of his seminal paintings remained inaccessible to the public; locked away in Russia and the United States. In his late 70s, he confided to his daughter Marguerite that: ‘The worry that haunts me, is that I’ll end up being forgotten.’ So he saw the Chapelle de la Rosaire as the ‘culmination of his life’s work’. As Hilary Spurling states in Matisse The Master 1909-1954, volume two of her indispensable biography, the completion of the chapel was ‘a race with mortality’ for the septuagenarian Matisse, who had been plagued by stomach and liver problems for years, and was approaching his 80th birthday.

With the chapel design still inchoate, he wisely squeezed out wannabe Modernist Louis Bertrand Rayssiguier, a brother who wanted in on the project. Rayssiguier proposed Le Corbusier as a consultant, but Matisse got his own man, Auguste Perret. Perret would ‘do as I say’, said Matisse. The painter’s desire was simply to create ‘something more like a theatre’s décor … the point is to create a special atmosphere. I don’t need to build churches. There are others who can do that.’

And he did just that. Matisse’s eyesight had been on the wane for years and he had taken to living in darkened rooms since the 1940s. Matisse had found the physical and mental act of easel painting a trial – even when he was in his youth – and after several illustration commissions for books in the early ’40s had taken to a new method of artistic production. His assistant would paint large sheets of art paper with flat colours and he would sit in bed and cut them into shapes to be pinned up and arranged. He called it ‘drawing with scissors’. The chapel’s stained glass windows would be designed first in miniature, then in full size using this technique.

Close-up of the Tree of Life window. Sunlight shines through Matisse's meticulously selected colour combinations and reflect on the chapel's polished floors

Close-up of the Tree of Life window. Sunlight shines through Matisse’s meticulously selected colour combinations and reflect on the chapel’s polished floors

The central concept of the interior was built around several large-scale, black line drawings that were fired onto white ceramic tiles: The Virgin and Child and Saint Dominic and the Way of the Cross. The sunlight pouring onto these artworks from the chapel’s three stained glass windows achieved the ‘lightening of the spirit’ that the artist was after. The Tree of Life window with its cactus flower motif stood out. It was composed of three carefully chosen hues: an ultramarine blue, a bottle green and lemon yellow that Matisse agonised over. As with another large-scale commission, La Dansefor Albert Barnes in 1932, technical problems meant this window was redesigned several times. But it had Matisse’s typical purity of means, as he told France Illustration in 1951: ‘The yellow is roughened and so becomes translucent only when the blue and green remain transparent, and thus completely clear. This lack of transparency in the yellow arrests the spirit of the spectator and keeps it in the interior of the chapel, thus forming the foreground of a space which begins in the chapel and then passes through the blue and green to lose itself in the surrounding gardens. Thus when someone inside can see through the glass a person coming and going in the garden only a metre away from the window, he seems to belong to a completely separate world from that of the chapel’.

The book’s design itself is fairly workmanlike. Its page margins, added together, are almost half the size of this page you are reading, which amounts to a lot of white space. The body copy point size is unnecessarily small. That said, the photographs of this unsung project by one of the greatest artists of the 20th century are mostly great and there’s plenty of them over single pages and double-page spreads.

The chapel was consecrated in June 1951. Matisse, then 82 and artistically spent, did not attend (‘It will all have been useless if it isn’t perfect,’ he wrote to a friend). His son Pierre, the New York art dealer, stood in for him. The Dominicans, who were initially sceptical of Matisse’s child-like, sacrilegious, freehand scribbles, were quickly won over when the project, including the priests’ vestments, was seen in its totality.

If you are ever in Vence, I can’t recommend visiting the chapel highly enough. Thanks to Matisse, should there be grey skies on the day, it simply won’t matter.

  • Brad Yendle is the AJ’s art editor
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