See France through Matisse's eyes

What's it like to live in a far-off place most of us see only on a vacation? Foreign Correspondence is an interview with someone who lives in a spot you may want to visit.

Laura McPhee, 40, is author of "A Journey into Matisse's South of France" ($21.95; Roaring Forties Press). She is an editor at NUVO, an alternative weekly in Indianapolis, and has spent a month in southern France for each of the past several years.

Q. Is your book for artists, art lovers or general readers?

A. Probably for general readers who enjoy travel, then for the art lover. It's a kind of introduction to Matisse that explores how an artist can be influenced by his environment. I make no claim to being an art history scholar or art critic.

Q. Why Matisse?

A. He's well-known and well-loved by people who love art, but I don't think the general public appreciates how important he was in making modern art possible. He broke down doors for people like Picasso, Modigliani and even later artists like Jackson Pollock. He was the first modern artist to endure a large amount of ridicule and outrage for daring to do things no one did before.

Q. What is Matisse country in southern France?

A. He made his way all along the French Mediterranean, from Spain, where Collioure is, all the way to Nice, at the border of Italy - a horseshoe he visited over a 30-year period. He stayed mainly along the coast. For him, the colors of the sky, water and landscape were important.

Nice is Matisse country.

Q. If you have limited time to look for a touch of Matisse in France, where should you go?

A. Just north of Nice, in Cimiez. The Matisse Museum there is almost biographical: It has a good sample of his work from different periods, paintings from his student days all the way to the cut-outs he did late in life when he couldn't hold a paintbrush anymore. You'll also find elements from his studio - items that show up in his work all the time. There's a rococo chair he posed many of his models in, and a Moroccan screen he used a lot.

And it's a beautiful building, a restored, 17th-century Italian villa.

A half hour from Nice by car, is Vence; Matisse was there during World War II. He designed a chapel there that's remarkable. Nearby is another tiny, walled village called St. Paul de Vence. It is an artist colony - a medieval village that's nothing but art galleries and artisan shops where you'll find woodworking, handmade fabrics and so on. It's extremely expensive. If you can afford it, it makes a great day trip.

Q. At Matisse sites, do you find painters trying to copy what he put on canvas?

A. In some ways, it's hard to get back to how the towns looked 100 years ago. World War II destroyed much. St. Tropez is completely rebuilt - almost none of the town remains from his time. But you can still get a sense of what Matisse saw there.

You will see painters in Nice and other places, following Matisse's footsteps. Not so much for landmarks, but landscapes. The colors in the south of France are different - the ocean is a blue you've never seen before.

Q. What times of year?

A. Summer has the most intense light, so the colors are most intense. When he started going there, people didn't travel to the south of France for summer vacation - they went for winter. Nice was a winter resort. Matisse was going against the grain. He was from the north of France, which was darker and more gray in his time. He risked sunstroke painting outdoors all day.

The heat was ... well, they still don't have air conditioning in most of France.

Q. How hot does it get?

A. It's not humid, but in the middle of the day, it's in the 90s. There's a wind on that part of the coast, so it can be hot with cooler breezes. The intense sunlight comes when it's hot in mid-afternoon.

France is famous for that two-hour lunch period. People tend to go indoors and find shade. Morning and evening is when the wind comes in.

Q. What place looks most as Matisse would've seen it?

A. I really like Collioure, less than five miles from the Spanish border. It's nestled in the foothills of the Pyrenees and still looks like a medieval village. It has its original bell tower. Collioure used to be a fishing port.

While old France has gone by the wayside, this is one of the last small villages that is not a tourist trap - there are no miniature golf courses, and only a handful of hotels. You won't find P Diddy's yacht in the harbor, nor 2,000 American tourists trying to shove their way into a Hermes shop.

There's a small beach, mountains, ocean, vineyards. It's probably what St. Tropez looked like 100 years ago: Tall, skinny houses that are orange, pink and periwinkle.

I used to think that when I die, I'd go to Paris if there is a heaven. Then I went down to Collioure.

It's probably the only place in the south of France you could imagine was like it was when Matisse and Picasso and their contemporaries were there.

Q. Is it expensive?

A. It's not like St. Tropez or Nice. I was there in summer and had a great little room that was $70 a night. It was more like a studio apartment, and had a balcony with an ocean view.

Q. Is Collioure easy to reach?

A. It's on the main road, so is easy to drive to. It's even accessible by train. You have to change at Perpignan - the big city just to the north; you can take a train there from Paris. You take a smaller train from Perpignan to Collioure.

Q. What about buying art in an area so famed for artists?

A. St. Tropez is such a tourist trap. You'll find a lot of bad imitations there.

Nice is remarkable in that there are wonderful galleries with reasonable prices. I turned a corner there this summer and there was a Haitian art gallery. I couldn't believe it!

In Collioure, there are many small galleries that feature local artists. And the prices can be quite reasonable. It's very much an artist's town.


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