Lost Matisse Interview: Timeless Truths

When an elderly relative dies it’s left to the family to sort out the flotsam and jetsam of  his or her life, and to separate trash from treasure. In most cases, the value of an item is sentimental. Less commonly, it may be worth something to collectors or can be redeemed for cash. Rarely, it has historical importance.

What Donald Seckler found in a cardboard box after his father Jerome Seckler died falls into the last category: A previously unpublished interview Henri Matisse conducted in August 1946. Stationed in Paris two years after it had been liberated from the Nazis, the U.S. soldier—who was a modern art aficionado—interviewed the Fauvist painter and sculptor in French and later translated his notes into English. Design Observer has published the unedited translation in three parts.

The lost interview includes topics that are just as relevant today as they were in the middle of the last century. Matisse complains about how he has been portrayed in the media and takes issue with art critics (Part I); explains why it’s a bad idea for the government to subsidize artists (Part II); and observes that there are too many bankers in America and too few dreamers (Part III):

Jerome Seckler: I read a quote where you say you do the paintings sitting in a chair.

Henri Matisse: I said that forty years ago in 1906. [Here he had his secretary locate a book in a small bookcase beside his bed]. Yes, forty years ago, and I found myself tied up with it for my whole life. People have repeated it so many times that it has become a slogan.

JS: There is a great deal of talk especially by hostile art critics that modern art is the equivalent of a fraud, that the artist is trying to put something over on the public.

HM: Who occupies himself with that question? They are the painters and the critics. It began that way, criticized by everybody, but I didn’t bother myself about it. I said to myself, “when what I paint will be clearly expressed, everybody will understand.” I continued and I have been admitted.

One is never understood, one is admitted. Painters have only to work sincerely with nature or without nature if they have a big enough brain and the public will come after. A chef doesn’t have to always ask for approval and to ask [others] people to taste the plates that he prepares. If you must trouble yourself with the public, painting, its art, what one has to say, one cannot arrive, it is too complicated.

JS: If the artist plays such an important role in society, don’t you think that a government subsidy should be paid the painter just like it pays any other government worker? He wouldn’t have to worry about where his next piece of bread was coming from. He could live a normal family life like any other person. He wouldn’t be at the mercy of a dealer. He should really be free to paint.

HM: I am against ease. If one leaves the possibilities of getting a pension from the government for painting, to all the people who want to paint, all the Sunday painters will seize a brush. That is impossible. It is necessary that there be a straining. While giving to people who want to paint the facilities of doing it, it is necessary to put up a very strong barrier to prevent the invasion of the bad painter.

JS: The United States is a new country with great strength.

HM: In America your artists have a great deal of strength, but have they the voice? You can have a great many musicians, a great many singers, but not have any talent. In America are there painters who make things as strong as jazz. One must have sensitivity in lack of tradition. One must have the instinct. I believe that in America there are not enough bad boys, some of bankers who do not wish to be bankers, who do not wish to be business men. One makes artists with dreamers. You can have all the strength, if you do not have the gifts you will not arrive.

As the French saying goes, “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.”

Leave a Reply