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MATISSE AND THE
NATIONALISM OF VICHY, 1940-1944

by Michele C. Cone
 
How did André Derain, Maurice de Vlaminck, Andre Dunoyer de Segonzac and Henri Matisse fare in Paris during the Nazi occupation 1940-44? Given that their Fauve works in German museums had been seized by the Nazis, sold for cash or possibly destroyed in a bonfire of degenerate art, were they and their works then banned in France?

This was not the case. The Nazi occupiers did check poster announcements and visit art exhibitions before they opened to the public, but they interfered minimally in the artistic life of Paris, and confined their nefarious activities to slashing paintings by Jewish artists still hanging on gallery walls. As for Paris salons, at the Salon d’Automne for example, French-born artists in good standing could continue to exhibit there as long as they placed their signatures onto a document headed, "I certify that I am French and not Jewish." My source for this is the pages of signatures from the 1942 Salon d’Automne. Finally, to the extent that the Vichy government retained any autonomy on what went on in occupied Paris, it welcomed the rebirth of art like early Fauve painting which, as the last modern art movement said to be rooted in a purely French tradition, coincided with its own nationalist agenda.

A group show of Fauve paintings ("Les Fauves 1903-1908") took place at Galerie de France in June 1942. Opened on Feb. 8, 1942, its inauguration was held under the aegis of Louis Hautecoeur, head of the fine arts department in the Vichy government at that time. At the reopening of the Musée National d’art moderne, a state institution, in August 1942, paintings by the Fauves were very much in evidence. When that show traveled to Switzerland, Spain and Portugal, the Fauve contingent was there as well. In 1943, a book on the Fauves came out at éditions du Chène with a text by Gaston Diehl. Also in 1943, Comoedia Charpentier published a collection of interviews -- most of them with Fauve artists.

How much Matisse partook of this officially sanctioned revival of the Fauve movement is a question posed in my book, Artists under Vichy, published by Princeton University Press in 1992. My answer -- or rather my very questioning -- has displeased Hilary Spurling, the author of Matisse the Master, the second volume of her much-praised biography. According to Spurling, I intimated that Matisse’s attitude during the Occupation years meant psychological collusion or passive collaboration with the "Fascist authorities." "Psychological collusion," "passive collaboration" -- these words are not mine. As for the "Fascist authorities," implied in this collusion or collaboration, although there was communication and much "collaboration" between the pro-fascist government of Pétain run out of the French town of Vichy and the Nazi occupiers who ruled from Berlin, they were quite separate entities and it was possible for a French person to be anti-Nazi and pro-Vichy.

There is no question that Matisse managed to steer clear of the Nazis by living in the South of France, mostly in Nice, a city in the non-occupied zone of France run by Vichy -- until all of France was occupied following the Allies’ landings in North Africa. Unlike his former comrades Vlaminck and Derain, he did not prostitute himself by going on a trip to Nazi Germany in the company of SS officers, and did not ooh and aah at the sight of National Socialist art the way they did. He did not attend the parties given at the German embassy in Paris. While this forbearance suggests that he did not collaborate with the Nazis, it does not say anything about his views of the regime of Vichy.

Through his art and through his words, Matisse did accompany the Fauve revival -- albeit from a distance. Considering the serious operation the artist underwent in early 1941, and the fragile state of his health thereafter, his active participation in the art life of France at that time is that much more surprising. In addition to giving interviews to the art critics of the period, Matisse spoke on the Radio Diffusion Nationale de Nice, a branch of the official Vichy radio. All these interviews -- concerned with artistic issues -- were published in officially sanctioned publications of that time: Comoedia, Nouvelle Revue Francaise, Les Beaux Arts, Le Rouge et le Bleu. Matisse’s paintings were on view with other Fauve painters at the Salon d’Automne of 1943 and in the group shows of Galerie Charpentier. A number of his works were included in the show of "Les Fauves" at the Galerie de France in June 1942, and in the exhibition of modern French art officially sent to Spain in 1943. The Vichy government bought two drawings from his show of recent drawings at Galerie Louis Carré in 1941. Books illustrated by the great master came out at that time. This information is easily verifiable, and given in more detail in my text and in texts cited in my bibliography. If nothing else, these facts suggest that Matisse’s name and his art were appropriated by the Vichy regime.

The question I did not fully resolve in 1992 was whether the great master was unaware of being appropriated by Vichy, or supremely indifferent to the context in which his work was shown. What I noticed and wrote about in my second book on the Vichy years, their antecedents and their sequel (French Modernisms, Cambridge University Press, 2001), is that Matisse had already displayed his indifference to context by allowing work from his studio (Branch of Lilac, 1914) to be on view in Berlin in 1937 at an exhibition of modern French art co-organized by the Nazi and French governments. Only artists born on French soil -- and their birthplace was clearly indicated in the catalogue -- were considered French enough to represent French art in this repugnant German context. Fauve painting was present, but not the work of the foreigner Picasso nor the work of the Jews Chagall and Soutine, among the so-called foreigners who had made France their patrie.

This rarely discussed exhibition of modern French art in Nazi Berlin, held the same year as the show of degenerate art in Munich, was positively reviewed in the art press of Nazi Germany at that time, and succeeded in stirring confusion in the minds of those who assumed that all vanguard French art was anathema to Hitler and his cultural henchmen. Hitler visited the exhibition, and apparently acquired a small sculpture by Aristide Maillol. I have no information on any other purchase of French art by Hitler, or by Goering, an aficionado of modern French art.

Matisse’s supreme indifference to the context in which his work was shown (and his thoughts published and aired) is not enough to say that Matisse shared the nationalism of Vichy. What can be said is that for several years prior to World War II, the art world had been divided between a Franco-French Ecole Française rooted in French tradition, and a foreign-born (and often Jewish) Ecole de Paris. During this period, Matisse had, at least on one occasion, expressed his views on the subject of art and its national traditions. That was in December 1924, at the time of his first major retrospective in Copenhagen, at the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek (September-December 1924) when he was interviewed by the Danish critic Finn Hoffmann.

In the final chapter of an anthology entitled L’Art face a la crise 1929-1939, published in 1980, the French art historian Jean Laude discusses this interview: "As for the problem of a national content of painting, Henri Matisse declares in 1924, in an interview with the Danish critic Finn Hoffmann, ‘I do not consider as a positive thing in every aspect that so many foreign artists come to Paris. The consequence is often that these painters bear a cosmopolitan imprint that many people consider as specifically French. French painters are not cosmopolitan. . . ‘." A little further, Matisse specifies with the same interviewer that in his teaching, he always stressed the need to ground oneself on a national heritage "which is what I have done for myself." Jean Laude, hardly a lightweight art historian, cites as his source for this passage the Danish review Buen (no.2, December 1924), translated into French in the journal Macula (no. 1, 1976). That journal can be consulted at the library of the Institute of Fine Arts of New York University.

By describing French artists as "not cosmopolitan," by advising his students to ground their art in a national heritage and by saying that he himself had grounded his art in a national heritage, Matisse -- who rarely can be caught off guard on any subject -- did give himself away as a partisan of the national content of painting. The view expressed in that interview was more than an off-the-cuff "single remark" (Spurling’s words), it was the expression of a position in a serious debate that was to become exclusionary during Vichy and involved the issue of artistic decadence in Ecole de Paris painting, the nefarious influence of foreign talent on French art, and the work of Pablo Picasso.

By what formal criteria a member of the Ecole de Paris could be distinguished from a member of the Ecole Française was not always clear. Yet supporters of the Ecole Française argued firmly for the cultivation of national traditions. The pro-Ecole Française critic Louis Vauxcelles pointed a finger at the "barbarian horde" (Ecole de Paris foreigners) who "have never really looked at Poussin and Corot, never read a fable by la Fontaine, ignore and, in the bottom of their hearts, look down on what Renoir has called the gentleness of the French School."

Matisse’s advice to his Danish counterparts, that they must follow his lead and ground themselves in their national tradition, was not exactly genuine, for Matisse himself had looked at art beyond his national heritage, at exotic textiles, at art from Africa and Oceania, at Persian miniatures and at Vincent van Gogh, but his words echoed the views of Franco-French artists who reeled at the success of non-French artists on the Paris scene at that time, Chagall, Soutine and Picasso among them. Foreign artists, Matisse was saying, would be well advised to stay in their own country, search for their own national traditions, and let French art flourish in France. Of course, this was 1924, and between then and the years of the Vichy regime, Matisse could well have changed his views.

Indeed, much has been made of Matisse’s "delicate" position during the war due to the Resistance activities of close members of his family. The arrest of his wife and daughter, about which he learned two days after the event, was greeted by him as "the greatest shock of my life," he told the painter Charles Camoin in a letter of May 5, 1944. "It is very delicate, right now, it is very compromising," he added. Compromising as it was for Matisse to get involved in the fate of these family members, Matisse did activate himself on their behalf. He asked Camoin to intervene with friends in Paris. The playwright Sacha Guitry acknowledges in his memoirs being contacted. Madame Matisse was imprisoned but not deported, and survived the war. So did Marguerite, though she was tortured by the Gestapo, and escaped from a train headed for a concentration camp. It is more than likely that Matisse’s intervention was of some help, at least to Amélie. But Madame Matisse and her daughter lived apart from the master in concrete and spiritual ways. And, it was not infrequent during those years for family members to hold divergent political ideas.

It is hard to know what to make of Matisse’s remark upon hearing the news of Vlaminck’s arrest as a collaborator after the Liberation of Paris in August 1944. In a letter to Charles Camoin on November 16, 1944, he says, "Basically, I think that one should not torment those who have diverging ideas from one’s own, but that is what today is called la Liberté." On the one hand, Matisse’s tolerance of diverging ideas in art was magnanimous, but his lack of political commitment meant one less voice on the side of "la Liberté" during Vichy, and an important one at that. The fact that Vlaminck had been on the side of those who caused Amélie and Marguerite great harm during the Occupation years escapes the great master’s consciousness. Yet had there been fewer individuals sharing Vlaminck’s ideas, and more of them on the side of Amélie and Marguerite, human lives would have been saved.

Finally, Matisse’s poor state of health has put into question any notion that the artist could have had an indulgent life style and many friends around him during the war years. However, while his age and infirmities might preclude an indulgent sexual life, his fragile state of health did not cause him to be isolated. That is an absurd idea. The artist remained in touch with the outside world through the visits of collectors (Pierre Levy), dealers (Louis Carre, Martin Fabiani), art book publishers (Albert Skira), biographers (Pierre Courthion, Louis Aragon), journalists and artist friends. He even took a trip to Switzerland. Throughout that period, the old Fauve painter Charles Camoin, a longtime friend, is one of Matisse’s most loyal ears and eyes. "I saw your beautiful ensemble, exploding with color, at the Salon [d’Automne] where your influence can be felt," Camoin reports on November 10, 1943. Indeed, the most written-about painters in France at that time, shown under the collective label Bleu Blanc Rouge, used a vivid palette in their paintings, inspired by Matisse’s bold harmonies.

Overall, reading through Matisse’s correspondence with Camoin in La Revue de l’Art (12, 1971) makes me suspect that Matisse’s behavior during Vichy had little to do directly with the presence of Marshall Pétain at the helm of the French government. The master could accommodate himself with "any regime, any religion, so long as each morning, at eight o’clock I can find my light, my model and my easel." Or so he told Georges Duthuit. (Transition Forty Nine, no. 5, December 1949, p. 115). What was a more likely influence on his behavior was the absence of Picasso from the Paris art scene. For four years, Picasso, the foreigner, did not have a single exhibition of his recent work, and Matisse had the limelight all to himself. During Vichy, the foreigner who had successfully competed with the equally famous French artist (on the latter’s turf, so to speak) was not on view. At a time of French nationalism and Fascism in Franco’s Spain, the Loyalist Picasso and his art, symbols of Judeo-Marxist foreign decadence in France, were in purgatory.

Not only were the ex- and old Fauves going to triumph at the Salons, in the galleries and elsewhere during Vichy, but they could, like Vlaminck, publish anti-Picasso diatribes in the French press (Comoedia, 6 June, 1942). They could also rise in anger when someone dared to say positive things about Picasso. Thus, Camoin tells Matisse in August 1941, after reporting on a talk in which a "Jewish" lecturer had called Picasso the greatest French painter of our time, because he has done the French the honor of coming to France to work: "I left before the end. . . . It is another proof of the hold of the Jews in our era, out of which the judeo métèque [central European] style has emerged for which Picasso is the inspiration."

In August 1944 came the Liberation of Paris, and the first Autumn Salon to be held in the newly freed city. This time Picasso is given a room of his own that he fills with examples of his wartime production. It is a triumphant return for Picasso, marred, however, by disturbances that have remained unattributed. On Nov. 16, 1944, Matisse wrote a letter to Camoin: "Have you seen the Picasso room? It is much talked about. There were demonstrations in the street against it. What success! If there is applause, whistle." One can guess who the demonstrators might have been -- cronies of the Fauves, still ranting against the Judeo-Marxist decadent Picasso.

MICHÈLE C. CONE is a New York-based critic and historian. Her latest book is French Modernisms: Perspectives on Art before, during and after Vichy (Cambridge 2001).