Matisse and Baudelaire: Poems and Paintings in Prose

    "Matisse is a better writer than painter" I once remarked to a friend, having just perused Jazz a book of Matisse's art work accompanied by his prose, which appears in longhand. My friend seemed insulted, possibly because she too is an artist and an amateur of Matisse. A reconciliation with my friend, and a rationale for my comparison is in Matisse's 1904 "Luxe, calme et volupté." Looking at the relationship of Baudelaire's verse poem "Invitation au voyage," the apparent inspiration to the Matisse piece, with the poem in prose of the same name, will show some relations of poetry and prose with Baudelaire that will draw light on correspondences of drawing and painting with Matisse. It is not that Matisse's prose is better than his paintings, but that the two work in tandem, in a continuing editing process of poetry conversing with prose to become art, and prose being added back to poetry, the prose being our human attempts to express what we see.

                                        Drawing vs. Painting: Drawing as "Inventive" Writing

    John Elderfield reminds us that Matisse makes a distinction between drawings and paintings. "My drawings and paintings are separated"(29). The drawings are like "plastic writing" with the color filling in the compartments. It is "the eternal conflict of drawing and color in the same individual"(29). The "color" aspect is the poetic part of his work, with the "plastic writing or drawing" being the necessary prose process. Matisse explains his theory of signs with a Chess game metaphor. "I can't play with signs that never change. The Bishop, the King, the Queen mean nothing to me"(29). The sign is created with its use in a particular context. "I cannot determine in advance signs which never change and which would be like writing: that would paralyze the freedom of my invention"(29). Ordinary writing uses unchanging signs but the "inventive" writing will end in art or poetry - language or signs put together in such a new context as to give a privileged access to reality.

    Matisse prefers hieroglyph in his description of the process - a sacred carving which reminds us of Baudelaire whose poet, in the seminal poem "Correspondences," is a "hierophant," an interpreter of the sacred mysteries of nature.

Nature is a temple whose living columns
Lets out sometimes confused words.
A man passes there through the forests of symbols
Which look at him with familiar regards. (39)
    The hierophant is not from a specific religion, but one who walks through the forests of symbols and sees, explains and experiences the eternal correspondences - who takes words and arranges them in ways to increase our human experiences to eternal intensity.

                                                        The metaphor/metonymy method

    John Elderfield cites Roman Jakobson's distinction of metaphor\metonymy in describing Matisse's constructional method. Jacobson observes that people with aphasia or severe speech disorders have difficulties in balancing the two speech axis: metaphor compares things and works on word for word or image for image substitutions, while metonymy is concerned with attributes, and works in a more linear word for word or image for image association (eg. Lou Gehrig as the Iron Horse is metaphor of his endurance record, and Lou Gehrig's disease is a metonymy of the muscular disease which has the story of how the strongest can be humiliated by the disease microbes in our world). People with aphasia use more metaphoric constructions, but have trouble linking structures, seeing what causes things to be alike.

    Matisse's metaphors reach full power when we become aware of the metonymical process going on. In "Blue Nude" the woman is compared to a flower (metaphor). At first, the landscape appears warm and the woman cool and geometrical, but then Elderfield shows us how the contours of nature rhyme with the woman's contours. Our mind sees the metonymical process of the woman flowering into fecundity. The woman-flower is the metaphor. At first, her space is separated from the plants. The woman flowering is the process we hope to arrive at (31). The landscape and woman flower together and correspond due to our metonymical process or desire. Memory links experiences on the basis of their similarity. In Baudelaire's "Correspondences" the second stanza points the way.

Like long echoes which from afar mingle together
In a shadowy and profound unity,
Vast as the night and like clarity,
Perfumes, colors and sounds correspond.
    Metaphors are the links. The senses answer each other, as in synesthesia, like echoes from afar both in space and time. How we make these metaphors is a more metonymical process as the poet explains in the remaining tercets of the sonnet. There are fresh perfumes like baby's flesh,
Sweet like oboes, green like the prairies,
And others corrupt, rich, and triumphant,
Having the expansion of infinite things,
Like amber, musk, benjamin and incense,
Which sing the transports of the spirit and the senses. (40)
    The transports are the metaphors, made up of the senses answering each other while the metonymical process allows us to sing them with coherence. Barbara Johnson compares the "comme"s or "like"s to Archimedes' fulcrums which lift the past out of its profound and shadowy unity (29). I see metaphors as links of places in the past and present, with metonymies as the necessary memory process to use the fulcrums.

                                                                        The Mirror

    With all their power to recall, artists are drawn back to the original generated emotion, what caused them to do the piece in the first place - the origin of our creative moments. Matisse and Baudelaire are drawn back to their relationship with the world they are explaining and seeing. Elderfield reads the mirror images in Matisse as reflections of separation, estrangement, and a nostalgia for an impossible coherence (31). He interprets the painting "Luxe, calme et volupté" as a study on the relationship of the artist and model, not through "Invitation au voyage," but with a Baudelaire essay, "The Painter of Modern Life." He rejects Jack Flam's thesis that Matisse mixed his references and was probably thinking about the adjacent poem to "Invitation," "Le Beau navire" where childhood joins maturity. In the essay, Baudelaire talks about youthful impressions strangely related to intensely colored impressions that we feel when recovering from a physical illness. The artist's state of mind is like a child who is an eternal convalescent (36). The physical illness is reality, with the recovery being childhood's colored impressions. In "Luxe, calme et volupté," a child wrapped in a blanket faces us, the spectators, and some nude women, Venus and her attendants near a blanket, who have just left the boat docked on the beach. To the left of the child is a dressed woman (Madame Matisse, the artist's wife. The child is the artist's son.). She sits in front of a picnic set on another blanket. Behind the mother is a nude with her back to us, hands stretched out in front of a distant arcadian mountain scene and sea. Elderfield believes the child sees the nudes, but the mother does not. It is a privileged view of reality that the artist gives us. The surrogate for the viewers' experience is the child, but it is also the artist, the first viewer, and we looking at the child who is looking at his Venus vision, without the awareness of his mother. There is a mirror process here similar to Lacan's mirror stage, the pre-language stage where the child becomes aware of his difference from his mother with the aid of a mirror, which is, here, the adult artist looking at himself as a child, and aware that he sees naked women, a vision of which his mother is unaware. Elderfield says the artist as viewer "observes that it [mirror stage] is atemporal and can be superseded only by the acquisition of history through language, which joins the child to pre-existing conditions" (36). The integration of interior vision and the external conventions are at work. The artist sets up a mise-en-abyme, a setting in the abyss, where we are in doubt about the origin of the observation. The artist sees a model (here the model is composed of the whole picnic of mother, nudes and the child) and the model sees a vision and the artist, too. Mise-en-abyme is a mirror setting which has a goal of a "nostalgia for an impossible coherence" between artist and model (35). The tableau is a window where we share the internal viewer's vision, plus see the limits of his vision by the nude in the back left whose back to us and her outstretched arms signal the limits of the vision. Elderfield reminds us that Matisse's "Back" sculptures would lean resignedly against the limits of their world (37). Thus, we see Lacan's mirror stage of child about to enter the adult world of language or the symbolic stage.

    The creation of the artist's "unreal space" coinciding with the real vision of the world in the same tableau is a rich reading of this painting. We do not have to compromise, though, the influence of Baudelaire's "Invitation au voyage" with other Baudelaire poems or essays. We can call Matisse's painting a "reading" of Baudelaire's "Invitation" with the help of Barbara Johnson's reading of Baudelaire's two "Invitations," the verse poem and the poem in prose.

                                                 Johnson's "Poetry and its Double"

    As Matisse's drawing and color combine for overall painting, Johnson reads the verse poem and the poem in prose as necessary to each other in the total poetical experience. The prose version, written two years after the verse version is not greeted with the same success. In the prose, Baudelaire adds poetic cooking to the invitation, "where cooking itself is poetic, rich and exciting at the same time"(50 Johnson). At stake here is more than just poetic cooking. What makes something poetic?(24). What is the nature of poetry?

In analyzing the persuasive process of the verse poem she focuses on the second stanza where we have an interior where everything speaks to the poet and lover's soul in their sweet native language.

                All would speak there/ To the soul in secret/ Its sweet native language. (49-51)

    The end of language is the process of returning to Eden, the end of all difference. There is an apparent contradiction in the first stanza and refrain as the poet invites the lover to a place that resembles her, where "the wet suns of the cloudy skies, have for my mind, the charms so mysterious of your treacherous eyes shining through their tears." However, in the refrain, "There, all is only order, luxury, calm, and voluptuousness," the "there" is not that of his lover, but what he wants her lover to be. He is inviting the metaphor (eyes and suns) to change through his desire (metonymy). Johnson believes the poem's endpoint is curiously missing. Are the ships arriving or leaving? The text is organized around its own disappearance as the "world goes to sleep in a warm light."(29).

    The prose version is in the third person and there is no intimate "incestuous" relation with the poet and invited lover as in "My sister, my child." "There is a superb country, a land of Cockaigne, they say, which I dream of visiting with an old friend." The use of third person takes away the invitation. The "likes" of the prose make the lady a mirror herself like all the precious commodities. The "likes" here are inclusive. The mirrors are another item on the long list. The lady is the focalization through which you see everything.

The mirrors, the metals, the cloth, the gold and the crockery play for the eyes a mute symphony... A real country of Cockaigne where everything is rich, proper, and shining, like a beautiful conscience, like a magnificent battery of cookware, like the splendid wares of a goldsmith, like gaudy jewelry. (32-33 Johnson) In the verse version the shiny, mirrory interior is a reflection of sweet native language(32).

    The prose version is full of bourgeois moralities like value, honesty, and treasures coming from work (33-4). Johnson compares the prose version to Marx's Capital and shows that the prose poem is ironically showing that language in poetry is like money. The goal of money is to make more money and the goal of language is that the signs have multiple signifiers. Money becomes capital and adds to itself, while poetry's goal is to add more poetry or metaphors to itself. "They are my thoughts that come back from the infinite enriched to you." Poetry is blind that it operates on the same logic of capitalism (38).

    The prose operates on clichés like comparing the lady to a "black tulip" or a "blue dahlia" two well-known flowers of Alexandre Dumas and Pierre Dupont (40). The difference between cliché and poetry is a fine line. Johnson sees the verse version as more aesthetic, trying to create a land of beauty for the lovers, with the prose being more ethical oriented to consumers (43). "The treasures of the world have found their way there like in the house of a hard working man."

    The prose poem has castrated the words of seduction out of the verse: " charms, eyes, tears, beauty, voluptuousness, sooth, desire and love." The rhythm is castrated too. The prose version is the other country of the poem like the verse version is the "other" of the prose (44). The "all" of the poem is exclusive and metaphoric with paradigms of order, luxury, calm, and voluptuousness. The prose poem's list is inclusive and metonymic. " Where all is beautiful, rich, tranquil and honest... where disorder and the unforeseen are excluded"(50-51). The prose version eliminates disorder etc. It is the process of poetry to eliminate what is not poetry from the prose (47). Poetry then becomes language which mutilates itself to become a poem. The poetry, likewise castrates the prose and the cultural codes from itself. The poem is the prose minus the clichés and the prose is the poem in the act of mutilating itself. The two versions then become a dialog with themselves to produce poetic works.

    When Johnson points out that Baudelaire has taken the eyes (the harmonic I and eye as origins of creative moments) out of the verse, I am tempted to compare the eyes to Matisse's sun. When Matisse adds the color to his "inventive writing" he is really letting the sun do its work and color the painting.

                                                Matisse reads "Invitation au voyage"

    Matisse reads Baudelaire's poem and "writes" his own interpretation with his tableau "Luxe, calme et volupté," inviting us to share his vision of where artist and model are integrated completely in the love act of their creation. Louis Aragon credits Matisse with giving us a better impression of what the sun is like. The sun and eyes are metaphors in his work and his interpretation of Baudelaire's poem will let us see the connection. In the first stanza, the poet invites his lover to live with him in a land that looks like her.

                                                            My child, my sister,
                                                            Dream of the sweetness
                                                            To go there to live together
                                                            To live in leisure
                                                            To live and die
                                                            In the country that looks like you. (77-78)

The poet likes this land, and is fascinated by her treacherous eyes shining through their tears.

                                                            The wet suns
                                                            of these cloudy skies
                                                            For my mind have the charm
                                                             So mysterious
                                                            Of your treacherous eyes
                                                            Shining through their tears.

                    There, all is only order and beauty,
                    Luxury, calm, and voluptuousness.
    Treacherous can mean more than just love betrayal. He likes the fact that she could be thinking about many different things under her exterior, but still wants a place where there can be order and calm in this situation. Matisse sketches a place where the boy wrapped in a blanket has a vision (treacherous or at least sensuous) of naked women right there in front of his mother! In this land, the son can have erotic visions in the calm presence of his mother, because it is the mature artist who is sketching the scene viewing it through his eyes as a child, but with his adult comprehension. Getting in to Matisse's vision as a child is quite exciting. "Getting in" has sexual, sensual connotations. I have met my best friends entering their minds in this way.

In the second stanza, the oriental shiny interior with its deep mirrors speak to the soul in secret its sweet native language.
                                                        Shining furniture
                                                        Polished by the years
                                                        Would decorate our room;
                                                        The rarest flowers
                                                        Mingling their fragrances
                                                        To the vague sensations of amber,
                                                        The rich ceilings,
                                                        The deep mirrors,
                                                        Oriental splendor,
                                                        All would speak there
                                                        To the soul in secret
                                                        Its sweet native language.

    This sweet native language is the mise en abyme where artist and model lose themselves completely. The setting in abyss has the artist looking at himself as a child looking at his mother and the nudes and also looking back at us the viewers conscious of this infinite regard. The mother of the painting does not share the invitation, but anyone who desires, can see the artist's vision. The mise en abyme is a mirror that allows artist and models and reader\viewers to share the same landscape. In the Baudelaire poem it is in the interior of the poem and an interior setting. In the Matisse, this stanza is the mise-en-abyme set up in our minds as we watch the child watch us, the nudes, his mother, the artist, and us. It is not on the canvas, but in the shared territory of our minds and the artist's. The world of commodities and parents and their law enter the same landscape as art and eroticism, but are also excluded from that eroticism in the same setting, thanks to the artist's gift of his privileged view. It is like Baudelaire's verse eliminating the prose and adding the seduction from the prose.

    In the third stanza the boats, that came from the ends of the earth, balancing on the canals in a vagabond mood have just, or will satisfy the lover's least desire.

                                                            See on these canals
                                                            Sleeping these vessels
                                                            Whose mood is wandering;
                                                            It is to sooth
                                                            Your least desire
                                                            That they come from the end of the world.

The sun dresses the fields with hyacinth and gold. In the ultimate union or sex act with artist and model or landscape, the color comes in and completes the poetic process. We can now go to sleep in a warm light.

                                                            The setting suns
                                                            Dress the fields,
                                                            The canals, the whole city,
                                                            In hyacinth and gold
                                                            The world falls asleep
                                                            In a warm light.
                                                    There, all is only order and beauty,
                                                    Luxury, calm and voluptuousness.

    The absence or silence that the poem leads up to is the final orgasm or death. A place where you can have luxurious commodities, sensual pleasures, not be embarrassed by parents, or hassled by treacherous lovers. There is a calm brought about as artist and his world have gotten to know themselves better, and have made love. Matisse adds his color and the vision is complete. We have been in his privileged world, a world, that even his mother and other nonpoetic people are not allowed in. We can go to sleep and await the next experience.

                                                                Prose for Matisse

    Hermetic poet Stephane Mallarmé's "Prose pour Des Esseintes," is really in verse, but it will read like prose for Des Esseintes, a decadent cerebral hero of J.K. Huysmans' Against The Grain. Or, so I thought, until my mentor Wallace Fowlie informed me that a medieval meaning of prose is liturgical language used in the mass to prepare for the gospel reading, the eternal reading. Therefore, this prose is language suitable and in honor of Des Esseintes. Prose for Matisse is not ordinary writing, but "inventive writing" that allows us to see how he creates. He sometimes photographed his work at intervals to show his process. His prose drawings, like Baudelaire's, are important dialogues with his poetic art that allows us to see both in tandem. Prose for Matisse prepares us for his eternal visions when he and we color them in with our I -eye.


Aragon, Louis. Henri Matisse: a Novel. Trans. Jean Stewart. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Jovanovich, 1971. Baudelaire, Charles. Les Fleurs du mal. Paris: Garnier- Flammarion,1964.
Elderfield, John. Henri Matisse: A Retrospective. New York:   Museum of Modern Art, 1992.
Johnson, Barbara. The Critical Difference.Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins UP: 1980.