Monday, January 9, 2017

The Missing Matisse by Pierre H. Matisse, 2016

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Nazi planes were bombing Paris the day a lifelong, more personal war began for Pierre. It was the day he lost his identity.

Born into a famous family, Pierre Matisse grew up immersed in the art world of Paris and the French Riviera, spending time with some of the most famous artists of the twentieth century. The man he knew as his grandfather, legendary artist Henri Matisse, encouraged Pierre from a young age, creating a strong desire in him to become a great artist in his own right.

Being a Matisse was an important part of young Pierre's identity. So he was crushed and bewildered when, at the outbreak of WWII, that identity was suddenly snatched from him with no explanation.

So began Pierre's lifelong search to solve the mystery of who he really was, a quest that forms the intriguing backdrop to this memoir of a fascinating and adventurous life on three continents. Spanning the insider art world of 1930s Paris, the battles of WWII, the occupation of France by the Nazis, Pierre's involvement with the French resistance, his post-war work restoring art and historical monuments, and his eventual decision to create a new life in North America, The Missing Matisse is a story of intrigue, faith, and drama as Pierre journeys to discover the truth before it's too late.

(352 pages)

Hmm, wow. This is a very unique outlook on WWII. Pierre's life was so dramatic, full of famous painters and exquisite art when he was small and terrible warfare and underground resistance adventures once France was pulled into war with Germany. His childhood essentially ended when he was about eleven years old, and he saw so many horrible atrocities perpetrated by the Germans (or "Boches," as the French called them). It's heartbreaking to read about the murders he witnessed, and even more stunning to read about his adventures as an underground freedom fighter since this is a true story. It reads like many of the fictional WWII books I've read over the years, but it actually happened! That's both horrifying and amazing to me.

I do have to say, though, that I had a few problems with the book. For one thing, it's told in present tense; I find this to be extremely confusing in non-fiction when the author is talking about things that happened in the past, because it makes me constantly have to guess "is he talking about something he did back then, or something that he does all the time/found out later?" Also, and please don't take this the wrong way, I honestly don't think I like Pierre as a person. He was extraordinarily brave, of course, but he was also an extremely ornery child who never felt any remorse; he stole and lied throughout most of his youth (and not always just against the Germans); after the war ended, he served his time in the French military oppressing Arabian citizens in the French-occupied Algiers; and he was divorced three times (including once after fathering four children, none of whom he took the time to see again for thirty years) before marrying the "love of his life" who was about thirty years his junior.

Also, I simply don't understand his obsession with connecting himself with the Matisse name. His story is very sad, and I do feel sorry for him because it must have been hard to grow up not knowing who his father really was, but it seems like the Leroys were actually nicer to him than the Matisses were. Why couldn't he have just stuck with their name? I for one wouldn't want to be a part of a family that treated both me and my mother like garbage, but then again I suppose I haven't been in his shoes.

The bottom line, though, is that Pierre went through so much–suffered so much–and he's part of that dying generation of WWII survivors (and heroes) who faced the atrocities and uncertainties of life under the German terror and managed to keep hold of their humanity despite everything. I may not respect his principles or all of his life choices, but I do respect him for the actions he chose during the war and pity him for the atrocities that he saw committed during the war. He was a part of action that no one else saw (or at least no one who lived to tell of it), and The Missing Matisse serves as an invaluable record of pieces of history that would have been lost forever if he hadn't written them down. I am grateful that he did.

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

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