Paris Exhibit Comes Face to Face with Henri Matisse and His Grandchildren Tell about Modeling for the Master

Article excerpt

When you paint an apple, the portrait of that apple does not differ significantly from the portrait of any other apple. But with the human being, that's not so."

For art historian Pierre Schneider, this truism explains the difficulty modern artists have with portraiture. It is therefore key to what may be the most striking Matisse exhibit to open in Paris since the last one Mr. Schneider conceived in 1970.

"Visages decouverts" (at the Mona Bismarck Foundation through Sept. 7) brings together more than 100 faces drawn by Henri Matisse during the last nine years of his life. The works range from painstaking efforts in pencil or charcoal to rapid sketches, with eyes and nose indicated only by fleeting brushstrokes.

Most are on display for the first time. Underpinning the show is the contradiction between the abstract style Matisse had adopted like a vow and the realism necessary to paint a likeness. "Matisse was passionately in love with unity," remarks Mr. Schneider, "but he wanted it to come from conflict."

When Matisse drew these faces (between 1945 and his death in 1954), he was virtually bed-ridden after a serious operation. A few years earlier, he had shared with a friend his dream of "a second life, in some paradise where I'll do frescoes." The operation gave him that second life, and his well-known paper cut-outs, enormous compositions in simple forms and bright colors, date from this same period.

But as though to counterbalance - or contradict - their purity, Matisse also surrounded himself with the earthly, mobile fragility of the human face. Photos of his bedroom show dozens of portraits tacked up on the walls.

"The place was very alive," says Jackie Matisse Monnier, the artist's granddaughter, a teenager at the time. "You saw the work that was done yesterday and the day before, and when that came down, the work that would be done tomorrow would take its place. It was all quite spontaneous and fun."

Ms. Monnier, like other grandchildren and friends who caught the artist's eye, was a frequent model. Eight pictures of her appear in the show.

"I had red hair," she recalls. "It was voluminous and sort of all over the place. But he made me pin it up behind my head; he insisted. He did not want any of it showing. So all that was left was my face."

Monnier describes long morning sessions, as her grandfather labored with his charcoal, observing her, finding the lines of her face, rubbing them out, moving them and rebuilding a little to the left... "tricking himself," she says, "into getting to know the model's features, so his hand could talk." Then would come the fast studies, in pen or brush and ink. Matisse would have learned the face by heart, like a musician, so "he could actually shut his eyes and draw on a piece of paper without seeing the model," Monnier says.

By the end, as his portraits drew near the unhampered forms of oval, line, and dot, he would almost be in a trance. According to Schneider, this process, this "journey, which leads him not only from realism to abstraction, but also from conscious work to unconscious work" is what fascinated him.

For her, the portraits are also psychological probes. "It's hard to speak of psychology and art, but I really think in order to 'possess' the face, he needed to establish its psychological identity for him." She walks over to a drawing hanging on the kitchen wall in her stone farmhouse. It is one of the meticulous studies, in charcoal. …