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Book Review

Bring me sunshine

Peter Conrad

All painters stare at the sun, which for them, as the dying Turner said, is God. Matisse, however, seemed to monopolise its light; as Picasso said, he had the sun in his belly. He devoutly practised this heliocentric religion, abandoning northern gloom for Provence or Morocco or Tahiti.

He equated creativity with incandescence: a palm leaf he painted in Tangier spread itself spontaneously across the canvas, leaping into being 'like a flame'. In the grim winter of 1917, he was sent a box of mandarins by an admirer. To him, the globes were a solar system: 'It's the only sun we've seen,' he told the donor.

The colours Matisse concocted rivalled those of nature, and even outshone the artificial light ignited by science. Designing Stravinsky's ballet Le Rossignol, he gave the dancers Chinese lanterns that were vermilion on the outside and yellow within, so they'd look more luminous 'than an electric light bulb'. Who but he, sailing into New York at night, would see the city as a 'block of black and gold mirrored on the water'?

He believed those seething, sparking colours had an almost biological charge; they were the expressions of what Henri Bergson called the 'elan vital' of fertile nature. He found the same athletic energy in line. Cubism was too obtuse and abstract, he said, to appeal to his sensual temperament; he was 'a lover of line and of the arabesque, those two life-givers'. The arabesque was the exuberant, springing sig nature of Arab art, from which, as Hilary Spurling puts it, Matisse derived his 'moral courage'.

The line, like a dancing flame, gives life. The connoisseur Bernard Berenson praised art if he considered it to be 'life-enhancing'; no painter deserves that accolade more than Matisse. He claimed that his paintings were the equivalent of a comfortable armchair, because they offered the luxury of repose. Perhaps they were also, as a student said, marvelling at their impromptu rearrangement of furniture and cutlery, the ideal expression of 'French clarity and order'. Yet Matisse's contemporaries gave him little credit for this benediction of visual reality. The exhilarated, cavorting figures in his great panel Dance were attacked as bestial cannibals. In Chicago, he was nicknamed Hairymattress and hanged in effigy on the happy day when his exhibition closed. Gertrude Stein's cook treated Picasso to her best omelettes but served fried eggs to Matisse: 'As a Frenchman, he would understand that it showed less respect.'

In the second and last volume of her superb biography, Spurling reveals the exacting and injurious cost of Matisse's pictorial idyll. She exempts him from the vulgar charge that he demanded sexual favours from his models, but she makes other, subtler accusations, or allows Matisse himself to do so during his recurrent fits of remorse. His paintings, he told Surrealist Louis Aragon, were 'a sort of flirtation which ends by turning into a rape'.

But the rapacity turned out to be a self-mutilation; it was, he explained, 'a rape of myself', brutally exterminating any tenderness that might get in the way of his creative needs. He possessed a belligerent wilfulness to which Spurling pays nervous tribute when she refers to his unfashionably revival of neoclassicism as 'a strategic war plan'. Occasionally, his will faltered or met invincible opposition. The result was usually a nervous breakdown or a crippling psychosomatic illness.

When Matisse painted the rooms he lived in, space effortlessly expanded, as if, in Spurling's clever analysis, he were manipulating the flats and false walls of a film set.

But his actual domestic situation was punitive and prison-like. His disgruntled wife occupied herself with her ailments and 'stitched feelings that could find no other outlet into tapestries, embroidered cushions, soldiers' socks, fine silk lingerie and baby clothes'. Her only weapon was her needle, until she cast off restraint to wrangle with Matisse about the marital spoils during their divorce.

Their children, as one of them testified, grew up in an atmosphere of 'aesthetic turbulence ruled only by truth and rigour', which left them maimed and insecure.

The painter approached his parental responsibilities in a 'strictly painterly' way. Asked by his son Jean to help with the choice of a wife, Matisse classified the aspirants as if they were models for one of his drawings and assessed their physical proportions rather than emotional compatibility.

Late in his life, when he was already bedridden, a young female admirer likened him to a baroque version of God the Father, propped up against a pile of white pillows that might have been a fluffy cloud. Spurling takes the joke seriously, because his was a religious art. Matisse was enraptured by the icon-crammed Kremlin cathedrals and mimicked their walls of gilt-framed canvases when he filled the drawing room of a Russian collector with his own paintings.

A reviewer called the first volume of this biography 'a sunburst'. Now that Spurling's long task is completed, I can only repeat the compliment: her book is both dazzling and warming.

Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2005


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