While everyone is reconsidering Matisse (Matisse: Radical Invention, Museum of Modern Art, New York, until October 11th), I thought I would weigh in with my own recollection of Matisse.
When I first visited what we know as the Matisse Chapel (The Rosaire Chapel – Ville de Vence) in the 1980s, it still functioned as a chapel and was open to the public only for certain hours on certain days. When I arrived there it was closed and I feared that my trip had been in vain. Later, when I told a friend that I was unable to get in, he said – don’t worry I will take you to the service on Sunday. You can get in then.
When I entered the Chapel, whose interior I knew by heart from the many photos I had seen of it, I was struck by how bleak it looked. The walls with the black and white drawings of Mary and in the back of the room, the Stations of the Cross, had shiny white tiles that made me think of a public bathroom. Why would Matisse do that? Clearly he had considered every single aspect of the chapel. Why this?
We sat in the pews. The nuns entered and sat in a separate section. Then the Priest came in wearing Matisse’s original robes, the ones he designed using the paper cut outs. The Priest, himself, looked like a Matisse drawing. His head was nearly bald and quite broad at the top.
To my left were the stained glass windows — blue, yellow and green. Once everyone was seated I noticed a sliver of light on the wall — just a thin set of lines running down the wall. As the service progressed the light spread across the wall until the end of the service when the wall was not only covered with light, but everyone in the congregation was enveloped by the light. Matisse’s choice was suddenly brilliantly obvious.