The sky is ashy orange, the cloud dirty white descending to a leaden pink. The space in the center, either a low wall or a balcony floor, is a green of the drabbest hue. Sunshine enters on treads of gray. But inside the room, peering out the window at a world that appears to be erupting — it was, after all, 1918, and the world was at war — a young man in a khaki suit makes private music on a violin.
The painting is “Violinist at the Window,” which Matisse made in Nice in his second season there. This picture was on my mind as our plane made its descent into Marseille on Easter Sunday two weeks after we had left. We were deliriously happy to be coming back, to be re-burrowing into our private life. More and more, it was the message I took from Matisse — the gulf between the exterior and interior worlds, the surface and the subterranean. Balance — serenity — especially for an artist, was only possible if you kept the outer world at bay. Whether serenity was probable was an entirely different subject.
Recalling the tough Marseille of “The French Connection,” I had worried that we might find our silver Peugeot stripped and charred, but there it was parked perfectly intact in the April sun, shadowed by a date palm tree. From the airport Beth phoned Le Hôtel Mahogany in Cassis, where we had reservations for Monday night. Yes, they had a room available for Sunday, and we booked it on the spot. We had planned to drive directly from Marseille to the Camargue to pick up our things, but Le Cacharel had no availability and we -didn’t know where we might stay. This was better: Beth, especially, was exhausted. Cassis was only about 30 kilometers farther east. She could rest while I went back to Saintes--Maries--de--la--Mer.
Driving into Cassis on that Easter afternoon, we could understand why artists loved the place. Our hotel overlooked a small quiet bay a short walk from the village and port. A high chalky cliff grew out of the far left horizon, its spiny fingers forming calanques, or shallow fjordlike inlets the color of my -cousin’s big opal ring. Framing the view on the right stood a handsome two--terraced house that the hotel manager said had been featured in, ironically, “The French Connection.” Straight ahead — across the street — the Mediterranean rippled in short quick strokes of deep blue with a copper wash, an effect of the late--day sun on the cliffs beyond.
That night, jet--lagged and a little giddy, we ventured no farther than next door to a cozy restaurant. Modern travel moves the body faster than the mind can adjust. On Monday I went to retrieve our things. This time I realized, as I -hadn’t before, how close the Camargue was to Arles, where poor old Vincent van Gogh had tried in vain to establish the kind of art community that John Peter Russell later built in Belle--Île and Paul Signac had established in Saint--Tropez. The lessons of their lives -weren’t lost on Matisse, who increasingly sidestepped the notion of an artistic community and went straight to the ideal of a life built around the making of art. Van Gogh, whose unstable personality -didn’t mesh with mankind, had nevertheless had it right — art requires a private stand.
Beth and I loved van -Gogh’s work and in 1991 had even written a screenplay together called “Sunflowers,” about the theft of that famous painting. In the late 1980s, a Japanese billionaire had bought it for nearly $40 million — at that time the highest price ever paid for a single piece of art. Almost immediately, that record was eclipsed by van -Gogh’s “Portrait of Dr. Gachet,” which went, in 1990, for $82.5 million. When van Gogh painted “Sunflowers,” he was fasting and by necessity looking forward to receiving the 50 francs his brother Theo had promised to send. When he shot himself, at age 36, he had sold only one painting. “Why -don’t you chase van Gogh?” a friend had asked, I think benignly, as though I had selected Matisse by throwing darts at names on a board.
“Too short a journey,” I said. “I’m chasing Matisse so I -don’t have to chase Hemingway.”
Driving through van Gogh country, I thought of an interview I had conducted the summer before with Townsend Wolfe, an artist in his own right who was then completing 34 years as curator of the Arkansas Arts Center. -“What’s the point of painting?” I had asked; it was the kind of surface question that most people would assume they knew the answer to, until they started drowning in the unfathomable depths of the obvious. Wolfe was a little taken aback. -“It’s a way to communicate, to someone else, emotions and intellect,” he began. “Conflict and the resolving of conflict is what an artist deals with constantly. As soon as he puts that first colored mark on the white surface, he has corrupted that space. Then he has to correct that space, bringing order to it. -It’s that sort of back--and--forth involvement.”
That said, Wolfe then moved into territory he later told me he had never really explored before: “The artist has total control,” he said. “There is no editor. -That’s one of the reasons many artists do it. If a writer writes about a red barn, -it’s left to a -reader’s interpretation what color red it is. But if an artist paints it, -it’s the red he chooses. -It’s that red barn.”
Control, I thought as I exited the autoroute south of Arles. What a joke. Soon I turned onto a winding road down through the marsh to the sea. The white horses stood in their pens watching me pass. Tourists were out in force now, their packed minivans parked bumper to bumper along the shoulder by the corrals. On my left and right, plump holidaygoers in boat shoes held tight to the reins of horses walking in line behind cowboys. I was suddenly glad we had missed that adventure, though I was still in shock at the reason for it.
At Le Cacharel the owner, a man named Florian, was behind the counter at reception. Once I figured out who he was, I thanked him profusely. Waving away my words, he led me into his house to show me where to bring the cart. “We moved your things,” he said. “It was Easter. My cousin came; and we needed the bedroom.” They had stacked everything behind a sofa in the big living and dining room. Needing to attend to his guests, he left me alone to come and go. I parked the cart by a side door across from the marsh and began carrying our luggage to it. This time the loading -didn’t feel onerous; I was glad to see my Matisse books, my French easel, my laptop. It was a reunion with old friends.
Before leaving, I stopped by reception to return -Florian’s key. The maid who had helped us that morning was standing there, and I took that opportunity to tell the Big Boss how helpful, how comforting, she had been. She smiled and blushed, and he seemed proud of her. I hoped he would promote her, or at least give her a raise.
“We’ll come back someday under happier circumstances,” I said, and then I got in the car and drove off, past languid flamingos and staring white horses, doubling back toward the autoroute and the continuation of the journey.
EFORE -[mother-in-law] BOBBYE’S DEATH, we had planned to go directly from Le Cacharel to visit Anne Pierre--Humbert and see -Pierre’s southern studio in Saint--Laurent--la--Vernède when Anne was there before Easter. It was just up the road, as we say at home.
Pierre’s painting continued to astonish me. In Auray I had propped up the Galerie Daniel Besseiche poster of his brick--red “Grenades et Anémones” so I could look at it while I wrote. I also pored over his catalogs for inspiration, and not just as a painter. What intrigued me was his absence of hard lines, rigid definitions, firm borders, like pictures of half--asleep prayer. In their amorphousness, his canvases seemed to capture the incomplete, elliptical nature of real real life. I wished desperately that Pierre--Humbert were still alive. His had been the only whisper I heard in the dark of a Paris winter. He knew what he was doing, and he knew why creating was a noble way to spend a life. Ultimately, what was more real — the surface life, or the life inside? Most of us wish for the latter and settle for the former, but it -didn’t have to be that way. I had the instinct, and sometimes the faith, but I needed someone like Pierre--Humbert to lead me through the paint. His replacement would be hard to find.
The white highway lines blurred past like so many sheep on a sleepless night, growing from dots to blocks and then disappearing in my wake. That day my frame of mind received the broken center line as the exquisite, timeless pattern of life and loss. How much art has been fashioned from such voids? Not just from the finality of death, but — as in -Matisse’s case — from the persistent, unbalancing loss of family. Estrangement from his father began early, but before -Matisse’s journey was over, his only consistently comforting blood bond was with his second son, Pierre. Of course, the other side of the question must also be asked: How many such voids have been fashioned from art?
Beth was in a different room when I got back to Cassis. The night before, we had stayed in a garden room; now we were on the front of the hotel with a balcony overlooking the bay. She had bought champagne, and we opened it outside where we could watch the cliffs and sea change colors. “People were swimming and sunbathing today,” she said. “They lie out on those rocks like seals.” We had yet to wear our swimsuits, but the time was near.
That night we walked into town and had an early dinner, then came back and went to bed. Cassis would be a rest stop. We needed it and this hotel provided it. It would’ve been a nice place to set up my easel and paint, but I -didn’t have the energy. I sketched the rocks, the bay, the villa, but after so much traveling, all I wanted to do was stare at the sea.
On Tuesday we put on our swimsuits and walked across the street to the little half--moon Plage de Bestouan, a rocky beach dotted by bright towels. The greased bodies made me think of oysters on the half shell, and quite a few were plump oysters. It didn’t matter: Whether the women were young, old, thin, or fat, they took off their tops and let their breasts breathe free. The men all wore tiny triangles of shiny fabric, never mind the flesh cascading over the waistband. At 11 a.m. the beach was packed. We spread our hotel towels between a sleeping middle--aged woman with alizarine crimson hair and a young mother struggling to rein in two little boys.
We had on too many clothes, Beth in her one--piece and me in my baggy surfer trunks. I rubbed lotion on her upper back and shoulders, and then Beth addressed her part of the problem — she promptly peeled down her top and applied lotion to her breasts. Lucky her. She lay back and opened her book. I had planned to nap, but decided that this beach was probably as close as I would come to a life drawing class until we stopped traveling. Three feet to my left, the middle--aged woman dozed on her back, her face shaded by a canvas hat. She wore what appeared, from that angle, to be a thong. I opened my book and made a quick bold line without taking my eyes off the subject. “The hand is a tool and -shouldn’t have any input at all,” Townsend Wolfe had said. “An artist sees both with his eyes and whatever soul he possesses.”
I liked the drawing of the sleeping woman; it had the fluid movement of a tracing. Her breasts rested flat against her chest, the one in the foreground appearing fuller. I especially liked the way I captured the angle of her legs. Glancing around for another model, I met the eye of the young mother next to me. Her breasts were pink and firm, and I ordered my brain to keep my eyes steady. It was better for me to stick with sleeping or otherwise occupied subjects. All these years later and I’m still hiding my pictures of breasts.
Down by -Beth’s left foot a young blond woman in a red bikini bottom fiddled with her hair, twisting it through a black scrunchy into a tight ponytail. I dashed off a couple of drawings, one focusing on her body, knees raised, and the other on the way her eyes looked closed. After that I sketched a woman lying on her stomach reading, and then a young girl in sunglasses leaning over with a necklace dangling above her breasts. Turning to my last piece of drawing paper, I scanned the beach and settled on a buxom blonde sitting cross--legged fixing her hair. The final sketch was especially fast and a little crude, but, looking at it later, I felt that it caught a hint of Gallic nonchalance where the body was concerned. Judging from her pose, she -might’ve been sitting on her bed after a bath. They were strange beings, the French: They erected walls around themselves and then went outside nearly naked.
“I -would’ve drawn you, but I ran out of paper,” I said to Beth.
“Promises, promises,” she said, shifting her lovely bosoms to the sun.
We spent four nights in Cassis, most of it close to Le Mahogany. We did try to get out one afternoon. Sophie Maillard, the young hotel manager, had suggested we drive to the top of the cliff across the bay. From there, she said, we would be able to see down into gemstone coves of liquid light. Unfortunately, on the way we got stuck in a single--lane traffic jam on a hill. In a few minutes smoke obscured our windshield, but we thought it was pouring from the car in front of us; then we noticed people yelling and pointing in our direction. I pulled over as far as I could, increasing the congestion, and popped the hood. Billowing plumes, a veritable volcano on the verge of eruption.
We agreed that it was time to use our free Peugeot road service. Beth made the phone call, and then, while we were waiting, she spotted a puppy wandering alone near the busy intersection. She jumped out of the car and began chasing the dog, who thought it was a game and resolved not to be captured. Passing motorists -didn’t know which show to watch, Beth or me. Eventually she snagged the puppy, only to be caught red--handed by its owner, who seemed at first to think a dognapping was in progress. The two dramas resolved themselves at approximately the same time when the now--grateful puppy owner ordered her bewildered husband to inspect our smoking car just as the wrecker drove up. For the next few minutes the mechanic gave me a congenial lecture — in French — about riding the clutch. The clutch was fine, but my manhood was scorched. By the time the wrecker left, I had lost my heart for sightseeing. I drove back to the hotel, parked the car, and spent the rest of the day staring at the sea from the safety of our balcony.
Beth decided that the Mediterranean was bluer in Cassis than it had been in Collioure. I wondered if that was simply a coastal cliche — “the -water’s always bluer on the other side” — but she pointed to the big ships drifting just beyond the mouth of the bay and made the case that deeper water resulted in deeper color. One afternoon I asked Sophie, who was from Normandy, how it was to live in Cassis. She loved it. She liked to run and to ride bikes, and of course, being from the north, liked the sunshine. “How much are apartments here in the summer?” I asked.
“Ah,” she said, in that suggestive French way, and then delivered the coup de grace: “Three thousand euros a week.” I mourned Collioure all the more.
Rest brought clarity, and clarity revealed the depth of my unease. We had been on a fast track, emotions on autopilot, acting without thinking. Now our job was to pick up the pieces and move on. But what pieces? Move where? Do what? Increasingly, I found home crowding my dreams. In one, my mother — whom I had visited while we were in the States — looked at me with her heartbreaking blue eyes. “What are you doing in France?” she said. When I told her I was researching a book, she promptly forgot and asked me the same question a few minutes later.
In another dream, Snapp and I were driving somewhere. “You -don’t love me anymore,” he said.
“Of course I do.”
He shook his head and looked out the window, and this time he -didn’t let his ears flap freely in the wind. “Not like you did two years ago,” he said.
“Come on, Snapp Man,” I said, pinching his little nub of a tail, and then I repeated the shocking statement that Henri Matisse had written, in the embattled year of 1941, to his son Pierre explaining his reasons for building a wall between art and family: “I have said that I love my family truly, dearly, and profoundly, but from a distance,” I recited, watching Snapp to see if he was listening. “A hyper--sensitive organism like mine can find human contacts unendurable and deeply wounding, even if the heart remains tender.”
In my dream, my -dog’s ears perked up and he cocked his head, but he -didn’t turn to look at me. “Human contacts?” Snapp said.
Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.