April 10th, 2005

matisse‘There’s nothing to be done but to live in and for yourself – today you’re a great genius – tomorrow they’ll despise you – it’s only natural.’

At the close of her first volume, The Unknown Matisse, Hilary Spurling left us with Matisse just short of his fortieth birthday in 1909, tentatively toasting the future. For twenty years he had lived hand to mouth, accepting ridicule and misunderstanding, relying on a few buyers like Sarah Stein, (Gertrude Stein’s sister-in-law), to put food on the table and pay the rent.

His family life was his absolute support. His wife Amelie was no doormat, but she had decided at the beginning of their marriage that The Work was what mattered, and that it was her duty to provide whatever Matisse needed to go on painting.

One of Hilary Spurling’s many important re-readings of Matisse, is his relationship with his wife, and her complicity in their way of life. Spurling argues against the commonplace doctrine of the insensitive egotistical domestic tyrant sacrificing everyone’s happiness for the canvas, and offers instead a creative partnership and a high seriousness shared by the whole family, children included

Matisse believed that painting could re-frame and re-shape the world; a way of seeing that was a corrective to the blurs and blandishments of ordinary life. The exalted power of art was no conceit for him, neither was it a defence against personal inadequacy, as Freud espoused. Art was a true cause, and a truth in its own right. Whether or not we agree, whether or not his critics agreed or understood this, is irrelevant. Spurling makes clear again and again that to recognise the man, we must recognise what he believed in. Negative appraisals, whether feminist or Freudian, get us no nearer to our aim; which is surely to make a vital connection between the life and the work.

It is strange that fifty years after his death there has been no real attempt until now to make the connections honestly. Spite, rumour, innuendo and gossip, were as commonplace in Matisse’s Paris as they are today. Affairs with his models, double-dealing with the galleries, charges of being either incomprehensible or a cheap crowd-pleaser, dogged Matisse in life and long after. His introverted nature, and the fact that unlike Picasso, he wanted no followers, and was not a chef d’ecole, made his contemporaries confused and suspicious. That he seemed to have no interest in keeping any supporters he gained, left him open to the kind of criticism that Picasso with his loyal band was always able to dismiss or deflect. By the 1930’s Picasso was hailed as the great renovator of art, and Matisse, although wealthy and well-known, was increasingly dismissed as a minor decorator. His one time friend Derain claimed that Matisse was not a colourist but ‘a dye-worker.’

Yet, in 1909, his work was seen as so forbidding and ferocious that few would risk paying for it. His salvation came in the unlikely form of a fabulously rich Russian textile trader named Shchukin, who many dismissed as a buffoon, yet whose instinct and untrained eye, built him one of the best collections of modern art in the world. Revolution in Russia, and later Communism, saw his entire collection sequestered, and some of Matisse’s best work, bought before the Great War, was not seen again in the West until long after his death in 1954.

Matisse lived and worked through two World Wars, the Spanish Civil War, the Wall Street Crash, the Depression, and Rationing. Hilary Spurling writes so well about the man in his context – something that is now easily overlooked as we stare amazed at the pictures.

Both wars lost him work – either looted or seized or sold by suddenly penniless patrons. Sarah Stein’s collection ended up in the flat of a grain merchant in Copenhagen. Poverty after the wars made buyers hard to come by, so that in spite of growing fame and acclaim, Matisse’s income was never secure, and the money he made went to support his family, who had few prospects in war-torn France and its aftermath.

Matisse’s reputation split in two at the beginning of the 1920’s. The work of the pre-war period still had audiences and critics alike recoiling in disgust – three early Matisse canvases in a mixed show at the Metropolitan Museum in New York in 1921 were denounced as pathological, while his new work was selling as never before.

This did him no good with his Fauvist champions who accused him of bowing to bourgeois taste – ‘he’s given in, he’s calmed down, the public is on his side’, was the bitter reaction from former friends when the French state bought its first Matisse canvas – Odalisque in Red. Matisse responded wearily, ‘If one isn’t hurt by their malice, one is by their stupidity.’

Flowers, fruit, nudes, ornaments. The underlying ambivalence of the Matisse pictures of the 1920’s and 30’s was lost on the Parisian avant-garde, who saw only a comfortable method of ordering reality. In the difficult years between two wars, Matisse was accused of moral cowardice and self-indulgence. Picasso and the Cubists made ‘decoration’ and ‘ornament’ swear words. When George Braque visited Matisse’s studio in 1925, he couldn’t bring himself to look at anything.
For Matisse, as ever, the reality was quite different. He could not follow anyone’s fashion; he could only do the work that compelled him at the time. His search for order through colour and line demanded that he re-invent himself as necessary, whether or not that coincided with the art world’s view of what was worthy of attention. He knew that those who praised or blamed his work did so for the same reason; they had failed to understand what he was doing.
During the war he was accused of collaborating with the Germans, though Hilary Spurling says there is no evidence for this view. His daughter Marguerite was captured and tortured by the SS, and his marriage had fallen apart – not because there was another woman involved, but because his wife had lost her sense of purpose in his world. In 1939 they separated, and Mattise relied on his Russian assistant Lydia Delectorskaya, for everything. In 1954, on the day he died, she took the suitcase she had packed in readiness fifteen years earlier, and vanished.
Matisse’s last years were the years when he gave up painting to make his wondrous collages. Picasso said it was like watching a magician conjure living shapes out of plain paper.
At Vence in a wheelchair, working night and day, he was as absorbed as ever in his quest for a shape to the world that could be given in line and light. In this he had not changed at all from the intense young boy who scraped up powdered pigment from the floor of his mother’s shop to use as paint. In this he had changed himself again and again, and little by little, changed our way of seeing, as he hoped he would.
Hilary Spurling’s Matisse will change the way we view the master and his work. This is an outstanding biography, as full of insight into the pictures as it is revealing about the man.
It is not necessary to have read the first volume to enjoy the second instalment, though it is certain that readers new to Spurling’s Matisse will want to return to his formative years. They will not be disappointed.

MATISSE review was published in The Times on March 12 2005