PRINT October 1992



It has just taken me ten minutes to undo an especially stubborn knot from one of my shoelaces; which is not in itself particularly noteworthy except for the fact that I happened, while removing my shoes in the hopes of feeling comfortably at home, to have been thinking of Henri Matisse—of how I might respond to this invitation to write something in anticipation of his exhibition this month at the Museum of Modern Art. Why, I asked myself after reading “Whoever wants to devote himself to painting must begin by cutting off his tongue,” need I make use of methods other than those that are intrinsically my own? The shoelace proved to be so hopelessly tangled that I considered just severing it immediately, but the prospect of having to endure days shoelaceless gave me pause. Gradually, with the aid of a needlelike instrument, I prevailed.

Matisse, I believe, was wearing sandals when, at the age of 80 and shortly after having undergone an operation for cancer, we find him (in a photograph by Hélène Adant) perched at the top of a stepladder drawing huge flowers around his Virgin for one of the murals at Vence. “He who really has something to say,” Matisse believed, “is driven to it by the emotion which induces him to carry out his work in relation to his own qualities.” Mr. Aragon adds, “Matisse’s optimism is his gift to our sick world, the example he sets to those who revel in anguish. ‘Self-defense,’ he said. But in fact he is defending us.”


In order really to know our Western light I had to be able to judge it by comparison. Already, on the way to Tahiti, I recognized the crystalline light of New York (my first port of call). And then there was the light of the Pacific—The different sorts of light I experienced have made me more exacting about imagining the spiritual light of which I am speaking, born of all the lights I have absorbed.
—Henri Matisse

I have awakened from a strange dream only to discover that I am truly impelled into action by Matisse and not into speculation concerning his religious beliefs, for example. I am nevertheless interested in the depth of rancor and accommodation caused by the struggle between Communism and Catholicism, particularly in France, in the late ’40s. Matisse defended himself carefully from both sides during the Chapelle du Rosaire controversy; he maintained a degree of equivocation, respect, and neutrality—a dignified artistic position—that was quite remarkable in and of itself. I merely want to offer a simple insight based upon my own reading of the discussion, just by putting two and two together, so to speak.

In his handwritten narrative accompanying the Jazz cutouts, Matisse responded to a question that had been put to him: “Do I believe in God? Yes, when I am working.” Which can also seem to imply that when he ceases to work he ceases to believe in God. Matisse goes on to qualify this remark most beautifully, I think: “When I am submissive and modest, I feel myself greatly helped by someone who makes me do things beyond my power. And yet I feel no gratitude towards him, for it’s as though I were before a conjurer whose tricks I cannot explain. I then feel myself deprived of the benefit of the experience which should reward my effort. I am ungrateful, without remorse.” What is curious to note is a passage by Louis Aragon, from his 1946 postscript to In Defense of Luxury, that nicely contradicts the ambivalent spirituality suggested in Matisse’s answer: “If luxury implies the opposite of work, it’s a crime to utter the word in connection with Matisse. That painter, for some 56 years, has done nothing else than work. He works as he breathes. He barely sleeps. Nothing in this world has meant anything to him except as it served his work. He doesn’t know what it is to live as you or I do. He works. All his thoughts, even his wasted time, are devoted to work, to his work.”

Aragon would perhaps go on to say, if presented with this juxtaposition, that none of it at all suggests or concedes that Matisse himself possessed an authentic faith in a Christian God nor any other Supreme Being. But however one looks at it, I still appreciate the elasticity of his temperament.

Philip Taaffe is an artist living in New York.