Saturday, June 4, 2011

Matisse, The Master

"What has been taken for boldness [in my work] was no more than the fact that anything else proved too difficult. Freedom is really the impossibility of following the same road as everybody else: freedom means taking the path your talents make you take."

For most of the public who know his name, Matisse appears as a model of middle-class dullness who painted pretty paintings of women on decorative backgrounds.  He hardly exists as a person - perhaps an elderly guy wearing classes, laying in bed and playing with paper cutouts. Some know that Matisse had something to do with the invention of Fauvism, and that he once declared, weirdly, that art should be like a good armchair.
Appearances can be deceptive. Five years before he died, Matisse wrote, “If my story were ever to be written down truthfully, it would amaze everyone.” But Hilary Spurling's two volume biography of the artist strips away the facile assumptions about Matisse and reveals him as a radical artist and an tortured human being. He was Picasso's rival, in fact, Picasso's only serious rival

 The Blue Nude (Souvenir of Biskra). 1907. Oil on canvas
36 1/4 x 55 1/8 in. (92.1 x 140.1 cm). Baltimore Museum of Art

Ms Spurling's biography is the product of years of unlimited access to Matisse's correspondence, and interviews with his surviving family and friends. Her portrayal of the artist's daily struggle to realize his ideas is the book's greatest achievement. Matisse wasn't just fighting inner demons but also a public and art establishment who branded the artist with the term “fauve”, or wild beast, when his first encounter with the light of the south of France in 1905 resulted in canvases that erupted in expressive color and abstract form. Criticism followed Matisse throughout his career, so much so that his wife had to hide reviews from him. He also had to deal with a scandal that engulfed his wife's family and decades of grinding poverty before he became financially secure.

Gertrude Stein, showing one of the less admirable sides of her character enjoyed ridiculing him, “reporting with satisfaction,” Spurling says, “that her French cook served fried eggs for dinner instead of an omelet because, as a Frenchman, he would understand that it showed less respect.” 

His temperament made him prey to numerous depressions. He later recalled a breakdown that he underwent in Spain, in 1910: “My bed shook, and from my throat came a little high-pitched cry that I could not stop.”

MATISSE, Henri Dance (II) [late 1909-summer] 1910
Oil on canvas. The Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg
Formerly collection Sergei Shchukin (one of the many works that were confiscated by the Bolshevik government after the Russian Revolution and were not seen in public for almost 50 years).

In 1910, Matisse came close to having (another) nervous breakdown over the reaction to “The Dance”, a monumental work that took two years to finish and had been commissioned by his most loyal patron, a Russian textile magnate named Sergei Shchukin. Even Shchukin had second thoughts about purchasing “The Dance” after it was attacked as barbaric and ugly. He picked out a lesser work by a mediocre artist, but cabled Matisse several days later to say that he had come to his senses. Matisse referred to this period as his martyrdom.

 Shchukin's rejection stung because the Russian merchant prince had been the first to understand Matisse's new visual language of abstract patterns and had bought all of his most revolutionary paintings in the years before the first world war. Both men had grown up in a world of textiles. Matisse's intense response to textiles, Ms Spurling argues, jolted him into new ways of seeing and helped him evolve his vision of abstraction. 

Decorative Figure on an Ornamental Ground. Late 1925 - Spring 1926
Oil on canvas. 51 1/8 x 38 5/8 in. (130 x 98 cm). Musee National d'Art Moderne,
 Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris

Ms Spurling's magisterial biography presents the man in full. She confronts the role that painting erotic nudes played for the ascetic artist. When describing his first painting of a nymph and a satyr to a friend, Matisse called it a rape, but he was unsure who was being raped: the nymph on canvas, or himself having to lay his inner vision bare. Ms Spurling details how models aroused and inspired him, and how this passion, which she claims was never physically consummated, led many of the breakthroughs in his art. But Madame Matisse was jealous and suspicious of the modern young women who clustered around Matisse, especially Olga Meerson, an attractive and talented student. 

The body language in two group photographs from 1911 testifies that Amélie suspected the worst. In one photograph, nearly everyone faces the camera except Meerson, who stares at Amélie, and Amélie, who carefully gazes at nothing. A combination of Amélie’s jealousy and Meerson’s neediness caused a severely rattled Matisse to end the connection, with a maximum of bad feeling all around. Meerson moved to Munich, where she married the musician Heinz Pringsheim, a brother-in-law of Thomas Mann. Never having fulfilled her promise as a painter, she committed suicide in Berlin, in 1929.

Femme au Chapeau, 1905
 In Femme Au Chapeau,  Matisse took the familiar form of the salon portrait and turned it on its head. He discards perspective, shadows, and three-dimensional space, in fact, any attempt at realistic portraiture. Ameile Matisse is seated in a chair with her back turned somewhat toward the viewer. Her head is placed exactly in the center of the canvas, topped by a huge Edwardian hat. She carries a fan in one hand while resting the other gloved hand on the chair. She looks over her shoulder at us, her small head tilted, with a look that is vulnerable, determined, wary and melancholy. 
 Portrait of Madame Matisse, 1913 
The climax in the Matisse's increasing estrangement came in 1913, when Amélie sat more than a hundred times for her portrait. The game tilt of Amélie’s small head, sporting a dainty ostrich-feather toque, could break your heart. He referred to the painting years later in a letter to her as “the one that made you cry, but in which you look so pretty.” 

 (“Saturday with Matisse,” a friend’s diary reported at the time. “Crazy! weeping! By night he recites the Lord’s Prayer! By day he quarrels with his wife!”)

In this work, Matisse painted from his own emotional response, rather than from an attempt to reproduce what he saw in front of him. He was composing a painting, not describing nature, a person, or a thing. Femme Au Chapeau verges on the edge of abstraction but does not go beyond, reflecting Matisse's own definition of Fauvism as "The search for intensity in color, the substance being unimportant. Reaction against the diffusion of local tone in the light; the light is not suppressed, but expressed in a harmony of intensely colored surfaces.”

Spurling says that the portrait, which was the last work to enter Shchukin’s collection, caused Matisse “palpitations, high blood pressure and a constant drumming in his ears.” Such frenzy was not rare when Matisse had difficulty with a painting, but in this case it was compounded by something like exorcism.

 Matisse's single-minded pursuit of his artistic vision affected all those around him. Ms Spurling's description of his family breakdown is particularly moving in its accretion of wounding details that culminate in his sitting in a café next to his wife but unable to speak to her. Matisse watches in disbelief as Amélie bitterly separates from him and divides both his paintings and their family on the eve of war in 1939. The once close-knit Matisse clan was scattered across France; Amélie, their son and daughter joined the Resistance and were later imprisoned. The other son Pierre, fled to America. Weak from cancer and multiple surgeries, the now elderly Matisse saw out the war in his Nice studio, the family reuniting only at his funeral in 1954.

Matisse's need to sacrifice all for his art made him, predictably, a bad husband. He once described a fellow artist, saying: “He relieves himself of his passion in his pictures, but also, in spite of himself, on those around him. That is what normal people never understand. They want to enjoy the artist's products—as one might enjoy cows' milk—but they can't put up with the inconvenience, the mud and the flies.” He could have been speaking of himself.

The key fact about Matisse is his self-invention as a painter, entering art history from essentially nowhere. He overcame a poverty stricken background, a complete lack of family support and decades of obscurity, punctuated by blasts of venomous and ignorant public criticism.  

He never had traditional art lessons nor was he (unlike Picasso), coddled and worshiped as a genius almost from birth. His innovations come from a place impossible to access through right-brained reason. Matisse’s intimate acquaintance with violence and destruction, a sense of human misery sharpened by years of humiliation, rejection and exposure was trumped by the serene power of his art.

In 1889, Matisse was rejected for military service on account of his health, and that same year, suffering from a hernia and exhausted from constant battling with his father over his future, he ended up in the hospital. During a listless recuperation, he was advised by the patient next to him--who was copying a picture of a landscape--to try oil painting as a distraction. His mother brought him a paint box with two pictures, one of a water mill, the other of an entrance to a hamlet. Henri painted the water mill first. It was a revelation:

"Before, I had no interest in anything. I felt a great indifference to everything they tried to make me do. From the moment I held the box of colors in my hand, I knew this was my life. Like an animal that plunges headlong toward what it loves, I dived in.... It was a tremendous attraction, a sort of Paradise Found, in which I was completely free, alone, at peace."

MATISSE, Henri. Sketch for Le bonheur de vivre (The Joy of Life)
Now at SFMOMA: The Steins Collect. Matisse, Picasso and the Parisian Avant-Garde.
Hilary Spurling. The Unknown Matisse and Matisse the Master.


James Mitchell said...

Great post about a great artist.

namastenancy said...

Thank you James - that is high praise, coming from one of the few students who got an A in Dr. Hoffman's classes!

namastenancy said...

I have added another image and more specific labels for clarification.