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.
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
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'?
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
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.'
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'.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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