Saturday, May 24, 2008

Miller And The Matisses

“He is a bright sage, a dancing seer who, with a sweep of the brush, removes the ugly scaffold to which the body of man is chained by the incontrovertible facts of life.”
----- Henry Miller on Henri Matisse, Tropic Of Cancer, p. 164

My interest in this subject began with an on-line anecdote about Henry from the granddaughter of the famed French painter, Henri Matisse. My research on this minor footnote soon led to connections between Henry and Henri Matisse, as well as his son, Pierre. These may seem like trivial points individually, but, stacked together, they establish an intellectual and casual personal relationship with a great family of the arts.

Henri Matisse (1869-1954) was a celebrated French painter, noted for his brilliant use of colour. Upon his death in 1954, Andre Berthoin (French Minister of National Education) described Matisse this way: "His was the most French of palettes. Intelligence, reason and the alliance of a sense of finesse and of simplifying geometry gave to all he painted the rare virtue of being truly French" [1].

Although Henri Matisse appears as a passing reference in Miller’s Crazy Cock (which he’d begun in 1927), the true impact of the painter’s work on Miller becomes obvious in Henry’s writings of 1931. In the long-unpublished The New Instinctivism—which was written by early summer, 1931 [2] — Miller gives over a page of high praise for Matisse, of whom he states “touches me profoundly.” “Matisse is the sum of modern painting. Matisse is the epiphenomenona of the new phenomenology. Matisse is the wobbly axis which gives core to the revolutions in plastic, the hub of the wheel which is falling apart, which will keep rolling when all that has gone to make up the wheel has disintegrated.” He doesn’t see beauty in the women Matisse paints, but instead sees “women of the boulevards.”

In June or July 1931, Henry went to the Galerie Georges Petit at 8, rue de Seze to see a Matisse exhibit that included “Reclinging Nude” (c.1925). The exhibit ran from June 16 – July 25, 1931 [3]. In August, Henry began writing Tropic Of Cancer, which would eventually include a lengthy reference to his 1931 visit to the Matisse exhibit. Much of the reverent language used in this passage has been clearly re-crafted from his New Instinctivism draft. “On the threshold of that big hall whose walls are now ablaze, I pause a moment to recover from the shock which one experiences when the habitual gray of the world is rent asunder and the color of life splashes forth in song and poem” (p. 162); “He it is, if any man today possesses the gift, who knows where to dissolve the human figure, who has the courage to sacrifice an harmonious line in order to detect the rhythm and murmur of the blood, who takes the light that has been refracted inside him and lets it flood the keyboard of color” (p. 164) [4]. (see Raoul Ibarguen’s critique of this passage in Narrative Detours).

Henri Matisse (left) at the 1931 Galerie Geroges Petit exhibit in Paris, which Miller attended. (Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images; this is cropped from the larger original found here).

With this level of enthusiasm, it’s not surprising that an early edition of Tropic Of Cancer—a Czech translation published in 1938—should feature an image of a naked woman “specially drawn” by Matisse (at left) [5]. According to Ferguson’s Henry Miller: A Life, Miller eventually met Matisse and got into an argument with him about the work of Miró, which Miller thought was intellectual, but Matisse found was the work of a “peasant” (p. 241).

Henri Matisse would continue to be casually referenced in Miller’s later works, as an example of an accomplished artist (often in lists of names like Picasso and Proust).

Henri Matisse’s son Pierre Matisse (1900-1989) did not become a painter like his father, but instead took a different angle on the family legacy and became an art dealer. In 1931, he opened the Pierre Matisse Gallery in New York City, which remained operative until his death in 1989.

In 1936, Henry had befriended Pierre Matisse, although I can’t say anything about the origin or nature of this relationship at that time. They were friendly enough that Pierre shipped a copy of Black Spring to James Laughlin on Henry’s behalf, then wrote to tell him he’d done so [6].

In 1947, Henry published a limited run of Into The Nightlife, which showcased the artwork of Bezalel Schatz. Henry’s ledger book shows that Pierre bought a copy (as referenced in the PBA Gallery archive—see item 33). Late in 1958, Miller needed money and sought to sell some Fernand Léger artwork that he had acquired for The Smile at the Foot of the Ladder. Pierre Matisse bought them for $3500. Henry was happy about the sale, writing to Matisse that “there is indeed a Santa Claus!” In a letter to Bob MacGregor, Henry described Matisse as “a brick” who could be counted on for a favour [7].

Finally we come to the anecdote about the daughter-in-law of Henri Matisse, whose birth name was Alexina Sattler. The brief reference is made by Alexina’s daughter, Jacquline Matisse Monnier on the website for the Tate Museum, and in relation to artist Marcel Duchamp:

“There was something about Marcel Duchamp that people found attractive. My mother thought he had a charismatic allure. She told me a story that at one point Henry Miller had a crush on her, but he was rather vulgar and had no grace in what he was proposing, whereas Marcel just knew how to say and do things. He had a very light touch.”

Yes, this is the minor, paltry piece of gossip that inspired this entire post. I soon found myself on a personal mission to flesh it out with something more substantial. Let me say this: there is no more, other than the context and conjecture I’ll attempt to bring to it.

Alexina Sattler (1906-1995) entered into the Matisse family through her marriage to Pierre Matisse [8]. The American-born artist—nicknamed “teeny” because of her petite stature—went to Paris in 1921 to pursue her artistic vocation. She married Pierre in 1929. In 1939, Pierre went into service for WWII; in his absence, Alexina took over duty at the Pierre Matisse Gallery in New York. She divorced Pierre in 1949, and later married Marcel Duchamp in 1954, although she had originally met him in 1923.

At right: A illustrated portrai of Alexina made by Henri Matisse in 1938. (Source: Herbert F Johnson Museum of Art)

Henry did not arrive in Paris for his extended stay until March 1930, at which time Alexina was newly married as Alexina Matisse. The Matisses then opened Pierre’s gallery in New York in 1931.That leaves a window of opportunity for Henry meeting Alexina in 1930-31. Henry was familiar with NY-based Pierre in 1936, so possibly they’d all met during one of Pierre’s return visits to Paris in the 30s. Alexina was unmarried from 1949 to 1953, but Henry was in Big Sur most of that time, and married to two different women in that period. As well, I don’t have any impression that he really knew Alexina outside of her relation to Pierre. Bottom line: if this anecdote is accurate, then Henry seems to have made a crude proposition to a married woman, whether she was Alexina Matisse or Alexina Duchamp.

[1] (New York Times). 1954. On This Day. “Obituary-Art World Mourns Henri Matisse, Dead at Home in Nice at Age of 84:” November 4, 1954. LINK; [2] The New Instinctivism was published only recently in Nexus: The International Henry Miller Journal, Vol. 4. Matisse refs on pages 22-24. With acknowledgement to Karl Orend who had previously explored the Henri Matisse connection in footnote 107 of this published Instinctivism essay; [3] I found the dates for this exhibition in several on-line sources, including a reference to a 1931 commemorative book from the exhibit. See listing at Antiqbook; [4] Miller, Henry. 1987 [1934]. Tropic Of Cancer. NY: Grove Press; [5] Ferguson, Robert. 1991. Henry Miller: A Life. NY: WW Norton, p. 346. I’ve found no other references to this be specially drawn, or simply acquired-- Ferguson does not list his source; [6] Wickes, George, ed. 1996. Henry Miller And James Laughlin: Selected Letters. New York: Norton, p. 7; [7] Wickes, George, ed. 1996. Henry Miller And James Laughlin: Selected Letters. New York: Norton, pp. 147-154; [8] Sattler's bio was sourced with Wikipedia, (in Dutch), Geneall, and a couple fo other minor references elsewhere. Her photo was found here, as part of a group shot from the 1940s.


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