31 OCTOBER 1998, Page 42


A craving for colour

Philip Hensher

THE UNKNOWN MATISSE by Hilary Spurling Hamish Hamilton, £25, pp. 480 he elevation of Matisse to one of the two or three top positions in 20th-century art is quite a recent phenomenon, and for a long time he has seemed like an anomalous and teasing figure. If his art terrified many of his contemporaries with its wild and bru- tal simplifications, his artistic credo, pro- duced at the beginning of a century which has tended to insist that art should, above all, be combative, serious, engaged, con- tains nothing much which would have alarmed Bougereau.

What I dream of is an art of balance, of puri- ty and serenity devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter; a soothing, calm- ing influence on the mind, something like a good armchair which provides relaxation from physical fatigue.

Nothing could be more exactly calculated to infuriate the critics or baffle the audi- ence who did not, on the whole, respond to Matisse's painting at this time with much in the way of purity, serenity, or relaxation.

Parisians who can still remember the event [the showing of 'Le Bonheur de Vivre' at the Salon des Independants in 1906] say that from the doorway, as they arrived, they heard shouts and were guided by them to an uproar of jeers, angry babble and screaming laugh- ter, rising from the crowd that was milling in derision around the painter's passionate view of joy.

The great strength of Hilary Spurling's exceptional life is that she sees not only the truth in Matisse's assertion, but the unspoken sense that the consolations of his art somehow imply the pain they are trying to assuage. Note that Matisse said that he only dreamt of such an art, as if acknowl- edging that the cure was bound to be imperfect; in his art, the dissonances and violence are always present. Even at his most radiantly serene, there is always some sense of purgation, a catharsis which implies a tragedy. As Hilary Spurling says of that famous passage in the Notes of a Painter:

The passage implies its obverse — Matisse's intimate acquaintance with violence and destruction, a sense of human misery sharp- ened by years of humiliation, rejection and exposure — which could be neutralised only by the serene power and stable weight of art.

What those experiences of violence and destruction and misery were, implied but never stated in the art, the biographer of Matisse must set out to discover. One of the difficulties with Matisse is that until now not much has been known about his early life. The picture of him which comes to mind is Henri Cartier-Bresson's magical Self-portrait, Collioure, 1906 portrait of the old wizard in 1944, the inscrutable mandarin among his doves. The struggles and difficulty of the early years, the decades of deprivation which made the sensory overload of Matisse's work possi- ble, have gone more or less undiscovered. Many observers must have come to the vague conclusion, looking at the violence and luxuriance of Matisse's palette, that he was another northern painter, like Van Gogh, who, raised among earth tones and sombre skies, responded exuberantly to the purer colours of the South. But that's only part of the story, and perhaps a more sig- nificant explanation comes in a passage on Matisse's friend Albert Marquet.

If Matisse bought his paints on tick, Marquet restricted himself to the cheapest colours: white, umber and emerald green. It was a big day when Marquet could lash out at last on a tube of cadmium.

Paint is expensive, and there is some- thing about Matisse's use of colour which suggests a determined effort of will, the familiar psychology of the poor man gorg- ing himself on treats; perhaps, too, his reaction to the memory of being trained in a grim St Quentin school where the use of colour at all was banned. When Matisse first met Emile-Auguste Wery, on Belle- Ile-en-Mer, and saw his practice of using colours unmixed, straight from the tube, he found it 'so unsettling' that he took the boat back to the mainland. But the prac- tice, in the end, suited him; the astonishing and alarming expanse of unmodulated red in 'La Desserte' is the work of a man who has come close to being deprived of paint through poverty, and is determined that from now on his painting will value its own materials.

The deprivations of Matisse's early years, , I think, are the explanation for his art. He grew up in Bohain, a dreary little town the photographs in the book all show the inhabitants gawping at the camera as if it were the most interesting thing to have happened in Bohain all year. His family was at the utmost edge of respectability, and he grew up deprived of stimulus in a way difficult to imagine today; a diet, I dare say, of unspeakable tedium (none of those oranges he later so liked to paint), not much intelligent company, a family with no aspirations, and, worst of all, access to hardly any painting. The nearby St- Quentin, where Matisse studied, couldn't offer anything much better than the pastels of Maurice Quentin de La Tour, and the rather pathetic offerings of the teachers in the local art school — there is a picture of some chickens here, and a tragic piece of academic smut, Emmanuel Croize's 'Spar- tan Girls Wrestling'. It was predictable that when Matisse started to paint, at a surpris- ingly late age, his first offerings would be rather grubby little still lives — piles of brown books, that sort of thing — and, in retrospect, also predictable that he would respond to first-rate art, when he came across it, with a frightening intensity. The Cezanne 'Three Bathers', which he some- how managed to buy, became a talisman and, through long habits of contemplation, a touchstone for his art.

The art, in the end, was a visionary, internal affair; though Matisse's powers of observation were as fine as any painter's, his strongest works are imagined and not seen. He came, in surprising ways, from interior fantasists of the previous genera- tion, like Moreau, who taught him, or Puvis de Chavannes. His two breakthrough pic- tures are both fantasy interior landscapes, painted against the Impressionist ideals of plein-air and the captured instant of light. The 'Luxe, calme et volupte seems like a continuation of the post-Impressionist pro- ject — it is just about the only pointilliste painting which doesn't look like a very bad Seurat — but with its flat, harsh light and coarsely outlined forms, it is at root paint- ed against those values. And the great `Bonheur de vivre' which so appalled the visitors to the Salon des Independants in 1906 turns every tenet of observed life on its head, with its flat sheets of colour, mys- terious principles of recession and perspec- tive, the separation of the figures with the artifice of a penumbra.

Matisse is truly amazing, and it is an amazing story. The first, thrilling volume of Hilary Spurling's life has uncovered a huge amount of unfamiliar material. It is slightly surprising, for instance, that nobody has ever noticed Matisse's connection with the huge and catastrophic Humbert case in the first years of the century, or drawn a link between the traumas of his involvement and the difficulties which came over his painting of the period. His entanglement was a little distant — his wife's parents were the henchmen, as the press saw it, of a couple of world-class swindlers, the Hum- berts — but all the same very real, and nobody seems to have noticed it before.

And the rest of it is a triumph of sympa- thy and tact, always striking the right tone. It is easy to make the poverty of artists sound picturesque, and stories of starvation usually come out like the first act of La Boheme. But that's never a risk here; by focussing on small details such as the importance of having an overcoat (Simon Bussy, the Bloomsberry-in-waiting, infuriat- ed Matisse when he struck gold by buying a fur coat) Spurling makes the reader under- stand and feel how long and difficult Matisse's struggle was, and how he never compromised by making his painting easi- er. She understands very well, too, how the commonplace and tawdry may be trans- formed by a great artist into something strange and beautiful, daring to trace the magisterial odalisques Matisse was painting in the 1920s and 1930s to childhood visits to the circus in Bohain, to the exotic gypsy fortune-tellers.

The only quibble I have is that the text should cross-refer to the number of each illustration; it proved easier to read next to the standard catalogue rather than hunt through the book trying to find the picture. But apart from that, it is unfaultable, and I hope she will not make us wait too long for volume II. It has been a strong year for biography, but in any year this would be outstanding. It is as good as John Richard- son's Picasso, perhaps even more impres- sive. She has lived up to her own daunting standards and produced something to rival her Ivy Compton-Burnett. As anyone who has read that will agree, there can be no higher praise for any biography.