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Matisse's Exterminator and the Toothpaste that Brightens My Email

Updated: Nov 21, 2019

A photo story by Maureen Cain

I combine my errands to purchase toothpaste and avocados with a visit to a Matisse museum because, well, that's how we roll in the South of France.

One of Matisse's final projects was the design of a chapel in the nearby town of Vence, where I go regularly to shop. A client mentioned that Matisse's old home is close to the chapel, but it can be hard to find. I'm up for the challenge of the treasure hunt, so I make my way up the hill to Vence.

The Chapelle du Rosaire de Vence is a short walk from the center of town, over La Lubiane river. (I've hiked downstream from this river in hills near St Paul de Vence.)

It doesn't look like much from the outside, but having studied Matisse, I'm familiar with the stained glass, drawings and paintings of the interior and I'm anxious to get inside.

The seemingly random times that things are closed in France confounds me. The chapel is open in the afternoon only today, so I walk back into town to run my errands. I will return in a few hours.

The lucky children of Vence attend Chagall elementary school and Matisse high school. I think about the rural town in Arizona where I was an art teacher for a few years just out of college. I took my students on the four hour journey to the University of Arizona's art museum to see work by female artists Georgia O'Keeffe and Anonymous. We also saw their Matisse and Chagall collections. For many of my students, this was the only time in their life they would visit a museum.

I pass the high school named for Matisse and find a flea market in the center of Vence. I photograph several treasures in this bright sunlight that has drawn artists here for decades. Then I head toward the supermarket.

I walk by the law office of Virginie Roger. As you can see, the word for lawyer in French is "avocat."

At the supermarket, I pick up avocados. Avocado in French is also "avocat." I learned this last year in Paris when I accompanied my sister to a meeting with her lawyer. They were supposed to be discussing a conflict she was having with her landlord, but they appeared to be talking about guacamole for over an hour.

I also need toothpaste. This looks good.

I hope it brightens my emails.

My errands are done so I walk back over the bridge and return to the Matisse chapel.

The chapel is open! I ask for my ticket in what I think is French. The cashier looks confused but then rescues us both by responding in English. The interior of the chapel, the attached museum and the artwork it contains are undeniably stunning. But as with most of my museum-going experiences, I'm conflicted. I'm drawn to the art, but I'm disappointed in the artist and the male centered systems that favor and celebrate male artists while ignoring equally or more talented female artists. Matisse's sexism was not as blatant as some of his male contemporaries (I'm talking to you, Picasso), but it's present and the injustice of it is upsetting. It's becoming increasingly impossible to swallow the "separate the art from the artist" pill we've been fed for so long. (I'm talking to you, Louis CK.)

I'm trying to focus on my feminist rage, but it's difficult when I'm surrounded by so much beauty. Tucked in a corner I find this exquisite drawing and momentarily forgive Matisse for his misogyny. The elegance of this sketch and all it captures in just six lines moves me. I ignore the signs that say photography is STRICTLY PROHIBITED to sneak this picture. I'll stop at the gift shop to purchase a postcard of this image as recompense for my rule breaking. (At least, I tell myself, I'm not vandalizing anything like I did the last time my feminist ire was up in Vence.)

On the way out, I ask the cashier where Matisse's old house is. She says it's 300 meters away, but she won't tell me (in English or French) what street it's on or even which direction I should walk. Up the road I find this sign, which offers as much clarity as the museum cashier.

Finally I see it. There's a fence with thick hedges around the villa. I poke around. I stick my camera through the chain link. I'm on a lifelong quest for the keys to creativity, so I look for Matisse's inspiration. I search for a fleck of his talent, a hint of his dedication, an answer to how he tells a story with a curve of his pencil.

I find none of those things. Instead I meet an exterminator in the driveway of Matisse's "Villa Le Reve" or House of Dreams.

I'm struck by how unexceptional and more than a little run down this wasp-infected home is and, again, my feelings for the artist soften. The discovery of this everyday domestic scene is satisfying to me. Henri was just a man and, like the rest of us, he was living in a ordinary house.

My treasure hunt a success, I return down the twisty road

with riches from the day in my bag.

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