It was eight or nine years ago, and I was on an architectural pilgrimage in France with my husband, who is obsessed with modernist buildings. We had been touring around looking at a lot of Le Corbusier, including his church at Ronchamp, with its dramatic swooping roofline. Then he decided that we should head to Vence, a town in Provence, to see the Rosary Chapel. I didn’t know anything about it, just that it had been designed by Matisse. I think I assumed that there would be some paintings on the walls and that would be it. But what I found was pure and elemental and, even though I’m not religious, it had a profound spiritual effect. I had to sit down.
Compared with Le Corbusier’s chapel, which is high on a hill and is all front, Matisse’s is small and unassuming. Tucked away in a quiet residential area, even when you’re approaching it you really have no idea it’s there. And when you walk in through the little door you enter an open space where everything – colour, texture, material, pattern – is reduced to its essence.
Matisse completed the chapel in 1951, when he was in his 80s and diminished by cancer and old age. Over the previous decade, during periods of illness and convalescence, he had developed his cut-out technique: instead of painting he would simply sit in his chair or lie in his bed and cut shapes out of painted paper, which would then be arranged into images. The results were loose, childlike and joyful.
When he began work on the chapel in 1949 he followed the same system to design the floor-to-ceiling stained-glass windows, which are a shocking azure blue decorated with leaf prints based on cut-out shapes in deeper blues and brilliant yellows. The walls are simple white stucco, but he also added sections of gloss tile onto which he painted murals – leaves, clouds, a figure of the Virgin and Child, picked out in black outline against the white background – and which reflect the coloured patterns from the windows.
Matisse hadn’t just applied a mural and left it at that; he had embraced every part of the building. He designed the altar, which is a monolithic block of stone, candelabras and chalices, and chasubles embroidered with floral motifs mirroring the windows. He considered every detail, and brought them together with a set of essential shapes.
What captivated me was how holistic the space was, and when I began work on my last collection of furniture, Assemblage 5, I based it on the chapel. I made a chalice-shaped stool, and long pew-like benches and tapestries to hang on the wall. I haven’t tried to create new forms. I used building blocks, almost like children’s toys – a cube, a rectangle, a sphere, a cylinder – which I then arranged and rearranged. That’s why I’ve always called my work assemblages. Using these shapes is a quest for something elemental and primal.
Matisse’s chapel is exactly that. Artists of his generation, Picasso included, attempted to get back to a childlike sense of expression, to those first marks and the interpretations of the world that come out of them. You don’t get anything purer than that.