Tuesday, June 5, 2007

In Matisse’s Footsteps

Laura McPhee’s A Journey into Matisse’s South of France, part of the Roaring Forties Press ArtPlace series, packs a huge punch for such a small book. Anyone hoping to make a pilgrimage to France in search of Henri Matisse should use this as their bible.

McPhee’s Journey takes us from Matisse’s beginnings in Paris in 1905 to his various Summers and residences in St. Tropez, Collioure, Nice, Vence, and Cimiez, his final resting place in 1954. Stunning color photography helps give the reader a sense of the impact of the blue skies and blue water of these places on Matisse’s imagination. In the South of France, Matisse told his wife, he had found the blue he had been searching for all his life. The format of the ArtPlace series fits Matisse’s life and work perfectly as his art was so shaped and informed by his surroundings. The Terrace, St. Tropez (above), which features Madame Matisse (she of the green stripe) reading in a blue and white kimono, gives the viewer a sense of the sensual languor of the Riviera. Open Window, Collioure (below), one of the many scenes Matisse painted from his many rooms in various hotels over the years, recreates the endless joy of opening shutters onto a paradise.

Maps of each location provide enough direction for a motivated pilgrim to follow Matisse’s life quite closely. Fascinating sidebars, such as the series of “muses” Matisse favored in each place as well as a wonderful piece on the debate between Matisse and Picasso over whether an artist could depict beliefs he himself does not hold (sparked by Matisse’s self-described “masterpiece,” La Chapelle du Rosaire, which McPhee brings to life masterfully), will get the traveler on the go from Metro stop to Metro stop, and beyond. If you’re packing light, this is definitely the book to stuff in your backpack.

McPhee’s takes on several challenges—biography, art history, travelogue—and handles them all in text that is concise without being light. McPhee works within the constraints of the format beautifully, presenting not only a full portrait of Matisse but also a vivid sense of each place he inhabited. Hilary Spurling’s sprawling two-volume biography of Matisse (The Unknown Matisse and Matisse the Master) remains the epicenter of Matisse biography, but McPhee’s book offers us a beautiful glimpse into his colorful life in the true spirit of the master. It’s the next best thing to going there yourself.

[Many thanks to Roaring Forties Press for providing me with a review copy of this book!]