Killed by Matisse in 1941, Courthion’s Interviews Are Resurrected


A book due out from the Getty Research Institute next month unearths nine conversations with Henri Matisse that have remained unseen for over 70 years. Chatting with Henri Matisse: The Lost 1941 Interview, edited by Serge Guilbaut, consists of writer Pierre Courthion’s lengthy exchanges with the French artist, which Matisse suppressed. 

Germany’s 1940 invasion of France, displacing millions of French families, landed the aging painter in Nice on the Cote d’Azur after a circuitous journey from Paris. Diagnosed a few months later with diverticulitis, he was transported to Lyon, where he underwent an operation that he thought might kill him. Among his visitors during a four-month convalescence was the Swiss publisher Albert Skira, who, hearing that Matisse was bored stiff while away from his studio, suggested that the artist use the time to record his life in some way. Skira found an interviewer, the Franco-Swiss critic Courthion, and, in a coup for the publisher, signed a contract for a book that would be illustrated in Matisse’s own hand. 

Curiously, the interviews that Matisse conducted with Courthion over several months of 1941 never saw the light of day, as Matisse suddenly decided to cancel the contract just as the project was ready to go to press. Something about Courthion seems to have rubbed the modernist master the wrong way. In order to have an excuse to cancel the publication, Matisse had his doctor produce a letter stating that the artist was not in a normal state of mind after his operation. 

The Getty Research Institute, which acquired the Courthion archives in 1985 (the interviews were never really “lost”), is presumably hoping to ride a wave of renewed interest in Matisse that has seen several popular museum exhibitions in the last two years. 

The interviews in their final form, appearing in French and English in the new volume, are hardly contentious. In the course of 142 pages in the English translation, one hears about Matisse’s youthful activities, his antics while in art school, his first artist friends and mentors, especially Gustave Moreau, his difficulties with Russian impresario Sergei Diaghilev during the 1920 staging of Rossignol, a ballet featuring music by Stravinsky with stage design by Matisse, and his foreign travels. In the later interviews, conducted when the artist had returned to Nice from Lyon and gone back to painting, the discussion moves to his art and techniques, to light and color, to other painters. France’s then current problems—shortages of food, clothing and transportation, a country split in half by a demarcation line, Gestapo arrests of early resistors, the suffering of Jews—never come up. 

As can be observed in the facsimile reproduction of several pages, Matisse went over the interviews carefully and rewrote certain passages in the margins, as did Courthion. He also edited out some 20 pages. A few of those nixed pages have been reinstated from the Courthion archives in the forthcoming publication—though only in translation. They may constitute a scoop, but not one that will enhance Matisse’s image. Among other things, the artist calls Americans “children” at a time when they were Europe’s only potential saviors (“Americans are like children who do the first thing that comes into their head”), and he is haughty toward nouveau riche American collectors, his most devoted supporters. Albert Barnes, the Rockefellers, the Clarks and Miss Kohn (sic) all take it on the chin. 

Once those passages had been deleted, and other changes agreed upon, Matisse signed off on the final version, and then bang, he changed his mind and broke his contract. Asked by his son Pierre what had happened, Matisse replied by mail on Mar. 11, 1942:

“Time went by faster thanks to these sÈances, and once I had returned to Nice, Courthion came by [after] a few weeks to finalize everything. One must say that Courthion is not a brilliant writer and that he had done something rather mesquin [Matisse’s word for small-minded]. I went over everything with him once the work was finished, with drawings for illustrations. I said NO—major event. Only because weakened by my illness had I let myself be carried away to comment on my life.” (My translation of a letter at the Morgan Library, New York.)

On the issue of Courthion’s not-so-brilliant writing, Matisse may have had a point. The critic’s style is convoluted. But little small-mindedness surfaces in the revised interviews. So what happened? 

For Guilbaut, “it was a story of crises, intrigues, duplicity, and surprises,” as he writes in the book’s introduction. There were disagreements with Skira over the length of the text and over the choice of paper, details that were eventually ironed out. The final hitch came after Matisse showed the text to friends (among them writers André Rouveyre and Roger Martin du Gard), who advised him against publishing the interviews. Guilbaut suggests that “Rouveyre may well have contemplated taking Courthion’s place in some future work.”

It is also possible that Courthion was not the ideal choice of interviewer for Matisse during the war years. “For us,” he writes in his 1942 book Le Visage de Matisse, “art can no longer be uniquely the unstoppable projection of oneself in a mirror. . . . In times of danger for all, must not the artist empathize with the suffering by making of his art a hard-hitting weapon? From this angle, there is a chasm between the generation of Matisse and ours” (my translation). 

During the war, while Matisse and his Fauve contemporaries were enjoying new exhibition opportunities—their escapist art passed muster with German and French censors—Courthion was contributing Resistance-themed poetry to the Swiss review Lettres; his wife was working in a British Resistance network; and, thanks to his Swiss passport, he was able to transport, at great personal risk, Resistance leaflets and other materials across the border between France and Switzerland. For Matisse, the prospect of a book of conversations with a man who turned out not to share his disengaged politics may have been one reason for suddenly experiencing cold feet. In the end, what went on behind the scenes is more significant than the words exchanged between the artist and the critic.