Directly? Probably not an awful lot. But indirectly, Matisse was the inspiration behind the Dark Angels writing course I went on last week in Vence, France. I was part of a group of 12 business writers, including our own colleague, Heather Atchison, looking for inspiration to improve our writing.
A week away? At this time of year? I can feel the shockwaves rippling through our annual report colleagues – but actually, I’ve found that going away at this time of year to reconnect with the invigorating power of language was a useful boost in making sure we retain the energy and commitment we need to pursue the best possible writing in our March year-end reports, right to the very end.
We wrote a lot, shared our writing, talked about writing, and honed our techniques of observation, listening and expression. We painted pictures with words. We’d probably never write anything quite like what we produced in Vence in a corporate context, but we’ll certainly use the techniques we worked with. And, most importantly, we reminded ourselves of how words can guide, influence and move our readers.
Here’s a beautiful example of Heather’s work – a poem inspired by the relationship of Matisse and the favourite model of his twilight years, Monique Bourgeois, who left him to become a nun.
Coeur à coeur
When charcoal meets paper
That is the moment
He takes what he can get of you.
Mere suggestions, really
But your spirit, captured.
The cock of your head
The lift of your mouth
The element of eyebrow surprise
If he cannot have you
Cannot possess you
Even briefly take you
He can hold you on paper
Snap you in repose
Arrested by his hand
To stay, in that moment
Heart to heart,
Yet always at arm’s length.
26 April 2019, Vence
“Night nurse needed. Should be young and pretty.” This was the ad Matisse placed in a nursing school in Nice in 1942. Monique Bourgeois applied – her family needed money and she was the sole breadwinner. She was 21; Matisse was 73.
They immediately hit it off. They were kindred spirits. She sat for sessions, and he drew and painted her. In a letter to a friend, he described his flirtation with Monique as a ‘fleurtation’: “what takes place between us is like a shower of flowers – rose petals that we throw at each other.”
Three to four years later, having recovered from TB at a convent in Vence, Monique decided to become a nun. Matisse tried to talk her out of it, but she persisted and became Sister Jacques-Marie.
When asked later in life if they had ever had a love affair, she said: “Well, there’s more than one kind of love affair.” In the Chapelle du Rosaire in Vence, there’s a video on a loop, featuring an extended interview with Sister Jacques-Marie in old age. She’s asked about her relationship with Matisse, and in her response she uses the phrase “coeur à coeur”.