Negotiating painting in the Soko in Tangier
One of the most interesting aspects of Hilda Rix’s painting in Tangier, and one upon which I will focus in this article, is how she negotiated painting in public spaces in Morocco.
All painters were subject to some kind of adverse scrutiny in early-twentieth-century Morocco whether they were male or female. The injunction against the making of images which was adhered to by strict Muslims meant that any painting in public places had to be done discreetly and in a manner which showed grateful acknowledgement of the indulgence given by local people to the artist. If anyone showed discomfort Rix immediately ceased drawing or painting; she packed her materials and awaited a more opportune moment. Her concern about painting and drawing in public is conveyed in an account she presented to her mother that involved a discussion of the exceedingly wet weather that she had encountered.
Both she and Matisse complain about the inclement weather. The rain that greeted them on their arrival in Tangier persisted, leading Matisse to lament in a letter to his friend Gertrude Stein from the Hotel Villa de France: “Since Monday at three when we arrived, until today, Saturday, it has rained continuously . . . shall we ever see the sun in Morocco?” (3) Arriving a week later, Hilda and the Tanners seemed to have fared better, although, at various points, Hilda Rix worried over the time lost for painting on account of the rain.
When her sister Elsie joined Hilda for her second trip to Tangier in 1914, she also complained to their mother: “Do you know mother it is raining frightfully. Everyone says they never knew such a wet season. Isn’t it maddening?” (Elsie Rix, letter to Elizabeth Rix, 13 March 1914). Rainy weather led Hilda into unexpected situations, such as when, shortly after her arrival, she had to take refuge in a small cafe. In an undated letter she recounted to her family in London her cross-cultural exchange, revealing her fear of breaking the law and joking about being captured and taken into a harem:It came on to rain suddenly and sharply, and I slipped into a little shop where I have made friends with the proprietors, a little French woman, and asked might I shelter from the rain, “But certainly Mile, with pleasure!” In a moment, enter two Moors, large middle aged ; important looking.
Spotted my drawing on the counter (where it was drying, having got wet). At once the larger Moor pounced upon it and nodded to me–He looked at writing on my wall & then took carefully a letter from his pocket, tore the margin from it–&, slowly, carefully with the pen from counter made first an elaborate frame, with curves & little ornamentations–then laboriously wrote out a very full & correct edition of the notice on my wall, and solemnly presented it–to me. The solemn business of writing (which runs from right to left of the page)–took at least twenty minutes. I took his kind work, tore a little piece off the blank end of the paper & wrote “Thank you very much,” in English & gave it to him. He got a man in the shop to translate & to ask me to sign it with my name– We both bowed and pocketed our souvenir.
The interpreter told me that the big Moor was a notaire, & that the notice on the wall was about a veterinary surgeon who could do all manner of wonderful cures for cows etc. I was scared after, for a moment lest the notaire wished my name to run me into prison for tormenting the people in the market by always haunting them with my sketch block and ammunition bag–or–I knew not what–but he was so big and imposing, and did everything with such a flourish!– However several days have passed & I am not popped into a harem or stolen–so–all is well. Fear of making images aside, Rix was able to produce a large range of images that showed both men and women in public involved in the commercial life of Tangier. Her descriptions of costume and manners are careful, and she clearly had an interest in recording and conveying ethnographic detail:The sun is heavenly, the sky is soft & blue & white butterflies are dancing in the air . . .
I see a group of wonderful people basking in the sunshine at the foot of white Moorish Arch. One young Moor in dull cinnamon coloured burnouse, his hood pulled over his head–Another in quaint cream woollen shirt affair, short mauve Trousers, Tight into the knees above his bare golden legs. Around his shaven head is wound a Turban of brown twine embroidered with gaily coloured flowers. His big brown long lashed eyes are dancing with mischief tho filled with dreaminess. His nose is straight & his lips well shapen. (Undated letter to Elisabeth and Elsie Rix, probably February 1912)The sounds of a flute made their way to her, as her eyes settled upon a group of older men smoking a shisha pipe (hookah):oh what sweetest of silverly notes waft up to my ears.
There is an older red bearded, blind Moor who is smoking the weirdest pipe its stem is long & its bowl the size of a thimble–certainly it seems the ‘pipe of peace’ for it passes from one to the other of the group each drawing one or two lazy puffs there from. Hotel Villa de France was their place of residence on this and subsequent expeditions to Tangier: Matisse in October of 1912 and Hilda when she travelled with Elsie in February of 1914. Hilda’s second letter from the Hotel Villa de France in 1912 recounts the beginning of her work schedule and her delight at her progress with sketching:Worked very hard in the (market place) all day today–Did two sketches this morning and one this afternoon–(could exhibit all). Am getting swing of things now. People are splendid–it is just as easy to work as in Etaples market.
Only so exciting because of the thousand things to do. Have done only one thing yet. Want to feel absolutely at home first. Oh I love this place–it is magnificent for work–and too the hotel is very nice. View from roof magnificent!!! Yesterday went donkey ride (all the party) out into the country.
Came back with arms laden with blue irises and white feathery flower. My won’t I have a crowd of sketches to show you. Matisse was also fascinated by the flora of Tangier, painting irises in his hotel room, but he steered clear of the marketplace. Perhaps he found the attention of the stall holders and the marketgoers intrusive. It is also possible that Hilda Rix, as a woman, was less a subject of scrutiny than any male artist, especially if he had begun to paint images of women.
That might well have attracted more negative reaction than any image that Hilda painted. Matisse had never painted the bustling urban life and seldom ventured into common areas to paint en plein air, preferring interiors, portraits, nudes and figure studies, and landscapes. In Tangier, the privacy of the Hotel Villa de France, and later the Villa Brooks, suited him. Throughout his career he studied flowers and plants, painting floral studies and still lifes to a degree that was unusual for a male artist of his stature. His innovative use of the floral motif was indeed central to his genius, and in the latter part of his career it dominated his practice.
Tangier presented him with the opportunity to indulge his passion. Restricted by the weather, he painted many still-life compositions in his hotel room, from the flowers available in the market and in the gardens around the hotel. Le vase d’iris (1912) is one of the first he completed in Tangier. Matisse located his irises, then plentiful in the market, in a vase on the dressing table of his room. After several weeks of working in this cramped space, he was presented with an opportunity to paint outdoors in one of the largest gardens that Tangier had to offer. Walter Harris, Moroccan correspondent of the London Times and a local identity, introduced him to the British national Jack Brooks whose home, the Villa Brooks, dominated the landscape in the hills behind Hotel Villa de France.
Matisse repeatedly returned there to sketch and paint, accompanied by Amelie, even renting an outhouse at the villa to store his pictures (Spurling 104). Matisse was fascinated by the acanthus which grew abundantly on the estate, noting:The ground was covered with acanthus. I had never seen acanthus. I knew acanthus only from the drawings of Corinthian capitals that I had made at the Ecole de Beaux- Arts. I found the acanthus magnificent. Much more interesting, greener than those at my school.
My spirit was exalted by these great trees, very tall, and below the rich acanthus provided a no less important focus through their sumptuousness. (Courthion 102-03; qtd in Cowart et al. 68)These recollections are reflected in his large oil canvas Les acanthes (1912), painted before the motif at the Villa Brooks. The simplicity of the composition gives the painting a charming, almost “Rousseauesque” quality, with its absence of conventional perspective. He presents the landscape in the classic Tangerian colour scheme of blue and green.
Henri Matisse, Hilda Rix and Henry Ossawa Tanner all painted the famous gateway entrance to Tangier, the Bab el-Aassa. The arch cuts through the southern wall surrounding the kasbah, and all three artists executed works of the site in compositions with shared features. Rix and Matisse both showed the view through the arch, while Tanner focused upon the view onto the arch from the painter’s side. Rix’s oil, The Blue Archway (1912), was painted with broad brushstrokes in bold, flat fields of muted colours that can also be seen in other paintings from her first trip to Tangier. At this stage in her career she was still finding her way with oil paint, having developed her technique at the Academie Delecluse and the Academie Colarossi in Paris over a relatively short period of time.
Yet she had clearly gained a considerable affinity with and dexterity in the medium, working in a quite experimental way. In The Blue Archway the large figure of a man in a burnoose occupies the foreground; he is facing a woman whose features are obscured by the volume of his body. We see only details of her costume, such as her yellow djellaba, red striped skirt and shoes. As the eye is led into the composition via a path, and deeper into the landscape, a group of figures, which are smaller in size and more distantly located from the viewer, complement the man and woman standing in front of the arch. This group of seated women are bowaabs, or gatekeepers, and are less clearly delineated.
We can only make out the dark brown, hand-woven fabric of their simple costume. The thick paint in the foreground creates the impression of the chalky ground of the “white city” of Tangier, and the solid architectural features of the walls of the kasbah are placed into relief by the arch and bright blue of the sky, which is brought into prominence through Rix’s bold composition. Matisse painted a bolder, flatter and more abstract view of the same scene, this time in deep blue. Probably painted on his second trip to Morocco, the Porte de la casbah (1912-13) forms the right wing of Matisse’s Moroccan Triptych. His composition is more restricted than those of the other two artists. He selects a smaller area to focus upon, presenting the view from the front of the arch, looking through it to the other side of the kasbah.
The elements of the landscape that come into view in Porte de la casbah are more carefully delineated; for example, the trellis fencing in the garden of a small house, which is revealed through the arch, is seen faintly in Rix’s The Blue Archway and is more clearly depicted in Matisse’s study. Matisse also resorts to flatter blocks of primary colour than Tanner or Rix, who both use more conventional devices to create perspective and a more naturalistic palette. The fauvist use of colour that Matisse had earlier pioneered he now developed into new directions, as a more restricted palette entered his practice over this period. This is accompanied by a severe geometric design in the organisation of the composition that was later to influence Picasso.
In all three studies of the scene the arch dominates the composition and all feature the bowaabs, the gatekeepers who today are still seen there, noting who comes and goes. While Rix’s developing facility in oils is evident in works such as The Blue Archway, and in her small Moroccan Loggia (1912) we see this new ability with paint extended. The splashes of colour created by thick impasto in strategically placed dabs across the canvas give this work a remarkably experimental, almost fauvist aspect. Here her control over the medium is clearly developing, and she uses the fluid quality of the oil to create a flowing account of the architectural images of the loggia in an almost abstract arrangement of form and colour. The work’s simple structure and relaxed framework allow a wonderful evocation of both architectural elements and light to dominate the picture plane.
This new proficiency with paint is also demonstrated in the brightly hued Arab Market Place (1912), a work that captures the light and atmosphere of Tangier.