Henri Matisse saw Tangier as an earthly paradise. The artist visited the city twice, in 1912 and 1913, in search of a new direction for his art, and found inspiration for his greatest works in the bright African light, vivid colors and languid sensuality of the Moroccan landscape and architecture, the gardens and the people.
So when I visited Morocco's fabled city on the northern rim of Africa last year, I decided to follow in the footsteps -- or rather, the brush strokes -- of Matisse. What better guide than the great artist himself? I would try to see Tangier through his eyes.
An added inducement was the upcoming exhibition -- "Matisse in Morocco" -- of paintings and newly discovered drawings executed by the artist in Tangier, which opens next Sunday at the National Gallery of Art and runs through June 3 before traveling to the Museum of Modern Art in New York. More than half the paintings are on loan from the Pushkin and Hermitage museums in the Soviet Union; some have never before been seen outside that country.
The exhibition comprises the largest group of Matisse's Moroccan works ever to be shown. That alone seemed reason enough to look for Matisse's Tangier.
Matisse did most of his paintings in Tangier's casbah, or fortress, and in the medina, or medieval walled city. "He found what he wanted there," said Jack Cowart, curator of 20th-century art at the National Gallery. "Besides, Matisse really didn't like to travel farther than about a 400-yard radius from his hotel. He always had so much baggage to move about: canvases, stretchers, paints."
Often Matisse simply stayed in his hotel room to paint. When he first arrived in Tangier in January 1912, bad weather kept him inside. He sent a grumpy postcard to Gertrude Stein informing her that for five days "it had rained incessantly." So he set a vase on his hotel dresser and painted "Vase of Irises." That work anticipated the many hotel interiors he later painted in Nice, France.
But it was the view painted from his hotel in his famous "Landscape Viewed From a Window" that I wanted most to see.
During both of his several-month visits to Tangier, Matisse stayed at the Grand Hotel Villa de France. I made my way across the Grand Socco, the bazaar area, and up the hill above the medina, through crowded streets lined with small, open-fronted shops to the old hotel. It sits apart on a promontory high above the modern center of town with its wide boulevards and smart shops.
"Guests book their rooms here a year in advance," the desk clerk told me. And the frayed luxury of the hotel's portrait-lined lounges, blue-tiled courtyards, fountains, swimming pool, long terraces and gardens thick with pink hibiscus, white trumpet flowers and spiky green cactus coiling up the dark trunks of palm trees all seemed wildly romantic to me. No wonder Matisse stayed here!
In lofty comfort he looked down on the bright white city with its deep blue bay. I had to see his room!
But No. 35 was taken, I was told, by an artist from Japan who had reserved it for one month.
"Then I'm sure she won't mind if I knock on her door," I said. A most reluctant clerk led the way.
Maria Takakuwa smiled at my request and bowed me into the rather small, simple room. It was sparsely furnished in a hard, square, 1930s style -- certainly not the decor of Matisse's time. But the same tall shutters stood open, and palettes, brushes and tubes of oil paint littered the room and covered the bed.
She motioned me into the large old-fashioned bathroom. There, on two straight-backed chairs, Takakuwa had propped the big canvas she was working on. "This," she said, pointing out the bathroom window, "was Matisse's view." Together we leaned on the sill and looked out.
Below we saw what Matisse had painted in the "Landscape Viewed From a Window": the green-tiled roofs and square white steeple of St. Andrew's English church, now nearly hidden by date palms and evergreens; the white city; the tall, square, tiled minaret; the casbah on the distant hill and the sapphire Mediterranean Sea beyond. It was a magic moment.
Later, a small boy led me through a maze of alleyways in the medina, up a narrow, steep street of shallow steps to the casbah. We entered through Bab el Assa, or lookout gate. Here Matisse had set up his easel to paint the distant view of Tangier. He used the gate as a frame, foreshortening, rearranging and adding elements to suit his composition until all that remained the same as the actual setting was the shape of the gate and the distinctively Moroccan mood in his magnificent painting, "Casbah Gate."
Next to the Bab el Assa is the wall fountain, dry now, whose brightly colored patterned tiles, which appear so often in Matisse's paintings, are still in place.
In the casbah is the Dar el Makhzen, a former royal palace, now a museum, where Matisse presumably studied the beautiful tile work, wandered in the garden and absorbed the Islamic atmosphere. It was a new, exotic world. Its impact, according to Cowart, was "the hinge" between Matisse's earlier European fauvist style and his more original, powerful later work.
The "Moroccan Cafe"that Matisse painted has changed, however. Although men still are the predominant cafe patrons in this orthodox Moslem country, only a few continue to wear turbans or red fezzes with long black tassels. Yet most Moroccan women remain veiled, dressed in drab gray or black, their mouths covered with white cloths. Matisse probably found his colorfully dressed models, both male and female, in the souks or markets, where today Riffian tribesmen stride through the crowded lanes in striped djellabas, and Berber tribal women in wide-brimmed, conical straw hats topped with pompoms carry their babies on their backs.
Matisse painted his "Acanthus," "Periwinkles (Moroccan Garden)" and "The Palm" in the garden of a private villa owned by an Englishman. Then as now, life went on behind high walls.
For the outsider, wandering through Tangier's streets of flat facades is like being in the desert, looking at blank walls that one knows enclose lush oases. Hidden by monochrome exteriors are richly decorated interiors. Plain outside, patterned inside.
Hotels attempt to create the atmosphere of Arab palaces with thick carpets, mirrored walls, brass pots and tiled courtyards. Their rooms are large and public, however, conveying none of the intimate secretiveness of Arab architecture.
But there is a rambling, 30-room palace in the medina where visitors can get a true sense of the typical Arab palace. The Tangier American Legation building, given to the United States by the sultan of Morocco 169 years ago, is the oldest diplomatic property of the United States to be continuously owned, and is open to the public.
I rounded the corner of Rue d'Amerique in the old Jewish Quarter and saw above me, on the building spanning the narrow street, the Great Seal of the United States and a massive, wooden, nail-studded double door with another Great Seal. I pushed the bell and, stepping over the threshold, found myself in a little courtyard, complete with fountain.
The museum is a honeycomb of rooms great and small: reception rooms, secret rooms, courtyards and a Moroccan pavilion, adorned with curved marble staircases, massive fireplaces, Portuguese grillwork and carved wooden ceilings. But there is more than architecture to delight the senses. Besides many historic documents, there are fine 18th-, 19th- and 20th-century engravings, drawings and paintings. I admired a huge oil painting of a sultan with his splendid horse, a portrait of Maxwell Blake (who served as American consul general in Tangier in the early 1900s) and fascinating old photographs of the legation reception rooms when they were in diplomatic use.
I was fascinated with the works of John McBey, a Scot who lived in Tangier from the 1930s through the 1950s and who executed many etchings and watercolors of Moroccan scenes. Expertly done, they are almost photographic in their realism. As the museum's director pointed out, it is only in the context of such works that one can fully appreciate the stunning originality of Matisse's paintings.
Outside the museum, I walked through the gate of the medina and up the hill toward St. Andrew's, the Anglican church whose roofs and steeple Matisse had painted.
The churchyard, with its pleasant, slightly overgrown cemetery, sits at the foot of the Grand Hotel Villa de France's promontory. There I found mostly English graves bearing such evocative inscriptions as "Lost at sea" or "In the Zulu wars." The church is an artful collaboration of Christian tradition and Arab architecture. The Moorish archway so loved by Matisse is the design of the chancel arch. Carved around it, in Arabic script, is the Lord's Prayer.
As I left the church and walked down the winding path hedged by huge hibiscus bushes, I noticed a small structure inside the churchyard wall near the gate. It was a cubbyhole, really, just large enough to accommodate the white-bearded, robed and turbaned man who reclined inside, writing on some papers in his lap. Another Moroccan, dressed in trousers and a sweater, sat cross-legged on the ground in front of the scribe. Altogether an incongruous sight in an Anglican churchyard. As the American composer and writer Paul Bowles once remarked: In Morocco, "everything that is not medieval is new."
It was a stunning reminder of the contrasting images that make up Tangier. Through Matisse's eyes I saw a fabulous city, filled with sharp contrasts of light and shadow accentuated by the luminous blues of sea and sky. But always there was a background cacophony of drums beating, roosters crowing, church bells ringing and the muezzins' calls to the faithful for prayers, to remind me that Tangier is an ancient city, a marvelous mixture of things medieval and modern, Moroccan and European, with much left to explore. Luree Miller is a Washington writer whose most recent book is "Literary Villages of London" (Starrhill Press).
WAYS & MEANS
TANGIER AMERICAN LEGATION MUSEUM: The Tangier American Legation Museum (8 Zankat America, Tangier, Morocco) is the oldest continually occupied diplomatic property of the U.S. government. In 1981, the U.S. Department of Interior included the building on its National Register of Historic Places; in 1983, it was named a U.S. National Historic Landmark. It was the first time that a piece of U.S. property on foreign soil has been so honored. The museum is run by the American Legation Museum Society, 3282 N St. NW, a small public foundation that receives no U.S. government support.
The museum is open Monday through Thursday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and by appointment. Admission is free, but donations are appreciated.
Since the museum is inside the medina walls, it cannot be reached directly by car, but any taxi driver can take you to the closest gate and give directions from there. In the Grand Socco, most any small boy will be glad to guide you to the museum for a dirham.
MATISSE EXHIBIT: "Matisse in Morocco: The Paintings and Drawings, 1912-1913" will be exhibited in the East Building of the National Gallery of Art March 18 through June 3 and at the Museum of Modern Art in New York June 24 through Sept. 4. On crowded weekdays and weekends at the National Gallery, free passes will be distributed if necessary on a first-come, first-served basis; passes are for specified half-hour entry times and may be obtained at a special desk on the main floor of the East Building. For more information, call 842-3472.
INFORMATION: For more information about travel to Morocco, contact the Moroccan National Tourist Office, 20 E. 46th St., New York, N.Y. 10017, (212) 557-2520.