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.
Matisse did most of his paintings in Tangier’s Kasbah, 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.
In the kasbah 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 Muslim 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.
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.ages 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.