November 21, 2005

'Seeing it his way'
a review of 'Matisse the Master: A Life of Henri Matisse: The Conquest of Colour: 1909-1954,' by Hilary Spurling (Knopf, 544 pp., $40)

by James Panero

`The creators of a new language," said Henri Matisse, "are always fifty years ahead of their time." Matisse insisted on seeing the world on his own terms--and that choice, which he followed dutifully and doggedly, put him at odds with just about everyone and everything in his native country: the theorists, the politicians, the establishment, the avant-garde, and especially his fellow artists.

Matisse was the 20th century's great colorist; this we know. But what we did not know, until now, is that the abundant joys in his work emerged out of an armored spirit. "What I want is an art of balance, purity, an art that won't disturb or trouble people. I want anyone tired, worn down, driven to the limits of endurance, to find calm and repose in my paintings." Luxe, calme, et volupt‚: For this France lined up against him.

These revelations are the take-away of the second volume of Hilary Spurling's life of Matisse, the sequel to her 1998 Unknown Matisse. Matisse once described his paintings as "the energy of a drowning man whose pathetic cries for help are uttered in a fine voice." Such cries were ridiculed by the Paris art world when they were not simply ignored; the solace Matisse did find, outside of his work, came from collectors and critics in Russia, England, and the United States. (Late in life he regretted never relocating to New York, and encouraged American artists to stay put rather than come to Paris. The eclipsing of Paris and the rise in the 1950s of the New York School, which would be so influenced by Matisse, proved it was good advice.)

Spurling writes that "the longstanding, at one time almost universal, dismissal of one of the greatest artists of the 20th century as essentially decorative and superficial is based, at any rate in part, on a simplistic response to the poise, clarity, and radiant colour of Matisse's work that fails to take account of the apprehensive and at times anguished emotional sensibility from which it sprang." We now have two thoroughly researched volumes as a corrective to these failures--by a British biographer who eschews both academic nonsense and art-world prejudice.

Matisse begins Volume II in 1909 as a beast--a fauve--in the eyes of the French establishment. "Harmony--the goal Matisse desired more passionately than any other--was the last thing his art conveyed to his contemporaries . . . [His work] violated every sacred Beaux-Arts precept enshrined in the flawless public nudes that filled the Paris salons." By 1954, Matisse is dismissed by a younger generation for having become a "spent force," lumped "with the reactionaries" because he refused to embrace the theories of the times. "From Bloomsbury's point of view, the wrong people liked him." In Lytton Strachey's Eminent Victorians, Matisse "emerges as a fictive monster of insufferable vanity, banality, and pretension." At one moment he is held in contempt "on the grounds that anyone not lined up alongside the Cubists or the Futurists was against them." At another, French Communists are promising, once in power, to turn his Catholic chapel at Vence, for which he designed the stained-glass windows, into a dancehall. Battered from all sides, Matisse almost never caught a break.

One has come to expect the story of modern art to be solid left-wing territory, but the evidence does not always bear this out. As uncovered by Spurling through an unprecedented array of primary sources, the story of Matisse--one of our greatest modern masters--is less Marxism than Reaganism. Matisse suffered for his politics, specifically because he had none: "Art for him had no political dimension." Matisse was driven by a temperament that was deeply conservative, deferential toward the art of the past. From Byzantium to North Africa to Old Believer Russia, not to mention Poussin, Courbet, Renoir, and C‚zanne, Matisse cultivated the essential qualities of lost aesthetics. His colorist style, stitched together by pattern and ornament, became a personal art academy far more academic than the salon styles of Beaux-Arts.

Matisse did not carry on liaisons with his models; he painted them. He did not live la vie de BohŠme; he moved his family to the Paris suburbs. In Tangier, "none of the standard forms of addiction or debauch could hope to match the risk and lure of painting." Matisse's drive to see his vision realized was often interpreted as madness by his contemporaries, and became a cause of desperation among his wife and children--his wife Am‚lie left Matisse in old age, finally broken by a lifetime of abandonment for art's sake. But Matisse was not fundamentally radical. He was, if anything, radically fundamental.

Matisse thoroughly repudiated the "international avant-gardes," group artists who terrorized talent when not painting by numbers. Cubist thugs were known to spray-paint anti-Matisse graffiti throughout Paris. (It should be noted that Picasso himself stayed above this; he knew Matisse was on to something, and he used their friendship to discover, for himself, what it was.) Matisse chose to work and live "without a theory"-and, therefore, without a following.

The results left Matisse open to persecution, both political and aesthetic. In addition to his offence-at Vence--of aligning art with the Church, Matisse once said of the art wonders of the Soviet Union: "I'm ready to paint as many frescoes as you like, only remember, it's no good asking me to paint hammers and sickles all day long." At the turn of the century, when polite Parisian society was shunning this fauve, two Russian businessmen became active supporters of Matisse's vision. One of them, Sergei Shchukin, commissioned some of the master's best-known canvases, including "The Dance" and "Music." So well known was this collection in Russia that Lenin himself had it confiscated during the Revolution. The paintings were "designated a teaching aid to demonstrate the decadence and corruption of the West" before being locked away from public view entirely.

Regrettably, in her extraordinary coverage of Matisse's life, Spurling gives short shrift to the life around him, and at times distracts us from his work. The real life of Matisse is what you find in his painting and sculpture. Spurling labors both to defend and to overcome the image of Matisse as a proper gentleman, but he was, in the end, a perfectly proper gentleman--one who created astonishing paintings. Where Spurling endeavors to describe every model who walked into Matisse's life, and every liaison that wasn't, the book runs long--particularly in the early chapters on the artist Olga Meerson. The narrative here also does not benefit from Spurling's at times florid language: "he responded like a man coming back to life again, or a lover receiving the advances of an irresistibly seductive mistress."

It is the highlights of Matisse's production--the Barnes murals, the Vence chapel, and the paper cutouts--that keep us on our toes. Confined by illness, Matisse spent his final bed-ridden years cutting and pasting bits of colored paper. What was thought to be madness led to some of his greatest work. This is the history of Matisse we must know.

Spurling's curatorial work may be the most rewarding aspect of her biographical research: To comprehend a great painter, one really must see the great paintings. Spurling has obliged by creating an eye-opening exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, which ran this summer. Titled "Matisse, The Fabric of Dreams: His Art and His Textiles," the show paired Matisse's paintings with his collection of textiles--he was the son of weaver, born in a weavers' town in northern France. The results of this completely original show not only demonstrated the influence of textiles on Matisse's art, but suggested how the patterns and colors of textiles encouraged this artist to see the world his own way. Fifty years after his death, we are just learning to see it that way too.