In the latest issue:

Real Men Go to Tehran

Adam Shatz

What Trump doesn’t know about Iran

Patrick Cockburn

Kaiser Karl V

Thomas Penn

The Hostile Environment

Catherine Hall

Social Mobilities

Adam Swift

Short Cuts: So much for England

Tariq Ali

What the jihadis left behind

Nelly Lahoud

Ray Strachey

Francesca Wade

C.J. Sansom

Malcolm Gaskill

At the British Museum: ‘Troy: Myth and Reality’

James Davidson

Poem: ‘The Lion Tree’

Jamie McKendrick

SurrogacyTM

Jenny Turner

Boys in Motion

Nicholas Penny

‘Trick Mirror’

Lauren Oyler

Diary: What really happened in Yancheng?

Long Ling

The Urge to StrangleT.J. Clark
Close

Terms and Conditions

These terms and conditions of use refer to the London Review of Books and the London Review Bookshop website (www.lrb.co.uk — hereafter ‘LRB Website’). These terms and conditions apply to all users of the LRB Website ("you"), including individual subscribers to the print edition of the LRB who wish to take advantage of our free 'subscriber only' access to archived material ("individual users") and users who are authorised to access the LRB Website by subscribing institutions ("institutional users").

Each time you use the LRB Website you signify your acceptance of these terms and conditions. If you do not agree, or are not comfortable with any part of this document, your only remedy is not to use the LRB Website.


  1. By registering for access to the LRB Website and/or entering the LRB Website by whatever route of access, you agree to be bound by the terms and conditions currently prevailing.
  2. The London Review of Books ("LRB") reserves the right to change these terms and conditions at any time and you should check for any alterations regularly. Continued usage of the LRB Website subsequent to a change in the terms and conditions constitutes acceptance of the current terms and conditions.
  3. The terms and conditions of any subscription agreements which educational and other institutions have entered into with the LRB apply in addition to these terms and conditions.
  4. You undertake to indemnify the LRB fully for all losses damages and costs incurred as a result of your breaching these terms and conditions.
  5. The information you supply on registration to the LRB Website shall be accurate and complete. You will notify the LRB promptly of any changes of relevant details by emailing the registrar. You will not assist a non-registered person to gain access to the LRB Website by supplying them with your password. In the event that the LRB considers that you have breached the requirements governing registration, that you are in breach of these terms and conditions or that your or your institution's subscription to the LRB lapses, your registration to the LRB Website will be terminated.
  6. Each individual subscriber to the LRB (whether a person or organisation) is entitled to the registration of one person to use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site. This user is an 'individual user'.
  7. The London Review of Books operates a ‘no questions asked’ cancellation policy in accordance with UK legislation. Please contact us to cancel your subscription and receive a full refund for the cost of all unposted issues.
  8. Use of the 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is strictly for the personal use of each individual user who may read the content on the screen, download, store or print single copies for their own personal private non-commercial use only, and is not to be made available to or used by any other person for any purpose.
  9. Each institution which subscribes to the LRB is entitled to grant access to persons to register on and use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site under the terms and conditions of its subscription agreement with the LRB. These users are 'institutional users'.
  10. Each institutional user of the LRB may access and search the LRB database and view its entire contents, and may also reproduce insubstantial extracts from individual articles or other works in the database to which their institution's subscription provides access, including in academic assignments and theses, online and/or in print. All quotations must be credited to the author and the LRB. Institutional users are not permitted to reproduce any entire article or other work, or to make any commercial use of any LRB material (including sale, licensing or publication) without the LRB's prior written permission. Institutions may notify institutional users of any additional or different conditions of use which they have agreed with the LRB.
  11. Users may use any one computer to access the LRB web site 'subscriber only' content at any time, so long as that connection does not allow any other computer, networked or otherwise connected, to access 'subscriber only' content.
  12. The LRB Website and its contents are protected by copyright and other intellectual property rights. You acknowledge that all intellectual property rights including copyright in the LRB Website and its contents belong to or have been licensed to the LRB or are otherwise used by the LRB as permitted by applicable law.
  13. All intellectual property rights in articles, reviews and essays originally published in the print edition of the LRB and subsequently included on the LRB Website belong to or have been licensed to the LRB. This material is made available to you for use as set out in paragraph 8 (if you are an individual user) or paragraph 10 (if you are an institutional user) only. Save for such permitted use, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt such material in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department.
  14. All intellectual property rights in images on the LRB Website are owned by the LRB except where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited. Save for such material taken for permitted use set out above, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt LRB’s images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department. Where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, reproduce or translate such images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the copyright holder. The LRB will not undertake to supply contact details of any attributed or credited copyright holder.
  15. The LRB Website is provided on an 'as is' basis and the LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website will be accessible by any particular browser, operating system or device.
  16. The LRB makes no express or implied representation and gives no warranty of any kind in relation to any content available on the LRB Website including as to the accuracy or reliability of any information either in its articles, essays and reviews or in the letters printed in its letter page or material supplied by third parties. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) arising from the publication of any materials on the LRB Website or incurred as a consequence of using or relying on such materials.
  17. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) for any legal or other consequences (including infringement of third party rights) of any links made to the LRB Website.
  18. The LRB is not responsible for the content of any material you encounter after leaving the LRB Website site via a link in it or otherwise. The LRB gives no warranty as to the accuracy or reliability of any such material and to the fullest extent permitted by law excludes all liability that may arise in respect of or as a consequence of using or relying on such material.
  19. This site may be used only for lawful purposes and in a manner which does not infringe the rights of, or restrict the use and enjoyment of the site by, any third party. In the event of a chat room, message board, forum and/or news group being set up on the LRB Website, the LRB will not undertake to monitor any material supplied and will give no warranty as to its accuracy, reliability, originality or decency. By posting any material you agree that you are solely responsible for ensuring that it is accurate and not obscene, defamatory, plagiarised or in breach of copyright, confidentiality or any other right of any person, and you undertake to indemnify the LRB against all claims, losses, damages and costs incurred in consequence of your posting of such material. The LRB will reserve the right to remove any such material posted at any time and without notice or explanation. The LRB will reserve the right to disclose the provenance of such material, republish it in any form it deems fit or edit or censor it. The LRB will reserve the right to terminate the registration of any person it considers to abuse access to any chat room, message board, forum or news group provided by the LRB.
  20. Any e-mail services supplied via the LRB Website are subject to these terms and conditions.
  21. You will not knowingly transmit any virus, malware, trojan or other harmful matter to the LRB Website. The LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website is free from contaminating matter, viruses or other malicious software and to the fullest extent permitted by law disclaims all liability of any kind including liability for any damages, losses or costs resulting from damage to your computer or other property arising from access to the LRB Website, use of it or downloading material from it.
  22. The LRB does not warrant that the use of the LRB Website will be uninterrupted, and disclaims all liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred as a result of access to the LRB Website being interrupted, modified or discontinued.
  23. The LRB Website contains advertisements and promotional links to websites and other resources operated by third parties. While we would never knowingly link to a site which we believed to be trading in bad faith, the LRB makes no express or implied representations or warranties of any kind in respect of any third party websites or resources or their contents, and we take no responsibility for the content, privacy practices, goods or services offered by these websites and resources. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability for any damages or losses arising from access to such websites and resources. Any transaction effected with such a third party contacted via the LRB Website are subject to the terms and conditions imposed by the third party involved and the LRB accepts no responsibility or liability resulting from such transactions.
  24. The LRB disclaims liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred for unauthorised access or alterations of transmissions or data by third parties as consequence of visit to the LRB Website.
  25. While 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is currently provided free to subscribers to the print edition of the LRB, the LRB reserves the right to impose a charge for access to some or all areas of the LRB Website without notice.
  26. These terms and conditions are governed by and will be interpreted in accordance with English law and any disputes relating to these terms and conditions will be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales.
  27. The various provisions of these terms and conditions are severable and if any provision is held to be invalid or unenforceable by any court of competent jurisdiction then such invalidity or unenforceability shall not affect the remaining provisions.
  28. If these terms and conditions are not accepted in full, use of the LRB Website must be terminated immediately.
Close
Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs 
Tate Modern, until 7 September 2014Show More
Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs 
MoMA, 25 October 2014 to 8 February 2015Show More
Show More

Crowds​ gather at the heart of Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs, drawn to an artless home movie showing the master at work. He looks, and was, extremely unwell. Not even a rakish straw hat, part cowboy part Maurice Chevalier, can divest the scene of its pathos. There is a spot of time in the movie, after Matisse has finished his fierce fast cutting of the usual vegetable-flower-seaweed-jellyfish shapes (the ones he works on here are not unlike the clusters of yellow in the centre of Mimosa), when the speed suddenly slackens and the old man holds the limp paper in his hands as if reluctant to let go. He fusses with it a little, prodding and twisting the fronds in space, maybe trying to thread the shapes together, buckling them, letting them be carried for a second as they might be by a breeze or current. He seems to be waiting for the cut-outs to occupy space – to make space. Art for him is the moment at which, to quote a remark he made about Snail, one becomes ‘aware of an unfolding’. ‘At this time of year,’ he wrote to a friend, ‘I always see the dried leaves on your table, catching fire as they pass under your fingers from death to life.’

I thought, looking at the film sequence, that I could hear the paper shapes rustle. And the word – the imagined sound – sent me back to a wonderful essay by Roland Barthes called ‘The Rustle of Language’, and especially to its last two sentences:

I imagine myself today something like the ancient Greek as Hegel describes him: he interrogated, Hegel says, passionately, uninterruptedly, the rustle of branches, of springs, of winds, in short, the shudder of Nature, in order to perceive in it the design of an intelligence. And I – it is the shudder of meaning I interrogate, listening to the rustle of language, that language which for me, modern man, is my Nature.

Was Matisse at the end of his life the Greek or the modern? It is the question posed by this extraordinary show, and one in which the whole meaning and fate of ‘modern’ art is, triumphantly and sometimes painfully, at stake. Only a gathering of the evidence as comprehensive and beautifully staged as the one at Tate can give the question back its true dignity. And a proper answer, as Barthes tries to signal, can only be Hegelian in the strong sense. (That is, it should learn to wait for the seemingly contrary terms of a civilisation to reverse themselves.) Nature for the Greek, to use Barthes’s paraphrase of the philosopher, is, however far back in the record we go, always ‘shuddering’, and this intimation of uncanniness or distress in the object points to the fact that in the strange activity called sculpture, by reason of the sheer relentlessness of the Greek’s interrogation, Nature is already being asked – prodded and cut and twisted – to divulge a design, an intelligibility. Heraclitus is as modern as they come. The word ‘shudder’ reminds me of Fénéon’s great, cruel characterisation of Monet: that in practice the painter could only hang onto his dream of delighted subservience to eyesight, and make art out of the dream, by ‘making Nature grimace’. Matisse, who admired Monet greatly, thought constantly about the contrast between a painting devoted to pleasure and the agony involved in its production:

A man who makes pictures like the one we were looking at [he is writing to his son about Rouault’s The Manager and a Circus Girl, but no doubt also about himself] is an unhappy creature, tormented day and night. He relieves himself of his passion in his pictures, but also in spite of himself on the people round him. That is what normal people never understand. They want to enjoy the artist’s products – as one might enjoy the milk of a cow – but they can’t put up with the inconvenience, the mud and the flies.

Matisse too, with part of his mind, was tired of his turmoil. Painting was agitation. He said to more than one admirer late in life – no doubt intending to frighten, but still, I think, essentially telling the truth – that in order to begin painting at all he needed to feel the urge to strangle someone, or lance an abscess in his psyche. There ought to be a better way. ‘Paintings seem to be finished for me now’: he is writing in 1945 to his daughter Marguerite, who was recovering at the time from the horror visited on her in a Gestapo prison at Rennes. ‘I’m for decoration – there I give everything I can – I put into it all the acquisitions of my life. In pictures I can only go back over the same ground.’

Painting versus decoration. The undialectical answer to the question deriving from Barthes seems close. Painting, in Matisse’s case, had always equalled Nature. Certainly confronting Nature – passing it under his fingers – had proved to be delight as much as interrogation: a rustling and smoothing of things into the skein of colour that was painting, so he believed, and that painting had to fight continually to keep in being, up front. But doing so was inseparable from the murderous urge, the mud and flies, the grimace, the exacerbation – ‘the accomplishment of an extremist in an exercise’. ‘He took in front of nature,’ as an early critic had it of Cézanne, ‘the attitude of a question mark.’ Decoration might be a way out. Decoration, surely, would be ambience not ethos. It would provide a surrounding, not a model of the world’s design. It was a mode that expected, and in a sense welcomed, inattentiveness. (The rooms at Tate are friendly to it.) It would be, with its fabulous battery of primitive techniques – saturated high-key colour, repetition, redundancy, vegetable sign-language, evenness enlivened by syncopated quirks of brightness – a ‘sensation delivery system’. (Like the ‘nicotine delivery systems’ that tobacco CEOs once discussed in the privacy of the boardroom.)

Decoration, to sum up, seems regularly to offer itself within modernism as an alternative to art’s too high claims. But where the alternative leads – into what kind of accommodation with the culture industry – is never clear. I believe Matisse was right when he told his daughter that he had put into his late work ‘all the acquisitions of [his] life’, and that his skills as an artist would be sharpened by being put in the service of a new, more modest and realistic relation to the viewer. But he knew he was walking a tightrope. The best of the late murals – The Parakeet and the Mermaid from 1952, the grey Oceanias of 1946 – are remarkable for their unforced, drifting quality, the small shapes in them like knots and flutters in a vast empty field. The worst choke the field with optical buzz. The sustained unseriousness of Matisse’s brush with religion at this time, which served him so well as an artist, always threatens to collapse in the cut-outs into ritzy nostalgia for the South Seas: The Lagoon, Creole Dancer, The Negress, Women with Monkeys. Naivety – which Matisse inherited from the 19th century as a prime aesthetic value – is shadowed by simple-mindedness, as much a stage prop as the movie’s straw hat. In an exchange with Picasso about the Chapel of the Rosary in Vence, a commission that Matisse worked on from 1948 to 1951 (‘Why not a brothel, Matisse?’ ‘Because nobody asked me, Picasso’), it isn’t the smug facetiousness of Picasso’s Party Line question that matters, but rather the suspicion that Matisse’s answer may be, though he hardly knows it, the whole truth. Decoration without somewhere to decorate – applied art without a realm of pleasure or praxis to apply to – such is modernism’s ‘Why not?’

The problem that follows for the critic is not to decide whether Matisse’s cut-outs succeed, much of the time, in shrugging off these limitations of social purpose or available theme – only a killjoy or an iconographer could resist the splendour on the walls – but to speak rationally about how it was done. In many ways the most useful piece of writing about late Matisse remains an article called ‘Something Else’ published in Henri Matisse: Paper Cut-Outs almost forty years ago by the poet and essayist Dominique Fourcade. It is that rare beast in the art world, a catalogue essay of high seriousness that entertains real doubts about the quality of its objects. Naturally this means that it has been shuffled off subsequently into art-historical limbo (I can’t see that it gets a mention in Tate’s book to accompany the current show), but its arguments – coming from a writer with deep knowledge of Matisse’s art and life – seem to me worth revisiting. Fourcade begins by refusing to be impressed by the phrases from books and interviews invariably brought on to define the cut-outs’ originality. ‘Cutting straight into colour reminds me of the direct carving of the sculptor,’ Matisse said in Jazz. ‘I arrived at the cut-outs,’ he wrote to his protector Father Couturier, ‘in order to link drawing and colour in a single movement.’ But how is any of this new for Matisse? Hadn’t his painting ever since 1905 been an attempt to link drawing and colour in a single movement; that is, to make colour appear (it must be a matter of appearance, of contrivance, but if the spell works the result will be utterly convincing) to divulge its shape and extent, its internal spatiality, its proximity and distance? There is an oil painting at Tate which epitomises the previous colour regime. Red Interior: Still Life on a Blue Table is one of a cluster of works from 1947-48 that said farewell, so it turned out, to the set of objects – the intimate and agitated small world – around which Matisse’s painting had been oriented for half a century. (‘Window’, ‘table’, ‘glimpse of garden’ and ‘interior’ are tropes that the cut-outs then largely abandon.) It is very hard to pin down what makes Red Interior so beautiful and hard to bear. Partly it has to do with the zigzags of black on red being like a child’s sign-language for electric shock, or a strip cartoon’s for a punch to the head. I don’t want the head on the wall (a plaster of a long-ago lover) to be Marguerite’s in the cell at Rennes, but the idea won’t entirely go away. The dreadful, irresistible still life of apples in the foreground is like a malignancy under the microscope. The room and the movement into the garden are not torn apart by these jags of energy and absurdity – the space made by the red is finally one of shelter, even of calm – but everything is, and has to be, pushed almost to breaking point. ‘The inconvenience, the mud and the flies.’ Above all – this, I think, is what Fourcade cannot let go of – it is the unmitigated colour of Red Interior, aggravated and grimacing, which insists in Matisse, in painting after painting, that none of us has a ‘given’ place to be ourself any more, and that only painting can make one. The room turns towards us. The red is extruded as much as spread out. Whether it includes the viewer or means to hurl him into the outer darkness is undecidable. Whether the black zigzags are terrible or just jazzy, likewise. ‘Rustling’ doesn’t seem the right word.

Whatever else this painting may be, it is not a sensation delivery system. It knows that sensations belong to – or alas have been detached from – particular human occasions, ways of being, forms of life. But the exacerbation of colour in Matisse speaks, dialectically, to the lack of particularity that makes us ‘modern’. (This to and fro of contraries is dealt with powerfully in a new book by Todd Cronan, Against Affective Formalism: Matisse, Bergson, Modernism.) Colour, for Matisse – pure sensation, the stuff of the senses – will make, will be, a form of life. And at the same time it will enact the extremity – the uncanniness – of the wish.

Locked inside this marvellous echo chamber (torture garden), what painter would not dream of a way out? ‘Luxe, calme et volupté’. Matisse had spent a lifetime coquetting with the Baudelairean catchphrase – and with the flies buzzing round Baudelaire’s ‘Une Charogne’. Fourcade, understandably, ends up preferring among the cut-outs those few that seem to him still pictures by Matisse, still struggling to make colour generate and palliate a dislocated world. Snail and Memory of Oceania, we may agree, are moments of high achievement in Matisse’s late style, and essentially, whatever the artist said to the contrary, they are still paintings done with gouache-soaked paper – great unstable arrangements of dabs, blocks of pigment, traces of previous drawn ideas, colour quadrilaterals like blown-up brushmarks by Cézanne. Snail’s slow whirlpool is painting incarnate. The edges of its cut-outs are most often torn as opposed to scissored, as if the artist had not been able to resist the recollection of art’s handmade-ness. Any viewer of Snail is ‘aware of an unfolding’. Nature – the forms made by stubborn life, armoured against predators, antennae waving, soft suckers feeling for placement – is still the matrix.

Fourcade’s concern about the late style (again, I should stress that he is eloquent about exceptions, local triumphs, the intrinsic difficulty of the quest) is essentially this:

The cut-out forms never became integrated into [the unpainted white of Matisse’s ground]; the graft would not take. For the forms could never rid themselves of their built-in defect – namely, a contour which was so clearly defined, an edge so bluntly cut, that it turned the form back on itself, isolated it, deprived it of any communication with the surrounding space – trapped it, fatally.

As commentary on Acrobats or The Thousand and One Nights, this seems fair. Matisse himself saw the problem. The four tour-de-force Blue Nudes from 1952 show him fighting, scissors in one hand, charcoal in the other, to fold or force the cut silhouettes into the invading white surround. That same summer he took the blue nude idea and stretched it around the four walls of his hotel room (the resulting 54-foot Swimming Pool, which belongs to MoMA, will presumably be hung in New York): the white ground becomes an unstoppable wind tunnel, pushing the fish and weeds and desperate bathers to the side of its Mallarmé blank. Snail, a few months later, with its uncharacteristic (for Matisse) foursquare format, seems deliberately a return to framed space and Cubist interleaving.

Rationally, then – and I suppose emotionally – I am on Fourcade’s side. Snail is my masterpiece. But reason and emotion don’t always have the last word in aesthetics. The cut-out at Tate which I find will not leave me in memory, though part of me would like to expunge it, is the enormous Large Decoration with Masks from 1953. It is a preposterous, merciless, spellbinding thing – with all the button-holing fake cheeriness of a roll of wrapping paper. (Snail and Memory of Oceania seem at one point to have been envisaged as Large Decoration’s side-wings.) Standing in front of it at Tate a remark of Willem de Kooning’s came to mind. The painter was being asked about his abstract pictures from the late 1950s, and suddenly he fell to talking about the landscaping of the new parkways on Long Island. Maybe the abstracts came from them. ‘They are really not very pretty, the big embankments and the shoulders of the roads and the curves are flawless – the lawning of it, the grass. This I don’t particularly like or dislike, but I wholly approve of it.’ I turn back to Large Decoration with Masks and want to say, with and against de Kooning – as by and large I find myself saying of even the strongest attempts within modernism at a new high ‘decorative’ – that I wholly disapprove of Matisse’s ingredients, but can’t stop liking and disliking the result. It lives on in me, the muzak. It stares me down. Its emoticons are full of what happens next in art – Warhol’s wallpaper, etc – but they resist it, idiotically. Branches and winds still rustle. That there is an invocation of Greece in Large Decoration – reminiscence of wall paintings from Akrotiri, a play of masks, columns, acanthus leaf – only makes the mixture more unforgivable and moving.

‘Expulsion of Joachim’ by Giotto (c.1305)

‘Expulsion of Joachim’ by Giotto (c.1305)

‘I have found three reproductions of Giotto in Padua,’ Matisse wrote to his friend Bonnard in 1946, ‘and am sending them to you. Giotto is for me the summit of my desires, but the route which leads towards an equivalent, in our epoch, is too long, too difficult [his word is importante] for a single lifetime.’ It is a letter from one ill old man to another – Matisse was 76 when he wrote it, Bonnard 78 with only months to live. But the sentences are characteristic of Matisse’s humility in the face of his predecessors, as well as of his realism with respect to the present. I hope it would please him to be told that in Snail – in the step by step unfolding of the cut-out shapes into a gold infinity round the edge – there lives on the tension of temple and empty sky to be found in Giotto’s Expulsion of Joachim.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

letters@lrb.co.uk

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Letters

Vol. 36 No. 12 · 19 June 2014

Apropos T.J. Clark’s review of Matisse’s cut-outs, when I visited the show at Tate Modern before reading the review, I gazed at Snail, craning my neck from numerous angles and locations, trying to work out why the wall caption described the top left-hand shape as ‘playful’. (LRB, 5 June). Now, looking at the LRB reproduction, I can easily spot the teeny snail outlined on the edge of that shape. Thus we see an advantage of reproductions over the real thing, especially when Tate’s notes are so enigmatic.

Peter Cave
London W1

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

letters@lrb.co.uk

Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.