I had done many cultural programs for CBS. I had either coached or written one-hour broadcasts featuring Stravinsky, Casals, Picasso, Gauguin and the Julliard music school. The obligation to broadcast high culture might have been a legal and moral duty, but in financial terms high art meant low ratings. When public broadcasting became of age, commercial broadcasting was happy to shift both art and responsibility to PBS.
I wanted to work for public broadcasting, but until the woman who had rejected Images of Jesus was fired, I could not catch their eye. Luckily one of my previous colleagues at CBS had moved into the congressionally funded Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB).
I was asked to do a series of shows on high art. The first was an essay on Matisse.
The Museum of Modern Art mounted a retrospective of the works of Henri Matisse, one of the most celebrated painters of the 20th Century. Almost a million people visited the exhibit. Just before it closed, PBS funded an archival visual record and an audiotape of the curator, John Elderfield. The technique was similar to the earlier film I had done on Picasso. Unlike CBS, where editing immediately followed filming, public television provided no money for completion.
Public broadcasting is a perpetual beg-a-thon for the independent producer. I spent three years searching for funds. I had the good fortune to be sheltered by Great Projects Films and its chief, Dan Polin. Dan is a brilliant documentarian and experienced at writing grant proposals. He kept our heads just above deep-water debt. The quarters on 42d Street and Eighth Avenue were far dingier than CBS News. (After eight in the evening, the hookers were on the street, a reprise of those Army days in Paris when I had first seen a Matisse. An odalisque print hung in Edward VII ‘s brothel, Le Sphinx, where I had an unauthorized tour.)
Now I had a freedom I had not known at the commercial network. No one could change anything I wrote. No one asked for a meeting to discuss the project. A later grant from CPB forbid them to edit or participate in the work, nor could the other not-for-profit contributors say a word. There was no silent urging to make the program more erudite or aimed specifically at the sexually active age group commercial sponsors prefer.
I speak well enough, so I narrated it myself. There would be no correspondent rewriting a line or two to fit his accent or his television image. My rule to myself was the same as I had urged on the producers who worked for me at CBS News. “Write and speak the script to an imagined friend, smarter than you, but who did not have the advantage of spending time and money in research.”
The initial two nights spent shooting at MoMA were insufficient. I went to other sources: books, museums, and the organization that held Matisse’s copyrights. I learned to haggle.
Three years later, MOMA’s contribution had all but disappeared. In the final cut were only three shots used from the original shooting. The curator had been polite but I hadn’t seen him again. Because we had initialed an agreement with the museum stating we would seek their advice, a meeting was scheduled before final production. Dan Polin, John Elderfield, and I met in the office of the woman in charge of public relations for the museum.
She was exquisite and elegantly dressed. Her breasts would have interested Matisse. Although she had not quite finished reading the work script, she bubbled with ideas. “A woman speaker would just fit Matisse because he so painted women! We have many feminine celebrities as members. Meryl Streep comes to mind. I could take her to lunch and ask her to narrate. Or Amanda. Glitterati!”
“Miss, I am the narrator.”
She didn’t hear me. “Of course I‘ll finish the script before I send it to the star,” she said. “I‘ll make my comments, and then pass them on to John. And then you will incorporate his suggestions.”
“It was Mr. Elderfield’s work, and he should have the last word. The say-so.”
“Because you are asking for final control of the script,” I said.
“Yes. We are the Museum of Modern Art.”
“Final cut. That’s a control I refused to give to the Pentagon. And you didn’t hear me when I said I was the narrator.”
There was a long pause. Beauty mutated into perplexity.
Dan Polin interjected politely. “This meeting is now over.” We stood.
“Please leave a copy of the work script with the curator,” she said. “John, make your comments. I’ll take care of this and we’ll meet later, Mr. Wolff.”
We sent the last script but there was no response until after broadcast. Just before it aired, the Museum threatened to stop it because we did not have the legal right to use three shots. We paid them $5,000 and never heard from them again.
Three years after two nights of shooting, the project finally aired.
The art critic of The New York Times snarled at An Essay on Matisse. She wrote that the show was superficial, boring, and made her yearn for MOMA. She misspelled my name. I wrote an angry letter to the newspaper complaining that if an art critic could review a TV show, then a television critic could review an art exhibit. And since their art critic had her facts wrong, I suggested that all critics be apprenticed to the obituary department where the facts—at least the spelling of names—had to be right. The Times did not acknowledge my letter—because I did not send it.
Henri Matisse’s discoveries gouged the eyes of the art critics of his time. His detractors called him, King of the Beasts.
I found an old black-and white photo of an outdoor urinal, a pissoir, on the Boulevard Montmarte. On it, scrawled graffiti:
“Matisse rend fou.” Matisse drives you crazy.
“Matisse = l’absinthe.” Matisse is like dropping acid.
Not at all what he intended with his art. For Matisse, art was “a soothing, calming influence on the mind, something like a good armchair which provides relaxation from physical fatigue.”
Because he often drew naked concubines on their beds, “armchair” seemed inappropriate to me. “Bed” would be better. Bed for love, bed for sleep—this is why I find his work both relaxing and exciting.
What made him “Roi des Fauves” or King of the Beasts, was his use of color. For example, he drew a portrait of his wife with a lurid green stripe down her nose. On one side of the green line is the face of one woman, on the other side is another woman. Since the Renaissance light and shadow had been the traditional ways of showing character contrast in the same individual. Amélie’s two moods are expressed in color, not light.
I have always resented verbal descriptions of pictures, so I won’t go on about his art. If there is a Matisse near you, go see it. If there is a well-printed art book, buy it.
Matisse’s character attracted me.
He was French to the core. During World War II, his wife and daughter worked in the Resistance. The Germans imprisoned both. When some Americans offered to smuggle him out of his country, he refused to leave.
He said, “I have given the matter careful thought. My feelings about leaving France at this time are quite decided. It seems to me I would be deserting. If anyone who has any value leaves France, what remains of France?”
The two greatest artists of the century were Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso. They were friends and rivals. Picasso had the reputation of a womanizing revolutionary, but Picasso’s reputation is exactly what Matisse didn’t want. When Matisse became famous, another New York Times journalist was sent to interview him. She found “not a slovenly eccentric but a man of simple and unaffected cordiality.”
He was no mad genius, nor fixated artist. In the photograph of the time he and his family are wearing riding clothes. “Tell the American people I am a normal man; I have a comfortable home, I ride horseback. I am a devoted husband and father, and above all I have three fine children.”
He had middle-class worries about going broke, or even blind. He thought he’d support his family by playing a violin on a street corner. There’s often a violin in his paintings. He insisted that his son Pierre learn the instrument for the same reason.
Yet he decided to be a beast. Even an impoverished, bourgeois fauve.
“I decided to discard verisimilitude. Why should I paint the outside of an apple, however exactly? What possible interest could there be in copying an object which nature provides in unlimited quantities? Accuracy is not truth!
I had a dealer who took everything I painted in the academic style at four hundred francs each. It was a living. One day I finished one these pictures. I knew on delivery I would get the money… but I knew if I continued, it would be my artistic death. The hands of the butcher and baker were outstretched. But I destroyed the painting and I count my emancipation from that day.”
He hired a helper who did chores around the studio. Lydia Delektorskaya was an orphan from Siberia who spoke no French. One day he asked her to change from her working smock into a gown made of a Persian textile. He painted my favorite Matisse, The Dream, and he wrote a note about the painting:
“Nothing is more gentle than love, nothing stronger, nothing higher, nothing wider, nothing more pleasant, nothing more complete, nothing better in heaven or on earth.”
(I wish I could send a copy of The Dream to whomever is reading this.)
A critic of the time wrote, “Matisse is not the first lunatic who has tried to paint the soul.”
His wife Amélie, the woman with the green stripe down her nose, was furious. She left him with the note: “You may be a great artist, but you are a bastard.”
He went to New York to visit his son, Pierre. He went to America a number of times and he liked the American spirit. He wrote: “The great quality of modern America is in not clinging to its acquisitions. Over there, love of risk makes one destroy the results of the day with the hope that the next day will provide better.”
Matisse had reason to admire America. Claribel and Etta Cone of Baltimore were friends of Gertrude Stein. Early on they bought many Matisse paintings now hanging in the Baltimore Museum. One, Pink Nude, shows Lydia recumbent on a sofa. It took the artist six months to complete, and it had sixteen versions. After each nude session Lydia dressed herself again in her working smock and photographed the day’s work on black and white film. Then she erased with kerosene the passages the artists wanted expunged. We found all sixteen shots. By using dissolves and narration we showed how Matisse changed his mind sixteen times. The slow montage took ten seconds of screen time and the reviewer at the Times reluctantly called the sequence “enlightening”.
Of the over 200 PBS stations that were offered An Essay on Matisse, only twenty carried it when first presented. Except for New York, Boston and Washington, of the remaining seventeen, the broadcast was the lowest rated of the night. The ratings were so low as to fall into the area of statistical error. All in all, I estimate a few less than a million people saw it. About the same number who stood in line at MoMA.
Immediately after An Essay on Matisse aired in New York I received a number of congratulatory phone calls from friends. Then silence.
It seems strange that three years of work should end with a few calls. But that is the irony: the more massive the medium, the weaker and less personal the response. Way back when my novel was published there was a book party, and while nobody was greatly emotional, momentarily I was, because my friends admired me. When my feature films played in France and New York, I could sit in the audience and feel the response. But in television, there’s just a flash in the face for an hour, and then it the work is gone, almost forever. Tuulikki and I watched An Essay on Matisse from our bed.
“And what did you think, darling?”
“It really was good. I like Matisse. I’d like to see the tape again sometime, and you are a genius and I love you.”
“Do you want to read?”
There was some revenge taken on the New York Times review. A close friend said, “You were reviewed by the Times. It was a bad review.”
“I didn’t read it. Who reads television reviews?”
Then came the good news. The people at CPB in Washington didn’t read the reviews, didn’t look at the ratings, but urged me to do a companion film on Pablo Picasso for which they would provide sizeable funds. “We don’t care much about ratings when it comes to doing our duty,” said the head of programming.
Even more good news: a friend in Hollywood suggested we submit the program for an Oscar. Not an Emmy, but an Oscar. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is far more prestigious than The Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. The Oscar is for films, the Emmy is usually for tapes. To compete, we would have to make a film of our tape.
It was technically possible to make the transfer. It took two expensive days to turn the electrons into chemical salts. The casualty was that in the transfer, Matisse’s glorious colors faded somewhat.
Films are shown in film houses, so we had to rent a theater in Hollywood for a week of direct projection. It wasn’t terribly expensive, and nobody I knew went to see it. Then, along with some thirty other short subjects, a committee judged it. An Essay on Matisse, with four other short documentaries, was nominated for the gold short subject documentary statue.
Fifty years earlier, I had won my first award, a Peabody, for a radio series. At the time the Peabody Awards were only three years old. They came into being as a radio equivalent for the Pulitzer prizes. Only eight medals were given that year, and while the Oscars were already in existence, the Emmy Awards were five years away from taking form. As the years passed, the eight Peabody Awards became sixteen, then twenty. The Emmys started modestly, but at the last count some sixty winners were announced. The expansion also inflated the Oscars.
The reason was not a rise in merit, but a rise in income by increasing the number of categories, medals and statues. More backstage people joined the Academies, paid their dues and their dinner tabs. Awards are given for minor achievements like short subjects (An Essay on Matisse) or technical virtues incomprehensible to a general audience. Award shows are relatively inexpensive to produce, and the celebrities show up for no pay.
The Oscar is the leading award show and I was flattered. The Great Projects crew flew to California. I spent a few hours writing and memorizing a graceful, witty, totally improvised speech. Tuulikki selected a subtly tie-dyed high necked, flowing dress made by her Japanese designer, Reiko.
I don’t know what Henri Matisse would have made of the dresses the ladies wore to the Oscars. His concubines are sometimes partially or fully nude. But the dresses of the ladies of that evening plunged deeply, barely covering nipples and pubic hair. A lady usher in a double breasted jacket opened the door of our monstrously long limousine and saw Tuulikki’s dress which covered her from neck through ankles.
“That’s the most elegant garment of the evening,” the attendant said. “That‘s Japanese tie dye. How subtle.”
Matisse knew fabrics and was inspired by their patterns. He used a Japanese tie dyed textile as drapery in a painting done in his small hotel room in Nice.
As we entered, I saw a number of young men and women in formal dress standing to the side. They were dress extras, hired by the Academy to fill the chairs if someone left to go to the toilet, or get a drink. All seats were to be occupied so that the long shot of the audience would show no empty chairs.
On our left was Suzanne Farrell, the muse of George Balanchine and one of the great ballet dancers of our age. She was the subject of a long documentary. When she did not win, Ms. Farrell and her producers got up and left. Three dress extras were immediately sent to sit in the empty chairs for the next hour and a half.
We stayed in our seats. The critical moment was the opening of the envelope for our category. Unlike the camera shots of celebrities whose faces were onscreen when their categories were announced, no cameras searched us out. We were neither celebrities nor officers; we were enlisted personnel. For a moment, before the envelope was torn open, the camera director cut to our title, An Essay on Matisse, along with the titles of the other short films in our category. I heard cheers, big hoots from my colleagues who had flown in from New York.
We didn’t win.
One of the CBS journalists I most respected was Jay McMullen, who had several Emmy statues. He once turned to me and whispered, “Awards are like hemorrhoids. Sooner or later every old asshole gets one. “
But it was pleasant to lose an Oscar in the company of friends.