I’m not upset. It’s nerves

Julian Bell

  • Matisse the Master: A Life of Henri Matisse Vol. II The Conquest of Colour 1909-54 by Hilary Spurling
    Hamish Hamilton, 512 pp, £25.00, March 2005, ISBN 0 241 13339 4

The subtitle Hilary Spurling has given to the second half of her biography of Henri Matisse is upbeat and triumphant, in line with orthodox interpretations of the painter’s career: ‘The Conquest of Colour’. To place the volume still more squarely in line with exhibition-poster stereotypes, she has capped that with ‘Matisse the Master’. These labels are deceptive. They seem to be pasted over some more appropriate tag for the biographical material to hand: one that should probably read along the lines of ‘the long anguish’, or maybe ‘84 years of acute discomfort’. ‘Unremitting angst’ wouldn’t quite catch the tone: that would suggest something rather more spiritualised and philosophically pitched.

What this volume gives form to is a just about containable, just about respectable, but always incipiently physical type of agony. Its second page finds the 39-year-old, internationally renowned avant-gardist in a state of grim ‘nervous tension’, mistaking a wreath of bay sent by an American admirer for an omen of death. Three pages later, he is wielding his brush ‘on a tide of bitterness and rage’. A chapter and a year on, the winter of 1910 constitutes for Matisse his ‘martyrdom’, with Parisian art fashion switching from his own Fauves to Picasso’s Cubists, while floodwaters fill the streets below his new suburban family home. The ensuing years, during which his wife, Amélie, raised their three teenage children at this address, are deemed to be ‘the times I suffered most’. At a point when he is ‘completely crushed’ and ‘utterly demolished’ in the wake of his father’s death, his dealers double-cross him over a commission from his main Russian patron; he flees to Spain in a state of breakdown, uncontrollably wailing through sleepless nights and painting almost nothing during days passed in ‘fatigue and revulsion’.

After that crisis, the nervous stress-lines converge around the quarrels, stand-offs and reconciliations that punctuate the Matisses’ marriage. Painting a portrait of Amélie in 1913 gives Henri ‘palpitations, high blood pressure and a constant drumming in his ears’. The advent of the Great War overshadows his personal agitation for a while, and his decamping afterwards to Nice refreshes the narrative with a change of light, but the underlying refrain is never far away. The discomforts of increasing age, the loneliness of his artistic labours, the fickleness of models, patrons and critics, the difficulties of launching three children out into the world, all these merely serve to feed a compulsive will to anxiety. In 1924 his daughter is writing of him generating ‘an uneasiness that spreads over everything’ in their family’s affairs, and two years later he is telling her that ‘It’s still a harsh life, Marguerite, at nearly sixty years old – surrounded by almost total incomprehension.’ As her parents near their seventies, the marital rope they have been tugging this way and that for forty years finally frays and snaps. Henri is sent reeling into the care of Lydia Delectorskaya, the Russian model-cum-secretary whose presence had been the immediate cause of the dispute between them. She tends him through increasingly arduous medical struggles that do nothing to dim ‘the urge to strangle someone before he could begin to paint’, in Spurling’s paraphrase of a confessional remark. Even as he starts to metamorphose into a French national monument, the dressing-gowned sage who sketches doves in Cartier-Bresson’s iconic portrait still sees himself coming at his work ‘like a drunken brute trying to kick the door down’. The design and decoration of the Dominican chapel at Vence, completed in 1951, is a final travail of grim brooding and grinding frustration, before his ‘long career of turmoil, panic and upheaval’ can be resolved into mere art history.

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