In our last blog post of the series, assistant curator Flavia Frigeri explains how Matisse's cut-outs were transformed into cloth in what the artist called his masterpiece - the design of the Vence chapel
Between 1948 and 1952 Henri Matisse embarked in his largest commission to date, the Chapel of the Rosary of the Dominicans at Vence, a few miles west of Nice and not far from his studio, the Villa le Rêve. Overseeing every aspect of its design from the stained glass windows to ceramic murals and liturgical accoutrements, Matisse left nothing to chance including the priest’s robes. The chasubles were treated in fact as an integral element in his overall design scheme. Most importantly Matisse recognised that while every other component of the Chapel would be fixed, the chasubles, when worn by priests celebrating mass, would bring movement to an otherwise static environment. The chasubles were thus viewed throughout the design process as a key component of the chapel and still today priests wear Matisse’s chasubles when celebrating mass in the Chapel.
Only once Matisse had completed work on the ceramic murals and stained-glass windows he turned his attention to the chasubles. This was no easy task for Matisse who had previously designed costumes for the Ballets Russes, but never encountered a situation in which both shape and style of the garments was predetermined by liturgical conventions. He turned for advice to the art-minded Dominican priest Father Marie-Alain Couturier, who had provided key support during the Chapel’s entire design process. Sharing his concerns with Couturier, Matisse said:
For some time already I’ve been thinking about the style of the chasubles….I’m thinking about the new garment a very simple kind of toga to which panels in a variety of colors can be attached, corresponding to the type of service on a given day. In this connection, I plan to go and see the embroidering and weaving sisters whose fingers respect the grand style. In your opinion, do I need to get permission from higher authorities for these vestment changes, or do I simply need to get the approval of the interested parties? I hope the abundant occasion for daydreaming which your hours of inactivity are bringing to you will give you leisure to consider the possibility of getting approval for this novel design of chasuble.
The novel design that Matisse was preaching would indeed be approved and in keeping with the prescribed liturgical colours, the artist designed six sets of chasubles: white, green, violet, red, rose, and black. He then worked closely with local artisans and the Dominican Sisters of Les Ateliers des Arts Appliqués, as they transformed his cut-out designs into cloth.