Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Later Matisse

I've been reading the second volume of Hilary Spurling's biography of Henri Matisse: Matisse the Master: A Life of Henri Matisse: The Conquest of Colour, 1909-1954. I enjoyed the first one last year.

It is a good read. It is naturally a very different story to the first one, which is in essence about his struggles to get established and the initial fauvist radical break with the past. The first book is a bildungsroman about finding one's place in the world. This volume in contrast shows an established artist, dealing with collectors and coping with family problems, travelling to Morocco and Moscow and Tahiti, and contributing to exhibitions.

The most striking thing is not the discussion of his evolution as an artist. That is perhaps submerged beneath too much quotidian detail about his trips to Tangier, garden at Issy or apartments in Nice. For deeper insight into his art, I think I will have to return to Pierre Schneider's massive Matisse and finish it.

Instead, the beating center of this book is the human drama of the impact of both world wars on his life. He had to flee from a deserted Paris in the First World War, his mother and other family trapped in Bohain behind enemy lines. He expected an Italian fascist seizure of Nice in the Second World War. His daughter Marguerite was tortured by the Nazis and narrowly escaped with her life. Sometimes it is easier to understand large events by their smaller impacts.

What is also clear is that Matisse's obsessive dedication to "true painting" caused endless strife for himself and his family. He might have led a successful life, with immense fame and a lasting legacy. He had a happy marriage for forty years, which was much envied by other painters. He led an orderly bourgeois existence in terms of work habits, rather than sinking into dissipation or poverty.

But so much of his life was filled with sleeplessness and anxiety and enormous agonizing over his work. Great talent sometimes comes with great flaws and great pain. The Parisian critics dismissed him as a outdated painter of saccharine odalisques from the 1920s on, and some of his most important work was hidden in the USSR for decades. The late work, including the famous cut-outs , took time to be appreciated. The French state mostly ignored his work, and he did not receive large decorative commissions as he hoped after the famous Barnes murals.


I am also still a little puzzled by his split with his wife Amelie late in life. Amelie grew increasingly resentful of his reliance on model Lydia Delectorskaya. Spurling insists Matisse was never sexually involved with his models. And certainly working for him gave a purpose to the exiled Russian. But something doesn't ring true here.

Still, now is the time to see the superb Matisse exhibition at the Met. The paintings are luminously brilliant. They stand quite apart from any biographical details.


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