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Documentarian in a Rights Dance Over Matisse Imagery

By Kevin Lewis

Painter Henri Matisse and Sister Jacques, subject of Barbara Freed's 'A Model for Matisse.'

Documentaries about 20th century artists are rarely produced these days, and for a very good reason: The filmmakers can't afford to pay for rights. It isn't just painters' estates that obstruct these projects. Sometimes it's a still photographer who shot an artist for a magazine article.

A case in point is Un Modle pour Matisse/A Model for Matisse, the feature-length documentary by Barbara Freed about the creation of Vence Chapel by French modernist painter Henri Matisse and his inspiration, his former nurse and model Monique Bourgeois, now Sister Jacques-Marie. Freed captures the Marcel Pagnol quality of French provincial life in the first half of the century, and makes skillful use of newsreel footage of the opening of the Vence Chapel and still pictures of Matisse at work--and therein the trouble lies.

Matisse was one of the most celebrated artists in the world, the subject of many a glossy spread in such publications as Life and Paris Match. So who else but a Robert Capa or a Henri Cartier-Bresson would be designated to take these photos? Like any busy artist, Matisse would not allow an amateur Brownie snapper to interrupt him. Countless monographs and art histories have replicated these photographs of Matisse over the years for a flat fee or editorial license fee. If documentary filmmakers are "camera stylo" artists, writing with a camera, why should exorbitant licensing fees inhibit a scholarly filmmaker from making a film--and deny the public an opportunity to see it?

Freed spent an important, formative year of her adolescence on the French Riviera in the 1960s; her parents were artists. From an early age she took an interest in the Chapel of the Rosary, known as the Matisse Chapel, and always knew that it would one day be intertwined with her life. Now a professor of French Studies at Carnegie Mellon University and an art historian, Freed has authored such works as Artists and their Museums on the Riviera and Henri Matisse et La Chapelle de Vence. She spent two years making A Model for Matisse, with major support from the Florence J. Gould Foundation, several small faculty awards and a handful of private contributions.

Upon completion of the film, Freed had a budget only for "cultural rights" and thus was restricted by her copyright agreements with various estates--those of Capa, Cartier-Bresson and Herbert List among them--and archival footage houses from showing the film outside of museums and other cultural and/or educational venues. But, according to Freed, the Matisse Succession (estate) "has been generous, since I am not a production house but a university professor with no professional backing." For that reason, she adds, the other copyright holders "have, for the most part, been kind in dealing with me. I believe they tried to give me the best price they could." Nonetheless, says Freed, "When the film was finished and it became clear that it had a future--having received very positive critical response--I learned that I had to pay yet more thousands of dollars for TV rights, and more again for theatrical and DVD/video rights."

Freed screened her film at the 2004 Full Frame Documentary Film Festival and the International Festival of Film on Art in Montréal, where her work won a major prize, as well as at numerous museums (The National Gallery of Art in Washington, Le Muse de Beaux Arts in Montréal and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, among others). She paid additional rights to permit sales to international TV, and the film aired in 2004 on France 3 and France 5. All told, approximately 15 to 20 percent of the budget for her film went to rights and rights clearances.

"Every time the film is shown I am asked for DVDs and cassettes," Freed told an audience at the North Carolina Museum of Art in January. "I would love to make them available for sale in the Chapelle, museums and to individuals." These rights are prohibitively expensive because they are considered a commercial use copyright. Then again, another reason the film cannot find a commercial venue is that the market for art films is very limited; distributors deem them unprofitable. Would Henri-Georges Clouzet have found the same reaction today with Le Mystere Picasso (1956)?

"I would like the film to be shown on American television, but there is another level of copyright for television," Freed says. She is in the process of approaching PBS with the film.

Despite the barriers, Freed is determined to find a home for A Model for Matisse, beyond museums and educational/cultural venues. "I haven't resigned myself at all," she says. "The solution is to raise more money. The film is too important from an archival point of view and has received too much positive response just to shelve it."


Kevin Lewis is a contributing editor to International Documentary and has written for DGA Magazine and Editors Guild Magazine.