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Morocco : What better way to see Tangier than through the eyes of the French Master? During a visit in 1912, he set up his easel in the room of his hotel and was instantly inspired by North Africa's vivid colors and sharp contrasts of light and shadow (below, "Landscape Viewed From a Window").

May 20, 1990|LUREE MILLER | Miller is a Washington-based free-lance writer whose most recent book is "Literary Village of London" (Starrhill Press)

TANGIER, Morocco — Henri Matisse saw this city as an earthly paradise. The artist visited 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 northwest edge of Africa last year, I decided to follow in the footsteps--or rather the brush strokes--of Matisse.

What better guide than that great artist? I would try to see Tangier through his eyes.

An added inducement was the "Matisse in Morocco" exhibit at the National Gallery of Art in Washington through June 3 (it moves to the Museum of Modern Art in New York City June 20 through Sept. 4).

More than half of the paintings are on loan from the Pushkin and Hermitage museums in the Soviet Union; some have never 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 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 arrived in Tangier in January, 1912, bad weather kept him inside. He sent a grumpy post card 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 to see.

During both of his visits of several months here, Matisse stayed at the Grand Hotel Villa de France. I found my way across the Grand Socco, the bazaar area, and up the hill above the medina, through crowded streets lined with small, open-front 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 its 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." A most reluctant clerk led the way.

Maria Takakuwa smiled at my request and showed me into the rather small, simple room. It was sparsely furnished in 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 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 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 the Bab el Aassa or lookout gate.

Here Matisse 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 real setting was the typical shape of the gate and the distinctively Moroccan mood in his magnificent painting, "Casbah Gate."

Next to the Bab el Aassa is the wall fountain, dry now, but its brightly colored patterned tiles that appear so often in Matisse's paintings are still in place.

In the casbah is Dar el Maghzen, 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 Fauve style and his more original, powerful later work.

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